It was obvious from the outset of the Overwatch World Cup Los Angeles Group Stage that for the countries who were not the USA and Canada, it was going to be a rough time. It’s hard to imagine, say, being a young Austrian and flying to a country you’ve only seen in movies to play your favorite game against people you’ve only seen on stream, in an arena that seems as unreal to you as the Los Angeles portrayed on TV. But that was a position many of the players found themselves in.

“When it was announced that we would be playing in Los Angeles, I was super hype, because I was like, ‘This is the stage where the big guys play,’” Austria DPS Raphael “Stvn” Baier said after his country’s final match of the weekend. “So, we went here, and from the first day, the whole world felt completely surreal. LA compared to Austria is completely different. We come to the studio, and everything is like a dream world.”

Usman “Track” Mohammad from Team Norway agreed. “This was my first LAN, so for me it was a brand-new experience,” he said, “First time being onstage, meeting all these people that you’re looking up to, you know? You watch Overwatch League and you see these guys just popping off and you’re like, ‘I want to be like that guy.’ Now you’re sitting just five meters away from them and playing against them.”

“All these [Overwatch League] players, you see them streaming, and then you see them casually walking around,” added Sandro “Shinoda” Zahner from Switzerland. “All the casters too. [In Switzerland], there’s so much distance between us and [them]. Now we’re here, we’re doing it.”

The teams that finished below the USA and Canada all set their own goals for this event, and each of them either met or exceeded them—everything from not going 0-20 in map score (Switzerland) to definitively finishing in third place (Brazil). This Group Stage was not just about getting to BlizzCon. It was about being the best representative team each roster could possibly be.

“I think for a small country like Austria, it’s a really good opportunity to show our talent,” Austrian coach Paul “ub3rb1ng0” Pachner said. “I think they really did that. I think we have the youngest player here, and he was one of our best.” He put his arm around the young support in question, Oliver “Eclipse” Nguyen. “We are really proud of him, and I am really proud of our team.”

“We said we wanted to take third place, and we knew the game against Norway [on Friday] was the most important one, so we are happy we were able to beat them,” said DPS Felipe “liko” Lebrao from Brazil. “They have a lot of Contenders NA and Contenders EU players—we wanted to show that our scene is just as good as theirs.”

In fact, Brazil’s performance in this Group Stage served as an inspiration to the nations who feel they still have some growing to do. “Brazil is in a region that is [isolated], but they still showed up here and took a map off USA,” said Team Norway coach Mikael “mkL” Skjønhaug. “They proved that if you just work hard, work as a team, you can make it no matter where you live, no matter what happens.”

“Keep playing,” was the advice from Team Brazil’s Eduardo “dudu” Macedo. “Last year we had two tournaments… but we didn’t stop playing because of that. We kept scrimming. Not just South American teams, we played with 180 ping almost all year playing NA teams.”

Dudu said that the addition of Contenders South America to their region really helped to solidify the scene in their country, but now that they’ve evolved with two World Cup appearances, they are aiming higher for 2019. “We have a lot of attention on us. People are saying, ‘Oh, maybe these players can go into the Overwatch League, maybe they can play in Academy teams or go to different regions.’ So, I would say we are trying to aim a little higher now.”

Even for the less-renowned countries at the tournament, the fire has been lit, and they will carry this experience with them forever. “The whole experiences pushes all the players,” said Austrian flex tank Patrick “Sensotix” Thonhauser. “I think all of us played better than we play at home. Thank you so much for all the support, for all the cheering.”

As they waited on the hotel shuttle after the final day, Team Austria spoke in rapid German, rifling through goodies they had purchased at the Blizzard Arena merchandise store. “Hello, I’m Jeff from the Overwatch Team!” one player said in English, and everyone laughed. As Team Brazil boarded the bus, the Austrians greeted them, one hollering “Alemao! Alemao!” while gesturing for him to sit.

I suppose sometimes it really is about the friends you make along the way.

The Overwatch World Cup resumes on Friday, September 13, as the venue shifts to Bangkok, Thailand. Check out our complete stage preview for schedules, rosters, livestreaming locations, and more.