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Enter the Dragons

enter the dragons 816x598 - Enter the Dragons

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Reporting
Bjorn Biel Beltran

Video
Nina M. Diaz
Paolo L. Lopez

Illustration
Fortunato V. Dañas

Editor
Sam L. Marcelo

Meet the part-time professional esports team competing in The Nationals.

Only one of them plays full-time. In fact, two of their players are still in school. Yet despite the circumstances, the Sterling Global Dragons (SG Dragons) professional esports team for Mobile Legends: Bang Bang made it big in the second season of the game’s official Philippine professional league this January.

From placing eighth prior to the finals of the second season of the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang Professional League (MPL) Philippines, the team came from behind to secure the first runner-up spot against big-name rivals like Execration, Aether Main, and  ArkAngel.

They might not have taken home the trophy — and the $25,000 cash prize — but it sparked enough to whet their appetites for the next tourney. Particularly, the Mobile Legends segment of The Nationals later in the year, the country’s first franchise-based electronic sports league, in which SG Dragons will be competing as PLDT-Smart Omega.

The win also gave them the hope that, despite their unusual situation, they have yet to unlock the full potential of their players.

“Out of the teams that competed at the finals of MPL Season 2, we were the only ones who play part-time,” Jules Carmann Marcelo, who plays as “Dragons Lex,” said in the vernacular in an interview. “Of course, that came with advantages and disadvantages.”

“The disadvantage was the other teams can practice all day, when we cannot. The advantage, however, is whenever we practice we have the eagerness to play. When you play full time, you tend to take time for granted. There’s this attitude that comes with playing full-time that might make you mismanage your time.”

He pointed out that full-timers are more likely to be “tilted,” the gaming or gambling term for an unbalanced state of mind usually caused by a big loss. As in games like poker, tilted players play below their usual ability, making riskier and more aggressive decisions in an effort to quickly recover their losses.

“For us, our advantage is whenever we do get to practice, we take that practice seriously because we’re all eager to play,” he said.

Differing backgrounds, same goal

Quality matters over quantity, especially if the team only really gets to practice for two to three hours a day, when its members have come home from school, or have otherwise finished with their daily responsibilities. Mr. Marcelo, for one, is a director at the U.S.-based multi-level marketing company USANA Health Sciences, which has allowed him to be financially secure while giving him the time and freedom he needs to practice.

At 33, he is the eldest professional esports player in the Philippines, if not the world. Mr. Marcelo proves to be an exception in an industry where discrimination based on age is a major issue.

Rather than proving a hindrance to him, however, his age provides him with the maturity and stability that put him above many of his peers. He even admits that, if he were a few years younger, he probably would not have decided to go pro.

“I’m very lucky that although I’m 33 years old, the timing was just right for me to be here. If it wasn’t, if for example competitive Mobile Legends took off before I was stable, most likely I’d choose my responsibilities over the game,” he said in Filipino.

“It just so happens that the timing worked out, and I have my responsibilities settled. I can pursue my dreams now.”

In contrast, Karl Gabriel Nepomuceno, who plays for the team as “Dragons Karl,” and who at 14 years old is the youngest pro player in the country, is still figuring things out. Still finishing up middle school, he is juggling the day-to-day pressures of schoolwork as an honor student with the rigors of competitive gaming. Of the skills in his disposal, time management, he said, is the most essential.

“When I get home from school, I make sure to do my schoolwork first because I’m an honor student. I do that first and afterward I can play any time,” he said in Filipino.

Mr. Nepomuceno is hoping his time management skills can get him through college, because despite all the successes they have achieved, and the ways they have yet to go, he still dreams of finishing his education.

“If they want me to go full-time, homeschooling is an option. But if it were up to me, I don’t want to stop school. I want to do both,” he said.

Given his young age, his parents disapproved of his gaming at first, going as far as to turn off their internet to make sure he got enough sleep. Only when he started competing– and winning– at tournaments did he convince them to his side.

Likewise, for Steven Dale P. Vitug, 22, playing as “Dragons Dale,” it was a challenge to get support from his loved ones when he was starting out.

As a relatively new industry, professional gaming has yet to overcome conventional barriers regarding public acceptance. Many still view video games as a childish hobby, a far cry from the esteem generally given to professional athletes.

Growing up, Mr. Vitug had to contend with the criticisms of his parents and relatives about his gaming habits, telling him to give it up, that he won’t get anywhere just playing games. When he eventually had his own family, he realized he had to take their advice.

“I had no choice then. I needed to abandon my love of games,” he said in Filipino.

“When you have a family, you can’t do what you did as a teenager, going to computer shops all the time. What if you need to wash bottles, feed the baby? You can’t do that anymore. You’re not a teenager anymore. You have responsibilities.”

Mr. Vitug was working as a clerk at a convenience store when he got introduced to Mobile Legends, which then served as a fun pastime during work breaks and before bed. He got good at it, and when the opportunity came for him to play competitively, he found that he was at a crossroads.

“Because of my responsibilities to my family, I couldn’t just leave them to play full-time. It got to a point when I was questioning whether I can feed my family from esports.”

“I asked my partner to be patient, to give me one last chance. If it didn’t click, then I would quit trying to become a pro player. I’ll stop,” he said.

Inasmuch as Mobile Legends caused friction between their relationship, the game also sparked life into another.

Earvin John Esperanza, 23, who plays as “Dragons Boo,” never planned to enter the competitive gaming scene as a career. Like his teammate, Mr. Esperanza only found out about the game through a colleague, and it started out as a pleasant enough hobby that reminded him of his teenage years playing Defense of the Ancients, or Dota.

But becoming skilled enough at Mobile Legends allowed Mr. Esperanza to rub shoulders with some of the country’s best players, and the small connections he made playing the game changed his life far more than he expected.

“At first, I really didn’t take it seriously. It was just a game,” he said in Filipino.

“But it was through the game that I met the love of my life.”

Although Mr. Esperanza could not pursue professional gaming full-time due to health issues, finding a kindred soul lit a fire in him that served as his inspiration to take the career more seriously.

“I told myself I wanted to make her proud of me because we’re both gamers. It’s a joy to have someone who supports me,” he said. He added that once he gets well enough, it’s full throttle from there. “It’ll be hard, but I can manage.”

For the love of the game

As the team captain, 18-year-old Rico Jatico Esto, who plays as “Dragons Levi,” is the one who bears the responsibility of making this team of part-time professional gamers work. But there is, perhaps, no one better qualified. Though still a senior high-school student himself, Mr. Esto has been following competitive video games for years, since esports celebrities like Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok began making their names in games like League of Legends.

As League of Legendsnwas one of — if not the most — popular game at the time, with around 67 million active monthly players at its peak, Mr. Esto found it difficult to compete at a high level on his own.

“I thought at the time that maybe the game just wasn’t for me, because it really was hard to find good teammates. I was always on solo queue,” he said in Filipino.

When he saw his sister’s boyfriend, who was also an esports player, playing Mobile Legends, he found that the it ticked all the boxes that he was looking for in a game to replace his obsession with League. With it being a mobile game, it was also much easier to find like-minded people to team up with.

SG Dragons as a team started out this way, with small, local tournaments being their first foray into the competitive scene. Though their journey has not gone without its trials, the fact that the team has managed to come so far in only a matter of months speaks to the passion and dedication the players have for gaming.

“Sometimes I wondered if what this was the right thing to do. But I realized that this really was my passion. Ever since I was a kid, I dreamed of making it as a pro player. So even if it’s hard, even if I don’t get to have the time to do other things like going out with friends, I’ll keep doing it,” Mr. Esto said.

“My idols from League of Legends, this is what they had felt when they were on the stage. I’m feeling what they were feeling when they compete with other teams with people watching. I know now how amazing it is to feel the support of so many people.”

After he graduates, he plans on focusing his attention on esports full-time. His team will be right there with him. Bonded through a shared love of gaming, the players of SG Dragons are looking ahead, aiming to go higher than any Filipino sports team has gone before. Their first goal: to become back to back to back national champions, and work upwards from there.

“As long as we’re enjoying what we play, we’ll continue playing,” Mr. Esto said.

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