Australians hold heads high despite loss to South Korea

Team Australia support Scott "Custa" Kennedy laughs with teammates during the Overwatch World Cup in November at BlizzCon in Anaheim, California. Custa, who plays for the Los Angeles Valiant in the Overwatch League, was the lone OWL player on Australia. Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The members of the Australian Overwatch World Cup team first met each other in Bangkok. The team had been scrimmaging over the internet, led by Los Angeles Valiant support Scott "Custa" Kennedy -- the lone Australian in the Overwatch League -- and its general manager, Andrew "Rqt" Haws. It was a ragtag team formed by pulling together the best Australians from Contenders, Overwatch's developmental league.

The introductions were awkward at first. They had all been talking and scrimmaging together for months at that point, but it was the first time they had met in person. It was days before they would be competing onstage at the Bangkok Qualifier in hopes of advancing to the finals at BlizzCon in Anaheim.

They were all given their room assignments. Ashley "Trill" Powell of the Sydney Drop Bears was rooming with his contenders teammate Felix "Ckm" Murray. Little did Trill know, Ckm had a tendency to sleepwalk.

At Bangkok, Australia narrowly beat Denmark to place second and qualify for the finals. But things would just get tougher from there, as the upstart squad drew two-time world champion South Korea as its quarterfinal matchup.

"For us it was easy to manage expectations; we really didn't have pressure because of that," Rqt said Friday following his team's 3-0 loss to a team that's been undefeated at the Overwatch World Cup for the past three years leading into Saturday's semifinal. "We knew we were going up against clear favorites for this tournament."

Much like the Olympics in basketball, when foreign teams have to play against an NBA-packed U.S. roster, the obstacle in front can seem so insurmountable that the best thing to do is to gain a positive outlook from the upcoming thrashing. That's the approach Australia took, at least.

"The dream was to beat them. The goal was to get a map. The expectations were to be competitive," Custa said. "And that's pretty much what happened."

No, this isn't a story of David beating Goliath. This is a story of seeing David coming to terms with his diminutive stature in the midst of battle and trying desperately not to get squashed.

Talking to Australian fans before the match, there was a feeling of optimism. That given Australia's geographic isolation, it affords the team a unique advantage to upset the South Koreans because it has developed its own local meta. And while during the postgame news conference with South Korea, the team did note that Australia had a unique playstyle, it took only a brief re-evaluation to figure out the Aussies' strategy.

But really, it was the dominance of Philadelphia Fusion DPS and South Korean superstar Lee "Carpe" Jae-hyeok, arguably the best McCree player in the world, that left the entire Australian team in shambles.

Despite the loss, Australia walked away with some key lessons and valuable stage practice.

"You put them against teams that played in the last year's BlizzCon, I think this would have been incredibly competitive," Rqt said. But the gap between Overwatch's haves and have-nots has grown significantly as "they've had time and experience in the Overwatch League."

There was another realization, however. That whether it be South Korean or Australian players, both are the same in terms of a drive and passion to compete; it's just that one has had the luxury of a lot more professional experience.

That will remain difficult for the Australians moving forward. Because of the geography, internet lag is a lot higher in Australia when trying to compete against teams on Japanese or South Korean servers through VPNs. And the population of Australia and New Zealand is a lot smaller, giving a smaller competitive pool to practice against. Ultimately, if players like Trill and CKM want to break into the Overwatch League, it's likely they'll need to move to the United States and join an American Contenders team before making that next professional leap.

But this experience has given the young Aussies, or at least Trill, something they had never experienced before: absolute existential dread. It happened back in Bangkok when Trill saw a motionless figure standing at the foot of his bed late in the night. It was just "Ckm" caught in a bout of sleepwalking.

It made for a good laugh the following morning, and it's these moments that build team camaraderie -- win or lose.