Nothing burns hotter in the Lone Star State than its passion for sports, and as a kid growing up in East Texas, Mike Rufail immersed himself in all of it.
Basketball, football, baseball, soccer—you name it, he loved it—and in nearby Dallas he had plenty to choose from, larger-than-life personalities and constant success powered by elite athletes and devoted fanbases. Few can match the enthusiasm Texans have for their teams, whether it be Longhorns or Aggies or Rangers, and Rufail was no different, raised on a steady diet of Mavericks, Stars, Cowboys, playoffs, and championships.
Now he’s ready to add a little Fuel to the fire.
The Dallas Fuel are one of the dozen teams that will make up the Overwatch League in 2018, and will be filled with familiar faces. The Fuel—owned by veteran esport organization and 2016 NowTV Esports Team of the Year Envy—are well-known to fans, bringing the team that just put on a dominant championship performance in the Overwatch Contenders series to the next level of professional competition.
Larned certainly looked the part in last month’s Overwatch Contenders championship match, helping his team complete a sweep to cap a perfect season.
But no single tournament can compare to the Overwatch League, which kicks off December 6 with a series of exhibition matches at Blizzard Arena Los Angeles. Rufail knows the Fuel have a lot to live up to—both with existing fans and the Dallas-area sports fanatics the boys in blue will soon represent—but his team is more than ready for the opportunity.
“I grew up here, got into sports at a young age, and was an athlete through college; I understand the sports history and have the same feelings as many of the sports fans in Dallas,” he explained. “It’s really amazing to see the support we are already getting. We’re in such a rush to make the transition and start interacting live with the fans. It really is a dream come true to call ourselves a Dallas sports team and have the fans in Dallas behind us.”
To bring that dream to reality, the Fuel partnered with Hersh Interactive Group, which had previously dipped its toes into the esports world but is diving in headfirst by partnering with the Fuel—a name chosen to recognize the vibrant Texas energy sector while still retaining the trademark blue under which the team has found so much success.
Bringing the Fuel to life has been no small task. Rufail uprooted the team’s headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina to relocate to Dallas, and as the players furiously prepare for the quickly approaching season, behind the scenes Rufail and the management team are working up to 10 hours a day, seven days a week to make sure the organization can deliver on the high standards it has set for itself.
None of which should come as much of a surprise—after all, this is the first team to ever commit to a full Overwatch roster, back in the game’s beta. Of course, when Overwatch League was announced, Rufail knew immediately they wanted to be a part of it.
That means a lot of mundane things, from securing office space to scouting potential arenas to planning promotional events and fan meetups throughout the city. But all that takes a backseat to the one thing—delivering on the promise of adding another elite sports franchise to the city of Dallas. That, and beating Philly.
“As a native Texan and traditional sports fan, there exists this hate for Philadelphia,” Rufail said without a hint of humor. “We’re going to make sure we stomp out the Philly team for the fans in Dallas—make sure you use the words ‘stomp out.’”
The Boys in Blue
The Dallas Fuel’s team name and logo were chosen as an homage to the area’s role in the energy sector, while the blue is a nod to parent organization Team Envy’s nickname, “The Boys in Blue.”
That’s where Larned comes in, with his teammates Sebastian ‘Chipshajen’ Widlund, Pongphop ‘Mickie’ Rattanasangchod, Scott ‘Custa’ Kennedy, Kim ‘EFFECT’ Hyeon, Jonathan ‘HarryHook’ Tejedor Rua, Félix ‘xQc’ Lengyel, Timo ‘Taimou’ Kettunen, and Christian ‘cocco’ Jonsson. After dominating the region for the last few months, the squad enters the Overwatch League as the clear leader of the North American pack—but Overwatch League is an international competition (both Rufail and Larned tag Seoul’s team as their toughest competition) and the stakes will be higher than anything the team has contended in so far.
But if the pressure is weighing on the Fuel as they prepare for that first match at Blizzard Arena, they aren’t giving it away.
“It’s not about team pressure, it’s about individual pressure on how I can make my teammates better,” said Larned, who at 25 is less than two years removed from being a computer-science student playing video games in between classes. “All we can do is focus on the day-to-day, and improving on this or that in the game where we need to get better. You have to never be complacent, and you have to improve every chance you can. A lot of teams become complacent and stop trying as hard, and that’s when it all falls apart. I would expect us to be in the upper tier, but you never know what’s going to happen or who’s going to be a strong team coming in.”
To Larned, that uncertainly is the beauty of Overwatch League.
“I’ve been playing in tournaments since the beginning, but with Overwatch League it’s becoming a lot more professional,” he said. “There are a lot more levels of professional staff teams can hire. A lot of these guys didn’t have coaches or analysts before but will after this, and now that we’re in Overwatch League it represents the pinnacle of skill and prestige—winning means something. If you win, you know you’re the best team.”
Biggest Rivals in the Overwatch League?
Philadelphia Fusion, Houston Outlaws, Seoul Dynasty
The Fuel will almost certainly have more challenges to overcome. The roster hails from eight different countries and the team is slowly overcoming a language barrier (though, as Larned notes, the game is universal). They’re also in the middle of a cross-country move—and then there’s the potential looming reemergence of their “eClasico” rivalry with OpTic’s Houston-based Overwatch League squad, the Houston Outlaws.
Those challenges will come in time, and the team’s history leaves no doubt they will be ready to meet them. Until then, the city that is famously home to “America’s Team” can begin to embrace what will be a long and prosperous bond with an organization determined to spark a fanbase renowned for its passion.
“I can’t stress it enough, this is really the most humbling and surreal situation, to represent Dallas like this,” Rufail said, a tinge of wonder in his voice as he considered the future of the Fuel. “It’s special and something that I feel the need to never forget.”
He added, “I’m going to make sure we give them a championship-caliber team to root for, because that’s what they deserve.”