Not your ordinary gamers: Esports stars OhMyV33nus, Iy4knu and DLAR inside the ONIC Bootcamp
Culture Spotlight

The crazy-serious life inside a Mobile Legends bootcamp, according to a team Madam

​October 24 is World Esports Day. Get to know the billion dollar industry through the eyes of a Content Strategist   
TAMMY DAVID | Oct 24 2020

At 37, I have the dream job of an 18-year-old. I am paid to obsess over video games, produce TikTok videos, and post on IG stories. During this particularly cursed year, I have spent many days in a “gaming house” producing content around young professional players. Is this a pandemic-induced fever dream? No, it’s just working in sports marketing in the year of our Lord 2020.

I work as a Senior Content Strategist for the marketing firm ​Evident​. I got into the sports marketing rabbit hole while handling a ​basketball team​ back in 2018. I followed the team around, on and off court, to strengthen their brand’s online presence and help build an engaged community online. After two seasons, I learned that basketball, despite Gen Z superstar NBA players, has an aging audience and that the sponsorship money + big prize pools + viewership + lucrative intellectual property deals are moving elsewhere—to esports.

Snapping a photo of 16-year-old prodigy Christian “IY4KNU” Manaog at the Mobile Legends Professional League Philippines Media Day in Gama studios Makati City last September 30. Photo by Tammy David

Like most of us who were brainwashed to look forward to new beginnings, I was excited for the start of 2020 when Evident officially got on board with ​ONIC PH​, a franchise team of Jakarta-based ​ONIC Esports​. ONIC PH burst onto the esports scene back in mid 2019 and has consistently been one of the top ​Mobile Legends: Bang Bang​ teams in the region. Working with ONIC PH was an answered prayer for the ambitious sports marketer in me. But at the same time it felt like a daunting and physically taxing task for an aging millennial.

One of the happiest days of my life is the Season 5 opening of MPL-PH last March 1, 2020. Sadly, this was the first and last time I covered an event with a live audience. The sports world got shutdown and the season was suspended for three weeks.

Speaking of millennials, we really need to stop calling esports “e-games”, “e-gaming” or worse, confuse it with POGO. It is electronic sports. The ​Washington Post​ defined esports or electronic sports as “​the competitive wing of multiplayer gaming”​ while the Financial Times described it as a “fast-growing subset of the media industry.” 

ONIC PH, a franchise team of Jakarta-based ONIC Esports, is one of the strongest teams in the region playing Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, mobile multiplayer online battle arena developed and published by Moonton

I can go on and on about esports and its valuation, its famous investors like David Beckham, the opportunities with Twitch, or brands like Gucci getting involved but you don’t have all day.

Going back to the start of 2020, I remember I was unusually confident since I had the support of my boss and had months to nerd out on the industry and consumer behaviour of the demographic with the shortest attention span. Growing the local community of one of the biggest brands in esports shouldn’t be that hard I thought to myself as I beat my own chest. Then the year 2020 and all its curveballs happened.

 

Step into my office

For the past five months, WFH for me has meant Work From House. That house is the ONIC PH Bootcamp, my new remote office. It’s a three storey townhouse in a private residential community where six players plus three support staff reside. Similar to the Football Academy system in Europe or Collab Houses in California, living in one place provides the team with the best environment to develop their skills. In the ONIC bootcamp, the team has comfortable living quarters, high speed internet connection (in theory) and a slice of suburbia to ponder the important things in life like winning a championship.

Nine members of ONIC PH live and train in this idyllic community in Manila since the start of the enhanced community quarantine.

There are local teams who live in cramped high rise condominiums, others live in houses outside Manila. ONIC PH moved into their boot camp on March 12, the day the sports world got shut down, and two weeks after season 5 of the Mobile Legends Professional league started. ​It was a good time to move. The boot camp would prove spacious enough for all members to dodge cabin fever in what would turn out to be months of community quarantine.

From the arena to the living room. The team has been living, training, and competing in the boot camp since March.

I was crushed when the Philippine Basketball Association was suspended for the season but lo and behold it was business as usual for esports. The team even managed to win an International Charity Tournament during the lockdown. Season 5 resumed on May 1, 2020 and instead of an arena, the team continued the season indoors while the rest of the sports world was still on pause. ONIC PH performed well and eventually took the first runner up slot and $13,000 prize money.

Because of the 8 pm curfew, I had to sleep over at the boot camp during the night of the finals. Sleeping wearing my outside clothes and a surgical mask is something I choose not to do ever again.

 

Meet the team

The current roster of ONIC PH has six players. The oldest player is our team captain at 26-years-old and the youngest player is 16. They all play full time. Some have very supportive parents. Some have graduated from school while others took a leave of absence. Some come from well to do families while others had to be premature adults when their parents started working overseas.

L-R (seated) Country Manager Rafael Sanchez, Head of Business Development Louie Cacho, and House Manager Arvin “Toriyama” Recio (Standing) Team Captain Johnmar “OhMyV33nus” Villaluna, Danerie James “Wise” Del Rosario, Christian “Iy4knu” Manaog, Peter Bryce “Basic” Lozano, Team Manager Milly Dolor, Jason Rafael “Jay” Torculas, Gerald “DLAR” Trinchera, and Coach Kyle “Ryo” Berceño

The ONIC PH management team has a country manager, head of business development, team manager, and a house manager. All of them are below 30-years-old. And then there’s me, the grumpy “SocMed manager” who they address as Madam Tammy.

 

A day in the life

A total of nine people live in the ONIC Bootcamp and always the first to wake up before noon is Toriyama, the house ambassador and energetic big brother. He is in charge of running the household. He is also a shoutcaster, or what they call a sports commentator in the esports world. In my opinion, Toriyama has the hardest job. I’d rather go to war for a year than keep a gaming house tidy and prepare meals for picky eaters everyday. But Toriyama loves being part of ONIC and even has a following online.

The team also has Milly who is the team manager and “nanay.” Milly’s job is to organize the activities of the team and deal with organizers and fellow managers. Milly is also an esports athlete from the all female team Choke Me Daddy.

House Ambassador and Shoutcaster Arvin Recio trying to get shut eye while the kids make TikTok videos in the rec room. The combined TikTok followers of team ONIC is more than 500,000. The most popular video is #BeautifulGirlChallenge posted by DLAR which has 7 million views

In the team, these are the early risers: OhMyV33nus, Wise, Basic and DLAR who stream before practice. I always get asked how players earn from this profession. Well, like any pro athlete with a strong online presence, they receive a salary, endorsement deals, and in the case of some esports players, they earn from being a lifestyle gamer. 

There is money in the banana stand and being a lifestyle gamer. The players get extra cash from live streaming because they’re pro athletes with good looks.

What does a lifestyle gamer do? Simply put, they are influencers who spend their days playing in front of thousands of viewers. No wonder the fans have a deep connection with the players because every day they spend about two hours watching a boy and his bed head play Valorant while chugging Mountain Dew. 

For me this trumps the authenticity stunts of celebrities attempting to be relatable.

And for those wondering what the players do with their money, let’s put it this way: I am 12-years-old again jealous of my rich classmates. Some of the players have more than one iPhone, get food deliveries every day and blow off their money on high end gadgets, gaming chairs worth $600 or branded clothing. But there are the good kids who support their parents, and contribute to household expenses, car payments and investments.

“Katas ng ML” Some players spend their hard earned money on sneakers, clothes, gadgets, food deliveries while others have investments or help their parents with family expenses. The players hardly post on instagram so I had to wear my dusty portrait photographer hat so they have something to post.

If the players are not streaming, they are usually having their first meal of the day and/or catching up with girlfriends, shows, or they just consume more content. If I’m around, it’s usually the time I twist their arm to do a quick photo shoot before practice (I take the pictures, too, having been a photographer in my past life). As much as they have a basic understanding of marketing, video interviews and photoshoots get in the way of more important things like going through their drafts folder on Tiktok or watching a player trash talk for 10 minutes on YouTube.

The community has dubbed our team as Team Gwapo and ONIC Fans can’t get enough of besties Basic and DLAR. I only learned recently that the popular comment “BL” does not mean Black Lives but Boy Love. Either way, it’s great the audience is very open minded

The Grind

Practice starts at 1pm or 3pm in the bootcamp. A typical session lasts eight hours with short breaks to rest, stretch, debrief or have dinner. When practice is done, some play more video games, create content on their social channels or on rare occasions, take a shower. If I’m lucky, I get to pull them again for a shoot.

Playing mobile games at an Elite level requires a lot of brain power, discipline, endurance, and even physical health to avoid hand or neck injuries. During the mid season, the players requested for me to stay upstairs so they can focus during games.

If you think life is easy for them since they are paid to play Mobile Legends all day, I will ask you to think again. Even if Mobile Legends is a popular game in the Philippines, to play at an elite level requires a lot of brain power and discipline. According to Louie Cacho, our 21-year-old driven-as-hell Business and Strategy Head, “M​obile Legends is similar to chess because it's very tactical in the sense that you have to go for the right trades and prioritize certain objectives. But it also has an element of basketball in the way that your team composition in a​ 5x5 situation​ usually dictates how you play and also can put players in the spotlight because an individual has that much control over the game.”​ 

Jay was happy to see his father Edwin Torculas, his sisters, and Dixie the family pet after the last game of the regular season. Jay’s mother works overseas.

Which is why I respect the boys—not because they are my clients but I see them as pro athletes who work hard and make a lot of sacrifices to be the best at what they do.

 

Sports Marketing and COVID19

What was it like for me to work during the quarantine? There’s discomfort but I guess I’m lucky than most to have a place to isolate if I get sick, a car old enough to turn pro in gaming but can still take me across town, a ton of safety gear, and health insurance. 

It’s also good that I’m a nutcase when it comes to hygiene. I’m the girl who brought a face mask to New York, a portable bidet to a Music Festival in Switzerland, and has four gallons of Green Cross alcohol at home. My boss Cecile is constantly worried so I volunteered to sign a waiver. I prayed for this client and I didn’t want Miss Rona to ruin this chance.

Working on the field as a photojournalist prepared me for this pandemic setup.

I was mentally and emotionally prepared for the coronavirus. I guess it was my work experience covering disaster zones in the past. What I wasn’t prepared for is practically living in a bootcamp. 

During the lockdown, I would spend an insane amount of hours with our boisterous gamers who love pranks, don’t use serving spoons or bath mats, and leave old underwear in the kitchen. It was the IG story reality show my friends never asked for. I grew up a slob and now I totally get my mom and aunts who spend hours in Landmark home and get pissed when my outside shoes are indoors.

My IG stories of living with the players became my bootcamp diary for the past few months. It was also the reality show my IG followers never asked for.

During the last Lazada sale, I was so happy to score a bunch of home items for the bootcamp. At first, the boys thought my surprise for them was cake, but when they saw that it was a drying rack their face went blank and they started calling me mommy. At that moment, I wanted a hysterectomy.

Kuya and SEAGames Gold Medalist and team bunso Iy4knu horsing around. Being the madam or the default Tita of the team, I pondered many times on getting a hysterectomy.
“Madam Tammy” thinking of ways to educate the players about athlete branding and the benefits of using a towel rack.

But work-wise, the adjustment I had to make was working remotely with my teammates, especially when covering tournaments at the boot camp. I used to have the luxury of two team members covering the PBA with me but being on my own was tough. It was like shooting remotely. The players also requested that I stay upstairs while they played downstairs so they don’t get distracted. Do I sacrifice content for wins? Of course.

I also had to unlearn old practices: the things that worked before may no longer resonate today. You can’t just group the sports fans or the gaming community in one category. It helps that I have teammates who are young but knowledgeable about the community so it’s easier for me to oversee the platforms. But I can’t help but always think of how consuming content will evolve, and how to slow down people’s scrolling with strong content. It takes a lot of experimentation with formats, and just like a sport, you don’t win all the time. But every day is a chance to get better and that includes participating in TikTok challenges even if I’m not an influencer.

At 37, I’m glad my ego issues are gone and I’m done with being a raging narcissist in her 20s. Even if I secretly beat my chest when it comes to strategy, I still go to the players because they are my vetting committee when it comes to what works and what doesn’t. These kids are exactly the fans I am trying to reach. There are also times when being the dinosaur who was alive when Jude Law still had hair can bust out her knowledge in fandom and athlete branding—which is super handy in this athlete-driven era in sports. I enjoy talking to the players about growing their brand, athlete empowerment, and doing good things through their own platforms.

The moment when ONIC PH finally won against their fiercest rival after a dominant performance last October 11. It was pure joy and relief since was their first time to win a series. Two weeks later, they eliminated the same team in the quarterfinals on October 23.

Pre-COVID19, I was foolishly daydreaming that I was doing a live coverage during a major esports tournament in a packed arena like MOA. But cut to reality: ONIC PH will be competing for the Season 6 MPL-PH Championship this week in the conference room of the event organizer.

I cannot help but think that the packed arena is a place far, far away, but as Olivia Steele once said, “I thought 2020 would be the year I get everything done. Now I know 2020 is the year I appreciate everything I’ve been able to do.” It’s not everyday you are surrounded by boys who are living the dream and for that I am very grateful.

 Photos by Tammy David