2021 in gaming: Philippine esport teams take the spotlight

Michelle Lojo - Philstar.com
2021 in gaming: Philippine esport teams take the spotlight
2021 saw some Philippine esports squads rule international competitions.
Blacklist International/Team Secret Facebook pages

MANILA, Philippines — So many things transpired in the world esports scene in 2021. If the previous year had people adjusting to a more virtual world, this year saw people maximizing the continued necessity of going online as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on.

From the continuous growth of the esports industry to the Philippines’ dominance in different tournaments, here’s how virtual games and esports fared the past 12 months.

Growing popularity of esports

Esports has been taking the world by storm with the industry’s audience rivaling those of traditional sports. Though physically absent, esports fans made their presence felt online. The recent Valorant Champions in Berlin, though held offline, saw a peak viewership of over a million viewers. The Mobile Legends World Championship also broke its previous record of two million viewers — with the highest viewership going close to 3.2 million viewers — and was the first Mobile Legends event to have live spectators during their playoffs stage.

But the general audience isn’t the only one taking an interest in virtual sport and video games.

Last February 2021, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) released their Olympic Agenda 2020+5, which included the recommendation: Encourage the development of virtual sports and further engage with video gaming communities. With the recommendation, the IOC hoped to assist International Sports Federations in developing virtual forms of their sport. Prior to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the IOC held the first Olympic Virtual Series (OVS), which featured virtual versions of Olympics events Baseball, MotorSport, Sailing, Rowing and Cycling, paving the way for similar events in the future with the hopes of also including not just virtual forms of traditional sports but esports as well.

Besides the IOC, esports has also attracted the attention of streaming service Netflix. In 2021, Netflix released two animated series based on popular esports titles DOTA2 and League of Legends. 

DOTA: Dragon’s Blood premiered last March with a 75% rating on the review website Rotten Tomatoes. A second season is set to release in January 2022. 
League of Legends' Arcane made waves as Riot Games pulled out all the stops to promote the series. It collaborated with PUBG Mobile and Fornite to bring Arcane lore to the different esport worlds. Arcane premiered last November and currently has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the series being the No. 1 program on Netflix for the month of November. They received nine Annie Award nominations, with a second season in the works for a late 2022 release.

Filipino dominance on the international stage

The Philippines has always been one of the leading countries in the esports industry. The local scene alone boasts of diverse leagues with a lot of esports titles having a big fanbase. This 2021 saw the country dominate the world stage in different esports titles.

Last January, BREN Esports took home the MLBB M2 World Championship in Singapore against Myanmar's Burmese Ghouls. During the Mobile Legends Southeast Asia Cup, Philippine teams Execration (now Smart Omega) and Blacklist International assured the country a 1-2 finish by setting up an all-Filipino Grand Final, with Execration taking the crown.

Fast forward to December, another all-Filipino Grand Final was forged, this time with ONIC Philippines against Blacklist International, with the latter taking the MLBB M3 World Championship crown. They successfully gave the Philippines the Mobile Legends World Championship crown for the second straight year.

Besides Mobile Legends, Team Secret’s Philippine rosters also made waves in Riot titles Valorant and League of Legends Wildrift. Though unable to take part in the Valorant Masters: Berlin after ruling the Southeast Asia region, Team Secret’s Valorant squad shocked the world when they were able to make it to the top eight of the Valorant Champions. They secured a win over Valorant Masters: Berlin champions Russia’s Gambit Esports in their first map, and swept Japan’s Crazy Raccoon and Brazil’s Team Vikings. Team Secret’s Wildrift Squad finished second in the Southeast Asia Championships and made it to the semi-finals of the Horizon Cup, Wildrift’s first global tournament.

DOTA2 also saw an all-Filipino Grand Final during the Asia Pacific Predator League 2020/21 with bets TNC Predator and OB.Neon with TNC Predator securing back-to-back Predator Shield champions in the Asia Pacific. E-Gilas Pilipinas finished the FIBA Esports Open III-Southeast Asia Conference without suffering a single defeat and claimed their second title while Blacklist Ultimate stunned Southeast Asian champions ALMGHTY to take the Call of Duty Mobile East Finals.

Success soured by unprofessional conduct

Though the Philippine esports scene saw a successful run in 2021, celebrations were eclipsed by a wave of suspensions and penalties due to unprofessional conduct.

Last June, Riot Games initiated an investigation on Wildrift team Amihan Esports after allegations of “map hacking and inaccurate player documentation.” The allegations were initially dismissed but Riot had received new evidence in July, which reopened the investigation and found player Karl Ken "AMI Karlll" Bautista, as well as team manager Christian Villegas, and Amihan Esports owner Francis Mariano guilty of forging documents to misrepresent Bautista’s age. Riot meted bans to the specific individuals, with the team being banned from all Riot events for a year. Amihan Esports disbanded after the incident but has recently announced that they will now be moving forward to the “future of gaming”. The team has rebranded to Amihan-NFT Gaming.

The Mobile Legends Professional League Philippines (MPL PH) also saw its fair share of unprofessional conduct. Prior to the start of Season 8, Smart Omega’s Duane “Kelra” Pillas faced a two-week suspension after making lewd remarks against Blacklist International players Johnmar “OhMyV33nus” Villaluna and Danerie “Wise” Del Rosario, as well as sexual remarks about Thai professional player Chareeny “Ramella” Ramella. MPL PH Operating Committee then required all professional players to attend a "Gender Sensitivity and Sexual Harassment Awareness Training Seminar.”

Things between Blacklist International and Smart Omega heated up once more during the team’s second regular-season match-up when Kiel “OHEB” Soriano made an "unprofessional gesture" after his team's sweep victory against Pillas and Smart Omega. The gesture was caught on camera during the live broadcast of Blacklist's post-match celebration. Soriano was slapped with a two-game suspension and a fine from MPL PH, as well as a fine from his own organization.

A couple of days later, MPL PH issued new sets of penalties against Smart Omega and Nexplay EVOS after a controversial match with both teams allegedly not playing their best. The match in question was the last of the regular season and was dubbed by fans as more of a “show-match” than two teams competing. Both teams were fined $3,000 while players who took part in the match will lose eligibility to the league's individual awards. Nexplay EVOS' player Setsuna "Dogie" Ignacio was fined $500 and suspended for two games due to “making a prohibited pose”.

MPL PH reiterated in all their statements during the different incidents their call to build a more mature and professional league. “We will continuously strive towards becoming one of, if not the best, MOBA esports leagues and we will not let these incidents dampen the joy of competing.”

Rise of campus esports

With both the NCAA and UAAP still unable to resume due to the pandemic, inter-school competition took on a new avenue with different campus esports tournaments.

Last August saw the birth of the Collegiate Center for Esports (CCE), a collegiate esports league that featured 10 member-schools of the NCAA. The CCE’s exhibition match and the Mobile Legends: Bang 5-on-5 Varsity Cup (MVC) were met with favorable responses from schools this year, with the organization expected to come up with a regular-season calendar for aspiring esports student-athletes.

The country's premier campus esports program, AcadArena, continued their regular tournaments for their member schools: the University Alliance Cup and the National Campus Open, the latter being co-hosted with the United Collegiate Championship League (UCCL). The program also opened new scholarship awards, bringing the total aid up to P2 million during each award cycle. Recently, AcadArena secured the biggest seed round funding by a Gen Z startup in the Philippines. The program received $3.5 million or approximately P175 million, which AcadArena will use to pursue its mission to build a better and more inclusive experience for student-gamers in the Philippines. 

Esports community lends a helping hand

The Philippine esports community rallied behind different causes the past year, using the virtual platform to help different advocacies and to give back to those who have lost so much during tough times brought about the pandemic and natural calamities.

Last February saw the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) partner with Mineski for an online fundraising playthrough series during WWF’s Earth Hour activities. WWF also partnered with MPL PH to raise awareness of wildlife conservation.

PlayPark and its gaming community donated was able to raise more than P1 million for the Philippine General Hospital Medical Foundation Inc., along with several other charitable institutions that offer services to our COVID-19 affected countrymen. The amount was raised during Cabal Mobile’s Charity Stream and which the organization matched to reach a million pesos.

MPL PH launched last November their corporate social responsibility initiative, “MPL Cares”, which aims to empower local communities through different projects like donations in cash or care packages, and hosting webinars with local esports talents. Prior to the launch, the league partnered with ChildHope Philippines HQ and hosted a meet and greet with Blacklist International.

As Typhoon Odette devastated Visayas and Mindanao during the M3 World Championships, Tier One Entertainment co-founder and CEO Tryke "TryQ" Gutierrez announced their intention of using the prize money, whether they win or lose in the Grand Finals, to help out the victims. Tier One Entertainment initiated a donation drive that was initially set from December 21 to 23 but was extended until December 27, with donations pouring in from different parts of the esports community. 

International organization Team Secret held a charity stream last December 23 for those affected by Typhoon Odette as well as victims of floods in Malaysia, and the volcanic eruption in Indonesia. Filipino Wild Rift players Robert “Trebor” Mansilungan and Elezar “Azar” Salle and Valorant players Riley “Witz” Go and Jim “BORKUM” Timbreza participated in the stream, with all proceeds going to charitable organizations are work toward relief campaigns.



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