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HeroesHearth, Team Dignitas take separate paths at Western Clash

Members of the Team Dignitas Heroes of the Storm team prepare for the Heroes of the Storm Global Championship Western Clash during an Aug. 7 boot camp session at the Esports Arena in Santa Ana, California. Miles Yim for ESPN

HEROESHEARTH ESPORTS FLEX Stafford "McIntyre" McIntyre points to his monitor during a postgame replay, gesturing toward the enemy Garrosh. On this Monday, four days before the Friday start of the Heroes of the Storm Global Championship Western Clash at Blizzard Arena, the team is sharpening its tools and scoping out mistakes -- and McIntyre thinks he has found one.

"I think we can kill him here."

The rest of HeroesHearth gathers around McIntyre's console, breaking down the sequence of events that tanked their most recent scrimmage. The No. 1 seed out of North America has high expectations going into the tournament, but the results Monday didn't match that hype. Early in the evening at its base camp at an industrial park in Huntington Beach, California, HeroesHearth hopes to figure out why.

Talk of a missed takedown fades into analysis of a particular Abathur clone, and whether it generated enough value to justify the play. The answer, after some reflection, is no.

The best four Heroes of the Storm teams from Europe and North America had come to the Los Angeles area for bragging rights, a $100,000 prize and an extra spot for their region at November's World Championships. HeroesHearth, best hope for North America, earned a top seed by finishing the first half of Phase No. 2 a perfect 7-0, dropping only three maps in 24 tries.

But playing against the European squads brings a different dynamic to this week.

"I think we played it wrong here, as a team," McIntyre says as he considers the Abathur. A few heads nod in agreement. Coach Rori "CauthonLuck" Bryant-Raible consults his notes, shifting the critique to their play around the "monkeys" of Infernal Shrines-team slang referring to the Guardians that spawn around the battleground's eponymous shrines. And the breakdown goes on.

This tournament has different stakes for HeroesHearth for a number of reasons. The experience at Blizzard Arena, the ability to compete for an extra world championship slot and just being able to say the team is the Western champion all come into play.

"I've been on teams that have been successful, but I've never, never had the chance to play in front of a North American crowd," McIntyre says. "It's been a dream of mine to have the crowd behind me. When I make a cool play, I'll know I've made a cool play, whereas at other tournaments -- say, Sweden -- I make a bad play, and everyone cheers."

Despite the opportunity, the team seems a bit quiet. Close to the vest. With a few days until competition begins, the squad's playbook is all but set, but tension and uncertainty remain for the hometown heroes.

This isn't HeroesHearth's first international LAN. The team qualified for both the Phase No. 1 of the Western Clash in Katowice, Poland, and the aforementioned Mid-Season Brawl in Sweden. The North Americans finished outside the top four in both tournaments, but now, as their region's flagship team, expectations are raised.

"It's the first tournament where we know we're a strong team at this point and we can do well," assassin Khalif "Khroen" Hashim says. "So there's a little more pressure on being able to play to our potential. We're the No. 1 seed in North America. There's a lot of people looking at us to see what we can do."

To achieve domestic success in the HGC Pro League is one thing, the players say; to succeed on an international level is quite another. In league play, virtually every team has their players and coaches scattered across the region, each dealing with their own latency that sometimes crosses triple digits (the exception being South Korea, which plays offline at all times). At the international events, though, players are all physically present and enjoy zero latency at these events, a stark contrast to the online format of the regular season.

That makes this boot camp special, too. During Pro League play, the team is stretched to the edges of the continental United States. HeroesHearth carry Taylor "Arthelon" Ederlives in Bremerton, Washington, a small town two hours west of Seattle. CauthonLuck is also Seattle-adjacent. Khroen grew up in Boston and after graduating from Assumption College now lives in the nearby suburb of Tewksbury. Chase "BBJ" Dixon is based in Chicago; Tank Chris "ishb00" Martin and McIntyre live in Atlanta.

With thousands of miles usually between them, small moments of routine team bonding -- visiting the beach together, for instance -- become part of the boot camping experience.

Scrims are finished for the day, as are the corresponding review sessions. A few Red Bulls are pulled from a nearby refrigerator. A table topped with Pringles and snack bars lingers enticingly between two comfortable tan couches.

Before McIntyre boots up his own stream, he takes a look at the competition for the week. North America's No. 1 team is eyeing a staple in the Heroes of the Storm community and Europe's No. 1 squad.

"Dignitas," he says. "They just have such a history in Heroes being a dominant force, a top team in the world."

JONATHAN "WUBBY" GUNNARSSON doesn't know what day it is. And no, he's not exaggerating.

"We just work every day," the Dignitas offlaner says. "There's no, 'Oh, I'm waiting for Friday,' none of that. I don't know when the school holidays are. When you don't have any of that for two or three years, you start losing it. ... Every day feels like a Friday, a Saturday."

To answer the question: It's Tuesday afternoon in Santa Ana, California, and Team Dignitas has already been boot camping for a couple days. The top seed from Europe has chosen the Esports Arena to be its practice hub. The complex is situated on a quiet Fifth Street corner between the red brick of historic Calle Cuatro and a large art deco Church of Scientology.

Team Dignitas occupies one of Esports Arena's private upstairs areas, a connected system of three rooms that includes a modest kitchen, dark brown couches, office cubicles made of molded wood, lines of gaming-ready computers and a corgi named Dave who sleeps near the front door. The team spends most of its time at a set of five computers that line the wall of a windowless inner room. Today, Dignitas is scrimming against the North American teams and the only other European to make the early boot camp commitment, Team Liquid.

"It's been a good opportunity to get a taste of how the tournament is going to be and get a feel for the other team's methods," Dignitas flex Joshua "Snitch" Bennett says. "It's been nice to adjust to the jet lag as well. Obviously that was a big concern for our team coming to North America. If we were to arrive today, like some of the other teams are, they're going to struggle with jet lag when the tournament's progressing."

Like HeroesHearth, the members of Team Dignitas are not physically together when they compete in the HGC Europe Pro League. While the Americans are separated by states, in Europe, the teams span international borders. Snitch is English and lives in Bexhill-on-Sea, a quaint East Sussex beach town on the southeast coast of England. He'll soon be moving to Cologne, Germany, to live with his girlfriend and finally join his teammates.

Tank Jerome "JayPL" Trinh has never moved outside his beloved France; he lives in Lille, where he went to university. Wubby and carry Vilhelm "POILK" Flennmark are both Swedes and remain in their home country, with Wubby in the port town of Gothenburg and POILK in Lund. Danish support Kenn Ă˜ster "Zaelia" Rasmussen lives in Aarhus, Dennmark, which is only a six-hour trip from Gothenburg by car and ferry.

The distance between the players causes few problems and hasn't impacted their torrid run of results (though there was a scare involving Wubby's house and lightning storm not too long ago). Dignitas is 20-1 domestically this year and won the last Western Clash in Katowice. The team even went toe-to-toe with powerhourse programs in South Korea and was runner-up to Gen.G at the Mid-Season Brawl two months ago.

"Going into last Western Clash, we didn't feel like we had to win it and anything else would feel like a loss," Wubby says. "Maybe top four, top two. We were a new team, you know? But I think this time, when we've been dominant for a year, and our rival team, Fnatic, is not at this tournament, I think anything other than first place would be a disappointment."

Watching Team Dignitas scrim is like observing a man with 10 arms play a MOBA. The teammates are completely in sync with each other, needing minimal communication to convey macro ideas or select team fight targets.

JayPL is the most talkative and speaks in spurts, urgently but briefly, in his French-accented English.

"Can we take this?"

"Look at Garrosh!"

"I'm going, I'm going."

"Oof, I'm giga-dead."

The rest of the players will clarify their positioning, with Wubby and Snitch adding a bit of color when needed. Trade calculus is made near-instantaneously, and the players are completely unflappable. Win or lose a fight, misplay or outplay, their dialogue never rises above a calm monotone.

Sometimes, the staccato squeaking of the room's ventilation system is louder than the team.

This cohesion -- what Heroes of the Storm caster Albert "Halorin" Haley III labels the Team Dignitas "hive mind" -- has helped the squad reach a level of play few other teams in the world can match.

"I feel like [Team Dignitas] spends a lot of time talking about the game, thinking about the game as a team," Halorin says. "They talk about different scenarios, when we go in for this teamfight, go for this draft. They always seem to have an answer at the very least in the draft, and certainly in the game."

Veteran Heroes of the Storm caster and host Jaycie "Gillyweed" Gluck remembers a conversation she had with Team Freedom flex Vincent "Lutano" Alonso. Freedom had just lost a close scrim to Dignitas, yet it was Dignitas who went immediately into replays, trying to discern what went wrong.

"They have a desire to be the very top, and have not yet won a fully international tournament," Gillyweed says. "They've gotten close so many times, and I think that hunger keeps them in top form until they can get that win."

That's especially true for JayPL. At 26, he has been playing Heroes of the Storm professionally almost since launch and has been with Team Dignitas and Snitch for nearly three years. Together they've won tournaments with ESL, DreamHack, Western Clash and a bevy of domestic hardware, but never the brass ring. Never a world championship at BlizzCon.

"It's the motivation of being the best, being among the best," JayPL says. "I cannot imagine the feeling of lifting the trophy of a world championship. It has to be insane. There's nothing above that, there's literally nothing. I really want to make it happen before I leave Heroes of the Storm."

The team spared some time for bonding, too, in the midst of boot camp. The roster shared Korean barbecue dinners in Koreatown and a quiet double-feature of The Princess Bride and Bridget Jones's Diary in POILK and Snitch's hotel room -- Snitch made the movie choices, if you were wondering.

But most of the days are filled with scrims. Soon, schedules will be filled with time blocks for all the tournament participants to prepare. But for all that practice, there's no preparing for the specific pressures of an on-stage environment, especially for relatively new teams with the weight of a region on their back.

Just as HeroesHearth spoke to the power of Dignitas a day ago, Dignitas players noted the North American No. 1 as a tough opponent.

"I think HeroesHearth are our main opposition from NA," Snitch says. "The other teams we've been doing pretty well against, they're not anywhere near as strong as HeroesHearth are."

ALL THE PREPARATION leads to a weekend with very different results for both teams.

While Team Dignitas coasts to the grand finals, HeroesHearth suffers a massive setback just as Day 1 reaches its midpoint. What was supposed to be a simple start to the Western Clash turns complex, then nightmarish as the fourth seed out of Europe, Leftovers, rides an incredibly aggressive draft straight through HeroesHearth 2-0.

HeroesHearth couldn't execute on its macro-oriented drafts in the face of Leftover's unbridled 5-on-5 teamfighting. Backstage, the team discusss what needs to change in order to stave off a humiliating opening-day elimination at the hands of Team Liquid, Europe's second seed.

"I think we just realized we needed to show up and play," Arthelon says. "Not let nerves affect us, just get in there, play what we're comfortable with, and most of all have fun, because that's when we play the best."

HeroesHearth roars back to life against Liquid on Volskaya Foundry, erasing an early deficit with a massive Mech push that eventually secures the win. The North Americans close out the series one battleground later and eliminate their opponent on Towers of Doom with its own core nearly destroyed.

"It's funny: When you're onstage with those headsets, you hear it, but you don't hear it," McIntyre says. "When we came off the stage after beating Liquid and we shook their hands, the crowd was cheering, and I remember I threw my hands up and everyone got a little bit louder. That, to me, was a very nice moment to feel that this hard work pays off."

But another European team stands in the way on Day 2.

Method, the No. 3 seed out of that region, comes into its match with HeroesHearth after nearly taking a game off Team Dignitas in a base race. The loss pushes Method into the losers bracket but also shows the team's potential -- potential that's unlocked in the team's matchup against HeroesHearth.

That "monkey" control that HeroesHearth coach CauthonLuck pointed out during scrims Monday hurt HeroesHearth. In Game 3, HeroesHearth can't close out with an Abathur draft on Dragon Shire.

The thunder sticks clap and the cheers crescendo, but the North Americans can't take advantage of the crowd support.

"In retrospect, I think that approaching the tournament with expectations did fuel us to want to have that drive to improve, but also had a little bit of a lingering weight on us," Khroen says. "We didn't quite play up to those expectations. When we get back home and discuss things, I do think we're all on the same page in terms of having a mentality shift in how to approach tournaments. I've noticed even in my own past that I've performed better not having expectations, and I think it's something to consider moving forward.

"The experience was amazing, just having a crowd that's backing you, it's very, very rewarding to be able to do that. It's very humbling to just have people that you know are going to support you, even in your defeats and your losses."

The crowd once goading on the North Americans turns its attention to the underdogs that hope to unseat Team Dignitas, but the team doesn't crumble under pressure. It finishes the tournament in anticlimactic fashion without dropping a game, including a 4-0 sweep of Leftovers in the finals.

Even in celebration, Dignitas remains composed. The players, sheepish grins on their faces, slowly rise from their consoles as confetti rains down. The victory was as they hoped it would be, a confident step toward achieving their ultimate goal of a world championship.

It's a big enough day, if understated, for Wubby to remember.

"Sundays are easy," he says with a smile.