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Postcard from BlizzCon: Day 1

Postcard from BlizzCon: Day 1

One of BlizzCon’s much-repeated taglines is a quote that is often misattributed to poet W.B. Yeats—understandable due to its poetic inflection.

“There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”

Regardless of how relatable or unrelatable that statement might be, BlizzCon is probably the place it rings truest, and especially so at the Overwatch League World Cup. With eight countries all vying for gold over two days, you’ll meet all sorts of people from all sorts of places in the circular Overwatch Arena, from fellow fans and countrymen, to cosplayers you’ve only seen online, to Overwatch League players standing in line for food.

During Opening Ceremonies, for example, you might meet a guy named Preston, who runs a game shop in San Diego and nurses a tallboy and reacts to every subsequent game reveal like a little kid on Christmas morning.

At BlizzCon, everyone knows a Preston, and everyone is a Preston. And everyone has a story.

The Fans

This year, BlizzCon introduced special cheering sections so that each country could enjoy a dedicated nucleus of support, and the results were delightful. There were the organized fanchants from South Korea, the sheer numbers for China, the more spontaneous explosions of noise from USA and Canada, the idiosyncratic French stadium chants (and that glorious anthem), and the indomitable oi-oi-oi spirit of the Aussies.

Team UK’s section wasn’t the most vocal of the day, but they had their fair share of diehards.

Like Becky and Joseph, who hail from Manchester in Northern England and flew 11 hours for their first taste of BlizzCon. Joseph was wearing a London Spitfire jersey, and they were in good spirits after the lads full-held Team USA on King’s Row to tie the match at 1-1.

Without many local esports events to serve as comparison, BlizzCon was a bit of a mindblowing experience for them—Becky said she had been “speechless, most of the time.”

“It’s such a difference, coming from Britain, where we don’t really have such a massive gaming scene,” Joseph said. “For example, the stadium now, it’s all USA, with a small contingent of us Brits.”

The difference in optics may have seemed stark at the time, but despite the odds, the seeds of belief had been sown by the even scoreline.

“We just took a map off them!” Becky exclaimed. “We expected it to be [a sweep], to be honest.”

“Considering how poorly we performed last year, I’m really surprised we even got a map out of it, so we’re proud of them that they’ve even come this far,” Joseph added.

It takes a big leap of faith to fly across an ocean to cheer on a team with long odds, but as Team UK proved to Becky and Joseph, sometimes a little bit of faith pays off in a big way. And even when it does, it doesn’t make that emotional investment less fulfilling.

Just ask the Aussies. Dressed in their kangaroo onesies and draped in their bright yellow-greens and Blue Ensigns, carrying all manner of creative signage, they were the one section that didn’t need a label for proper identification. Among them was Micah, who claimed to be “not that knowledgeable” about Overwatch, but definitely knows enough to identify Ashley “Trill” Powell as one of Australia’s most impressive players and bring up the recent signing of New Zealand native Kelsey “Colourhex” Birse to the Boston Uprising.

Needless to say, Micah was happy as a clam in the Aussie section. “It’s absolutely fantastic, isn’t it?” he said. “Having a section for each of the countries really brings the atmosphere together of this being country-based sports. You can tell each nationality and hear them chant and shout for their teams.”

He had made peace with the fact that Australia was a very long shot to beat South Korea, but the pride he felt for the team could not be dampened.

“The fact that they’re here at all, I think, is a huge victory,” he insisted. “It shows that we are here to play. Win or lose, we’re going to give it all we’ve got, and we’re going to show that Australia has Overwatch esports, Australia cares. We’re going to cheer these boys on all the way, win or lose. They’ve done us proud already.”

The General Manager

Qiong “ChiXiaoTu” Li isn’t new to BlizzCon, but she is new to her current role: GM of Team China, who have secured their best finish ever at the Overwatch World Cup by making the semifinals.

“Before now, Team China’s results haven’t been good enough, which left the impression that China wasn’t strong, but in my heart I knew that wasn’t the case,” she said. “This time I’m able to bring these players here to BlizzCon and show the world that yes, we are strong.”

As GM, part of ChiXiaoTu has the clearest understanding of Team China’s potential. Based on results so far, they’re sky-high, and she wants the players to keep their momentum going.

“Even though we won today, we cautioned the players to only celebrate for five minutes, because we still have to prepare to face Canada,” she said. “We don’t want them to get overexcited because we want them to go even further. This year the expectations are pretty high—I think they can get to the final and possibly meet South Korea.”

Another part of her job is to make sure the players enjoy their time at BlizzCon, and since she spent part of the year living in Los Angeles while working with the Overwatch League, she has some ideas.

“I really want to take them to Universal Studios! I’ve been there four times myself, but I still really want to take Team China there! I want them to experience it, and they want to go too.” She laughed before adding, “Actually, before the match we said that if we lost, we’d have all day tomorrow to go play, but we were just kidding since we obviously wanted to win more.”

“In Thailand, after we won the Group Stage, we wanted to take the team out to play,” ChiXiaoTu added. “But they were too tired the next morning, and everyone slept until noon so we didn’t get to do anything. They work so hard in practice and while competing, so we want to reward them.”

It’s been a long road, and if China can complete their redemption arc on Saturday at BlizzCon, the rewards will be richly deserved.

The Talent

Exactly this time last year, Mica Burton was at BlizzCon, doing what a lot of people were doing: watching the matches and picking out her favorite player. In her case, it was Jong-Ryeol “Saebyeolbe” Park, which led to—well, a lot of things, all of which has culminated in her role this weekend, this time as a team insider on the Overwatch League broadcast rather than as a fan.

The word she uses to describe it is “surreal,” and the way she describes being a part of the cast is “like I have a really, really, really big family.”

It’s a family that grew larger and larger as Burton worked her way from the Contenders NA desk to the World Cup Group Stage in Bangkok, and now to the big stage at BlizzCon itself. The thrill is still there, though.

“I’ve definitely held back tears a few times [today],” she said. “It’s so powerful to get out there. Even just a simple ‘Hey, is everybody excited?’ and hearing thousands of people screaming is just—there’s no words to describe that very cool feeling in your chest.”

Being a part of the broadcast means cameras and chaos and cue cards, but as the Overwatch World Cup has shown, there’s always time to be a fan, whether that’s regional boasting on the analysis desk or the odd ill-fated bet. It’s part of what makes the broadcast authentic.

“When it comes to being professional, everyone will be, but everyone has their favorites,” she said. “I know that Jake probably wanted to cast the American match because his [Houston Outlaws] teammates are on it. That’s the best thing about sports… even if you’re working in it, you’re going to be a fan of it. I think you have to be a fan to work in it!”

Last year it was Saebyeolbe; who does Burton have her eye on at this year’s Overwatch World Cup?

“Guxue—that boy is a crazy, crazy tank,” she answered immediately. “I will, a hundred percent, be cheering for him when he hits the Overwatch League stage.”

The Players

For many pro gamers, BlizzCon is usually the pinnacle of their competitive season. The Overwatch World Cup is an exception only because the Overwatch League exists, but the level of play is comparable, and there’s no denying that this is where the drama lives. It took less than two hours for the first upset of the weekend—and it was a huge one, as Team UK took down the hometown favorites, a USA team that many predicted would play for gold, if not win it.

But scrim record is hardly a guarantee of success if you can’t pull through when it matters, and after a strong start on Ilios, the Brits silenced the raucous crowd with three consecutive map victories. The Americans had a game plan, but they didn’t account for Team UK’s newfound aggression, helmed by main tank Cameron “Fusions” Bosworth, who was new to the roster.

As a team, the UK also drew inspiration from their tough Group Stage loss to France.

“The biggest thing we [learned] from Team France, when we played them, is that they played super aggressive, with no fear,” DPS Michael “MikeyA” Adams said. “We realized that to be the better [triple-triple] team, we need to believe, to back each other up and play super aggressive. All in. That’s what we managed to do today. Also, leading up to the games, the big part of why we struggled in scrims is that we weren’t playing around other as a team, doing everything together. So I think in this match, you could see that if a call was made, everyone just followed the call.”

Canada’s 3-0 sweep of France was also an upset, technically, due to France being the higher seed, but this was always going to be the closest quarterfinal matchup to call. All three maps were incredibly close—Busan went three rounds, Eichenwalde featured one of the tensest Point C showdowns in recent memory, and Anubis went threerounds and required nearly 25 minutes. This was the kind of match that makes esports look just as physically taxing as traditional sports.

China faced slightly less resistance than Canada did in their own 3-0 sweep of Finland, and most of it came on the third and final map, Hanamura. For a well-respected region, China has somewhat flown under the radar during the Overwatch World Cup, something they say has worked in their favor. After BlizzCon, there should be no more underestimating Team China’s players, in particular main tank Qiulin “Guxue” Xu, who is making a case for tournament MVP with plays like this:

Overwatch fans always reward great play, and the roars for China were some of the loudest all day. Tianbin “LateYoung” Ma said, “There’s a special atmosphere here. We also have a lot of fans, and when we hear them cheering for us, there’s a bit of pressure, but we’ll still play well in our matches.”

For Korea, making their country proud is always on their minds every time they take the stage. With such a legacy of success in Overwatch, and specifically with two consecutive Overwatch World Cup titles to defend, it’s almost a matter of honor. But that doesn’t mean everything has to remain businesslike, as the team showed in 3-0 win over Australia, which featured some Mei and Torbjörn picks once the finish line was in sight.

This is a team that’s managed to come together in a short time after swapping in three players for BlizzCon. The beast is being molded from disparate parts, but Korea is making it work.

“Everyone’s from different teams, so we get to learn how other teams might work in certain situations—for example, how Fate might handle things with the Valiant,” support Tae-Sung “Anamo” Jung said. “Getting insights from different teams is amazing, and we’re having a lot of fun.”

Fun means DPS Jae-Seok “Carpe” Lee smirking when asked about those aforementioned Mei and Torbjörn picks, then saying simply, “It’s a secret.”

Hero 29 Arrives

The game’s newest hero made her first appearance in Overwatch Arena prior to the start of the matches, and Ashe—plus trusty omnic sidekick B.O.B.—was an immediate topic of discussion online. Players at the Overwatch World Cup offered their opinions as well.

“Having an ultimate that summons another character into the game is pretty interesting in a shooter game,” USA DPS Zachary “Zachareee” Lombardi said. “She could be extremely powerful just because of her ult, but her base kit looks really fun to play and pretty strong as well, with a lot of movement and potential.”

Team UK’s Eoghan “Smex” O’Neill had a similar take. “I haven’t seen how the pet [omnic] works. I think that’s going to be the big thing about that hero. It’s like adding a seventh hero into the fight. It opens up certain opportunities with different flank routes, with the pair, stuff like that. I’m just curious how it works.”

Lane “Surefour” Roberts, who’s normally very confident in his mechanics, issued a challenge of sorts to the rest of the community. “I’m gonna be the singlehandedly best player at that hero because she’s literally my type of hero,” he declared. “You need a lot of precision, a lot of consistency.” He added that if he plays her enough, he thinks he can make Blizzard adjust her power level down a notch.

Probably the most succinct evaluation came from LateYoung, though: “Blizzard won’t let me down.”

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