8 January 2021

From the first CCL exhibition match, the Heroes Community has been treated to the most flavorful content we've seen in years. We’ve seen new Organizations, a growing prize pool, rising stars, and thrilling games of Heroes of the Storm. Everything we’ve seen has been in pursuit of a prize-pool that has surpassed $15,000. The players have responded by showing their worth. Kure and his Zeratul, Ultralisk’s Kerrigan, and Funz’s success after a role-swap from offlane to flex have defined the first regular season of the CCL. We’ve seen fresh-faced orgs, like Side Step Kings and WildHeart compete alongside the old-guard of Oxygen and Simplicity, who’ve been operating teams for years. They’ve adapted to an ever-evolving meta that sets itself apart as that of the best of the best. As we near the beginning of playoffs, the teams are cemented in their rankings as we emerge from a long break. WildHeart Esports sits in second place, having finished the season with a 6-1 record, falling only to Oxygen Esports earlier in the season. It's no secret that their playstyle has been one of the most climactic, entertaining, and effective in the league. And it’s common to hear on broadcast that a team’s personality affects their playstyle. But, how does team identity show through in a team's playstyle and effectiveness? In other words: What is it about who a team is, collectively, outside the nexus, that molds who they are inside of it?

This isn't a new question for sports. But esports suffers from something traditional sports doesn't: a digital barrier. It’s one of the few inherent differences between the platforms. Some ideas travel more easily face-to-face. Production teams all over the world and most relevantly in the CCL have attempted to break down these barriers. CCL has In the Weeds with Gillyweed to help us get to know the players. The goal of all such shows is more than that, though — it’s to connect the personality of the player to their in-game actions. It can’t be overstated how critical In the Weeds (and its less formal cousin, the caster post-game interview) has been to keeping the Community Clash League interesting. But in a broader sense, this is a challenge that remains largely unaddressed.

WildHeart has seemed so unique in large part due to their lack of running traditional solo tanks. Yrel has been a mainstay in the tank role, alongside rarer and more interesting picks like Cho’Gall. WildHeart’s team manager was quick to highlight the fact that their divergence from the meta is far more than rebelliousness. WildHeart plays what works, Ezareal said, assuring me that there’s more to it than wanting to be different. Playing nontraditional main tanks, as he commented, is an “asset” to be used. WildHeart is able to make pivots in draft that throw their opponents for a loop. The WildHeart drafting strategy has been best summed by Steven “Goon” Soto as: “what works for us”. What works for WildHeart, so far, has been melee-heavy compositions, with a twist at the tank role. According to Funz, playing with lots of health-heavy bruisers helped their team win matches in the early part of the season. The time he called their “adjustment period”, which was a challenge for the rookie, was filled with improvement and adjustments. He commented that those hard-to-kill heroes allowed him more wiggle-room in his teamfight positioning, making his relative inexperience less punishable. To complement this idea, WildHeart has played surprisingly few support-heavy compositions. The stability of this type of comp — in contrast to melee-heavy comps — doesn’t come from the heroes themselves, but how they’re played; hypercarries only work when they’re alive for pretty much the entire game. When asked about why they didn’t play much of this type of comp, most people familiar with WildHeart’s machinations will mention two things. First, support-heavy comps aren’t the best comps in the game; and second, they aren’t fun to play.

Going into their match against Simplicity, WildHeart faced a real test, not just in playing a Simplicity squad that was peaking at just the right time, but in playing a Simplicity that was ready to play a style of Heroes that counters WildHeart’s. Simplicity played support-heavy comps with Uther, Zarya, and even two solo healers more frequently the longer the season flew on — but it all started in their match against WildHeart. Combining this with the hands of Kure piloting something like his Zeratul made their bag of tricks deep enough to vex WildHeart. In a series that went the distance, WildHeart would see one of their biggest challenges of the season. Character is easiest to see in strife.

WildHeart lost the first game decisively. The Uther comp worked its magic against the melee-heavy WildHeart. But even that game wasn’t lost in an avalanche. WildHeart hung around the game until the end, where the full-build Valla was allowed to wear down the kited bruisers. Funz described this, explaining that the strengths of melee-heavy comps are countered very effectively by the strengths of support-heavy teams. On top of this, WildHeart’s playstyle often lacks huge amounts of damage, a bonus for the double-support team. Sound like a perfect storm? You don’t know the half of it. But after game one, when WildHeart knew what to expect from Simplicity, the goal was clear as day. They would ban Uther, and Simplicity would give them Medivh, and WildHeart would pivot in their playstyle to only drop one more game before securing the series.

“Each and every … member of (WildHeart)” Funz told me Thursday this week “... was able to contribute so much” to the team. When I asked him which member of WildHeart he thought was the best, all he could come up with was an apology and the name — which I will keep a secret — of the WildHeart player with the best memes. In response to the former, I told him it was a natural feeling for a team that plays so potently a team game.

“The philosophy of WildHeart is to enjoy what you do,” Said Ezareal to me, echoing the sentiment I heard weeks earlier from Goon. Ezareal did not hesitate to say that the organization encourages its members to “reflect on their surroundings” while stressing the importance of a close-knit community. WildHeart operates on the idea that “in your lane” is where you’re going to do your best work — so they leave you there to thrive. When I first contacted Goon, he was more than happy to have someone take the initiative and contact him about working in esports. He explained to me something that I had been feeling for a long time, but had failed to articulate — even to myself. He told me that before the CCL and leading up to its inception, he had the urge to put his passions and energy somewhere besides an office job. He had a specific and powerful vision to put his energy toward esports after seeing a void in the community. I felt this for years, not just with Heroes, but with League, too. And apparently I was just waiting for an actual opportunity to relate to that feeling. Judging by the vitality of WildHeart’s internal community, that’s something that’s more than common. In a community that so many call toxic, WildHeart exists as a standing reminder that we wouldn’t play the game if we weren't having fun.