In the shadow of Blizzard’s much-criticized punishment of a Hearthstone player that spoke out in favor of protests in Hong Kong, the Overwatch World Cup preliminary round begins Thursday — and Team Hong Kong will be among the competitors.

The Overwatch World Cup, which features top-tier players of the game Overwatch competing for their national teams, coincides with Blizzard’s BlizzCon convention in Anaheim, held annually to generate excitement and publicity for game updates and new releases. This year, however, both events risk being overshadowed by the fallout from an incident in early October in which Hearthstone player Ng Wai Chung, known also by his gamertag “blitzchung,” was stripped of his winnings and suspended for a year by Blizzard after shouting, “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our age!" during a live stream. The incident drew international criticism and calls from other Hearthstone competitors to boycott Blizzard, even earning the ire of a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and congressmen.

The winnings were later returned and the suspension reduced to six months.

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Derek Kwok, general manager of the Hong Kong Overwatch team, is aware that his team could receive a lot of attention over the weekend. Initially, he was concerned by the blitzchung incident and worried his team would create “a storm" by attending BlizzCon, distracting the players from the tournament. Ahead of the competition, he said the team has tried to stay focused, even as they’ve wrestled with the fallout from the blitzchung suspension and the tensions in Hong Kong.

“Our team has so many different reactions and emotions on it, some are more radical,” Kwok wrote Wednesday night when asked via Twitter direct message about the team’s reaction to Blizzard’s handling of blitzchung’s statement. “And that provide[d] a chance for us to rethink whether we should go [to BlizzCon and the World Cup] with this state of team — under-budget, being an underdog and might get knocked out on the first match — and the emotions coming from the players on that as well. We have received so many other people[’s] opinions, we have meetings with our players and we actually allow[ed] time for all members to calm down and make a decision."

To participate at the World Cup, Team Hong Kong needed to raise money to travel to Anaheim and was helped by a competitor in the wake of the blitzchung punishment.

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“Team Ireland’s General Manager Andy [Bohan] just posted our fundraiser on the Reddit and it’s a big success. And we think ... we think we have to go,” Kwok wrote. “Making this decision is not easy, especially [since] we have our own HK community to deal with. But I think that’s a show of strength with [us] giving [our] full efforts into the tournament and [we’re] proud of that.”

With several groups planning protests around BlizzCon this week, Team Hong Kong could be a sentimental favorite to come out of the preliminary group, particularly if the rapidity of their fundraising is any indication.

“Grateful and shocked,” Kwok wrote when asked for his reaction to how quickly the team attained its crowdfunding goal of $10,000. The total now stands at more than $90,000 raised. “It feels so unreal, to be honest. It all happened so sudden[ly] and so quickly, and we have never imagined we could reach the goal in any way. But the generosity from the international community is just breathtaking and we have received so [much] support not only from fans all over the world [but] in our social media since then.”

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Kwok believes the generous spirit stems in part from the nature of esports and competitive gaming and how it can be a unifying force across very different cultures.

“Video games, multiplayer game in particular, [are] a common language for all people around the world,” Kwok wrote. "You communicate through skills, nothing else.

“Talon Esports, in Contenders Pacific 2019, they were having half of team being Koreans, one Hong Kong player, one Taiwan player and two Thailand players — with an Assistant Coach from Australia. And they are living together in [a] team home. That allows them to gain international connections and understand other cultures.”

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Kwok hopes the tournament serves as a spring board for the careers of his players, and that they earn recognition for their performances. The team will try to finish among the top five of the preliminary round teams to join the USA, Canada, South Korea, France and China in the group stages, which begin Friday. Kwok said Team Russia and Team Germany could present Hong Kong with particularly strong challenges.

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Correction: This story has been updated to correct the fact that South Korea, not Japan, is among the five teams that are already qualified for the group stage.

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