All Work All Play

Six boys, one dream. The boys of Team Flash embark on a journey to become the best League of Legends players in Singapore, bringing them one step closer to their dream of competing in the world stage. Serena Yeh goes behind the scenes to find out what it is like to be a competitive gamer.

To prepare for The Legends Circuit, a League of Legends competition for top players in Singapore, the boys of Team Flash spend many Saturday afternoons training together at Gam3.Asia in addition to their online training sessions. PHOTO: NG XINYU

At 8pm on a regular Thursday, five boys from Bukit Panjang to Bedok sign in to Skype. They talk to each other through a mass group call, which includes their manager and two coaches. For the next three hours, they play video game League of Legends (LoL). Then they stop. Their manager and coaches head to sleep.

At 2am, the boys are still talking. They chat about the game, watch various LoL competitions together, and the conversation turns to Korean pop, social media influencers and pimples.

This happens almost weekly from Wednesdays to Fridays, which are official training nights. The boys are a competitive LoL team representing local esports organisation Team Flash. They are also friends — almost family — working to achieve a common dream of being the best LoL players regionally.

And they are on their way. From February to March, Flash competed in The Legends Circuit (TLC) — a LoL competition for local elite players, where the winners clinch the top prize of $12,000 and the opportunity to represent Singapore at the regional Garena Premier League (GPL). The GPL is significant as it offers a gateway to the World Championship, a place where only the best compete.

It all started in October 2015, when Poongundran ‘Arkane’ Ranganathan, known as Panda, decided to create his own competitive LoL team after being rejected by several teams who felt his skills were lacking.

“I formed my own team for one last time before I actually gave up, and it somehow worked,” says Panda, 23, who has a diploma in game design and development from Singapore Polytechnic.

It went well. In December 2015, the boys made history by being the first rookie team to clinch the TLC championship.

Last year, the boys seemed set to continue their fairytale run when they qualified for the finals again. But they fell short, losing 3–2 in the best-of-five series and a chance at the GPL.

(Clockwise from left to right) Panda, Timothy, Yihui, Kenneth, Daniel, assistant coach Jia Lun and coach Jian Hao during their debrief. Debriefs are thorough affairs for the team, averaging 20 to 30 minutes. PHOTO: NG XINYU

This year, the boys — team captain Panda, Daniel ‘Revive’ Tan, Kenneth ‘Raven’ Goh and Timothy ‘Ciela’ Lim — want to return to the top. To prepare for TLC, the team removed one other player and added two — Chen ‘cyh’ Yihui and substitute Wayne ‘Cralix’ Aw — to their roster.

TLC began on February 4 with six teams participating in the five-week-long group stage, where the winners of the group stage qualify directly to the finals held on March 26.

On their chances of winning, team captain Panda says, “Should be 100 per cent.”

The team has reasons to be confident. They are not looking down on their opponents. They have been practicing.

Mondays and Tuesdays are not official training days, but the boys still train for two to four hours. From Wednesdays to Fridays, 8pm to 11pm, they play in online scrimmages, or friendly matches. They then continue their Skype call from 11pm to 2am to chat, play solo queue — matches that improve their individual game rankings — or analyse professional matches together. Weekends are reserved for competitions or team trainings at Gam3.Asia, their training ground at Marina Square. When they return home, they may play more solo queue games until 3am.

More than just being the best in Singapore, the team wants to do well at the GPL. Only then will they be one step closer to the world stage.

On February 5, the day of their first qualifier this year, the boys arrive at the eSports SAM studio in Commonwealth.

Before a game officially begins, the boys will play 1 v 1 games against each other for warm-up.

They make no rookie mistakes. The boys naturally disperse to sit according to their in-game positions, then change the keyboards and mouses to their own. Panda sits closest to the livestream video camera, unfazed by its presence.

The boys are chatty and relaxed. They spend an hour warming up and testing their headphones. Timothy also plays Tetris to help him focus. The air-con is set to 30 deg C as Panda feels cold easily. Nobody complains.

Their head coach, Ow Yang Jian Hao, 23, walks down the row, sharing his game plans while assistant coach Ang Jia Lun, 24, chats with them.

On this day, there are six players present. LoL is a battle arena game where two five-player teams duel to destroy each other’s territory. For their first game against Team Corgi, Flash will be fielding their substitute Wayne, 19, in place of Kenneth.

Although Wayne is only a substitute, he is one of the top three players in the local LoL ladder- board along with teammates Kenneth and Daniel.

“I can be a main any time on any team but I choose not to,” says Wayne, a Nanyang Polytechnic student. “I would rather be a sub for a team that has potential to succeed.” He had rejected overseas and local team offers.

With five minutes left to the start of the game, all coaching staff, additional players and managers except the head coach leave the room.

The head coach stays for a few more minutes to help the team pick and ban champions, which are characters representing the players in the game. It is an analytical process of stopping the opponents from choosing strong champions and picking the ones they are familiar with.

At the waiting area, Kenneth admits softly that he is a bit nervous.

The boys have different preferences when playing League of Legends. Some play it full screen, while others like Daniel (above) play it windowed. They also use different brands of keyboards and mouses. PHOTO: NG XINYU

Inside, the match begins and the boys assume their usual gaming positions. Hunched on their seats, necks straining forward. Eyes rapt, facing their computers. Their left fingers stab the keyboard as the right click the mouse. Some shout commands while others remain calm.

“Nice one,” exclaims one of the boys after the team makes a good play.

The first game of the best-of-three series proceeds in Flash’s favour. It lasts longer than anticipated, but the coaches are satisfied. When it ends, there is a 12-minute break for the team to review and discuss next plays.

The room feels warmer after the intense 59-minute game (the shortest game that week was 25 minutes), making the boys complain ‘it’s hot’, but they focus on reviewing. They are chatty as usual, but this time it’s all game talk.

A hitch emerges in the second game, when Flash fails twice to kill the Baron Nashor — a critical monster which gives bonus attack damage. The score is 1–1.

The room becomes deathly silent. The boys do not blame each other, yet they do not talk things out.

“Most of the time, we know our own mistakes,” says Panda.

They fiddle with their computers while their coaches urge them to forget the previous game.

The team isn’t nervous at this stage. “It’s more of fired up,” says Timothy. “Like, hey, let’s get them back for the previous game.”

And get back at their opponents they do. Team Flash finishes the game in 32 minutes, with 17 kills against their opponents’ seven. Wayne clinches the title of Most Valuable Player of the week.

It is one step closer to his dream.

“I want to go Worlds. That’s why I continue to play League of Legends,” Wayne says. “I want to go Worlds, and I will never give up until I reach that.”

The remaining games of the competition will see the full main roster playing, with Wayne back as their substitute.

Kenneth has nicknames such as the “young Chawy”. Wong “Chawy” Xing Lei, one of Singapore’s most famous League of Legends players, currently plays for Taiwanese team ahq e-Sports Club. Photo: Ng Xinyu

In the second week, the boys are up against team Sovereign.

Despite the hitch last week, all five commentators predict that Flash will win. “With Raven playing this week, this should be enough for them to take the series over a shaky Sovereign,” says one.

‘Raven’, or Kenneth, is one of the most promising players in Singapore. His teammates are effusive in their praise of him. Both Wayne and Timothy recall getting “destroyed” by him in games.

With Kenneth playing, the team clinches the first game in 40 minutes. Coach Jian Hao swoons, calling it a “clean” first game with barely any mistakes.

Despite being one of the best teams here, the boys remain humble. They know they are not invincible.

“We don’t really get overconfident,” says Kenneth. “For me, I’m not that confident because sometimes I will screw up.”

Kenneth, at 16, is the youngest player in TLC. In October, the secondary school student will be sitting for his ‘O’ Levels with the hopes of pursuing a gaming-related course in polytechnic.

For now, his primary focus is his education. “In Singapore, gaming cannot really go far unless you are very good,” he says.

Kenneth knows he plays well, but until he overcomes the challenge of training during National Service, he won’t consider a career in gaming.

He still dreams of reaching Worlds, getting paid and playing in a Korean team, but admits it is not realistic. Unlike overseas players who are paid to play full-time, the boys need to juggle school with gaming. “We are still not good at League,” says Kenneth.

And right now, the boys need to prove they are the best in Singapore.

“It’s three for nothing for Sovereign,” says one commentator, when Flash loses three players consecutively.

“The response by team Flash was very messy,” adds the other. “We did see the different team members try to go in at different times. Just going in one by one to die.”

Sovereign takes just 23 minutes to defeat Flash in the second game. It is 1–1 again.

The coaches are the only ones speaking. They highlight what could have been played differently. The boys sit expressionless, slumped on their seats, facing their computers. Occasionally, they explain why they played a certain way.

After three minutes, Daniel remarks how the players need to listen to one another to prevent several deaths.

“Usually, I won’t say much because most of us know our mistakes,” says Daniel, who at 20 is the second-oldest member. “At first I didn’t want to say it, I felt it might stress them. But I feel that if I don’t point it out, they won’t improve and those mistakes are important.”

As the second-oldest member in the team, Daniel, 20, appears to be an older brother. He is often the one who speaks out and also the one who orders their food at a hawker centre. PHOTO: NG XINYU

The Nanyang Polytechnic student knows his younger teammates’ dreams, having been in a similar position.

“I think most of them want to play at Worlds,” he laughs. “For me, I wouldn’t say I don’t want to play at Worlds, but it is a bit far-fetched. I want to play it but we have to first face the difficulties we have, like winning a Southeast Asia tournament.”

He admits to dreaming of playing professionally in North America or Europe when he was younger.

“Even though it’s the thing I want to do, in life, it’s very hard to accomplish that. If you really want to play that much, you must be really determined and cannot give up,” says Daniel.

Ambitions aside, the stress is now on him and the team after their emphatic defeat.

“Chill first, relax,” coach Jian Hao tells them. “It’s about progressive improvement.”

The boys play from behind for the third game. Sovereign, riding on their confidence gained in the second game, cruise to a 7–2 kill lead by the 23rd minute.

At the waiting area, the coaches are nervous. Jian Hao shifts in his seat, looking at the screen and then turning away repeatedly.

But Flash remains steady, they are a team who knows their mistakes. The boys fight back and take the win in the 41st minute.

For the next few weeks, Flash easily defeats teams Bangtan Swoop and Gatecrashers, 2–0. They struggle against Not Your Zone, but edge them out 2–1. Kenneth was awarded Most Valuable Player that week.

Team Flash is seeded first, and gains automatic entry into the finals. There is a two-week break before the finals, which Flash uses to ramp up their training. Skype training calls are no longer six-hour affairs, but 10-hour sessions.

Team Flash (left) faces Sovereign (right) in the finals of The Legends Circuit, held during Mediacorp’s SMARTGen seminar at Raffles City Convention Centre. Photo: Ng Xinyu

The TLC finale is held at Raffles City Convention Centre, with free entry for all. Unlike the closed- door studio at Commonwealth, the teams play on a stage, with a 100-strong crowd scrutinising the game live. The TLC trophy takes centre stage, flanked by gold and silver medals.

In this final best-of-five series, the boys take on Sovereign, an old enemy from their second qualifier.

The boys elect to start with Wayne playing the first game, and for Kenneth to close the next two games, hopefully defeating their opponents in three. If there is any hint of nervousness, it does not show.

With a calm demeanor, the boys make methodical moves to cheers from the audience. They kill the Baron Nashor, then quickly destroy four players, taking down Sovereign in just 28 minutes. Their game faces break into wide grins. Two more to go and the trophy is theirs.

The dominance continues in the second game.

Kenneth springs a surprise attack, killing two Sovereign players. One commentator says of Flash: “These guys are here to play, here to win.”

The game ends in just 27 minutes. The broad smiles reappear. Only one more win is needed.

Team Flash’s coach Jian Hao and manager Eleana Lim, 27, discuss plays in between the games. A motherly figure to the boys, Eleana is in charge of the team’s administrative matters and welfare. PHOTO: NG XINYU

The commentators rave about Flash’s “fantastic showing”. But the crowd murmurs that Sovereign will surely win the next game. After all, Sovereign had convincingly trumped Flash in a game just weeks ago, and had trashed another opponent 3–0 in the semi-finals the day before.

The third game begins as per normal as Kenneth takes the first kill. But the tide changes at the ninth minute — Sovereign ambushes Flash, killing three players at one go.

Among the audience, Wayne and coach Jian Hao are in the second row, right in front of the team. For the first time this finals, Jian Hao appears nervous, but he mutters: “Believe in them, believe.” Wayne nods.

The boys win some fights, and lose some, but the game leans in Sovereign’s favour. The crowd knows no bias. They cheer for good plays. They have turned from cheering for Flash to applauding Sovereign. With nothing to lose, Sovereign plays aggressively, taking the game. It is 2–1.

If game three was bad for Flash, game four was worse. Sovereign first steals the Baron Nashor from Flash, and then proceeds to dispose all five of them. 2–2. It’s anyone’s game.

The boys are quiet. Flash decides on a roster swap, fielding Wayne instead of Kenneth. When everyone takes a restroom break, Wayne sits on stage alone, warming up for the final game.

Game five, crunch time. Sovereign cruises to a 4–1 kill lead by the 17th minute. Flash sticks together as a squad in the game, playing to one another’s strengths. The boys only take calculated risks. It pays off. In the 37th minute, Flash overpowers Sovereign, annihilating their opponents before destroying the territory.

Flash wins. The crowd erupts. The boys smack palms. Their manager and coaches dash up the stage, arms open wide. Daniel clutches his chest, as if in disbelief. Their faces beam with joy.

After months of hard work and late nights, the boys have now proven they are the best in Singapore. It is GPL next, and maybe one day, Worlds.

Team Flash wins TLC, earning a ticket to the regional Garena Premier League, which will be held in the Philippines this year. PHOTO: NG XINYU

Update: The team has left Team Flash esports organisation. They are currently competing as team Rigel.

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