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Apr 12, 2017
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At the 57-minute mark of Game 2 in the second day of The International 2016 Main Event (TI6), the underdogs, TNC Pro Team, had just fended off a crucial assault from the favorites, Team OG, at the bottom lane. Despite being on the wrong side of momentum, the favored squad was still up by a whopping 20K gold near the one-hour point, meaning it had more than enough resources to reclaim the advantage. Meanwhile, the predominantly Filipino crew, which stole the first round of the best-of-three series, knew it couldn't afford to slack off.

Two minutes later, the final clash that occured right in the middle of OG's base proved to be the coup de grâce. TNC's offlaner Sam_H executed a flawless setup and the enemy carry Miracle- (Amer Al-Barkawi) dropped the game-changing item, signaling the shocking victory for the Pinoy team even before the opposing Ancient structure collapsed.

The spectators, already loud with Filipino fans in attendance, went wild.

Then composed of Marco Polo Luis Fausto aka Raven; Carlo Palad aka Kuku; Samson Solomon Enojosa Hidalgo aka Sam_H; Nico Manalaysay Barcelon aka eyyou; and captain Jimmy Ho (American) aka DeMon, TNC knocked off the popular TI6 frontrunners—after eliminating China's Vici Gaming Reborn in the earlier round—for the country's biggest triumph in the international e-sports stage last year.

To give you an idea of how massive this particular achivement is: Team OG, the Europe-based alliance, has been the most decorated in recent memory of DOTA 2 tournament history, grabbing the gold in almost every contest it had joined since its formation in late 2015—Frankfurt Major, DreamLeague Season 5, Manila Major, ESL One Frankfurt 2016, and  Boston Major. OG was also the first to repeat as champions of official Valve events.

And here was a cast of unknowns from the Philippines (except for DeMon), having its first crack at the game's grandest stage, handing OG one of the worst finishes of its career (Top 12). One couldn't really blame the boys—even the dumbfounded commentators—for collectively breaking out in such a priceless reaction during the climactic moments of the thrilling upset.

"Nagwawala na nga kami nun, sumisigaw, di pa tapos," Raven recalls. "Pagkatapos, yakapan at talon kami dahil sa sobrang tuwa!"

TNC may have made it only to the Top 8 of TI6, but their Cinderella run served as the perfect launchpad for the team's victory at the inaugural World Electronic Sports Games earlier this year in Changzhou Olympics Sports Center, China, where they took home $800,000 in prize money. At this point, DeMon and eyyou were replaced by Ryo Hasegawa aka ryOyr, and Timothy Randrup aka Tims.

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But this squad wasn't always considered the gold standard for local e-sports excellence. Two years and two months old now, TNC once experienced discrimination and had to claw its way to the top, shares team owner Eric Redulfin, who's also the founder of net cafe chain TheNet.Com. After surviving countless birth pangs and roster changes, the once-ignored group is currently the multi-titled Philippine DOTA 2 contingent to beat.

While preparing for this year's second DOTA Major Championship—the upcoming Kiev Major 2017 at the National Palace of Arts in Kiev, Ukraine from April 27 to 30—FHM caught up with TNC during one of its breaks (because practices take up almost half a day, daily!) to discuss their unexpected surge into e-sports stardom, dealing with adversities, and the future of the local gaming landscape.


NEVER-ENDING GRIND

How did this particular group come to being?

Tims: Nag-chat si Kuku kung available ako. Sakto patapos na yung contract ko sa last team.

Kuku: Nung sumali ako April last year, di rin sila kumpleto nun. Naging kakampi ko sina Raven at Sam.

Raven: Meron silang player na umalis last year. Yung captain nila nag-private message kung gusto ko raw bang sumali.

Ryoyr: Iba yung mga ka-team ko dati. After ng TI, na-disband sila (TNC). Tapos may nag-invite lang sa'kin.

Sam: May pa-tryout nun ang TNC. Kasama ako sa unang batch, kami yung nanalo.

Eric: Usually naman dito sa Pilipinas kahit malayong lugar yan, yung mga top at nag-e-excel sa MMR (matchmaking ranking) magkakakilala. Ang issue na lang dun, kahit maraming talented gamers dito sa bansa, yung attitude.

We noticed that before this lineup, members of TNC have gone through some constant shuffling. How does that affect the team dynamics and the players' feel for one another?

Eric: From time to time, nagpapalit. Ang natira na lang na original dito si Sam, nun pang nagbubuo kami ng TNC Pro Team. Nagpa-tournament kasi ako. Etong grupong 'to, four months pa langYun kasi talaga ng pinakamahirap makuha, chemistry. Para mag-perform as a team, yun yung medyo kailangang i-develop. Ngayon siguro almost perfect na sila, kasi maganda yung performance ng team.

Has it ever come to a point where you had to replace members? And what is the process of bringing in new ones?

Raven: Meron mga ganung kaso. Parang sa una lang okay, tapos habang tumatagal nawawalan ng gana.

Eric: Usually, hindi naman namin siya tinatanggal agad eh. Kakausapin namin kung pwede pang mabago, baka may problema lang. Posible kasi na meron din siyang excess baggage na dala-dala sa games kaya hindi nakakapag-perform. Aalamin mo ngayon yun as management.

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[When it comes to recruitment], it's a collective decision. May mga suggestion tapos pinag-aaralan namin. Tinatanong ko rin kung fit yung player sa kanila. Siyempre sila-sila ang magkakakilala eh, hindi naman pwedeng ipilit ng management kung hindi din makakasundo.

What are practices like for a top-tier squad? Surely it's not as simple as heading to your neighborhood computer shop and settling for mediocre competition. 

Raven: We practice for 10 hours a day. Two to four games na more on discussion, para malaman kung ano yung mga mali namin, yung dapat ma-improve. Tuluy-tuloy, araw-araw. Pero pwede namang magpahinga.

Eric: Katulad ngayon may preparation kami for Kiev, may sinusunod na kaming routine at timetable. Pero yung training mas madalas gabi, nagsisimula ng hapon. Kasi ang mga nakakalaban nila galing sa Southeast Asia.

Raven: Yung mga nakakalaban namin sa tournament, sila din yung nakakalaro namin sa scrims (practice games). Pag scouting naman, lima kaming nanonood, tapos pinag-aaralan namin kung effective ba yung strategy, kung pwede ba naming i-modify.

"Kasi dito, mali ang pagkaintindi sa (e-sports). Bad influence sa kabataan... Papansinin lang tayo sa Pilipinas pag nakagawa tayo ng maganda" —Eric

TNC PRO TEAM BEFORE THE 'PRO'

TNC is now among the top-ranked DOTA 2 teams (No. 18 according to e-Rankings.com) in the world. Can you describe your rise from obscurity and recall the turning point for the organization?

Eric: We started from scratch talaga. Nagsimula kami na sinasalihan lahat ng tournaments, kahit yung mga maliliit sa Southeast Asia. Kasi wala namang nakikipag-practice; yung mga mas kilalang grupo, hindi ka niyan papansinin. Gumawa ka muna ng pangalan mo.

Actually nung first time nabuo yung team, muntik na kaming mag-TI eh. Kung hindi lang namin nakalaban yung Rave (Tims's former team), pasok kami. Yung tinatalo namin (MVP, ryOyr's former team), hirap sila. Tapos nalaglag din sila, wala tuloy Pinoy nung TI5, sayang.

Dun nagsimulang makilala yung TNC. Kumbaga dark horse ang tawag sa'min nun eh, ang daming nagulat kasi isang panalo na lang, pupunta na kami dun. Wala pa kaming isang taon nun, para makaabot kami dun, good placing na rin.

Eric, did you just wake up one morning and decide to form a professional gaming unit? What has been TNC's driving force up to this point?

Eric: Alam nila yun—ang purpose talaga namin, makapag-contribute sa local e-sports. Kahit naman hanggang ngayon hindi pa siya fully accepted ng community, di ba? Pero dahil dun sa achievements nila, yung mga dating ayaw, medyo naiintindihan na rin. Na may career pala.

Kasi dito, mali ang pagkaintindi sa (e-sports). Bad influence sa kabataan. Yun yung isa sa mga naging motivation namin; papansinin lang tayo sa Pilipinas pag nakagawa tayo ng maganda. Which is totoo naman, kasi dati kahit ipatawag mo yung media hindi ka pinapansin.

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How did the people around you feel about your chosen path? We've all heard about our moms scolding us with, 'Kaka-computer mo yan!'

Raven: Lahat naman yata dumaan sa ganun, kasi ayaw ng magulang na mag-DOTA ka lang, tapos nag-aaral ka pa.

Kuku: (These days), "Mag-DOTA ka na, wag ka nang mag-aral," ha ha!

Eric: Nagpapa-tutor na yung ibang magulang sa kanila eh, ha ha!

What got you into or who introduced you to DOTA?

Tims: Sinama ako ng kuya kong mag-overnight sa isang computer shop. Kaso kulang sila, kaya sinali nila ako kahit hindi ako marunong, tapos kinampi ako sa malakas. Nagustuhan ko.

Kuku: Tinuruan lang din ako ng kuya ko. Pero nag-o-online games na talaga ako bago pa mag-DOTA. Saka di ba ang sarap ding magturo sa ignorante? Ha ha!

Raven: Yung mga kaibigan kong kulang ng players, tinuruan akong maglaro. Tapos yun, inaraw-araw na namin.

Ryoyr: Self-taught ako eh, kasi may sarili akong mundo dati. May computer ako tapos nagsimula na rin akong tumatambay sa mga shops.

Sam: Sa kuya ko lang din [ako nagpaturo] eh. Sisihin niyo yung mga kuya namin, ha ha!

It's a good thing that the lack of support didn't discourage you from pursuing the dream of turning the Philippines into a force in the international e-sports community.

Eric: Kung titignan mo kasi sa ibang bansa, hindi naman ganun. Celebrity nga ang turing nila sa mga players eh. So pwedeng mangyari rito. Kailangan lang talaga, gumawa ka ng himala para mag-maneuver ang pananaw ng iba.

What was it like being able to participate, and eventually leave a mark by toppling an accomplished heavyweight at TI6?

Eric: Yan kasi yung pinaka-prestigious na tournament. Kung tutuusin malaki yung prize pool, pero hindi na pera ang pinag-uusapan diyan eh, talagang karangalan—mixed nationalities kasi yun. Kasi para ma-invite ka dun, may sinabi yung team mo.

Raven: Pagka-panalo pa lang namin sa qualifiers, sobrang saya na kasi hindi talaga namin akalain. Kasi nung open qualifiers, talo agad kami. Parang nawalan kami ng pag-asa na makakapasok, tapos biglang miracle.

Eric: Sa buong Southeast Asia kasi, dalawa ang kukunin. Nagsimula talaga kami sa open qualifiers, magkasunod na araw yun. Isang libong teams ang magsasalpukan, puro elimination, matsatsambahan ka dun sa dami. Top 32 kami nung natanggal, pero ang layo pa nun.

Sunod na araw, ganun ulit, walang tigil. Pag panalo ka, may kasunod agad na kalaban. Nung pangalawang subok, dun kami nanalo.

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Kuku: Tapos kinabukasan qualifier ulit, kasali ka na sa Top 10, tapos dalawa lang ang kukunin dun.

Eric: Kami ang unang-unang nanalo, saka nag-qualify sa buong mundo. Automatic yun, diretso na kami ng TI. Medyo nabalita na yun.

Raven: Maganda lang yung pag group stage, sa podium ka na maglalaro, ang daming tao! Ang sarap maglaro kasi ang daming sumisigaw!

No doubt you regard the win against OG as your most satisfying ever, even better than capturing the WESG2016 (Premier tier) trophy.

Eric: Pinakamasarap, kasi talagang umuugong yung [venue]!

Raven: May mga Amerikano kasi na nagsasabi na, "You guys can beat that OG!"

Kuku: Masaya yun kasi nagka-bahay si Sam, ha ha!

Eric: Pero ang ganda talaga nung pagka-panalo namin, sobra. (As the owner), tuwang-tuwa kasi sa news tinawag yun na greatest upset in DOTA history; the forecast was, we only hand an 11 percent chance of winning dun ehLahat na-shock talaga, para talunin namin yung OG. Walang naniniwala.

Hindi mo kasi pwedeng sabihin na tsamba kasi na-2-0 namin sila eh. Kung siguro 3-1. Every year ang daming series of competition, TI yung last. Dun iniipon yung mga nag-e-excel sa different tournaments.


WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS

What do you make of the current state of e-sports in the country? Could you say na marami pa ba tayong kakaining bigas?

Kuku: Nagsasaing na! Ha ha!

Eric: Sa ngayon kasi, pangalawa tayo sa pinakamaraming sasali [sa Kiev], ang Chinese ang nasa taas. The rest are mixed nationals. Siguro kung ang gawin nila magpa-tournament sila ng per nationality, malaki ang laban ng Pilipinas.

Do you envision yourself taking up professional gaming as a full-fledged career in the long run? Or has retirement from competitive DOTA 2 ever occured to you?

Tims: Pag nakuha ko na yung pangarap ko, mag-champion sa TI, baka mag-aral na ako ulit.

Kuku: Pag bumagal na yung kamay ko, magre-retire na ako. Mararamdan din kasi ng player yun eh, kung humihina. Pag matanda ka na talaga, bumabagal.

Ryoyr: Malapit na, tumatanda na ko eh, ha ha!

Eric, aside from being their manager and, in essence, second father, what golden nuggets of wisdom have you imparted to them?

Eric: Tinuturuan ko talaga silang mag-negosyo. Hindi siya [gaming] pang-habambuhay eh. Ang malaking ambag ko, yung matulungan at gawin silang maging magandang ehemplo sa e-sports. Sa ngayon naman, may mga TheNet.Com na ang karamihan sa kanila. Ang magaling mag-DOTA, dapat ang mga kurso niyan konektado sa entrepreneurship talaga. Kasi more on decision-making eh, isu-supervise mo lang.

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This may deepen the talent pool in the future, which technically means less opportunities for you, but what advice can you give to those who wish to become e-sports pros?

Raven: Kung gusto ninyo talagang gumaling, kailangan ng disiplina. May mga players kasi sa Pilipinas na sobrang galing, kaso hindi marunong sumunod sa gustong gawin ng captain nila.

Sam: Pati attitude, siyempre. Kung mayabang ka, wala talaga eh.

Ryoyr: Siguro dapat willing silang mag-sacrifice [in terms of accepting roles]...

Kuku: Wag nang gawing laro kung passion mo talaga siya. Hindi dapat yung naglalaro ka lang para kumita.

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