There’s nothing that quite encapsulates community spirit like a country rallying behind their national sports teams. We witness it all the time when Ireland play rugby or football. During an Irish match, the sounds of exultation (or despair) can be heard thundering out of every pub and household. Like most sporting concepts (franchising, drafts, seeding), the idea of national teams is starting to find a foothold in the esports industry.
Many esports already have ecosystems where their competitive scene is divided into regions which does evoke a certain kind of nationalism in its viewers, a prime example being the famous Europe versus North America rivalry that exists in the “League of Legends” scene. However, this doesn’t quite compare to the feeling of watching a full team of your countrymen compete for national glory. League of Legends fans got to experience a taste of what an international competition would be like during the 2018 Asian Games.
At the event, League of Legends was selected for a trial run in order to see if esports could be introduced permanently to the competition. Though many of the teams competing weren’t world-class, the predictable final matchup of China against South Korea was hyped by many. China went on to win gold, much to the chagrin of their Korean rivals. Recently, the idea of a full-blown world cup has been floated by the higher-ups at Riot’s esports division. It’s expected that progress will be made towards creating this competition in the coming years.
However, another popular game has already instituted an international world cup. Activision-Blizzard’s “Overwatch” which released in 2016 has held a World Cup every year since its release. The heavy-hitters of the competition have remained mostly consistent over the years, large countries with extensive esports scenes tend to reign supreme. South Korea, China and the United States generally do well for these reasons. Ireland, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same advantages or infrastructure.
Compared to the aforementioned countries, and even with other larger European countries, Ireland has quite a small population. In addition to this, esports is only beginning to blossom on the Emerald Isle which limits the potential talent pool further. Our fair country has produced few esports players of note, with the most successful likely being “Call of Duty” player Jordan “Jurd” Crowley who is set to compete in the first season of the newly-formed Call of Duty League as a member of the London Royal Ravens. Justin “MiracU” McNally (PUBG), Josh “lolb0om” Juliano (Fortnite) and Cormac “doolsta” Dooley (Fifa) are some other notable Irish names who are successful in their respective scenes.
In Overwatch, however, Ireland has yet to produce a player who has played at the highest level. Going into the first Overwatch World Cup, “Team Ireland” was an underdog in every sense of the word. The team performed admirably, defeating South Africa and taking a game off Poland. While they didn’t perform well enough to advance to the main stage at Blizzcon, it seemed like Ireland might just have some future stars after all. However, due to stringent qualification requirements in place during subsequent years, Ireland was not represented during the 2017 and 2018 World Cups.
2019 was a new year for Irish Overwatch, however. The national community banded together and coordinated their efforts to field the best possible team Ireland had to offer. With a sweet jersey and a tasteful brand (the Celtic Wolfhounds), Team Ireland was poised to make their country proud at Blizzcon 2019. The team consisted of Mark “Scally202” Scally, Liam “Liam” O’Donnell, Adam “PureIrish” Healy, Josh “M3wts” Moore, Aaron “FlexG” Kay and Adam “Buckle” Treharne, with head coach Brian “Scrivzy” Scriven.
As Activision-Blizzard neglected to provide financial support to Overwatch World Cup teams, the Wolfhounds would have to fund their own trip to Anaheim for Blizzcon. This resulted in an inspiring outpouring of support from the Irish Overwatch community as individuals purchased jerseys and made donations to fund the team’s expenses. With a couple of months to spare, Team Ireland successfully met their financial goals and were set to compete at Blizzcon. Controversially, teams were not allowed to wear their custom-made jerseys at the event and were instead forced to wear generic Coca-Cola branded jerseys.
Before the tournament, there was a sense of optimism among the Irish community. The Wolfhounds had emphatically beaten the Greek Trojan Horse and were competitive against Team Iceland in pre-tournament scrimmages. However, the World Cup preliminaries had a ruthless format, one loss and you were eliminated from the competition entirely. When the brackets were drawn, Ireland was set to face off against a familiar face in Team Iceland. Should they win this game, the daunting task of competing against the United Kingdom (who had five pro players on their roster) arose.
Facing Iceland was made even more difficult by the fact that the two teams were regular scrim partners, so Ireland’s unorthodox strategies wouldn’t work against the Icemen. This proved partially to be their downfall, as Iceland went on to blow out the Wolfhounds 3-0. Despite the scoreline, Ireland had some great moments and looked very competitive for a team with only amateur players. Going forward, Ireland’s promising talents are sure to improve and new talent will inevitably be discovered. It’s not outlandish to suggest that Ireland will produce a professional Overwatch player in the coming years.