In my pregame, I alluded to the potential rivalry implications of a match against the Hangzhou Spark, thieves of the famed Runaway Pink color. That was kind of a joke, since it’s not as if the Hangzhou players had anything to do with the branding decision, and I made it because there didn’t seem to be any particular stakes to this matchup.
Boy was I wrong.
Apparently the Titans are still holding two grudges from their days as Runaway. First, Hangzhou took their pink, which was probably the strongest brand element from the entire pre-OWL time period. Second–and I was remiss in not pointing this out–Hangzhou Spark are basically the last team to beat the Titans.
See, all the way back in Contenders Season 1, Runaway were struggling to hit the same form as they had in APEX Season 4. That season was a Sombra-heavy meta, and Haksal never quite managed to look particularly comfortable. Runaway won their first playoff match, but in the semifinals they were matched against X6 Gaming, who clearly outclassed them and took the victory, 3-1, en route to winning the entire season. X6 Gaming, subsequently, had its coaching staff and much of its roster picked up by the Hangzhou Spark.
Officially, the Titans and Spark had never played: but for the Titans players, this was clearly a grudge match. The way they dismantled and disrespected their opponents was clearly a calculated statement, a way of dishing out revenge for a lingering affront. And now that I know how the Titans players feel, I can’t wait to see them face off against the GC Busan-successor London Spitfire.
Map 1: Oasis
The first surprise of the night was seeing Stitch in the lineup instead of Seominsoo. Yes, it was probably because Seominsoo has a broken thumb and is rehabbing it–but I choose to believe it’s because the Titans wanted to play the same exact roster that lost to X6 in Contenders Season 1. It’s more fun that way.
On City Center, we saw some DPS experimentation, with Hangzhou trying a triple DPS and Vancouver putting Stitch on a Soldier 76. Hangzhou got the first cap, but weren’t able to execute an EMP and instead Stitch was able to use a NanoVisor to flip the point back. The Spark then botched the next fight even harder, using the EMP and a slew of other ults for no benefit whatsoever, and the Titans got to sit comfortably in the driver’s seat and finish the map.
On University, Vancouver tried a 3/3 but found themselves countered by Hangzhou’s triple DPS–or at least, one part of it. Sasin was unremarkable as usual on Pharah, and GodsB was abysmal on Sombra, but Adora on Tracer was able to get some big frags. Once Stitch finally swapped to McCree though, it was all Titans. Jjanu was the highlight with an incredibly clever play. He killed GodsB near the raised healthpack at the top of the stairs. Then he faked leaving to open space for a Rez, but was actually circling back to boop the Mercy off the map. By a stroke of luck, he also knocked off Adora, which made it easy to solo GodsB for a triple kill. I’d been concerned about a new meta with more DPS, but the Titans reacted with aplomb and took the map easily.
Titans 1 : Spark 0
Map 2: Hanamura
With the change in map order, next up was a 2CP map. The Spark again went for a triple DPS, to which Vancouver ran a quad DPS. This was the first instance where clearly the Titans didn’t particularly respect their opponents–we saw Bumper try his hand at Hanzo again–but the team did care enough to swap to a real comp, upon which Twilight hit some incredible sleep darts and opened the point for his team. On B, the Spark used an Orisa/Bastion bunker, but a well-executed rotation from the Titans pushed them utterly out of position, and the unconstructed bunker turned into easy pickings.
Hangzhou were facing Vancouver’s 4:10 timebank, and went for a Reinhardt-based 3/3 against Vancouver’s Winston 3/3. In a head-to-head matchup, the Rein version was favored, but Vancouver drained a good amount of time and nearly guaranteed a superior timebank for the next round. Of course, the most superior timebank is where you force your opponents into overtime, and that was clearly the goal. The Spark lost neutral fights constantly, which meant they built their ults with agonizing slowness. They did convert their ult bank into a fight victory, but it had taken nearly 5 minutes to do so, and Vancouver were able to stall until OT to guarantee at least a draw.
In reality, it was guaranteeing a win. Hangzhou again ran their triple DPS, which Monte described as “the perfect composition to play Rein GOATS into.” Vancouver, the most adept team in the world at running a Rein 3/3, gladly took the offer, walked onto the point, and just kind of stood there while the Spark buzzed harmlessly around them.
Titans 2 : Spark 0
Map 3: King’s Row
The Titans took the defensive side first, and things actually didn’t go too well. Haksal was unlucky to die as a result of random poke, and Hangzhou were able to leverage that single pick into a completion of the entire map in strikingly quick time. The Titans did themselves no favors here: they continually committed half-measures of ultimates, seemingly saying “this time we’ll use a couple and manage to stabilize,” but that stability never actually materialized.
But we’ve seen this story before. During the Stage 1 Playoffs, the Titans twice gave up rather quick completions of Rialto, only to respond with world-record times that instantly flipped the complexion of the map. Once again, Vancouver responded with a record-setting attack phase. The Titans played so aggressively that Hangzhou was never able to use their EMP effectively, and they never used Earthshatter or Graviton Surge at all–everyone else on the team was dead too quickly to pull it off.
The Titans did still have to best the Spark in the second round, but after their attack run it seemed like a foregone conclusion that they’d be able to do so. Haksal was a terror on Brigitte, Twilight hit incredible biotic grenades, and the Titans made holding strong for 4 minutes look easy.
Vancouver’s attack was the part of the match everyone is talking about. Having not even given up a single tick, the Titans had already won the series, but a simple take wouldn’t suffice. Instead, they ran a triple DPS which featured Haksal getting a Nanoblade and Bumper showcasing his, uh, incredible Pharah. It was silly, it was fun, it of course didn’t work (although the blade was far closer than it had any right to be) and finally they swapped to a real composition and won handily.
Titans 3 : Spark 0
Map 4: Gibraltar
I’m not sure what to think of this map. On the one hand, Vancouver wasn’t able to get the completion, and it did look as if they might even lose it at certain points. On the other hand, after the utter beatdown of the first 3 maps, I found myself unengaged and ready for the series to just be over. And that’s as a viewer, someone who can just passively watch the series. For the players, who have to expend energy to play well, this sort of anticlimax must be a frustrating requirement.
It wasn’t as if anything was particularly wrong about the Titans’ play. They got within meters of the end of the map, pulled off some good plays, won their share of fights. But on the attack, things were just not as clean as on the other maps. It’s really the accumulation of some little things. Rapel came in to replace Twilight, and while he’s definitely a strong player, he remains the backup option. Stitch on Zarya played admirably, but is not a natural star on the hero like Seominsoo. Bumper’s style of Winston works well when he can find a solo target, but he struggles when engaging into a full 6. All of that together meant the Titans barely failed to complete the map, for the first time putting them in a position where they could lose a map.
Even against a lesser caliber of Titans play, the Spark struggled. Their only saving plays were big self-destructs from Ria, which uncharacteristically were not countered by Slime’s Sound Barrier. Those got them nearly to the box of victory, but the Titans rallied both metaphorically and literally around Haksal, and Hangzhou wasn’t able to break through.
Titans 4 : Spark 0
Player of the Match
The new stage seems to have brought at least a bit of a change in terms of hero selection. With 3/3 remaining dominant, most members of the Titans have been able to play the same things as before, but one player spent the game playing two different heroes at the very highest level, leading the team to victory.
Twilight’s biotic grenades were out of this world, and he remains a beast on Zenyatta.
Support is an often glory-less position: if you do well, it makes the rest of your team look great, and if you do poorly, everything falls apart and it’s your fault. There isn’t a ton of room for star-caliber play, and yet Twilight manages to do it anyway. Every time he tosses out a nade, it either covers his whole team, or engulfs the enemy team in a heal-less purple poison that makes them easy kills for his teammates. He finds sleep darts that win fights automatically–I’m thinking here of the time he somehow slept Sasin on Pharah to create a free kill–and he even finds pickoffs of his own, reminding the opponents that Ana’s biotic rifle can do damage as well as heal. I’ve already written about his brilliant Zenyatta play, which was most notable during the King’s Row speedrun, and he even brought out a Moira during the second round of Hanamura attack.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his play on Mercy, which was good but OBVIOUSLY not up to the level of Bumper, the PHARAH GOD. Sometimes you just get that one-trick on your team and take that invisible role helping them pop off, which is of course exactly what happened in this match. I’ll give Bumper an honorary mention for Player of the Match, but I won’t let him win because, you know, we’re all so tired of seeing “Bumper killed the whole enemy team, plus the observers, plus the casters, plus both teams that were playing in the previous match” that I want to share the love, you know?