To Plant A Dream - The Journey Of Mmonk And GA9A
What dreams do you hope to create?
Are they anything like the Chengdu Hunters’ on the eve of a bittersweet finale? Twice to finals and twice shy, the Hunters now face the tallest hurdle—the 2021 Overwatch League playoffs. They can either be immortalized as the last champions of the original iteration of Overwatch or they can be remembered as a pivotal member of a story they didn’t write. A footnote on the pathway to someone else’s glory or the one’s who share in its relief. Nothing crystallizes this hope, this feeling of bated breath, of a journey nearing completion more than the candid journeys of two of Chengdu’s most successful freshmen.
Originally from the Sichuan province of China, which—in his words—explains his love for spicy food, Zhejiang province would be where a young Zhou "Mmonk" Xiang would spend his days—and nights—dreaming.
“I liked watching all kinds of anime. I was a homebody,” Mmonk explained. “Putting together Gundam models was one of my hobbies.”
Prying through the dull mist of time, he recounted stories of strolling the streets of his home town of Jiaxing, playing in arcades and eating delicious street food with his friends. That same innocence broke through accompanied with a smile when asked about what career his younger self might have pursued.
“I used to wish I’d become an artist,” he laughed.
And, in a way, that young boy would see his wish fulfilled.
Self-identifying as a competitive person from his youth, Mmonk always wanted to prove to the world that he was one of the best. And with a deep connection to video games since his childhood, fate would begin to plant the seeds of dreams in the head of the future of the Chengdu Hunters’ support line.
Without hesitation, Mmonk easily remembered his first few experiences with Overwatch—and ironically enough—it was Genji’s sleek and dynamic design that stuck out to him at the time. And with enough time, the enjoyment evolved and opportunities around the game began to bud. When asked what his main motivations were to chase Overwatch, that same stubborn will sprouted through.
“I just really wanted to prove myself,” Mmonk explained.
“And when the opportunity came along, I did it without any hesitation.”
With the blessing and support of his parents, in 2018 he began his journey to become a professional Overwatch player, but it wouldn’t be until 2020 until the world would know his name.
Jumpcut to Overwatch Contenders China, Activision Blizzard’s semi-professional Overwatch league. With theatres all across the globe, Overwatch Contenders was the proving ground for the next generation of Overwatch talent. Each of the major regions, from North America to South Korea, forged their own history and talent all the same—China was no different. However, where Overwatch Contenders China did separate from their peers was its throughline of dominance—and its 2020 season was no different.
That would be the year that the Shanghai Dragons’ academy team, Team CC, would nearly sweep through the region’s weekly tournaments capturing three of four first-place finishes. The playoffs were no different. Team CC dropped a single map through their season one title rush, however, it would be Mmonk’s Flag Gaming in second place that would soon give the world pause.
The second verse was the same as the first. Shanghai Dragons’ academy team swept all four weeks of the regular season and advanced to the playoffs as the favourites to defend their title. Meanwhile, Mmonk and Flag Gaming would have spotty appearances—placing within the top four twice out of the four-week cycle.
The playoffs were thought to be mainly a formality. Team CC easily cleared their way to the winners’ finals and standing in their path was Flag Gaming. With the lessons learned from their initial meeting in last seasons grand final, would Flag Gaming stand a chance?
No. Well—at least not yet.
Mmonk and crew would not score a map against Team CC and would fall to the losers’ bracket. However, after quickly dispatching of the Hangzhou Spark’s academy team, Bilibili Gaming, the trilogy would quickly be underway. The academy team against the homegrown. The dominant against the potential powerhouse. Team CC, for the third time within the year, would do battle with Mmonk and Flag Gaming.
When asked what his favourite memory was, Mmonk quickly found his answer.
“When I was with Flag Gaming and we won first place in Overwatch Contenders China.”
“That has got to be my favourite memory.”
Flag Gaming had done the unthinkable. Going all seven maps, Mmonk and Flag Gaming had not only survived their nightmare of facing Team CC for a third time, but they emerged champions. That kind of performance doesn’t go without attention and soon enough the Chengdu Hunters would open the doors to their academy team for Mmonk. However, Overwatch semi-professional division wouldn’t house him for long. Lovingly referring to them as “the little pandas”, Mmonk recounted how sudden the trial offer was for the Chengdu Hunters’ main roster. He was overjoyed but retained his reservations.
“Obviously, I was really excited but also concerned because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up.”
How wrong he was—and how right his younger self would smile.
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
– Arthur Ashe
Mmonk once dreamed of art and now he was creating it on stage with the Chengdu Hunters, battling some of the best teams in the world, comparing to some of the best flex supports in the world, and proving to the world that he belonged at the top.
By the end of his rookie season, Mmonk’s resume was speaking for itself. On Ana he was ranked seventh in final blows per ten minutes and was fifth in both eliminations per ten minutes and hero damage done per ten minutes for the season. On top of that, his Zenyatta measured extremely well ranking eighth in finals blows per ten minutes and fourth in eliminations per ten minutes. Through numbers alone, it didn’t seem as though his rookie year affected his mentality—he agreed, stating that the stress was always there, but it wasn’t anything he hadn’t felt before.
“The first time I played offline was when it was most stressful for me, but now I’m better,” Mmonk further explained “I have a lot of great friends, who would cheer me on before and after the match which helped me gradually get over the nervousness.”
That progression and experience wouldn’t be the only thing that changed within him through his journey to the Overwatch League. With his rookie season in the rearview mirror, Mmonk review the growth he had made from his days as a child to toppling Team CC to playing on stage for the Chengdu Hunters. “I’ve become more responsible,” he said. “Taking the initiative to find my problems, hoping that I can make continuous progress, and I’ve also been planning for the future and thinking ahead.”
As for goals for the remainder of the year, it was an obvious nod to the playoffs—one he and the Hunters have high hopes for.
“I really hope to win a championship title with [my brothers]. We already received two second-place titles, I still need to be stronger,” he said.
“If I became stronger maybe we will win.”
A thought of victory, of hoisting the Overwatch League trophy high above his head, of the end of a fantastic journey with an equally fantastic reward. Would it all be worth it in the end if he could finally make his dreams a reality?
“That would be true happiness, I might even think I was dreaming,” Mmonk said. “It would mean so much, and definitely worth any struggle. Whether we win the trophy or not, I just know that I made valuable contributions to the team, and that will shine at some point.”
And shine through they will, but that won’t be the only thing breaking through for the Chengdu Hunters.
To plant a dream, you first need a seed—and for the Chengdu Hunters, that seed was rookie Qiu "GA9A" Jiaxin.
Since its inception, the Chengdu Hunters were never known for their strong main tanks. Sure, 2019 saw them innovate during one of the most rigid metagames but that creativity left them pinched. The following year saw the introduction of potential but after a season of false starts, potential never catalyzed—until now.
GA9A was different.
A noticeably strong rookie, GA9A not only brought the impact that their past main tanks did, but he also brought the depth they sorely needed. Something it didn’t seem his younger self would have even considered a possibility.
When presented with the thought experiment of going back and explaining your career to yourself at a young age, GA9A approached with hesitation—but ultimately found something we all could use a dose of; belief.
“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.”
– Anatole France
“I wouldn’t really know what to say,” he said.
“I have been obsessed with games ever since I was a child. I never thought one day I would go from internet addict to a professional player.”
“At the same time, I’d be grateful to him for recognizing my skill level.”
Initially competing off of passion and a genuine love of the game, GA9A’s drive evolved as he did with the game. After putting countless hours into the game, he wanted something to show for it.
“I didn’t want to have accomplished nothing by the age of 18, so I set out to prove that my time and effort would not have been wasted,” GA9A explained. “In 2018, my friend invited me to his Overwatch Open Division team, and I wanted to experience a different kind of Overwatch so I participated in a few tournaments. I thoroughly enjoyed the thrill of competing so I persevered.”
“When I first participated in an Overwatch competition, the freshness definitely occupied me but as time passed, I realized that Overwatch Open Division no longer quenched my thirst for competition.”
“I wanted to step onto a more competitive stage.”
Past that point, GA9A was prepared and ready to go.
One of his first major outings was during Overwatch Contenders China in 2018 alongside Future Group. The team was nothing to write home about and their harvest shared in that same sentiment, only managing one map win through five games. His next home would be a short stint with legendary Chinese esports organisation, LGD Gaming. While there he would initially showcase a strong Wrecking Ball, something many would assume was just a strategic pocket pick for the team. However, his next home would prove to be a drastic improvement.
The Shanghai Dragons’ academy team, Team CC, would come calling for GA9A’s particular skills. As a standout main tank in the region, the acquisition made all the sense in the world. So much so that together they would become a dominant domestic force. And yet, his fondest memories were that of comradery. Being among his friends, winning alongside them, even the meals and the breaks they would take together. It was all the little things that GA9A remembered fondly—not the titles, not the riches and dominance.
With an embarrassment of success, GA9A’s success would not go unnoticed and ahead of the 2021 Overwatch League season, the Chengdu Hunters would finally find their franchise main tank they had been looking for. When asked to recall the moment where he first heard the news, GA9A could quickly and vividly paint you a picture of the moment.
“I was extremely excited, but I quickly calmed myself down by telling myself I truly deserved it.”
Together, GA9A and the Chengdu Hunters provided Asia with a strong and punchy contending team. Initial success saw them advance to the playoffs for the May Melee, and yet the team would only take two maps in their decisive losses to the Dallas Fuel and the Florida Mayhem. Recounting the event was obviously slightly painful, but GA9A took its lessons to heart.
“This was my first Overwatch League stage tournament,” he said. “It was a wake-up call for me, reminding me I have to work so much harder to catch up to [the] others.”
Following that, the Hunters would flame out of the June Joust, only putting up a single match win over the Philadelphia Fusion. However, the Summer Showdown would see them realise the potential we all had seen on paper.
Echoing similar success to the May Melee, the Hunters tenaciously advanced to the Summer Showdown playoffs with something to prove. And after dispatching the Dallas Fuel twice and taking the Shanghai Dragons to their limits, GA9A and the Hunters had cemented their stake as a playoff calibre team—but it wasn’t enough.
“Our performance at the Summer showdown was similar to May Melee the first time around,” GA9A explained. “We were not fully prepared in every aspect, but through the Summer Showdown, I feel that my performance was not good enough and I need to elevate my skills.”
While he may have questioned his performance was all that stellar, the numbers don’t lie. On Winston, GA9A was ranked second in final blows, second in eliminations per ten minutes and was tied for first in solo kills per ten minutes for the season. And even more impressive his Wrecking Ball was ranked third in final blows per ten minutes, eliminations per ten minutes, and hero damage done per ten minutes, while also being fifth in solo kills per ten minutes.
Countdown Cup would see the GA9A and Hunters once again battle to the playoffs, this time with newfound power. After boasting a spotless 4-0 stage, the Hunters toppled the New York Excelsior to book their tickets to Hawai’i. However, the Los Angeles Gladiators would send them to the losers’ bracket after taking the Hunters to game-five. Off of sheer conviction alone, the GA9A and the Chengdu Hunters bounced back defeating the Seoul Dynasty and the Atlanta Reign to rematch Los Angeles in the Countdown Cup grand finals.
Once again, the Hunters would come just short.
“It was like a dream,” GA9A said.
Here one moment and gone the next, this daze-like state wouldn’t last for the Hunters.
With supreme confidence, GA9A—as well as Mmonk—walk into the 2021 Overwatch League playoffs with their heads held high. Expectations are high for the team that has come so close all season, with some pundits marking them as the second-strongest team in the world. With three outings to Hawai’i, two silver medals, and some of the strongest individual talent in the world, they not only have every right to be Asia’s second seed but are in the conversation to win the 2021 Overwatch League championship.
Two journeys intertwined with one similar destination. One soft-spoken support, the other a dynamic star main star. Two players, one playoff race, and one final chance to call themselves champions. From the streets and arcades of Jiaxing to the small moments among friends to the biggest stages in competitive Overwatch. Mmonk and GA9A took a feeling, a passion, a drive, and made it tangible. They planted a dream, nurtured it, and watched it grow into reality.
Regardless of the outcome, regardless of awards, they have made a lasting impact on us all.
Now, we ask again; what dreams do you hope to create?
Translations provided by Emily Tang