ANAHEIM, California - It's safe to say the New Zealand Hearthstone Global Games team didn't come to BlizzCon for a title.
In fact, the squad didn't expect to make it to the Anaheim Convention Center at all. But the part-time players from an often-unrepresented country in esports made their way past Team USA, Taiwan and Singapore in the group stage, bounced back from the brink of elimination in the second group stage and managed to secure a semifinals spot at the HGG on Saturday.
Despite a 3-0 loss to runner-up Brazil, this weekend was a big step for a country that doesn't often make it to larger international esports events, be it in Hearthstone or other titles.
"The ride's been full of surprises because as a smaller region, we don't actually have any full-time pros on our team," New Zealand player Jack "JakAttack" Gifford said after his team's loss. "In theory, we would be not really favored to make BlizzCon, let alone make the top four. We lost quite a few series, but we never lost enough to get eliminated right up until now. We really did scrap so many fifth games, so many series going all the way, to get here. That felt really good."
JakAttack is an accountant by day, Hearthstone player by night. He competes for Breakaway Esports, a New Zealand organization, but that often amounts to at most a nearby Hearthstone Championship Tour stop here and there. Despite the limited resources, he won a big tournament in his backyard with a title at HCT Sydney in February.
His teammates, Pathra "Pathra" Cadness and Ki Yin "Mage" So, are both sponsored by the Pittsburgh Knights. Pathra is a streamer for the team, and Mage competes in Hearthstone.
At first, team chemistry was hard to come by for New Zealand. There was some "pointless squabbling," JakAttack said, as the players tried to figure out how to mesh in the HGG's team-based play structure. While normally a player is piloting his or her decks alone, HGG required teamwork, which had its positives and some drawbacks.
"Inside the game, there will be a lot of arguing, which is good in this team format," JakAttack said. "Over time, you learn to respect and trust that your teammates will make the right decision and they're not just going to make a play for the sake of it. And if they aren't sure, they will ask you."
New Zealand's growth as a unit, prep work and deck queues that created favorable matchups and a bit of luck (it's Hearthstone, after all) helped the squad make its unlikely semifinal run. And along the way, the team learned that its opponents, no matter how much better-known, were prone to mistakes on the big stage too.
Playing with nothing to lose helped New Zealand play loose and take calculated risks. It led to some mistakes but also created opportunities.
"In-game, it wasn't quite as clean as a lot of other teams," JakAttack said, "but you put these names on stage, even the bigger names, and they will make mistakes -- uncharacteristic mistakes. And those ones we didn't make as a team."
The lack of pressure to perform allowed the team to take it easy in Anaheim too. JakAttack had mixed reviews of the food -- "some of it's really good, but some of it's awful" - but enjoyed a BlizzCon experience that doesn't work out all that often for smaller countries with less investment in esports.
It's a good thing this trip was relaxing too. After a 12-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean and some puddle-jumpers to get home, JakAttack will have one day to rest. Then, it's back to work on Wednesday.
"If you're not full-time and you've got other stuff to do, then it's more like a holiday," he said of the tournament. "You compete for the fun of it."