Team South Africa and the Overwatch World Cup 2019: The story you didn’t know

It’s Wednesday morning and I feel like a walking zombie. I got confirmation around 3am that Team South Africa, who are competing in the Overwatch World Cup, landed safely in Los Angeles, and the final member on his way had landed in Dubai to catch his connecting flight to Los Angeles. It’s a relief to know the majority of the team are now in Anaheim and ready to compete at Blizzcon. But I think the giant knot that has been living at the base of my neck will only lift once I know Twenty, who is set to arrive in LA at ten to 11 tonight is safely there.

If you’re a bit confused, here’s a recap of who Team South Africa is and what the Overwatch World Cup is all about.

We’ve kept it very positive online, but for the last few weeks it has been a rollercoaster of emotions and struggles. A few months ago, when Blizzard announced the format, we knew that South Africa could potentially field a team but we also knew that as we were expected to finance our trip (flights, accommodation, food and travel in LA etc) it was going to be expensive. Overwatch requires a 6 player team and we needed to field 6 players and a reserve. When the discussions around the committee began I wasn’t too interested in running. The committee consists of a General Manager, Community Lead and Coach. Much of the responsibility to raise funds and do the admin side of getting the team to Blizzcon falls with them. The thing is, I knew the mountain ahead and had worked on enough international events to know that we were going to be in for a struggle. I also knew that my own work experience with Blizzard and other international tournament organisers meant I had a better understanding of what was needed, there was more to this than most would realise. So I decided to run and was ultimately elected. I’ve joked for awhile that it was “for my sins”.

The first thing was the money. Flying from South Africa to Los Angeles isn’t cheap. We needed a big sum of cash. I thought that would be our biggest problem but I was wrong. I’ll get to our biggest problem in a bit but first, let’s chat about the money.

Yes, but no.

The Overwatch World Cup’s sponsorship rules are stringent. I’m not going to go in to them here but when I saw them I was worried. They offered us very little wriggle room to offer much to sponsors of the team. The top 10 teams, as decided by a point system, got their expenses paid but Teams like South Africa would have to raise the funds. We started a crowdfunding campaign that received some support, but if I’m honest, only really enough to cover one player’s trip. I had 6 others and a coach to think about. Liz, our community lead, and I decided from the start that we’d foot the bill for our own trips to bring down the cost. I’m not going to go into specifics but I am going to say this: I sent numerous emails and made numerous phone calls. 90% of them were ignored. Here’s a few of my “favourite” experiences:

  • “Yes. We’re definitely keen. Let’s chat more” …. then a complete ghost from brand/company. That happened more than 10 times, just FYI. Seeing said individuals at events down the line and watching them avoid the subject was personally entertaining.
  • “This makes no sense for us. The team is the hero in the story, not our brand. If we run/sponsor a tournament we’re the hero so that is a better spend for us.”
  • “They won’t win. So it makes no business sense to sponsor.”

Business is business. I know that. I also know the ROI wasn’t attractive to some. I’m not salty that folks declined. I’m grateful to the many brand managers who had open and frank discussions with me about budget restrictions, the short turn around times or how money for the quarter had already been allocated to the multiple expos. The time frame to raise funds was far too tight. I was also grateful to brand managers who took the time to explain their own marketing plans and why Team South Africa didn’t “fit”. I’ve learnt a lot and respect the honesty. I just wish more had been open with me from the start.

Two major MGOs in South Africa: ATK Arena and Goliath Gaming came to the party. They immediately offered to help and sponsor the team. The incredible group from Wistper, a new company with a passion for gaming, pledged the last amount. Later on in this tale I’ll explain why these brands helped and how their support benefits every gamer. White Rabbit Gaming, Big 5 Games, UFD Tech and even Paul Redeye Chaloner helped with the crowdfunding and put forward big amounts that were much needed.

We had our funds. And then I made a call that could have crippled us all. Cloud Travel, who helped us with the travel arrangements was able to shave a big chunk of money off the original quote, but I needed to book the flights and accommodation ASAP. The US Consulate specifically advises against booking flights until your visas are granted. But we couldn’t do that. So as a committee we made a call, booked and paid. This would haunt me down the line.


Overwatch hero

Before we raised the funds needed or even got the green light on our roster from Blizzard, I heard via some friends that the US Consulate in South Africa had delays in their bookings. For a US visa you need to apply to the consulate online for an appointment, then go for a face to face interview. In early August there were NO appointments online until mid November for the Johannesburg consulate. On the advice of a friend, who had flown to Cape Town to get an appointment, and on the advice of the travel agency, we employed a Visa agency to assist. The players all paid out of their own pockets for the Visa fees and the agency. It wasn’t cheap. The agency secured bookings but all of them were end September, early October. We were cutting it fine. I’ve travelled a lot and have a US 10 year visa so I checked the applications and felt with our Blizzard letters of invitation there was no way we’d have an issue.

And then we did. Senticall had his visa denied at his interview. They didn’t ask for documents, just asked three questions and gave him a letter saying he had not provided adequate proof to show he was coming back to South Africa. This was at the start of October. We immediately phoned the Visa Agency to try apply for an emergency appointment, but they explained these were hardly ever granted. I didn’t care. Between Senti and I we began putting our case together, submitting documents. Blizzard also jumped in to help. We were granted the emergency appointment based on the application. Less than 2 weeks before he was meant to fly out, Senti went back to the consulate. I really believed that after we’d submitted all the documents to get the emergency appointment there would be no issue. I was wrong. Denied again for the same reason. There was no way we could try again. Time had run out.

AshBro, our reserve had his visa approved and was ready to step in. But then the next knock came. Twenty arrived at his appointment and was told he needed to submit his old passport. I’m not going to go into the details here but it isn’t a matter of driving home and fetching the document or dropping it off. You need to go through couriers and follow a protocol. We did all of that and then… radio silence. Long story short, for the past week I’ve spent more time on the phone to Twenty, the Visa agency and the consulate then you can imagine. I’ve read up on US visas and processes. On Wednesday last week I began to realise we had a problem. More so, if Twenty’s passport didn’t materialise, we couldn’t field a team as we only had 5 players.

Remember how I said booking early would come back to haunt me? Here it was. How would I justify losing close to R200 000 of crowd funded and sponsor money? We could try cancel flights and fight the airline for some of the money but chances were, we’d struggle. The players would have to claim through their insurance. We’d definitely say goodbye the deposit on the accommodation. It started to hit me that if we couldn’t field a team I’d just made myself, an 18 year old still in matric (Peter, it sounds more dramatic when I describe you like that) and Liz liable to find R200 000 to pay back everyone. More importantly, the team, who had worked so damn hard and been so incredibly positive and excited, would lose it all.

And so we fought.

Im not going into specifics but I was on calls to Blizzard throughout the nights and early mornings (and the World Cup team were extremely understanding, helpful and supportive while still maintaining the integrity of the competition and keeping to the rules. I have to thank them for that). I think the Visa Agency we used will have me on a black list now because of the amount of times I phoned demanding everyone drop everything to sort this out.

On Monday morning this week at 9:30am I was told there was no hope. The consulate still hadn’t responded or updated the booking. It was time to give up. The team was flying out that night. Twenty then contacted the US consulate again and for the first time in weeks got hold of someone who helped him: the visa could be finalised. They could ship it that afternoon. There were more calls backwards and forwards to insurance, agencies and the like. We made the call not to risk it and simply move Twenty on to a flight 24 hours later as he should have his visa. I saw the rest of the team off and went to bed believing we were okay.

Tuesday morning arrived and still nothing. More frantic phone calls and stress. Finally, 3 hours before he took off, Twenty had a visa.

This has become a long post and I haven’t even covered half of what happened behind the scenes around funding and the visa issues. I’ve actually given you the “condensed” version. There’s a lot we went through as a team and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel I can share it and truly do the story justice. They’ve had to deal with some of the biggest mental hurdles and uncertainty in the weeks leading up to travel. They’ve had to travel later than most and will feel the effects of jet lag. Twenty especially. We weren’t able to secure them a bootcamp venue. There is so much more that should be said, but I’m accepting that it is what it is. I’m also not travelling with the team. I had a work commitment that overlapped and made the decision to not travel (because as a freelancer, I can’t turn down paid work) and then was never finalised for the job. By the time I realised this was the case, it was too late, and too expensive, to try get on flights or find accommodation. I’m obviously extremely disappointed but I also think the universe works in mysterious ways because there is no way we would have got Twenty sorted and on a plane if I couldn’t be on the ground here in South Africa handling it while the rest of the team flew.

And now we play

best Overwatch characters

When this journey began I saw it as an opportunity. This team will complete with the best in the world at Blizzcon, they’ll learn more in the next few days than any million rand tournaments in South Africa could teach them and they’ll come home with that knowledge. That knowledge will be passed on to their teammates, they’ll have seen a higher bar set and they’ll begin to want to reach that bar so they’ll hold TOs and MGOs to higher standards. It’s not just a competition. For countries like ours who are so incredibly isolated, opportunities like the Overwatch World Cup benefit the entire local community, no matter where we finish. This is how we grow and improve local esports.

ATK arena understands this. Goliath Gaming understands this. Wistper understands this. Every single one of you who contributed to the crowd funding understands this.

I’ll never be able to put into words how proud I am of every single member of this team. All 7 of our original line up have impressed me with their dedication and attitude. Liz and Peter, my fellow committee members, are two individuals who have carried my slack and taught me so damn much. I don’t know how Liz does all she does in a day (and this is coming from someone who does a lot in a day) or how Peter, still in school, is so mature, level headed and logical. The people in Los Angeles representing South Africa are our brightest stars and best assets. I’m glad I could play a role in allowing them to shine.

When I decided to throw my hat into the ring to run for General Manager I remember my Player 2 asking me why I was doing this. I responded without a second thought: Because I want to prove to the world that we can.

And you know what? This team will. I hope the world is ready. 

I'd love to chat to you some more.


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