The South Africa Rhinos are on their way to the Overwatch World Cup 2019, despite some significant hurdles along the way. Until now, the only part of the story that was public was the team's desperate scramble to raise funds. With six out of the seven players either landed or on their way to the United States to compete, the team's general manager, Sam Wright, has told some of the rest of their story.
Here's the extremely abridged version: Despite all efforts to ensure that all the admin and logistics were handled well ahead of schedule, one player only got their passport back from the US consulate three hours before he was set to board.
First, a quick recap. For the first time since the Overwatch World Cup was launched in 2016, Blizzard changed the structure of the tournament to allow countries like South Africa to compete.
However, the Overwatch World Cup is played at Blizzcon. Unless you are in the top 10 teams in the world, you have to pay your own way to make it to Anaheim, near Los Angeles.
Wright says in the post on her blog, Tech Girl, that she knew getting the money together would be challenging. In hindsight, it would turn out to be the easier part of her job.
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”.
You can read the whole story on Wright's blog. Below is a summary of what she described as a the "condensed" version of the story.
Wright said that one of the reasons it was difficult to find companies willing to sponsor the team is that The Overwatch World Cup’s sponsorship rules are stringent.
"They offered us very little wriggle room to offer much to sponsors of the team."
She reached out to many potential sponsors and said that the vast majority of her requests were ignored. Those that weren't ignored were often dead ends. Wright related some of her experiences:
- Reps express interest and say they want to talk more. Then completely ghost her. Wright said this happened at least 10 times. "Seeing said individuals at events down the line and watching them avoid the subject was personally entertaining," Wright said.
- "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.
Wright said that she is grateful to the many brand managers who had open and frank discussions with her about budget restrictions, short turn around times, or how money for the quarter had already been allocated to the various expos being held in South Africa.
"The time frame to raise funds was far too tight," Wright said. "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."
In the end, two major South African multi-gaming organisations put up large chunks money to help get the Rhinos to Los Angeles: ATK Arena and Goliath Gaming. A new company called Wistper, a social gift registry, pushed the fundraiser over the finish line.
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.
"It’s not just a competition," said Wright.
For countries like South Africa that are so isolated, opportunities like the Overwatch World Cup benefit the entire local community. Wright said that it doesn't matter where the team places—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."
Securing the money wasn't easy, but by comparison to what was going to come next, it was the easy part.
First were the delays in getting visa interviews at the US consulate in Johannesburg. On advice from their travel agency, and a friend who had flown to Cape Town to get an appointment for their US visa, the Rhinos retained the services of a visa agency.
Everything looked routine, until the team's off-tank, Ruan "Senticall" Potgieter, had has visa denied at the start of October.
"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," Wright said.
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.
Potgieter's visa was denied again for the same reason.
"I really believed that after we’d submitted all the documents to get the emergency appointment there would be no issue," Wright said. "There was no way we could try again. Time had run out."
The Rhinos reserve, Joshua “AshBro” Luttich, had already received has visa and was ready to step in, but then the team's hitscan position, Jordan “Twenty” Bouah, was told he had to submit his old passport to the consulate.
Naturally, Bouah's visa got lost in beaurocratic hell somewhere.
"For the past week I've spent more time on the phone to [Bouah], the visa agency and the consulate than you can imagine," Wright said.
Last week Wednesday, Wright realised they had a major problem. If Bouah’s passport didn’t materialise, the Rhinos couldn’t field a team as they only had five players on their way to the US.
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 blacklist now because of the amount of times I phoned demanding everyone drop everything to sort this out.
At 09:30 on Monday morning, Wright was told there was no hope.
Then, somehow, Bouah got through to someone at the consulate who helped him. They said they could ship his passport out that afternoon.
Mercifully, Wright and her team made the call to move Bouah's flight by 24 hours to be safe, because on Tuesday morning his passport still hadn't arrived.
"More frantic phone calls and stress. Finally, 3 hours before he took off, Twenty had a visa," Wright said.