It was a quick sweep for the United Kingdom in August to qualify for the 2017 Overwatch World Cup playoffs at Blizzcon. Pre-tournament favorites Team Taiwan looked sluggish and ill-prepared, refusing to deviate from the playstyle that had made the Overwatch team from which they came, the Flash Wolves, Overwatch Pacific Championship victors and the best team in Southeast Asia. With more free agents than signed players and an uncertain future due to the Overwatch League, Team United Kingdom still soared.
Team UK's entrance into the Overwatch World Cup Santa Monica Qualifer was heralded by its small, but vocal fanbase and few others outside of the team members themselves. Team Taiwan was a heavy favorite to qualify, with little opposition. Team USA was in an odd war with its own fanbase due to specific roster choices. Team Israel was rumored to be decimating opponents in scrims leading up to the event, a longshot sleeper to sneak away with a bid to Blizzcon.
Due to the perceived strength of Lu "Zonda" Jung-da's Team Taiwan, the USA and UK teams were pre-tournament picks for squabbling over the second remaining spot. Team UK was seen as a hard "maybe." Taiwan was a given, until the U.S. took first seed in Group G and Taiwan had to face the UK to qualify. Team UK's unique individual makeup echoed the approach of Team USA. Both countries opted for rosters that didn't rely heavily on members from one specific team, unlike Taiwan. This drew community criticism for both squads. And then USA and the UK qualified while full teams like Taiwan, Brazil, and Israel fell.
The UK swept Taiwan 3-0.
"We could tell how afraid of us they were by their playstyle in game," Christopher "ChrisTFer" Graham said. "They were playing so passive from the position they were in."
DPS player Harrison "Kruise" Pond thanked Overwatch Contenders Europe team 123 for having a similar playstyle to Team Taiwan.
"Until you know how to do it, it's really hard to beat [Taiwan's] comp," he said. "We knew exactly what we were doing and we showed that."
Jokingly calling themselves "LANimals" throughout the qualifier, the members of this British squad proved to be strong stage performers. Confidence onstage came from multiple veteran players and shotcallers on the team.
"This is important as it allows the less confident players to play their game and always feel like they have someone in control," ChrisTFer said. "For players with less lan experience it is very helpful to have experienced players with you. There are tons of example of this even in regular sports where teams require experienced leaders within their squad."
At the time of the qualifier, only Kruise and eUnited teammate Isaac "Boombox" Charles were signed to professional teams. This gave the Santa Monica Qualifier a unique flair. Overwatch League was on the horizon, but little had been announced, and players were using the World Cup stage as an advertisement to potential Overwatch League team owners. Towards the end of the victory press conference, Kruise added a last-minute plea for his fellow teammates that remained unsigned.
"Pick these guys up," he said.
Yet, despite success as a unit in the qualifier, and individual successes on various teams in Overwatch Contenders Season 1, not one of Team UK's players has been chosen for an Overwatch League position, reflecting the current competitive landscape of European professional Overwatch as a whole.
The day before the Santa Monica Qualifier, Cloud9 announced the purchase of the London Overwatch League spot. At the World Cup press conference, various members of Team UK joked at their own free agency when the London team was mentioned, making their freedom abundantly clear.
Just before the Overwatch World Cup Playoffs at Blizzcon, Cloud9 announced the London Spitfire, the organization's Overwatch League team. In the time between the London acquisition and the Spitfire press release, C9 partnered with South Korean organization Kongdoo. This process granted them access to the lineup of Kongdoo Panthera. C9 also picked up part of the roster of GC Busan, winners of OnGameNet's APEX Season 4 and, most recently, APAC Premier 2017.
"It's a tough one really," ChrisTFer said. "On one hand I can totally understand the decision, its by far the strongest roster in OWL and it has a very good chance to win Season 1. I can't blame C9 for taking the opportunity as opposed to risking it by picking up what's left of the EU scene. But i'd be lying if I didn't feel slightly annoyed by the fact the only European team has zero European players. It's hard to see a world in which the Shanghai team won't be fully Chinese and I think it's a fair comparison."
With this powerhouse all-South Korean lineup, the Spitfire has already been named as the most likely winners of Overwatch League's upcoming inaugural season, but leaves no room for any homegrown talent on London's team. Like many European pros left on the outside of Overwatch League looking in, ChrisTFer and Kruise are preparing for a Contenders team following Team UK's showing at the Overwatch World Cup this weekend. It's a precarious situation at best, but still worth the risk.
"All anyone wants from contenders is to be able to make a decent living whilst waiting for the OWL to grow and potentially get a spot playing in it in the future," ChrisTFer said. He added that the worst possible scenario would be for players in Contenders to make no money, forcing them to quit the game entirely if the Overwatch League is the only place to play. ChrisTFer admitted that Overwatch League tryouts cut into Team UK's practice time as a team.
Two and a half months after qualifying in Santa Monica, Kruise, ChrisTFer, Boombox, Michael "MikeyA" Adams, Eoghan "Smex" O'Neill, and Marcus "Realzx" Vining prepared to step onstage at BlizzCon and represent the UK once more. They carry with them the same cheeky, sly and arrogant attitude that won them the hearts of the Santa Monica crowd and the bid to BlizzCon itself.
"I think that we are one of very few esports teams that actually perform better under pressure," ChrisTFer said. "We call ourselves LANimals but it is definitely true that that's the one thing that puts us ahead of other teams that potentially have better rosters."