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Sports bars, spice bags and running for the bus

Laura “Laurapl0x” Browne didn’t mind the near constant roar of cheers as she walked past the wooden booths, lined with Milan Club Dublin flags and logos of every NFL team at the Woolshed Baa in Dublin. It was the nerves that were eating at her.

She had begged a friend — who was now walking by her side — to come with her because she was afraid of the awkwardness. Online meetups work like that sometimes, she thought, especially when meeting digital friends for the first time.

She scanned the crowd, looking past the football fans for any sign of Overwatch she could find in the dim sports bar. Then she found them, huddled in a corner watching the Vancouver Titans play the San Francisco Shock in the Stage 2 Finals of the 2019 Overwatch League season.

“None of us knew each other,” Laura said. “Our screen had no sound on it so we were trying to guess what was happening.”

One bar, all of Ireland’s biggest Overwatch fans

The noise in the bar drowned out much of their conversation, but LauraPl0x said she could still remember the group laughing whenever they had to make up their own audio for when Hyo-bin “ChoiHyoBin” Choi and Matthew “super” DeLisi put a stop to the Titans’ final push on Blizzard World.

“It was a scuffed setup,” she said, “but it was awesome.”

Woolshed Ba in Dublin
Overwatch was cramped and memorable for LauraPl0x (front, center left) and company at the Woolshed Ba in Dublin. | Provided by LauraPl0x

LauraPl0x had joined the Irish Overwatch Discord server earlier that season. While the nerves struck her at first, she said she felt comfortable soon after arriving at the bar.

“Andy was there and he gave everyone a big hug,” she said. “That made everyone comfortable.”

Andy Bohan, the general manager for Team Ireland’s Overwatch squad and one of the founders of the Irish community, organized the gathering in order to bring everyone even closer together. It was one step of many toward forming one of the most dedicated groups of Overwatch fans in the world.

Grinding through Diamond had given LauraPl0x the belief that she was ready to swing with some of the Emerald Isle’s Overwatch heavyweights. She joined one of the Irish Overwatch tournaments with her squad and soon found that victory was a distant dream.

“We thought we’d be able to roll with them,” she said. “Andy’s team just spawn camped us. They just destroyed us.”

Woolshed Ba
That Stage 2 finals gathering wasn’t the first time a scraggly group of Overwatch fans met at the cramped sports bar. | Provided by Liam “Liam” O’Donnell

A salty and delicious meal

Liam “Liam” O’Donnell was only looking for one criteria when he set out to form his first amateur Overwatch team. He was tired of solo queuing with randoms or playing with a few select friends.

“I looked at one of those ‘looking for a team’ websites and filtered it only to show Irish people,” Liam, who played for Team Ireland at the 2019 Overwatch World Cup said. “I found a couple people from that, including Andy.”

Liam and Bohan became two parts of the Irish community’s bedrock after they met, putting together events, organizing tournaments and bringing in other Irish players as soon as they heard their accent over in-game comms. The group posted in an Overwatch Facebook group run by a local Irish esports organization to pick up the remaining members of their all-Irish team: the Spice Bags.

“We were originally going to be called the Uprising,” Liam said, “but that was two weeks before Overwatch League teams announced their official branding.”

The team had to come up with a new name immediately, and one of Liam’s teammates, David “Warro” Warinton, gave them just that. He loved spice bags, a combination of potato chips, vegetables and chicken covered in dry spices and sauce.

“Warro showed up for practice three times in a row with spice bags,” Liam said. “We took the piss out of him by naming the team that and he loved it.”

The Spice Bags enjoyed dominating the local scene and playing against teams from other countries before deciding to get serious, making a push for the Overwatch World Cup in 2018. A separate squad of Irish players, including Warro, had played in the 2016 World Cup qualifiers. Blizzard picked which teams would compete that year, though. That meant qualifications for the 2018 event wouldn’t be as simple. The opposite was true, in fact.

Overwatch World Cup 2016
The Overwatch World Cup was first held in 2016 at BlizzCon in Anaheim, California | Provided by Activision Blizzard

Blizzard chose participating teams based on the “average skill-rating (SR) […] the top one hundred-fifty players” in the region. The Spice Bags needed to somehow raise the entire SR of the country by recruiting and training any Irish Overwatch players they could find in order to make the cut. They opened a Discord server to organize their efforts and went to work.

“We were basically walking advertisements for the server,” Liam said. “Anytime we heard an Irish voice in a ranked game, we’d berate them with messages to join the server.”

The Discord server had organized play sessions, coaching voice channels and even a spreadsheet that tracked the SR of every player there. Over the course of a few months, they increased the ranking of an average player by 150 SR, which pushed Ireland high enough to qualify for the World Cup.

The World Cup wasn’t having it with Team Ireland

“It was quite funny at the start,” Liam said. “But then we realized a Diamond player is a Diamond player; we can’t just plop them in Grand Masters and expect it to work. After that, some people’s ranks just dropped.”

Liam and company tried to predict how Blizzard would format the World Cup, but they couldn’t stay one step ahead. The number of qualifying countries was changed from 40 to 20, effectively eliminating Ireland from contention. They couldn’t compete with countries that had ten times the population of their little island.

The boys in green were disappointed by the news, but they didn’t give up. They were determined to make a name for their country in the wider Overwatch community, doing whatever it took to keep Ireland in the conversation.

“It’s about national pride,” said former Florida Mayhem performance coach Robert Yip, who now works for Immortals. “We’re a competitive people, a nationalistic people.”

Yip is one of the only Irish representatives to work in the Overwatch League, having helped the Mayhem in 2019 while the league operated in Burbank. Since there were no Irish players in the league,  Yip and former Houston Outlaws player Shane “Rawkus” Flaherty — who is part Irish — were the closest thing they had. They sent them merchandise and cheered them on but still wanted to get a player into the league or make it all the way to the World Cup.

“We’re a small country so we need to cast a wide net,” Yip said. Making it to the World Cup was one way to make Irish players more well known worldwide, and it’s why they worked incredibly hard to make it there. Yip jokingly called the Spice Bag’s efforts “a humanitarian mission.”



Deepening roots

Adam “PureIrish” Healy was exhausted. His dad’s car had broken down on the way to the bus stop in Limerick, a town more than 120 miles outside Dublin.

“Oh it’s a ten minute walk,” his dad told him as he tried to figure out what was wrong with the car. PureIrish and his friend started toward the bus stop in hopes they’d still catch a ride to the city. They walked for 30 minutes before they realized their original plan was not sound.

“We missed the first bus because we were so far away,” PureIrish said. They started running. “We weren’t missing that second bus.”

PureIrish arrived at Kennedy’s Bar in Dublin to a crowd of familiar faces. This wasn’t the 8 or so people that huddled into the corner at the Woolshed Baa. The Irish community had grown considerably with more than 50 faces scrunching in confusion over a picture of a potato. They needed to guess which map it was from if they had any hope in placing well during the Overwatch-themed pub quiz.

He and his three-person team were stumped. Dorado maybe? Worth a shot at least.

Overwatch Ireland Kennedy Bar
Efforts by the Spice Bags and other members of the discord server help expand the community tenfold. | Provided by Andy Bohan

“I play Overwatch on low settings and graphics, so I had no idea,” the Irish Contenders player, who also competed on Team Ireland in 2019, said. “It’s crazy how much I didn’t know when these questions came up.”

Organizers had gone all out with the bigger gathering, reaching out to Hangar 9, a fan club for the London Spitfire, as well as the Boston Uprising and Philadelphia Fusion to get merchandise to give out. They also crafted intense pub quizzes that included tough questions like how many pillars were on Illios. No one knew the potato was actually from Lunar Colony.

This gathering of Overwatch lovers was a testament to the growth of the community in the country, but their biggest journey had yet to begin.

Grand Master to World Cup

“I don’t know how I got a spot on the World Cup team,” PureIrish said. “Before I tried out I played at a main tank for a GM team. When I saw the World Cup tryouts, I saw two amazing main tanks. I thought that there was no way I could compete with them.”

BlizzCon 2019
While the trip was memorable, training for the World Cup kept them from exploring too much of Southern California. | Provided by PureIrish

Yet, he still went through with the tryout, jumping between two teams as coach Brian “Scrivzy” Scriven saw fit. PureIrish was good at receiving and using advice and that helped earn him a spot on the final roster. He would be headed to Anaheim for the 2019 World Cup if the team could raise enough money for the trip.

Blizzard had once again changed the format of the fabled international tournament. Anyone who could show up for the group stage in Anaheim during BlizzCon 2019 could compete, no matter where they were from.

Liam, Bohan, PureIrish and company immediately began campaigning to raise money. They designed special jerseys, asked for donations from the community and even did a tour around Dublin with photo shoots.

A sign of Irish pride

“We went to a dog show to get photos with Irish Wolfhounds,” PureIrish said. The team managed to raise the entire amount needed for flights, Airbnb and everything else they needed for a 5,157 thousand mile trip to Southern California. And halfway through the ten hour flight, PureIrish said he was aching for California sun.

“I come from Limerick, the outskirts of a village. Going from the countryside to LA with skyscrapers, I had never seen them before, never ending buildings,” he said. “I wanted to live there for just a year.”

PureIrish and gang didn’t have many scrimmage partners heading into the event because they were an unknown entity. They fell to Team Iceland in the quarterfinals, but that doesn’t mean they felt trip was a failure of any kind.

Team Ireland Overwatch
Liam “Liam” O’Donnell and his Irish Wolfhound photo buddy. | Provided by Team Ireland

They spent their one day off visiting the Hollywood Walk of Fame and watching the Los Angeles Clippers play the Utah Jazz. They were all depressed after losing but got the chance to meet some of their idols.

“We got a picture with South Korea; that was great,” PureIrish said. “Carpe put his arm around me.”

Back home, another group of 50-or-so Irish Overwatch fanatics were cheering their boys on, win or lose.

“We all wanted to get our small island there,” LauraPl0x said. “It was tough because these are bigger countries with more money. Esports doesn’t feel like a huge thing in Ireland.”

PureIrish is still on the grind to the Overwatch league today, playing for the Old and Bored Contenders team. He still has a long way to go before achieving his dream, although he said he’s pretty happy with where it’s taken him so far. Being at a place like Kennedy’s Bar, surrounded by people with the same interest in Overwatch meant a lot to him.

Team Ireland Anaheim
Team Ireland’s trip to Anaheim was the highlight of a lifetime for many of the players. | Provided by PureIrish

 

“I’m a little gamer boy from Limerick,” he said.” I don’t have a lot going for me, so seeing people care about that was incredible. I’ll never forget that.”

The story is different for LauraPl0x and other members of the Irish community, who took over as Liam got an administrative job in a garage and Bohan moved on to focus on the Overwatch Workshop. She’s made the community more open to everyone of all skill levels in Overwatch.

“We run friendly all-SR tournaments,” she said. “Things like disaster tournaments, where each team has one player from every SR. People loved that. It got everyone involved.”

The pandemic has made it impossible to come together for any event, pub quiz or World Cup so no gatherings have happened since 2019. The Irish community is still looking forward to the future, despite concerns about how Overwatch 2 will impact them. But as long as the community keeps showing up, their passion will stay alive.

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