Should The 2022 Chengdu Hunters Be Concerned?
We were so ready to kill the 'Chengdu Zone' meme and yet, here we are. In the blink of an eye, the Chengdu Hunters have gone from one of the most exciting prospects heading into the 2022 Overwatch League season and turned into a team on the brink.
Shedding two experienced coaches, a star rookie that undoubtedly would have made his way to the rookie of the year ballot, and depth at support, the Hunters now rely on their former core, with one new addition, to carry the weight of the season. Can these familiar faces save the Chengdu Hunters from their own accursed zone, or will the same plights that plagued them in 2022 resurface for round two?
Additions And Subtractions
One of the biggest worries for Hunters' fans all across the world can be put to rest. The 2021 Overwatch League MVP, Huang "leave" Xin will remain in Chengdu. After initial reports hinted that leave, among other players, were evaluating their options, this drove many to speculate on both how good the Hunters could be without their star player and where he could end up going? Now that has shifted, in some sense to the shoulders of now-former Chengdu hopeful, Li "Apr1ta" Yuanjinghao.
After a promising career with the Hunters' academy team, and being one of the most exciting prospects to come out of the Chinese region in some time, Apr1ta was supposed to be the perfect compliment to leave and sure up Chengdu's offence. At a breakneck pace, Apr1ta was promoted from Chengdu's academy roster on February 14th, 2022. Just over two months later, Apr1ta, among other names, would part ways with the team he was destined to play for. Joining him would be veteran support players Li "Yveltal" Xianyao and Cao "Farway1987" Jiale as well as assistant coach Yan "creed" Xiao.
This leaves Zhang "yaoxie" Jihang as the head coach without much in the way of staff around him, at least not at the time of writing this, and Yi "JinMu" Hu as the defacto cornerstone to Chengdu's success. While it's never a good thing to lose depth at any role, finances permitting, of course, shedding a future star player that quite literally was the answer to their prayers the season prior is a hefty blow to a team that was nearly there just a season prior.
As for returning pieces, Qiu "GA9A" Jiaxin and Zhou "Mmonk" Xiang don't need much in the way of re-introductions. The former is arguably the best Chinese main tank and the latter carries similar attributes at support. However, Overwatch League community members may have an eyebrow raised in confusion with regards to the retention of Tan "Nisha" Li over Yveltal.
Skill-wise there is no question that the latter had more promise, however, Nisha's own statistics are rarely mentioned in context to his counterpart from last season. Yveltal was by far the in a way, the best Brigitte last season and that isn't up for debate. However, Nisha ranked admirably within the top ten in many of the league's best metrics. Mercy carried a similar tune. Yveltal led the league in more than one facet, while Nisha trailed close behind. Setting aside mechanical skill for a moment, Yveltal also had his own extracurriculars to worry about from last season.
So while you may not rate them, the numbers do. Nisha is good - but he isn't Yveltal.
While this is concerning, the Hunters do have positive news to share. With the advent of 5v5 and the fundamental changes happening around the tank role, they have signed Ni "Daizi" Yuandong to fill out any flex tanks that should crop up. Now this band-aid and burn cream doesn't make up for the absolute gutshots that are losing Yveltal and Apr1ta, but Daizi is a welcome addition. With Doomfist being moved into the tank category and becoming increasingly more and more popular on top of Orisa's rework as well as the litany of other changes tank players are dealing with, the depth in this role is a nice addition.
Yet, a familiar air now washes over the Hunters as their roster finally takes form.
Has enough changed or will this become more of the same from last season?
By no means did the Chengdu Hunters have a bad 2021 season. Let's just get that out of the way for those who seem fixated on wearing tinfoil and looking for non-existent subtexts. What they did struggle with was finding consistency and that stemmed from their DPS lineup. Leave isn't questionable or washed, but his partner throughout the season required quite of bit of rotation.
While many people will rightly remember JinMu's performance towards the end of the season, we should not forget the hitscan talent they swung and missed on. Whether it was Zhong "TAROCOOK1E" Yunlong or Lei "Jimmy" Yujia, there was not a good compliment for leave during metagames that required a hitscan threat. And that problem could very well resurface for this team now that Apr1ta is gone.
On top of that, when we review JinMu's hero pool for the last two seasons, things seem bright on paper especially initially but lack depth overall. Genji seems quite strong with the general removal of crowd control abilities and the move to a one-tank lineup. Tracer and Sombra both benefit from that same explanation, with the latter getting a nice rework that help with her own lethality. And Pharah is a difficult stretch to make, but if North America sticks to their guns from last season perhaps it could be used internationally as a pocket pick against NA's tendency to deathball. There is a world where everything goes swimmingly for the Hunters right out of the gate - but can it persist all season long?
That's the gamble no one is willing to make on the Hunters' behalf.
Can success last for a team that seems this shallow?
What happens if a hitscan becomes vogue? 2021 saw Chengdu benefit from having the world's best Wrecking Ball. Now that he's a bit worse for wear, can GAG9 and Daizi fill in the blanks to maintain a seat at the table? Even looking at support, does Nisha have a competitive Lucio? Everything else seems proficient enough, barring the lines between the support sub-distinctions being skewed. All of these questions cut at the knees of the Chengdu Hunters' 2022 season. What once was a safe wager now feels like a blind all-in.
This leaves one question.
Is This A Cause For Concern?
May 21st may be a bittersweet sendoff to what could have been for the Chengdu Hunters.
When you lose a future star player, trim your support depth and in doing so lose an underrated star main support, all the while leaving a skeleton crew of support staff to lead the team into a brand-new game, it is hard to not be concerned. Originally assumed to be a lock for the top four domestically, the Chengdu Hunters look liable to teams on the bubble. And in that way, the eastern division has had its doors blown wide open. Teams like the Philadelphia Fusion and even the Hangzhou Spark have a lot to be thankful for this holiday season because their playoff hopes just became very real possibilities.
Yes, leave is an incredible player and should shine within the framework of Overwatch 2, but the pieces that orbit him are now a step towards the average rather than creating space between them. Every year we talk about the league levelling up, bringing in fresh and talented rookies to cut away at the old guard - and this may not be the Chengdu Hunters' fault - but the truth remains: this roster is less competitive than we once thought.
Without a doubt, these moves have put a dent into the Chengdu Hunters' hopes for 2022. They'll peak when leave and JinMu find a complimentary metagame and if they find some creative solution that works well enough across the season, perhaps they can keep their head above water and still claw at a playoff spot, but it has become a lot harder.
While some things change, many things remain the same.
Overwatch 2 is a change for the better.
Even the 2022 Overwatch League has brought back live events and our mid-season festivities.
However, on the flip side, that is a familiar rollercoaster that provides uncertainty for one of the league's most beloved teams.
Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times, the 'Chengdu Zone' is back in full force.