Esports is a brutal world: there's a lot of gamers and not a lot of positions. But what happens when you have to compete for one of those positions while playing at 200ms at best? That's the unfortunate reality for Australia's Overwatch World Cup members, who have been trialling under some truly crappy circumstances.
Here's how it works. Each of the Overwatch League teams have scouts, who will watch streams, various tournaments and whatever else is available to assess upcoming talent. When they identify a player that's worthy, they reach out and ask them to trial.
Those trials are conducted online. That makes a ton of sense: Overwatch teams aren't cash cows, and it'd be extremely cost prohibitive to fly players in from potentially half a world away for a few practice games. So to further streamline the process, teams will line up a bunch of trials all at once. It could be as few as a handful, or more than 20 players at a time.
But despite the fact that Australians are playing at such a severe disadvantage - a factor wildly misunderstood in America, where many gamers insist that playing on a higher ping is actually a benefit - Andrew "rqt" Haws says that coaches often fail to factor that into the trials, which can end up costing Australians a potential contract.
"For Americans [high ping] is a foreign concept, and that includes the coaches," Haws said. "They can know about [Australian ping], but I don't think they really factor it in when a decision is finally made. Because I guarantee you, the way [Ashley 'Trill' Powell] performs, in scrims and tournaments, I don't know a reason why - he wouldn't be the best main tank - but he's mid level at least for Overwatch League. So the fact that he can even get a Contenders role ... it has to be his ping."
As perhaps the standout player for the Australians, both in the group stages at Thailand and Australia's 0-3 loss against South Korea, Powell is held up as a prime example. Despite having access to fibre to the curb, Powell's home town of Broome is about as inconvenient as humanly possible. He gets 90ms to Australian servers, although his location is beneficial when the Aussies practice Korean and Chinese teams (due to his proximity to the undersea international cable, which routes Australian traffic to Singapore and the rest of the world).
When trialling for Overwatch teams in America, that ping is often around 230ms. For a tank that often has to make split-second decisions - like how long you can remain in a fight as Winston, for instance - that often spells death. And on the days where the international routing cable gets a boat anchor dropped on it - which Haws and Powell says happens more than you'd think - that ping goes beyond 300ms.
Haws noted that he and Scott "custa" Kennedy, the only member of the Australian team on an Overwatch League roster, tried to offer Powell accommodation (in either Sydney or the United States) for his most recent round of trials.
Trials are largely last minute affairs though: Powell would find out roughly three days in advance ahead of a trial, which isn't enough time to organise accommodation or flights, and so he was stuck playing on conditions most would consider flat-out unplayable. And to the Australians' credit, they didn't want to make too much of a fuss to avoid souring their reputation.
"I'll just let [the team or coach] know once generally, unless it changes - I've had games I've had 230ms, and then the next game on the same server I'll be on 280ms, so it randomly changes. Sometimes coaches ask me as well what my ping will be, what it is during the match. But I don't really like to complain about it; it's bad, like an attitude thing," Powell said.
"They're going to remember you as the person who complains all the time, right, 'This guy just joined and started complaining the whole time.' It's not what you want to do, you just want to make the best of it."
In the post-match press conference after their loss to South Korea, Kennedy's biggest advice to the team was simply to get out of the country. The barriers to joining a team based on your performance from Australia were too great, and Powell noted that many scouts simply wouldn't watch the Australian Overwatch Contenders games for future talent. A few members of the team noted that it would be nice if Blizzard organised more opportunities for those feeder teams to get together during the year, as that would attract more scouts and thereby give players from more isolated regions a better chance.
Ultimately, however, the decisions rest in the hands of the teams. They're the ones making huge investments to have an Overwatch League spot in the first place, and their priorities take precedence over smaller regions that aren't represented in the league, not matter how much that scene wishes otherwise.
"It's not a fixable problem in the grand scheme of things; it's just location and Australia is really far away," Haws said. "Over time, we're going to get better as a region, especially if we do get access to new resources like the broadcasting stuff, but I think right now Australian players are going to improve, but it's an opportunity for a team to look at a region that most other people aren't looking at."
The author travelled to Blizzcon as a guest of Blizzard.