It was a warm day in Hong Kong in early October, and Derek Kwok was in the midst of talking to his seven-man Overwatch roster about the future.
The team was attempting to raise enough funds in order to make a 7,200-mile journey across the globe to BlizzCon at the Anaheim Convention Center in California where the Overwatch World Cup would take place in early November. Blizzard had changed the format of the tournament so there would be no regional qualifiers and no way to compete outside of actually traveling to Anaheim. That came with steep costs.
Kwok, who is the general manager of the Fire Dragons, Hong Kong’s Overwatch World Cup team, set up a fundraiser for $80,000 HKD, which is enough to cover flights and hotels for the entire roster, coaching staff, and support crew as well as a training space for the lead-up to the competition. “We never thought the target would be achievable, even if our target was only able to accommodate the flight and hotel costs of players only,” Kwok told me before BlizzCon. “The Overwatch pro scene in Hong Kong is very small, and the current atmosphere back in Hong Kong made us feel inappropriate to raise funds for ‘playing video games in the US.’”
That atmosphere has been well-documented. Protests erupted in Hong Kong back in June due to a bill that allows individuals to be extradited to China. Those who oppose the bill believe it threatens Hong Kong’s autonomy from China, and even though the bill has since been withdrawn, protests have continued as protesters have brought new demands to the government.
Kwok started the fundraiser in July, and after a few months, he had barely made any progress. The team had raised nowhere near enough money to reach their goal in time to make the trip possible. It came to a point on October 8th where the team discussed whether they wanted to continue trying at all, but things changed drastically a few hours later.
”I was working overtime for my day job as a software developer when the madness was happening,” Kwok says. That “madness” happened at a seemingly unrelated e-sports tournament. At the Hearthstone Grandmasters competition, Blizzard had suspended and revoked the prize money of Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai, along with firing two commentators who had introduced him, for yelling “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!” in a post-game interview. The internet went into an outrage.
Shortly after the news broke, Team Ireland general manager Andrew Bohan posted Team Hong Kong’s fundraiser to the Overwatch subreddit, and it started to blow up. “I posted it at a time where the entirety of Reddit was going crazy over the Blitzchung scandal and when the general public actually sees and understands the struggle, they will provide help,” Bohan says. “It’s just getting those eyes on it is the hard part and Blizzard royally fucking up was the perfect chance to get the public attention Team Hong Kong needed.” Within a few hours, the team had more than $90,000 raised, which was enough to make it to BlizzCon.
“That night at 11PM, we had an emergency meeting, and [Hong Kong player Chi-Yeung “Moowe” Yip] was saying, ‘So we have to go,’” Kwok explains, “Then I said, ‘Yes, that’s what people want, and we have to show the best of us in the arena.’” The easiest part was over for Team Hong Kong. Now, they had to keep up with some of the best Overwatch talent in the world.
“Hong Kong has yet to win an official World Cup match to date,” Overwatch commentator and analyst Kevin “AVRL” Walker told me ahead of BlizzCon. “They currently sit with a total record of zero wins, one draw, and seven loses over two group stage appearances [over the last three World Cups]. Their first win of 2019 would already be a notable improvement on past years, however. Making a deeper run in the tournament in comparison to their other Pacific neighbors would be a strong benchmark to achieve. With Team Japan, Team Chinese Taipei, and Team Thailand all looking very strong, Hong Kong will have their work cut out for them.”
The action started before the hubbub of Blizzard’s annual convention. While BlizzCon’s opening ceremonies took place on the afternoon of November 1st, the preliminary rounds began on Thursday, October 31st, when Team Hong Kong would face off against Team Paraguay in their first match.
Team Paraguay’s Fabrizio “Zio” Liviere was flying high in the sky above the first point on Overwatch’s Hollywood map, waiting for Team Hong Kong to try to overtake his squad. Only a few seconds later, the entire Fire Dragons squad rushed around the corner and onto the point. Hong Kong player Chi-Yeung “Moowe” Yip knew that Liviere would be a pest, disrupting his squad’s push onto the point. Most teams tend to rely on heroes like McCree, Widowmaker, or Soldier 76 to take out high-soaring Pharahs, but Yip didn’t want to wait. He took out Mei’s endothermic blasters and started firing off icicles toward Liviere. On the fourth shot, he connected, dropping the jetpacked soldier. Seconds later, Team Hong Kong nearly team-wiped Paraguay and captured the first point.
They went on to shut the South American squad out.
“It was amazing,” Kwok told me after the match. “That’s the first win in four years of participating in the Overwatch World Cup. The team was hyped. We tried our best playing against all the teams, even to the weaker teams like Paraguay, so we feel it is a well-deserved win.”
The Fire Dragons didn’t have much time to rest since their next match against Team Germany would be held the same day. Germany was a much tougher team; they had competed in every Overwatch World Cup qualifier since 2016. The two squads clashed head-on in one early moment on Overwatch’s Eichenwalde map as a small room overlooking the control point was packed with nearly every member of both teams. Shields, immortality fields, and bullets were flying in both directions. Hong Kong needed to push the Germans back in order to defend the control point and prevent their enemy from scoring.
Over the course of a few seconds, Kin-Long “ManGoJai” Wong took out the enemy Bapiste’s immortality field, which prevented Team Germany’s players’ health from dropping below 20 percent, paving the way for a near team-wipe to push the Germans back. The importance of that moment would fall to the wayside as Team Germany powered their way through the Fire Dragons, ultimately defeating them 3-0. The match was closer than the score indicates, though.
“I didn’t really have them on the radar before the World Cup because they got pushed into our bracket on short notice. But after playing them I can say that it wasn’t an easy game,” Team Germany head coach Julian “ProGi” Maier told me after the match. “Their Mei and Reaper composition were quite good…you can see that they punished us whenever we were slacking.”
It was close but unfortunately we can’t take the map. Let’s not losing faith in our home team!
Check out the beautiful teamwork by the team. pic.twitter.com/YoRtlr8n3i
— FIRE DRAGONS @BlizzCon #OWWC2019 (@OWTeamHongKong) November 1, 2019
“It was close,” Kwok said. “We had back-and-forth team fights, especially in Eichenwalde, where we drained most of their time in the second round of Germany’s attack. We could’ve grabbed one of those moments for victory. [We] were disappointed. Some of us even dropped tears.”
That was the end of the road for Team Hong Kong due to the new structure and ruleset for this Overwatch World Cup; one loss in the preliminary round meant you were going home. But their presence was still felt during the remaining two days of the tournament. In between the Hilton and Marriott hotels, directly leading up to the front entrance to BlizzCon, a small group of protesters stood against Blizzard. They chanted, held banners, and passed out signs and flyers in an attempt to draw attention to what was happening in Hong Kong and, in particular, Blizzard’s actions against Blitzchung.
“Any team from Hong Kong or Taiwan is going to try harder to play and win,” one masked protester told me as dozens of eager Blizzard fans marched past. “Because China doesn’t want us here and we need to do whatever we can to tell the world that we are still here.”
“I’m proud of them,” she added. The protester, who came all the way to Anaheim from Hong Kong, told me that she had only heard of the Fire Dragons and what they accomplished because of BlizzCon. While they didn’t get nearly as far as they had hoped in the tournament, individual players on Team Hong Kong shined on a bigger stage, and that extra exposure helped bring their message to more people. They didn’t win, but they accomplished a lot by just making it out there.
“I do believe [Kin-Long “ManGoJai” Wong] has proven his capability this year as a clear standout on team Hong Kong as well as performing as a key component in Talon’s [Wong’s amateur team] success in Contenders and the Gauntlet,” Walker told me after the tournament. “He had some big individual moments on heroes like Zenyatta, which doesn’t see a lot of gameplay in this particular meta. And despite not being able to get past Germany, he proved he could stand toe-to-toe with top tier competition at the Gauntlet.”
Walker, Maier, and others I spoke to believe that, outside of Wong and Yip, other members of the Fire Dragons still have a ways to go before making the leap to the Overwatch League, but competing on the international stage is a step in the right direction. In addition to getting experience and exposure on one of the biggest stages in Overwatch, Kwok and Team Hong Kong were covered by outlets like ESPN and The Washington Post. They brought more attention to what’s happening in Hong Kong by making the journey to BlizzCon.
”At a time like this, my team and I think the best way to express ourselves is to continue to play in the tournament,” Kwok told me. “Trying our best and showing the great Hong Kong spirits of never giving up are a demonstration of strength already.”
I asked Kwok if he thought he and his squad made an impact during their short stay in Anaheim. “Let the fans speak for themselves,” he said. “We think we have given fans a place to express their support to us and Hong Kong.”