MANILA—The local Mobile Legends: Bang Bang scene emerged as a lifeline for esports aspirants in MoBa-crazed Philippines, with young participants keen on supporting their families, and parents even reaching out to teams asking for tryout dates.
Bootcamps became sanctuaries teeming with equipment that would help esports players boost their playing and streaming careers; and pro players' jerseys and post-match press conferences spelled out names of everyday brands.
But that wasn’t the case when the professional ML:BB scene started in 2017.
Smart Omega's head tactician, Jomie "Pakbet" Abalos, who started his career as a mid-laner during MPL's debut season in 2017 thinks the ML scene in the country has come a long way, as not all back then expected the glitz and glamour active players and coaching staff enjoy today.
"Siguro dati sobrang hirap. Minsan mga ano lang talaga mabubuting manager lang ang nagpapakain araw-araw. [Noon] goods na kami sa mga pa-foods ng mga manager kaya okay lang," Pakbet said in an interview with ABS-CBN News.
“Ngayon kasi may nagha-handle na, [may] salary na . . . Grabe ang laki na ng pagbabago. Ibang iba na [kaysa] dati kasi 'yung dati nahihirapan ka pa kasi humanap ng sahod talaga, at stable na tuloy-tuloy ang pagma-manage,” he added, citing that his squad then, Obs Gaming, had four managers handling them.
Pakbet started his career as a mage player for Obs Gaming, before transferring to Execration from Season 2. Then, he was still finishing his studies as an Information Technology student and faced a brief lack of support from his family as he started his professional career.
"Sabi ko naman tatapusin ko 'yung pag-aaral, 'pag tapos na ako mag-pro player o kaya pagsasabayin ko pero ngayon wala pa akong oras mag-aral eh. Kasi marami rin akong ginagawa kaya ayun naka-hold lang ang pag-aaral ko. Pero gusto ko pa ring tapusin," Pakbet said.
But back then, the crowds in offline tournaments — often held in major events hubs — were already drawing crowds, thanks to the game's massive reach online and the growth of ML streaming culture: "Di namin expected na ganoon kadami ang tao na pupunta noong MPL Season 1," Pakbet, who helped steer Obs Gaming to third place in the MPL's inaugural season, said.
After Season 1, the veteran player transferred to Execration, playing side by side with some of his players now such as Billy "Z4pnu" Alfonso; he stayed until season 4 as a player, and halted his playing career come season 5 after his wife gave birth to their daughter.
While in the early stages of fatherhood, he took some shout-casting and amateur coaching stints on the side. "Minsan mas OK nang manood na muna ng ML," he said in jest.
He returned to the professional scene eventually as Execration’s chief tactician in MPL Season 7, after much prodding by Z4pnu.
“Sakto kinukuha ako ni Billy. Una, ayoko kasi kilala ko 'yung mga player. Matitigas ulo. (laughs) Una ayoko eh nag-iisip na ako eh. 'Wala na',” he quipped.
The return was worth it as he steered the squad to a decorated playoff campaign that saw them eliminate world champions Bren Esports, and emerge as Southeast Asia’s best ML squad after beating Blacklist International in the finals of the Mobile Legends Southeast Asia Cup (MSC). All while employing the signature “late game” strategy that took the local ML scene by storm.
By the time they transferred to Smart Omega, MPL in the Philippines had adapted a franchise-based setup, setting regulations, such as fixed salaries and an expanded player pool to formalize the league further.
"Parang naging basketball team eh (Now it's like a basketball team)," Pakbet said.
The seasoned coach and player remained surprised over what the squad accomplished and the growth the local Mobile Legends scene enjoyed over the last four years.
"Sobrang saya eh kasi masasabi ko rin ang nangyayari dito sa journey namin papuntang Smart Omega simula noong MPL Season 7, 'yung mga nangyari at mga dati ring ginagawa namin simula noong naglalaro pa rin kami. Simula't sapul pa talaga ng MPL,” he said.
He, however, hopes his players, most of whom have just started their pro careers in the middle of the pandemic, can experience the thrill he once enjoyed while competing in offline tournaments.
“Gusto ko maranasan nila 'yung mga offline tournament na kahit sobrang layo, dadayuhin mo para makapaglaro ka ng tournament. Iyon yung gusto kong maranasan nila,” he said.
Pakbet’s story is part of the “Legacies” documentary series released online by ML:BB developers Moonton, featuring Philippine ML icons such as Setsuna “AkoSiDogie” Ignacio, among others.
Pakbet said he hopes he can inspire athletes through his story, which will be released on ML:BB’s official platforms.