Returning from their run at the 2019 Overwatch World Cup, AVRL sits down with team New Zealand’s Equinox, Signed, and Noxious to talk about their journey through BlizzCon.
Barely a fortnight ago, team New Zealand shipped out on a Tuesday evening under a cool spring breeze, heading to the biggest event that many in the team had ever been to. With a calm temperament, the players and staff boarded for a destination that had culminated the hopes and dreams of all those who had come before it.
August 2017. Team New Zealand lands in LAX to represent the nation for the preliminary of the biggest international event of the year. That event was none other than the Santa Monica Group Stage of the 2017 Overwatch World Cup, an event that precedes the existence of both the Overwatch League and Overwatch Contenders.
Back during a time when Dale “Signed” Tang joined team New Zealand as an up-and-coming hotshot rising through the amateur scene. Well before becoming the back-to-back Contenders champion and establishing himself on the most successful Australasian Overwatch team of 2019 that we know him for today.
“New Zealand is at a different level compared to 2017,” Signed mentioned, looking back as the only returning member of the original team that set foot in Santa Monica. A team that unceremoniously finished last place in their group among powerhouse teams such as the USA and Taiwan (comprised of the championship winning Flash Wolves roster), taking only a single map from Brazil to end New Zealand’s run at a score of 1-11.
General manager Cameron “Equinox” Dul said that “expectations were not high at all” for the New Zealanders based on past performances.
“People were definitely underestimating team NZ but for good reasons. Mainly for how we performed at SEA Invitational and also where NZ placed in 2017.”
That invitational was New Zealand’s first international exhibition of the year where they fell 0-3 to eventual finalists Japan in the opening quarterfinal of the tournament. “We started scrimming the week before the SEA invitational,” head coach Matthew “Noxious” Sawyer said in regards to officially kicking off their training and preparation process for the World Cup. “The biggest challenges were adapting to the meta and finding teams willing to scrim us.”
Anyone local to the region is no stranger to the plethora of timezone and latency hurdles teams are required to navigate through in order to find effective practice. But despite having to work through difficulties, the team was optimistic about their chances. Going into this year’s World Cup, New Zealand remained among several other teams that despite having participated in previous years, were yet to claim their first international victory. It was abundantly clear from the start of the campaign that this team had plans to change that.
In terms of setting goals for the event, coach Noxious had admirably stated that they were aiming to achieve top two in their group. An aspiration shared by the team in particular as the official bracket was drawn for the preliminary stage. That knockout bracket in question, released the day before the opening World Cup match was to be played, detailed the exact premise of the opening stage of the event.
Twenty eight teams would be split across five single elimination knockout groups. From the preliminaries only one team from each group would progress to the Top 10, joining the likes of prequalified teams such as South Korea and the United States for the next stage. In order to get there, New Zealand would have to battle through Austria, Australia, Denmark and Taiwan (Chinese Taipei), all of whom were drawn into group A.
“As the team rapidly developed and as brackets were being released, I quickly gained more confidence and knew the team could perform well,” Equinox stated alongside a confident Signed who revealed that “when we saw the bracket we knew we could beat Austria and Australia,” a claim that would be tested within 12 hours of the team’s official bracket announcement as New Zealand would face Austria at the top of the morning in one of the opening matches of the 2019 Overwatch World Cup.
At 9:00 am local time the next day, New Zealand took their gloves off for their first official World Cup match in two years – and it was short.
Suffice to say New Zealand were living up to their expectations insofar as breaking the losing streak of the past. In comparison to his last run with the 2017 team, Signed voiced that “we practiced more, we had a better understanding of how to get better due to the resources we have now compared to before. People wanted to get better and tried harder.” This first taste of victory would result in Austria’s prompt elimination from the World Cup and set the stage for the fated trans-Tasman showdown.
“Signed/Colourhex is an amazing DPS line, Jungle has great experience, August was great at adapting to flex support, and everyone was willing to grind and support our least experienced players in Joker and Plihs.”Noxious
With only an additional “A” and “L” separating the two teams, Australia had been a very well known quantity within World Cup history compared to Austria. They were one of ten teams directly invited with financial support to participate based on international results from past performances. Those results included four total appearances across all four years the World Cup had taken place, two podium finishes at group stages leading to two qualifications to the main BlizzCon playoff stage, falling short only at the quarterfinals. Needless to say Australia was a strong favourite not only in this matchup, but in the group itself.
Team New Zealand knew this was likely going to be the stumbling point for their 2019 run. Both teams were very familiar with the other sharing a joint Contenders region in their home setting. Outside of the World Cup, Noxious is the coach of the historic Sydney Drop Bears who’ve held three consecutive Contenders titles across 2018. On the opposite side was coach Sam “Face” Merewether as Noxious’ predecessor from the same Sydney Drop Bears that claimed two of those titles.
Alongside Face stood two-time team Australia head coach and Boston Uprising’s assistant coach Jordan “Gunba” Graham with Australia’s general manager Andrew “RQT” Haws — head coach of ORDER; Signed’s Contenders Australia team with teammate Max “Unter” Unterwurzacher, also on team Australia. For these two close-knit teams, both knew the end result would mean the elimination of the other from the tournament, heralding this match as the final resting ground for their 2019 campaign.
New Zealand fell short. By a sliver of a margin and the difference of one map, team Australia had secured themselves a rematch with their 2018 groupmates Denmark to decide who would progress to the next stage. “It was unfortunate to meet up with Australia as they were one of our natural scrim partners due to time zones and ping, but we were confident going in,” said Noxious. “Both Australia and team NZ had very clutch moments against each other, we hadn’t lost Eichenwalde to team Australia in recent scrims before.”
That second map of the series taking place on Eichenwalde would end up defining the match, allowing Australia to equalise an early lead held by New Zealand after map one. Easily the closest affair of the series, New Zealand was one fight away from a 2-0 match point position against the group favourites before Australia’s Jason “ieatuup” Ho tipped the scales irreversibly with an unnoticed Reaper dismantling the Kiwi’s final defence. The impact of which would be felt later on in the series as New Zealand claimed Paris as the fourth map in what could have been an overall 3-1 victory had they also confirmed Eichenwalde earlier.
“We kept a good mentality through losing Eichenwalde and crumbling on Junkertown to bring everything back on Paris to tie up the series. We fell short in adaptability on Junkertown and Oasis and that was our downfall in the end.”Noxious
“It was unfortunate that we made more mistakes than them on the day, and there were very crucial ones that led to us losing maps that we shouldn’t have lost,” said Signed in hindsight. General manager Equinox echoed similar sentiments saying “this match was winnable.”
“The team was disappointed for not winning as it came down to minor mistakes. Being Australia, there was a lot riding on that match and it would’ve been amazing if we won.”
Australia would go on to suffer a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Denmark, who themselves had narrowly missed the playoffs in 2018 after an upsetting loss to Sweden on the last day of the Bangkok group stage. From that context, both Australia and New Zealand could take solace in knowing that another darkhorse team who had fallen short of playoffs for two years running would go on to have one of the most successful World Cup runs in recent history as an underdog country.
The 2019 World Cup would end as a watershed moment in international Overwatch history. South Korea would be toppled for the first time in four years. Team USA would finally become World Cup champions. A small country would relish the small victories as even New Zealand’s little slice of history would make their bittersweet ending taste that much better.