JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Onic Esports tried to recruit Kairi “Kairi” Rayosdelsol thrice.
While importing Pinoy esports talent overseas (let alone, talent in traditional sports such as basketball) wasn't new, recruiting Pinoy Mobile Legends: Bang Bang athletes abroad then was a foreign idea, as Filipinos remained dominant in the ML:BB scene internationally.
Fresh off a heartbreaking exit in his last professional season in the Philippines, on top of the enticing prize pools and the idea of pursuing a career abroad, the 17-year-old took the plunge.
“Malakas 'yung Onic Indonesia. Kasi noong Onic Philippines pa ako, tapos scrim partner po nila kami and malakas po sila so ginrab ko 'yung opportunity,” he explained to ABS-CBN News at the M4 World Championships here.
On July 4, Kairi’s landmark signing to Onic Esports became official, and it started the first wave of Filipino players who signed with teams overseas. Joining him was coach Denver “Yeb” Miranda. Kairi and Yeb may have brushed with their current team's players during scrimmages when they were still in Onic Philippines, but there was a slight hurdle.
“Kasi po mas [alam nila] ang sarili nilang lenggwahe. Noong una walang ibang problema kung ‘di communications] lang. [Pero] sa mechanics magaling sila and masisipag po sila,” Kairi recalled.
Hiring coaches from the Philippines may not be common (with first Pinoy world championship coach Francis “Duckeyyy” Glindro starting his stint with EVOS Legends of Indonesia), but there was an influx of Pinoy coaching talent heading overseas since mid-2022, and most of them have had their own successes abroad.
Among them are former Echo Philippines coach Michael “Arcadia” Bocado, who moved to Indonesia powerhouse RRQ Hoshi. Seeking growth drove him to take the offer from RRQ, which he said involved a lot of deliberation.
"At the end of it, I just realized na I want to go out of my comfort zone and accept new challenges para sa sarili ko na mag-grow,” he told ABS-CBN News, adding that his departure from Echo became emotional, but they ended on good terms.
In just one cycle of the ML:BB competitive year in 2022, two teams with Pinoys have taken local titles abroad.
Ex-Nexplay EVOS standouts John Michael "Zico" Dizon and Jhonwin "Hesa" Vergara helped Burn x Flash take home its very first MPL Cambodia title, in what everyone perceived as a Cinderella storyline for the squad, as they bested title favorites such as Impunity KH and SeeYouSoon in the playoffs, held in a packed mall in Phnom Penh.
During an interview last October, Zico shared that the success was a morale boost for him, as someone who remained in a low-performing franchise prior.
"Sobrang importante sa 'ming manalo. Gusto ko patunayan sarili ko sa nagda-doubt, sobrang daming tao na nag-doubt sa ’kin nung nasa Nexplay pa ako. Gusto ko patunayan na kaya ko magpa-champion sa team," Zico said.
Their world championship campaign may have been unsuccessful, but the lessons linger for the Pinoy coach.
Perhaps the highlight of the Pinoy ML:BB scene in 2022 was Kairi finally clinching an MPL title of his own, as Onic Esports dethroned RRQ Hoshi for the Indonesian title last November, on top of the regular season and finals MVP awards he reaped in that season alone.
Videos of him being carried on stage and being teary eyed surfaced, with both Filipinos and Indonesians happy for Kairi, whose title quest remained elusive back in Manila.
With the higher prize pool (and the money he made due to the double MVP plum) Kairi was able to break ground for a new house in his hometown of Orion, Bataan.
"Baka matapos ng May," Kairi shared gleefully.
Indeed, the imports -- often dubbed as the OFWs of ML:BB -- faced tons of challenges miles away from home.
Aside from having to learn foreign languages to get by in in-game communications, Arcadia had to introduce coaching methods which eventually paid dividends for the “King of Kings.”
“Kinailangan ko rin mag-adopt sa culture nila kasi hindi ganoon ka-simple na kunwari 'yung ina-apply ng Pilipinas ina-apply ko na lang dito right away,” the ex-Echo Philippines coach shared.
RRQ Hoshi star jungler Albert “Alberttt” Iskandar said he learned a lot from Arcadia’s teaching methods.
“We learned a lot from the coach like from the disciplines and then how he approaches the players,” the 18-year old star jungler said.
For Falcon coach Dale “Dale” Vitug, it was time apart from his family, friends, and of course Filipino food. In jest, the two-time world championship coach said sinigang mix was hard to come by in Myanmar.
“Bilang Pilipino, pagkain is life tayo eh. So parang 'yun ang una mong nami-miss sa Pilipinas -- 'yung pagkain," he shared, while adding that he would often cook Filipino food such as adobo and nilaga for his team.
Zico also had his share of sacrifices, as a young father of one.
"Siguro dapat buo ‘yung loob nila na malayo sa mga kani-kaniyang families, lalo na mayroon akong baby. So ayun parang dapat paghandaan mo sa pag-alis mo kasi hindi ka lang naman isang season lang eh. Dapat mayroon kayong contract diyan at buo ang loob mo at desisyon," the 22 year old said.
While a handful of imports have experienced success overseas, professional ML:BB Indonesia analyst Fredrick “Mirko” Lo pointed out that life as an import hasn’t been a bed of roses for some.
Mental fortitude and resilience play huge roles in a player or a coach’s success abroad, he told ABS-CBN News.
"It really depends on the level of the player, [like] how he's able to adapt. And I think what make Kairi, Yeb, and Arcadia special is the fact that they were able to adapt really fast," he said.
There were, of course, players who are slowly getting the groove. Take Allen “Baloyskie” Baloy and Jaymark “JanaaQT” Gonzales, who were key players in Geek Fam’s near playoff run, after the squad missed it for seasons.
“Even though he [Baloyskie] didn't make it into the M4, how he adapted to the Indonesian meta and the Indonesia lifestyle is really amazing to see. He's even learning a lot of Indonesian even quickly,” he said.
Perhaps one of the biggest letdowns in the transfer window the last six months is the benching of Gerald "Dlarskie" Trinchera and his eventual relegation to MPL Indonesia's iteration of a developmental league.
And while Dlar played in the grand finals of the developmental league, Mirko believes that the challenges from being benched to related may have mentally bogged him.
“It was not to the level I expected. But in that MDL performance, I think it was super low. And it boils down to the unfortunate situations he found himself in. Getting benched, getting relegated to MDL must’ve impacted his mentality."
The M4 world championships in Jakarta, Indonesia became a culmination of Pinoy talent, with six of the competing teams having at least one Filipino in their squad.
RRQ Hoshi gave reigning champs Blacklist International a run for its money with Arcadia's presence, bringing the anticipated contest to a best-of-five series.
With the Pinoy dominance expanding to other countries, there are also questions on how this would affect the growth of the ML:BB competitive landscape in the Philippines.
But Tonyo Silva, Moonton Games' senior marketing manager of the Philippines, is taking it as a “good sign.”
"It speaks volumes about the depth and availability of local talent here in the country. Even if top-tier talent goes abroad, the league continues to remain so competitive," he told ABS-CBN News.
Moonton also provides documentation such as invitation letters for players’ working visas overseas, and coordinates with the government, if necessary. League authorities also keep in check with players.
With the success of the first wave of PInoy player imports, Mirko believes that there will be more to come but “not as large” as the last wave.
Moreover, this wave of imports reintroduced the shipping of global talent elsewhere.
“Looking at the success Kairi and Yeb have been getting, and Arcadia now I think there will be more imports -- not just Filipino imports but also Indonesian imports. Across the world,” he said.
“For the Philippines I do believe it’s going to be a bit more, but not too much.”