Astral Authority automatically qualified for the second group stage at the Heroes Fall Global Championship as NA's first seed, but they had a rough time once they got there, losing their first group stage match to Taiwanese upstarts Please Buff Arthas. Shortly afterward, NA's second seed, Denial eSports, took a decisive loss at the hands of Korea's Ballistix.
Things were looking grim for North America. It became the subject of passionate debate at Town Hall Heroes' on-location live show on Sunday. As the casters expounded on NA's many troubles, taking particular aim at Astral, teammates Manny "Fury" Medina and Rori "CauthonLuck" Bryant-Raible stood in the background with stoic looks that said they had might have some words in response.
When I met with Fury, CauthonLuck, Harrison "Psalm" Chang, Jun "Jun" Jang and Ben "Cattlepillar" Bunk on Wednesday, I expected a fiery rebuttal — but what I got was very different.
"We're going to lose, no worries," Psalm told me.
"Wait, actually?" I replied.
"Yeah, I mean that," he said.
Here's how it went from there:
Why is there no fire? Where's the hope?
Jun: That's the angle we're coming from.
CauthonLuck: That's what all the casters and everybody have painted us as, so if they're going to underestimate us...
Jun: It's always been like this ... since our very first tournament.
Psalm: It's fine.
It does seem like, since this team re-formed, you're never been expected to win any game that you play. Are you telling me this is an advantage?
Cauthon: We're used to it. I think aside from Gillyweed and Dunktrain [Jaycie "Gillyweed" Gluck and Derek "Dunktrain" Arabian], pretty much every NA caster has openly blasted us and told us to our face, and people around us, that we have zero chance of winning: both at the regionals and at the intenational [competition at BlizzCon]. It's just what we're used to.
What happened against Please Buff Arthas? Do you feel PBA is a legitimately strong team, or did you guys just misjudge some things or make some bad calls?
Cauthon: I mean, we threw at the end.
Jun: I think in the first game, we underestimated their draft, and they got a really good comp. And on the third game we made too many mistakes.
Cauthon: They did beat eStar who was, in our opinion, the much stronger Chinese team. ZeroPanda is still in it, but eStar seemed way better from our scrims.
I mean PBA was able to beat them. We didn't underestimate PBA, but we made too many mistakes to win a series.
At this time last year, what were you guys doing? I know Fury and Cattlepillar were here at the event, though not competing. But where were you guys in terms of your planning for the next year?
Cauthon: I was working [...] [The players of the last Murloc Geniuses] weren't in a good place when last BlizzCon was on, because we were taking a couple weeks off, and I think in general the team was not very focused. There wasn't much to play for.
Looking back, we felt like we had the potential to outplay Tempo Storm ― certainly not C9 ― but we always just made horrendous mental mistakes at the end of games to throw them away.
So at that point, I don't think any of us had huge aspirations for the next season. There wasn't anything announced. Everyone was just scrimming on occasion and taking a break at this point last year.
So contrast that to right now: you guys are still here, you're still in it. Where's your mind at?
Cauthon: Just prepping for Dignitas, honestly.
Dignitas is maybe the most consistent team we've seen outside of Korea. Do you feel like this is a team that you can beat?
Psalm: Any team can beat any team in this tournament.
Cauthon: They're better. We expect them to be more difficult than PBA. We know that we have to play at a much higher level than we showed earlier in the tournament to beat them.
Jun: Just because they look solid, doesn't mean there isn't a weakness, and that's always the case.
Do you think you've found one of those?
You guys are downplaying the emotion so much. I thought that after being savaged on THH, you guys would have something to say about it.
Cauthon: They've basically savaged us for the last three months.
Psalm: It's nothing new, we're used to it.
Cauthon: I remember at our first regional as a team, Dreadnaught [caster Wade "Dreadnaught" Penfold] was standing in the fire pit in front of 30 or 40 people, getting up on it, and shouting that we had a zero percent chance to take any games from Denial. And then we 4-0'd them.
And then the next regional, Dreadnaught still said we had zero chance to win because of whatever reasons ... [that] Town Hall was par for the course for us. It didn't really catch us by surprise.
We focus on our own play in games. We've never really fed off the hype of casters or any of that stuff.
But are you feeding off the "anti-hype?" Does the hatred fuel you? Dignitas is a huge match, and everyone seems to be against you guys.
Psalm: If we win, we win. If we lose, we lose.
Cauthon: With this team, this is the same feeling we always have. We're just expected to get destroyed. It doesn't distract us from our preparation for teams. We don't do a lot of hyper-trash-talk, we just focus on playing the game.
I mean, that's the most fun thing about these international events: this is our first time to play against really great teams. The fact that we get to have weeks of scrims against good teams is almost more exciting to me than the actual event.
We're just taking it in, trying to get better. We're not really distracted by the anti-hype, as you said.
Are there specific things that stand out in scrims here that you wouldn't get in an NA scrim?
Fury: For me, as a tank, if I make a bad Power Slide in as E.T.C., if it's not even angled correctly or too far into their side, I will get punished 100 percent by top teams like MVP or Ballistix. In North America, I was used to doing that, and I don't get punished as hard. They seem to have really good synergy and focus. They see the E.T.C. slide in, he doesn't have an escape, everyone focuses him down.
Fury, how do you personally feel about your chances right now?
Fury: Personally, I think we have a really good chance to make it out of groups. It's really disappointing to hear from the casters again that they still don't believe in us. I know we're a new team, and this is our first international as a team, but I still feel like we have a good chance to do the best NA has ever done [this year], like getting out of [phase 2] groups would be huge for NA.
Ever since day one with this team, usually most of the casters have been saying that we're going to lose. I guess it's time to prove them wrong again.
Cauthon: Dread is one of our biggest detractors. Even when we destroy teams, he says we have a zero percent chance on the next match. Like, we lucked out here, but we're still going to get crushed.
But there are some casters I feel, like Dunk and Gilly, that have waited for us to show what we can do before making sweeping statements about the strength of our team.
I think I told Dunk after the first regional that I was really happy that he didn't completely write us off, like I felt everyone else was doing. He waited and saw the game, pointed out mistakes, but said "I like what they're doing here," and that was even before we were in the Top 4, in the finals.
I felt like he was fair to us, and that was something that was a rarity since the team was formed. There are some casters that we're happy with, but for the most part, it doesn't seem like that big of a deal.
But seems like sometimes they just jump on the "hate NA" train to just fit in with the other regions, to act like they don't care.
Why do you think this is happening? What is it about your team that makes people say "there's no way"?
Cauthon: On the international level, I can't really fault people for not believing in NA. The region hasn't made a showing at [international events] at all this year, and so far, neither of the teams have put up a good performance.
I guess people not believing in us in our own region was the surprising part, after we hadn't really lost anything. Back when a lot of the casters were in their heyday, a lot of us were on mediocre teams. And I think a lot of the players, especially Dreadnaught, they're like stuck in the timeframe of ... "These players are at the same strength as when I played them." He doesn't seem to understand that players can improve.
I know for me personally, I'm not a MOBA player [historically], I was from other games. So I feel I got a lot better over the last year, plus I'm not working full-time anymore.
But I feel like, in some people's minds, they just think back to when they used to dominate us all the time in 2015 ― which is true, they were much better than we were ― but instead of thinking, "Okay, maybe they've worked hard and improved," they think, "Wow, NA is just garbage now because these players are at the top. It was way better back when I played." I think it's just kind of a disconnect from reality.
Jun: I think that mindset is why Korea is so much better than NA. NA thinks "I'm good enough to do this, or I'm good enough."
But in Korea — I talked to merryday and Swoy [MVP Black support Tae Jun "merryday" Yi and Ballistix support Seung Won "Swoy" Kim] for like hours at Opening Week, they said that their mindset is, even if they're dominant in their region, that isn't enough. They want to keep getting better. That's their mindset. If they lose, they get so angry, but not angry at the team, more like, "Oh my gosh, I want to get better."
In NA, I feel like it's, "Oh, I'm good enough, I won this, I think this is enough, I don't need to practice, I don't have to do this because I'm good enough."
I wanted to get your thoughts on the new format for the Heroes Global Championship in 2017. Obviously the guaranteed income means that more teams will be paid to play the game, but the reduced prizing also means that a team that dominates their region, like you did in the Fall, won't have as much motivation in terms of prize money on the line.
Fury: Hopefully we'll have more consistent scrim partners and a more consistent Top 8. This year we've really only had a solid Top 4 at most. And then it just really drops down, to teams that just can't break in.
Cauthon: That's a trade-off I'm happy to make ... Maybe it's arrogant to think, but after playing here, my eyes are more set on the international stage. I know that just continuing to dominate a weak region and making slightly more money is not something that excites me.
Having a competitive region that can make each other better and then compete on the world stage, even if we make slightly less money domestically to do it — that's what I'm interested in. Comparing NA-level scrims to the international scrims we've got, it's so disheartening to think about going back to that. Something needs to happen, and I hope this is what gets NA motivated to maybe stay together, maybe stop having such high egos.
Because even as the top team right now, I'll be the first to tell NA that we are not even close to the level of some of the good teams here. We have so much to learn. Even as [our region's] best team, we're months, if not years, away from catching the team synergy, the cohesion, the game knowledge of some of the top teams.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh "Gauntlet" Bury is a news editor for theScore esports. You can find him on Twitter.