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If you fear them, you cannot beat them: Vietnam's GIGABYTE Marines

The GIGABYTE Marines bow to the Sao Paulo audience at the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational Play-In (Riot Games Brazil/lolesportsbr)

“Ma-rines, Ma-rines!”

“Ma-rines, Ma-rines!”

The chant begins in their second game against Team SoloMid. At 21:41, Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen starts in on the Infernal Drake. The rest of TSM arrive at the dragon pit as Svenskeren draws the dragon out into the river, away from the vision of their adversaries, the GIGABYTE Marines.

Ten seconds later, the Marines’ jungler Đỗ “Levi” Duy Khánh smites the dragon away from Svenskeren. The Marines attack. No sooner is Levi safely out of the pit than mid laner Trần “Optimus” Văn Cường ambushes TSM AD carry Jason “WildTurtle” Tran.

The fight looks shaky for the Marines at first. An unlikely representative according to pre-tournament rankings, the Vietnamese team have already become synonymous with aggression during the 2017 League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational Play-In. Never shy, the Marines charge forward with what appears as either heady optimism or pure impulse to the spectator. This time, the initiator is top laner Phan “Stark” Công Minh, who sets up Optimus with a Bodyslam onto WildTurtle. Optimus immediately jumps in, but the rest of the Marines have to take the long way around the pit. For a second, it looks like they’ll be too late, and TSM will successfully reengage.

Vincent “Biofrost” Wang uses Redemption in an attempt to save WildTurtle. Deathmark pops. Stark and WildTurtle fall. The Marines pour into the river.

Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell does his best to tank the Marines’ damage. The teamfight winds down the lower river, spilling into the blue side bottom lane. TSM are on the wrong side of the map now, shuttled there by Nguyễn “Slay” Ngọc Hùng’s minefields, and a timely Mega Inferno Bomb splits the team and nearly takes out TSM mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg.

TSM can’t escape. Knowing this, Hauntzer locks onto Levi as soon as Bjergsen lands a stun. Three seconds later, Hauntzer is dead. Bjergsen is next. Then Biofrost. The Marines chase Svenskeren all the way into their own upper jungle. Slay kills him just outside of the wolf pit, and the Marines finally turn towards the Baron.

A chorus of thunder sticks makes the Sao Paulo studio audience of hundreds sound like full-capacity sports arena. Over the din, a chant begins.

“Ma-rines, Ma-rines!”

“Ma-rines, Ma-rines!”

The GIGABYTE Marines stun TSM, nearly beating them in the best-of-five series. If it hadn’t been for a premature attempt to end the fourth game, the Marines would have been the first team to qualify to the main stage from the play-in.

Their time comes three days later, when the Marines defeat Turkey’s SuperMassive, becoming the lone representative of a minor region at the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational. The crowd is already peppered with Brazilian fans holding up signs for the Vietnamese lineup. Marines chants and cheers fill the room.

A fan with a sign for the GIGABYTE Marines in Sao Paulo, Brazil (Riot Games Brazil/lolesportsbr)

At 24 years-old, Trần “Archie” Minh Nhựt is a seasoned veteran. He competed in the first-ever League of Legends league, the Garena Premier League, in 2012 with the Saigon Jokers. He represented Vietnam at the Riot Season 2 World Championship later that year. Back then, he was an AD carry. Earlier this year, he was a top laner. Now, he’s the team’s support player and in-game leader.

Archie is tall, but unassuming. His shoulders slope down, as if he’s instinctively hiding his height. Various members throughout the tournament credit Archie for keeping them calm and guiding the team. On in-game comms, his voice rises above the chatter. In person, he’s quiet and calm.

Around the corner from two press conference areas, set in a hallway connecting the outside walkway to the inner track circling the seating sections at Rio de Janeiro’s Jeunesse Arena, a small room is set aside for the English-speaking press. Players, coaches, and staff duck in and out of the room, taking advantage of its well-located restrooms. Archie doesn’t react to people moving in and out. As soon as he sits down on a small couch perpendicular to where I sit, his full attention is on our interview.

“I’m really happy to represent Vietnam again,” Archie says. “I want to show the world, bring the flag of Vietnam and put it on the international map. I want to show that Vietnam esports is still developing and will not be a weak point.”

League of Legends has changed a great deal since Archie first made the switch from DotA. He lists off a few things like the playerbase and in-game graphics. “The level of competition has drastically increased,” he says.

Archie gestures widely with his hands when I ask him about the strength of Vietnam compared to other major regions.

He cracks a broad smile, the first since he stepped into the interview room. “We’re still a lot worse than other teams,” he says. He spreads his arms further apart. “We’ll try to get better and prove that to the world.”

Vietnam is not a major League of Legends region. Amongst more well-known minor regions like Turkey, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and Brazil, Vietnam is an afterthought. Outside of their respective regions, a team that doesn’t hail from a major region is only as good as the last representative they had at an international event. The Saigon Jokers bombed out of the 2016 International Wildcard Qualifier without winning a game so, despite their domestic dominance, few expected the Marines to perform well at the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational Play-In. Their group was all but won by CIS’ Virtus.pro or Latin America North’s Lyon Gaming according to pre-tournament chatter.

Instead, the Marines rose to the top of an inconsistent Group B, clinching their seed into the next Play-In round with a win over Lyon Gaming with four matches still left to play on the day.

Once the first of its kind, the Garena Premier League was a League of Legends league filled with teams from Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand in its inaugural season. Later that year, the Taipei Assassins and Archie’s Saigon Jokers represented Southeast Asia at the Season 2 League of Legends World Championship.

The Taipei Assassins became Season 2 World Champions. The Saigon Jokers went 1-2 in their group, beating Team Dignitas but losing to Counter Logic Gaming Europe and Najin Sword.

By 2014, the various locations and online nature of the GPL put a strain on the system. Taiwanese teams had pulled ahead of their Southeast Asian brethren and in 2015, they pulled out of the GPL, creating the LoL Master Series for Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao. The 2016 GPL Spring featured 16 teams from Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Saigon Fantastic Five, Optimus’ team at the time, won the GPL title and the trip to Turkey for the 2016 International Wildcard Qualifier, but had to forfeit their spot due to visa issues.

While Taiwan continued to distinguish themselves from other countries and regions within Southeast Asia, Vietnam was lumped in the rest of the GPL and promptly forgotten by the majority of the international League of Legends community.

This forgetfulness was aided by the further fracturing of the GPL itself, which became a mere qualification tournament for the Southeast Asian representative to Riot’s international wildcard team qualifiers in 2016. Now the GPL “season” consisted of six teams, each the champions of their country’s domestic league, in order to determine which team would advance to the wildcard qualifier, or this year, the play-in stage.

At the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational, the Marines don’t solely represent Vietnam, but all of Southeast Asia.

The GIGABYTE Marines prepare for an interview backstage (Riot Games Brazil/lolesportsbr)

Riot Games Brazil PR Manager Renata Honorato sticks her head into our interview room.

“I’m sorry, they’re running a bit late,” she says. “You can go back to the press room if you want and we’ll call you.” She looks at my cell phone, turned sideways in my hand to stream the ongoing match. “I wouldn’t want you to miss the game.”

The route back to the main press room takes me past an ongoing press conference. Members of the Chinese press are interviewing Stark. Camera flashes pop against the black and white MSI backdrop.

Next to Stark is Riot Kaito, Community Coordinator for Vietnam and now translator for the GIGABYTE Marines for the duration of their run through the tournament. Kaito is visibly proud, beaming much more than Stark, who looks intense, and yet somewhat taken aback by the attention.

“I’m very nervous,” Stark tells me later. “Very anxious about all of my strong opponents.” He tells me later that he doesn’t want to let his teammates or his coach, Dương “Tinikun” Nguyễn Duy Thanh, down.

After reaching Rank 1 on the Vietnamese server, Stark tried out for the GIGABYTE Marines and was signed to the team on March 8. A week and a half later, he started for the Marines against Ultimate in their final set of the Vietnam Championship Series A Spring Season, and Archie swapped to support. Stark’s first professional set was spent on Renekton with a respectable 4.4 KDA.

Between his first best-of-two in the VCS A 2017 Spring and the GPL tournament, Stark played a total of 13 games. With 15 games played in the 2017 MSI Play-In, Stark doubled his professional experience in Sao Paulo before he set foot onstage in Rio for the main event.

Kaito enters the room with Stark and Levi in tow as the team’s only available translator. Levi sits in on the interview, occasionally ribbing Stark in Vietnamese. I ask Stark if the Marines had looked forward to facing the Flash Wolves that day, since Taiwanese teams are closer to them in proximity and it’s an old GPL grudge match against a team that they may or may not scrim during the regular season. Stark looks confused, consulting Levi for advice while Kaito and I try to hold back our laughter. Levi leans back and elbows Stark. It’s difficult to believe that they’ve only played together for two months.

“The fact that we performed well matters more,” Stark finally says. “Even though we lost.” His disappointment is audible in his voice as he trails off.

Like most new players, Stark sometimes becomes anxious before or during a game, especially when the team is losing. It’s up to Archie and the rest of the team to rally around him, keeping their newest player mentally strong.

“The biggest advice that I give to Stark is to calm down,” Archie says. “Treat this as a practice tournament. Don’t get too bogged down on your own performance.”

Although Archie is often the default leader, he is still adjusting to his new position on the team. According to Optimus, another veteran on the team, Marines’ decisive unity stems from a more democratic communication system, with all lanes feeding information and members instantly following up on calls.

GIGABYTE Marines support Trần “Archie” Minh Nhựt (Riot Games/lolesports)

The group stage progresses, and slowly the perception of the Marines within the international community begins to shift. What was once reckless is now bold. What was once messy is now decisive. What was once a sloppy wildcard team is now a legitimate contender for the upcoming knockout stage.

“Marines are a good team,” G2 Esports mid laner Luka “PerkZ” Perkovic says. “I wouldn’t underestimate them, especially if they make it to a best-of-five.”

In their own minds, the Marines are always contenders. Regardless of who they face, they refuse to give their opponents any mental advantages.

“If you fear them, you cannot beat them,” Levi says. “We always have to be confident to win.”

Much is made of playing to the meta in League of Legends. With so few international events in the League of Legends landscape, teams frequently scramble to make last-minute adjustments, forcibly shifting to a meta or playstyle based on their opposition rather than team strengths.

This never occurs to the Marines. Instead, they focus on improving themselves above all else, while sticking to their playstyle.

“We’re not pressured at all to play any specific meta picks,” Optimus says. “Our playstyle is always to pressure early on and finish the game as quickly as possible.”

At first, this means that they’re too excited to sit still enough for a Redemption heal to come through before moving forward in a teamfight. Against SK Telecom T1, two of the Marines take a poorly-timed Magical Journey that allows Han “Peanut” Wang-ho to easily pick them off under a turret. They execute an ill-advised lane swap that takes opponents by surprise but gives them few advantages past the initial shock. Their games are riddled with mistakes and yet their fast-pushing style complemented by proactive skirmishing or full five-versus-five teamfights catches many teams off-guard.

Now, the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational is visual testimony to just how much the Marines learned over a short period of time, gleaning what they could from their adversaries while refusing to abandon their preferred style of play.

Whether it’s onstage, talking in the hallway outside of the makeup room, teasing teammates in interviews, or talking to press themselves, the Marines carry this confidence everywhere they go. Translated interviews with a member of the foreign press can be awkward, especially during the translation phase. However, every single member of the Marines looks me in the eye as they speak, a rarity even in English interviews with North American or European players, never mind translated ones where they have to go through an interpreter. By the fourth day, I’m used to the cheery face of Kaito ushering in one or more of his charges.

The only day I don’t see them is the fifth day of the group stages, the day that the GIGABYTE Marines are eliminated from the tournament.

Despite entering the fifth and final day with a 3-5 record, tied with TSM, G2 Esports, and Flash Wolves, the Marines fall. Ultimately, they’re done in by their own impulsiveness, something that all members of the team reiterate throughout the week. Regardless of who I ask, and whether they win or lose, the answer is always the same: We could have performed better, our performance was below expectations, we’re hoping to improve.

On the fourth day of groups, Optimus shares another source of the team’s inner strength. A veteran like Archie, Optimus has played on a variety of Vietnamese teams. He admits that the facilities of his former Saigon Fantastic Five and Saigon Jokers eclipsed those of the Marines, as did their budget.

“The members though, some of them didn’t have the drive to perform internationally,” he says. “They just wanted to win Vietnam or win GPL and that’s it. But here, when we recruit anyone, our standards are higher. We want someone who wants to go far at international events.”

Neither the Flash Wolves nor the Marines look happy as they shake hands and bow to each other after their last scheduled group stage game. The Flash Wolves walk with grim smiles, already preparing for an upcoming tiebreaker against that will decide their fate. The Marines are shocked, stunned that they were eliminated from the tournament this early. As the Marines walk offstage a small round of applause and the clatter of thundersticks ushers them out. From the crowd, a faint chant from one or two spectators is heard.

“Ma-rines.”

They’re thanked for their games and time spent in Brazil. Despite winning a seed for the GPL, the Marines haven’t won a seed for themselves. Back in Vietnam, they’ll go to work against seven other Vietnamese teams in the VCS A 2017 Summer. In order to qualify for the World Championship, the Marines must once again win both the VCS A and the GPL.

As I watch them walk offstage, their expressions remain those of shock, not sadness or disappointment. They’re stunned that they didn’t win, not upset or sad at the loss. Even in defeat, the GIGABYTE Marines refuse to give ground to their opponents.

Emily Rand’s love of the 2013 KT Rolster Bullets will never die. You can follow her on Twitter.