2019 marks the fourth Overwatch World Cup, as well as Team Ireland’s second time competing in it. Ireland last appeared in the World Cup in 2016, when the journey to BlizzCon looked vastly different than it does today. Unfortunately, the 2016 squad placed nineteenth in the online European qualifier, and didn’t get a chance at the stage in Los Angeles.
Still, Stephen “Kokopopz” Callan and David “Warro” Warinton remember the experience fondly. As two members of the 2016 Irish squad, they witnessed the event’s humble – and sometimes confusing – beginnings firsthand. Looking back on their World Cup experience, Warro and Kokopopz reflect on how they got there, what it was like, and how things have changed since then.
From the Beginning
At the time of the European qualifier, Overwatch was still a very young game, and the notion of making a World Cup out of it was a new endeavor for everybody involved. “Most of us just didn’t know what to expect going into it,” Kokopopz remarked. “There wasn’t a massive competitive scene in Overwatch yet, just the ESL tournaments.”
Without a full-fledged competitive scene to pull candidates from, the selection process itself started at the ranked ladder. “Back then, it was basically the top fifty players in each country that got selected, and then they put it up to a public vote, essentially,” Kokopopz explained. Out of the top fifty players, four members of each roster were selected by the public, regardless of hero pool or playstyle. “It was a popularity contest,” Warro said. “Then, from there, the team captain was given a list of the remaining candidates, and it was up to him to pick the final two. So, you could have had a team of four DPS or four supports or something like that. Which is kind of what we ended up having.”
Through that public vote, Ireland selected GJB93, Warro, Kokopopz, and Hustlin, with GJB93 serving as team captain. From there, they added Jtom and Rayo117 to round out their lineup. “We were short of a proper main tank, so that’s why Rayo stood out,” Warro explained.
“I’m pretty sure Rayo said that he didn’t even play much Reinhardt,” Kokopopz added. “And the funniest part is that he continued playing Reinhardt after, if I remember correctly. He found his true calling.”
Building A Team
Though Kokopopz in particular seemed enthusiastic about the changes in player selection since then, he believed that the popularity vote worked best for the first World Cup. Several countries fielded rosters made up of famous streamers and YouTubers – notably, Team Brazil brought in three gold-ranked players through the public vote. “It scuffed up a lot of teams, but it also gave a lot of teams backstory and hype,” Kokopopz said. “Even though it was a popularity contest, it gave people an opportunity to see those big YouTubers from their country. So, as annoying as it can be, it was also good for a viewerbase situation.”
Prior to the World Cup, Kokopopz only knew Hustlin, who he had played games with for years. Oddly enough, he and Warro happened to stumble across each other in a competitive game before the team came together.
“So, it was on Route 66, on defense,” Warro began.
“Why do you remember that?!” Kokopopz cut in. According to Warro, the two had crossed paths in an Irish Overwatch Facebook group, and Kokopopz recognized Warro’s gamertag as a shortened version of his surname.”
“We just randomly ended up in the same match together, and he knew my full name,” Warro said.
“I was thinking, ‘wait, this is a bit creepy from me,’” Kokopopz admitted with a laugh.
Considering the way the roster came together, both Warro and Kokopopz were relieved that their teammates got along. “When you’ve got six essentially random people being meshed together, you don’t know what to expect, right?” Kokopopz said. “Because people have their different communication quirks, whether it’s not exactly pure vocal, or they prefer ping systems. There’s so many different ways that it can go wrong. But everyone got along great, and you can’t really ask for more than that.”
Navigating the Setup
“This is all completely hosted by Blizzard themselves now, right?” Kokopopz asked of this year’s World Cup. The question made Warro laugh.
“Oh, I remember this,” he chimed in. In 2016, Blizzard outsourced qualifying tournament operations to ESL, an esports league responsible for putting together many early Overwatch events. However, the ESL organizers still typically needed to get information from Blizzard’s tournament heads, resulting in communication delays when teams needed certain questions answered.
“There was basically a middle-man scenario of information being drip-fed down,” Kokopopz explained. “I don’t think we were disclosed map picks until the day of, pretty much.
“We got leaked it, though,” Warro added. “We just asked an ESL tournament organizer nicely, and that person just gave it to us.
Though Team Ireland hoped to organize scrims before the qualifiers began, not knowing the tournament structure complicated things. They weren’t certain if the tournament would follow the same format that the Overwatch League later adopted, where they would play one map of each type. Instead, they worked to learn as many maps out of the pool as they could. “You know when you cram study before an exam, and you’re trying to take in so much information?” Kokopopz asked. “That’s basically what it was like. You didn’t have a format to study from, so you just had to cram in every single bit of knowledge and hope that you get whatever comes up on the test, you know?”
Under ESL’s oversight, the teams handled most of the organization for the qualifiers. “They literally just made a public Google Doc and put it in the Discord server,” Warro recalled. “Anyone could edit it. And they said, ‘okay, guys, contact the other teams and set up your own games.’ So we had to organize all of our own games, for our own time, within like a week. Then we’d message back ESL all of the times to see if they could get a streamer in to stream certain matches.” Thirty teams competed in the European qualifier, and all of them scrambled to set up their games whenever both teams had the time. In Team Switzerland’s case, they couldn’t find time slots for the games they needed to play, and wound up forfeiting the event altogether.
The Main Event
Despite the awkward structure, both players remember the games themselves fondly. Though they beat Team South Africa and barely lost to Team Poland, they recall especially enjoying their match against Team Germany, who wound up going to BlizzCon. “We had great banter with Germany. Everyone was pretty active in the chat between rounds,” Kokopopz remarked. “Because we knew Germany was the scariest out of everyone in our group. We didn’t go in with the intentions of, you know, a dominant victory, but we tried our best. We took a point off them.”
“And that was good enough for us!” Warro added.
Both players also recalled listening in to the pregame commentary, which included commentary by well-known casters Jason Kaplan and Mitch “Uber” Leslie. Warro remembers Uber accidentally referring to Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, while Kokopopz recalls Kaplan having trouble pronouncing his name.
“He said, ‘why doesn’t he just name himself LuckyCharms, because he’s Irish?’ I was so annoyed about that!” he said. “He picked the one kind of stereotype, which was the little leprechaun cereal, because I was named after a different cereal. But I did name my smurf LuckyCharms just for him, by the way.”
Overall, both Kokopopz and Warro still remember having a lot of fun competing. For his part, Warro is still friends with quite a few of his teammates, even though none of them play Overwatch anymore. Kokopopz agreed, remarking that he was happy to take part in the event’s test run. “In terms of the general experience, I think it was just really fun,” he said. “Even with people getting voted in, I don’t think anyone was upset or anything. Everyone knew that it was just a full-on learning experience.”
Of the two, Warro follows the current professional scene more closely. He remarks that the event has evolved considerably since he played in it. “The hype around these recent World Cups is tenfold more than it was for 2016,” he said. “They’ve turned it into more of a proper, professional competitive tournament, rather than like a promotional tournament, so to speak.”
Both agree that of all the changes made over the years, adding committees to the mix helps the structure a lot. “When we were playing, there wasn’t anyone coaching, so we were trying to pick up our own mistakes and figure out where to go from there,” Kokopopz recalled. “Having an outside perspective that isn’t actively playing in the game? That makes a big, big difference.” Warro also has history playing with Team Ireland’s general manager, Andy Bohan, and believes his deep understanding of the game can only help this year’s squad.
Though the event is far better funded than it was in the early days, both players vehemently disagreed with Blizzard’s decision to only fund the top eight competitors. “You qualify for the World Cup by paying for it, rather than playing for it,” Warro said. The new structure has already cost several teams the opportunity to attend, much to Kokopopz’s dismay.
“That, in my eyes, is just kind of disgusting,” he said. “I think the right decision would have been to hold an actual online qualifier and gotten, say, the top sixteen. Whoever makes it to that gets their tournament trip paid for. Know what I mean?”
The two were more neutral about the rule that players need to be over eighteen years old to attend BlizzCon – according to Warro, the same rule applied in 2016. In response, Kokopopz suggested that younger players should be allowed to attend if a guardian signs a consent form and funds their own trip to join them in California. “I can understand if Blizzard won’t pay to bring over guardians because of liability issues,” he remarked. “But I feel as though if you can get a guardian to go with you with a signed form, that should make a difference as well.”
Taking the Stage
Moving past the rule changes and into the event itself, Warro had a simple answer when asked what he’s looking forward to seeing from this year’s Team Ireland.
Of course, he’s referring to main tank Liam, whose flashy style on Reinhardt has earned him plenty of attention. Warro and Liam have played together in the past, and he’s looking forward to seeing him pull out some of his tricks at BlizzCon. He also gave an honorable mention to DPS player FlexG, who he’s seen play in several tournaments. Outside of Team Ireland, he’d like to see if Team UK can replicate their solid run from last year.
Kokopopz hasn’t followed the professional Overwatch scene as much as Warro, but he’s looking forward to some strong play from Team Iceland’s Hafþór “Hafficool” Hákonarson, who also competed in the 2016 World Cup. He’s also interested in the idea that several teams consist entirely of Overwatch League players. “I’ll be watching the World Cup,” he said, “and I’m excited to see how people fare in general against people who have been playing nonstop as their career. That’d be a really, really good watch.”
He mostly just wants to see the Irish squad give it their all and have fun doing it. “It’s one of those things that may not happen next year. You never know, if they change the format like they did this year,” he said. “But just enjoy the experience overall. It’s one of the most fun times I’ve ever had playing Overwatch. It’s one of the few times I made a good few friends off of Overwatch, outside of just people I knew who played it. And…do your best, guys, please? Redeem the 2016 team!”
In the three years since the World Cup, both Warro and Kokopopz have moved on from Overwatch. Outside of Quick Play with friends, Warro didn’t play the game competitively for over a year. He briefly returned to the scene for one of the first official Irish tournaments, where he met Andy and Liam. After that, he tried to return to the game, but wound up backing out once he realized he didn’t enjoy it anymore. These days, he focuses on work, though he plays games casually when he can.
Kokopopz has also moved away from Overwatch, citing balance issues and his friends leaving the game as the main reasons. Like Warro, he’s focused on work and games more casually, but he’s trying to stream more often. As far as shooters go, he hasn’t found many games that make him want to grind until he’s really good, but he’s recently taken a liking to Apex Legends.
“It was three years ago now. That’s kind of nuts,” Kokopopz remarked at the end of the interview. After spending time looking back on their 2016 experience, both players agreed that it was cool to participate in the first stepping stone towards today’s Overwatch World Cup. For the first time since then, Team Ireland has a chance to compete with the best each nation has to offer, and the game they’ll play will look much different than the one Warro and Kokopopz played.
More importantly, Kokopopz pointed out, they’ll play for a much bigger and more invested crowd, the same one who helped Team Ireland meet their goal for jersey sales. “I love the fact that the support is there, that people are more into it,” he said. “I’m glad to be a guinea pig, in that sense. Things have come a long way, and I’m pretty happy about that. That’s my biggest uplift about it.”