In Bulgaria, it's difficult for Siarhei "Bogur" Alekau to talk about being a professional gamer. Based in the beachside city of Varna, Bogur has noticed that many of his countrymen don't seem to care about esports.
"It's kind of taboo, unnatural to say you play video games for a living," Bogur said. "A lot of people don't understand. They just think it's just playing games for kids."
The 20-year-old main tank never shared the same trepidation about Overwatch, a game he has played constantly since it launched in 2016. Years spent bouncing around Spanish organizations and Swiss LANs (local area networks) eventually led to a contract with the North American Contenders team Revival, one competitive tier below the Overwatch League. When Team Bulgaria's national committee began scouting players for the 2019 Overwatch World Cup at BlizzCon, Bogur was an obvious choice for the roster.
Last year, Team Bulgaria couldn't compete in the World Cup qualifiers because the average skill rating of their country's top 150 players fell below the global top 20. In an effort to deepen the pool of participating nations, Blizzard axed the skill-rating requirement this year, granting eligibility to all countries able to field a team. The regional qualifier system was also scrapped; instead, the entire World Cup would be held at BlizzCon, and everyone was invited.
Team Bulgaria wasted no time constructing a roster and organizing productive scrims, debuting at the Overwatch MB Eurocup Fundraiser in August. They played well, placing fifth-eighth out of 18 national teams and even beat eventual-champions Iceland in the group stage before losing a 3-1 quarterfinal to Germany.
Despite their success and a new international format meant to include them, Team Bulgaria disbanded in early October before playing a single World Cup game. They will not compete at BlizzCon this weekend, one of 13 teams who, while eligible and eager to prove themselves, could not secure enough funding to make the trip to Anaheim.
"I didn't have high hopes from the beginning," Bogur said. "But then, when I heard we wouldn't be getting any support from Blizzard, it was kind of a shocking situation. In Bulgaria, we're not really known as a rich country, so we don't have the money or the resources to send players to America and get them visas.
"We did try to reach out for sponsors, but nobody has an interest in a no-name World Cup team with players who hadn't played that much competitively. We got shut down by everyone I think, and we didn't get the funds."
As part of the new rules, Blizzard announced that they would only provide "full support for round-trip airfares, ground transportation, and double-occupancy hotel accommodations," for the top 10 teams: South Korea, Canada, China, France, United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden, Russia and Finland. All other national teams were forced to foot those costs themselves -- not to mention food and other unforeseen expenses -- a sum total that ranged between $12,000 and $15,000. Considering that the average monthly wage in Bulgaria is roughly $700 (though Bogur says it feels much lower), a trip to the U.S. was untenable without significant sponsorship.
Team Bulgaria's difficulty in finding sponsors was compounded by Blizzard's insistence that team sponsors not be companies that compete with Overwatch's sponsors, narrowing an already short list. By mid-September, with no help on the way and players facing other responsibilities, the team chose to end their World Cup pursuit.
Bulgaria wasn't alone in their misfortune; all over the globe, from Argentina to Romania to Malaysia, teams struggled and failed to secure enough funding, dropping out one by one with pinned-tweet apologies to the fans as their final goodbyes.
Some got lucky. Team Thailand received free round-trip flights for the whole squad by winning the SEA Invitational in late September. Team India was able to bootcamp at Harrisburg University before flying to BlizzCon thanks to their sponsor Global Esports' new partnership with the college. And for Team Hong Kong, fate intervened after weeks of tepid crowdfunding.
Though Team Hong Kong general manager Derek Kwok paid for flights and accommodations months in advance, he still wasn't sure his players -- mostly young university students -- could afford the trip without going broke. Kwok posted a GoGetFunding page the day he announced the full roster in August, but by early October, the team had not reached half of their $80,000 HKD goal. During that time, Kwok repeatedly struck out with potential sponsors beyond Logitech, who provided the team's gaming peripherals. Attending BlizzCon seemed to be out of reach.
"Many people are spending money elsewhere, but not games, so it was really tough to find funding through the crowdfunding," Kwok said. "The most difficult part was to find a really good sponsor. The social movements in Hong Kong really stopped us. Even Logitech told us that many sponsors stepped away from esports for now in Hong Kong, so we really couldn't find any sponsors just because of Hong Kong's situation."
Then, on Oct. 6, Wai Chung "blitzchung" Ng put on a gas mask and expressed his support for the Hong Kong protesters in a postgame interview during Blizzard's Hearthstone Grandmasters Asia-Pacific broadcast. In the wake of what became an international firestorm, Team Ireland general manager Andy Bohan posted a link to Team Hong Kong's GoGetFunding page on Reddit, where it was quickly upvoted. To Kwok's amazement, his team reached its goal just six hours later.
"After the Blitzchung incident, we didn't know whether or not we were going to BlizzCon," Kwok said. "We actually considered dropping out, and suddenly Andy did that and our target was matched. We had an emergency meeting with our players and coaches and said, "Hey, I think we are going. We have to go. The world community wants us to go.'"
Team Hong Kong arrived in Los Angeles on Monday morning and will play in the World Cup's single-elimination preliminary bracket on Thursday. Though the matches will be livestreamed, BlizzCon will not open to the public until Friday, so unless Team Hong Kong secures an unlikely group stage berth, their supporters will not be able to cheer them on in person. The team's chances hinge on the play of star DPS Chi-Yeung "Moowe" Yip, whose signature Widowmaker has been hamstrung by the recent shield-heavy meta, and support Kin-Long "ManGoJai" Wong, a veteran mentor to the younger players.
Kwok understands that playing at BlizzCon in this political atmosphere will bring its own set of challenges, but the opportunity to showcase his players on the big stage and reward their commitment was reason enough to persevere. Moowe and ManGoJai will get scouted by Overwatch League teams based on their work in Contenders, but for under-the-radar players like off-tank Chun-yu "Step" Lo, BlizzCon offers unparalleled access to networking and resources to advance his career.
"Step is buried inside the sea of open division players," Kwok said, "I hope he will find a Contenders team because of World Cup exposure. I do believe there's still many more stars. I hope everyone just gets the Contenders team, just starts their career so I can worry less about funding next year."
Team Hong Kong will get their chance to shine in the World Cup spotlight, but Bogur -- and dozens of other talented players like him across the world -- won't be there. And in a competitive Overwatch ecosystem where spots on OWL rosters are limited, losing out on even one opportunity can reverberate through a player's future. Chinese main tank Xu "Guxue" Qiulin's career took off after his performance at BlizzCon last year.
But it's not just the scouting and connections Bogur will miss by staying in Varna. He'll miss his friends.
"I've never met any of my [Revival] teammates, NA scrim partners," Bogur said. "I've only ever met one person from Team Bulgaria, once. I haven't really met these people, I just talk to them. ... It was really important to me to meet them, shake their hands, hug them, you know, all these cool things people do. It's fun and way more entertaining and friendly to actually see the person in front of you instead of talking through a screen."
As the director of operations for Bogur's Revival and lead designer of Team Hong Kong's fast-selling alternate jersey, Richard Ng has seen up close the challenges of international Overwatch. He can appreciate the logic behind Blizzard's choice to only finance the top 10 seeds -- it secures the participation of the world's best and most popular teams -- but wonders if there isn't a better way to spread the love going forward.
"I would have done it the opposite way," Ng said. "I wouldn't have funded the top five teams at all. I would only fund the developing nations. Why fund those with the greatest means to support themselves? That's the opposite of what the spirit of education is -- you're supposed to educate those whose only barrier is that opening of the door so they can support themselves.
"Turn this into an actual World Cup, but help standardize structure and support, funding and infrastructure formula for the developing nations. Otherwise, they'll never get there."
Part of what Ng means by education is the standardization of a sponsor package national committees can use to potentially ease funding woes. Many countries share Bulgaria's misunderstanding of what esports are, and what they could be, leading to the lack of sponsorship interest that kept Team Bulgaria at home.
"It's cliché to say this, but it's a teachable moment," Ng said.
In a statement sent to ESPN, an Overwatch World Cup spokesperson from Blizzard wrote that the decision to shift to an open invitational format this year was done so more countries could compete. "Having all Overwatch World Cup events at BlizzCon also makes it easier for more star players from the Overwatch League to participate," the statement continued. "We expect significantly more countries to take part in the Overwatch World Cup program in 2019 vs. 2018, which we're really happy about. We look forward to working with countries and committees to further improve the format for the next Overwatch World Cup event."
Blizzard's interest in gathering feedback for next year is promising, but for Bogur, his BlizzCon 2019 dreams are already fading into the rearview mirror. Bogur admits that Team Bulgaria didn't pursue a crowdfunding option, but doesn't know if it would have changed things considering his country's attitude towards esports. These days, he has a Twitch stream to grow, skills to sharpen and a new version of Overwatch to absorb. All that, and Bogur is studying for a degree in cybersecurity at the Varna Naval Academy.
This weekend, Bogur will watch the World Cup on Twitch, as always, hoping for a final that isn't a rehash of the San Francisco Shock's victory in the Season 2 grand final in Philadelphia. Truth be told, the Overwatch League champions have a significant presence on both South Korea and the United States' rosters.
"I don't want to see these players again," Bogur said. "It's going to be like I'm watching Overwatch League, and I don't want to watch Overwatch League again. I want to see something new."