“It just feels nice,” said Cheuk-Pang “Amcrazy” Lai, the main tank for the team, who got to practice playing Overwatch in his first-ever LAN tournament. “I’m happy to represent Hong Kong in times like this."
The tournament, and the convention, was prefaced by a geopolitical firestorm centered around the issue of free speech and Blizzard’s punishment of Hearthstone player Ng Wai Chung, better known as blitzchung, for a statement he made in support of Hong Kong protesters on a live stream in early October. The company initially banned him for 12 months and revoked his $10,000 prize but amid an intense backlash — including a letter from a bipartisan group of United States Senators and congressional representatives — Blizzard reduced the suspension to six months and returned blitzchung’s prize money.
“Blizzard overreacted and I am really disappointed in Blizzard’s decision,” said Lai, 18.
On Friday, at the opening of the convention, Blizzard’s president issued an apology for the company’s handling of the punishment, but did not say if blitzchung’s ban had been further reduced or not.
The situation before the convention struck a nerve with Lai, who questioned whether Team Hong Kong should participate in the event, given the tense backdrop. They were also challenged by the sentiments toward the team from those in Hong Kong, according to community manager Audrey Yam.
“In Hong Kong people just think you are just playing video games, and at the same time playing Blizzard video games," Yam said. "And that makes it really difficult.”
In the end, the blitzchung controversy probably helped get Team Hong Kong to Anaheim. Teams outside of the top 10 seeds of the World Cup have to pay their own way, and Hong Kong wasn’t sure it could afford the trip. All of that changed with recent events.
Hong Kong general manager Derek Kwok said the team had booked all their flights and accommodations back in August. But when the blitzchung news broke, they had to seriously consider whether they should still attend BlizzCon, given budgetary constraints and the prospect of being eliminated in the first round.
Then Hong Kong got an assist from an unexpected ally, Team Ireland. Their general manager, Andy Bohan, posted a link to a GoGetFunding page on the Overwatch sub-Reddit to sponsor Team Hong Kong for $80,000. The donation page had been open since August, but they quickly reached their goal, plus an extra $10,000.
“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,” Kwok said Wednesday in a Twitter direct message to The Washington Post.
Bohan elaborated on his reasoning for helping Team Hong Kong when reached Friday.
“Irish people always support friends and family when they need it,” Bohan said. "I consider every country in the World Cup to be friends together in the common goal of doing each of our countries proud, not only by competing but by also sharing our culture and values with the world. ... The World Cup is a better event when it can highlight regions often forgotten, or without large [Overwatch League] teams based in it.”
Activision Blizzard did nothing to censor the team or discuss the issue with Team Hong Kong before the World Cup, according to Kwok. “It wasn’t a main issue for them,” Kwok said. “They just focused on the tournament.”
There was still a reminder of the geopolitical conflict that’s racked Hong Kong for months now, as organizers, including the American University Hearthstone players who supported Hong Kong independence and the nonprofit Fight for the Future, protested Friday afternoon outside BlizzCon’s main entrance.
“I wish [Team Hong Kong] would have done a little bit better, but it’s better visibility and it’s another reminder of what’s going on right now,” said Henry Reid, 40, one of the protesters posted up 300 yards from BlizzCon’s entrance. He cosplayed as the Overwatch character Mei, but added an umbrella, gas mask and white helmet to symbolize the current protests in Hong Kong.
“The good thing is people started focusing on Hong Kong. We are really grateful that our effort is being shown to the world,” Yam said.
In terms of the competition, Hong Kong had a respectable showing in the opening day of the World Cup, despite a series of unanticipated issues, including an hour delay due to a fire drill evacuation in the middle of four matches.
Hong Kong’s opening match went smoothly: The team easily defeated 32nd-ranked Paraguay 3-0 without conceding a single round. Their match against Germany was a different story.
Kwok correctly predicted the day before preliminary play that the team would “put up a good fight” against Germany. That statement summarized the match well.
On the final map for Hong Kong, the team put up a valiant effort, but it wasn’t enough to counter Germany.
“I just think we should win against Germany because if you watch the tournament we actually had back-and-forth fights and [we were] winning the match but then we just lost the map at the very end,” Lai said.
Despite the loss, Hong Kong’s participation gave the team a chance to show its skills on a world stage with nearly 20,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch.
“Being able to participate in the World Cup — a chance that allows players to expose themselves in front of world audience — is very vital for all veteran players like MangoJai, Moowe and Mikouw to develop their career,” Kwok said in an earlier interview with The Post. “It is also a training ground for our inexperienced players as well.”
Denmark, UK, Sweden, Russia — which defeated Germany 3-0 — and Netherlands progressed from prelims. Germany, the same team that bested Hong Kong, lost to Russia in the bracket D finals.
Correction: A previous version of this story said teams outside of the top five seeds did not receive funding to attend the World Cup tournament. Teams outside of the top 10 do not receive funding.