Back during the MSI group stage, I got to speak with Don, the branding, marketing, and team manager for EVOS. You may remember the EVOS Tigers from their MSI performance in 2018, beating Turkey’s SuperMassive to advance to Groups and then going 1-1 with both Team Liquid and Fnatic.
Phong Vu Buffalo (who has now rebranded to Dashing Buffalo) was then the second VCS team to make it into the group stage at MSI, and the region’s back to back qualifications have certainly caught the eyes of Riot. Despite another 2-8 finish, Buffalo’s compelling performance netted the region a chance to join the LMS to compete at Rift Rivals against the LCK and LPL.
Historically, Vietnam has not been in any relevant conversation around strong regional strength. However, after GAM’s performance at Worlds 2017, then EVOS at MSI 2018, and finally Dashing Buffalo at MSI 2019, they’ve become the strongest emerging region, and are on the hunt to overtake the LMS as 5th strongest in the world.
In his conversation, Don lays out the recent history of growth the region has had, as well as the main obstacles they’re working to overcome and how their MSI and Rift Rivals appearances will propel them.
First, why don’t you start by telling us who you are. What is your position at EVOS? What do you do, what is your job?
Well I used to work for Garena for four and a half years doing video work, running a show, and the post game stuff like interviewing after the match. Then I decided to join EVOS last year in June, mainly because EVOS had the first investor in Vietnam. And they did quite well, they were champions in the first season they joined. So obviously they had financial powers, but they also had a system in place that could help them actually grow on top of that. So I decided to join with them to help improve standards across the whole VCS.
We actually raised the players salaries, and then the media standards too. We made documentaries! We want to push the limit up to bring the whole ecosystem of the Vietnamese scene to a whole new level. And that’s exactly what I attempted to do in Garena, but I couldn’t. I didn’t have a chance to do that. They focus more on the game than the tournament [professional scene]. That’s just one part of it.
So in EVOS, previously I just managed the content and marketing. I managed the visual part for the players, the fanpage, the YouTube channel, the streaming, etc. But now I’m also an esport manager, which means I manage the team as well. Because of that, I can fully grow their platform. They grow from nothing – just a solo queue player – to having the skillsets of a pro player, to going viral, to having a YouTube channel, to having popularity within the community, to having a fan base and attracting those fans. That’s what I’ve been up to more recently.
I’ve grown a lot, and with that, the ecosystem has as well. The average viewership this year compared to last year is nearly doubled! We see a lot of change in other teams as well, not just EVOS. So there are some big investors trying to come in and actually impact our growth. We used to just have the teams. But now we have companies support the team and support the staff.
Now we have coaches – not just one coach. We have analysts. We have life coaches as well that help them grow not just in the game but outside the game as well. When they retire, they’re 25 or 26 and too slow in the game, but they still have a career after that. Besides their career, they fully grow as a person, as an adult. And with their career and popularity that they now have, it isn’t a bad image for teenagers growing up to see that.
So we are trying to fully grow them as an adult in a business way to help them continue life after the game. Usually people say gamers have no life, hahah, but we do. We teach them basic skills and responsibilities so they can grow after retirement. We haven’t come as far as we want, but we are trying. We know what our target is and we are working to get there.
That’s an incredible thing to focus on and an interesting approach to growing the scene. Can you break down the culture a bit more? Also, what are the obstacles that you have inhibiting your growth right now?
Oh, there are so many obstacles. There are many narrow minded individuals we must work around. We have to overcome [and change] the whole culture in Vietnam, so we bring in something extremely new to the scene. We changed the “gamer” into an athlete. A gamer only knows the game, they’re only good at the game. A player has to know how to play well with others and cooperate. Then, in the competitive scene, with traveling, jet lag, visas, the madness, you become an athlete. Oh and the fans, they have to know how to deal with the fans. It’s a very important part in an athlete’s career. That’s what I am trying to do alongside EVOS.
We now have a new roster and we are currently remodeling our gaming house. The prior management wasn’t that good, so I had to change a lot of things. So I hope things will come together and we will have a successful next season. Of course our representative [Dashing] Buffalo is also very strong. They went through their own obstacles through unity. So that’s what I’m trying to do as well. As a team. You have to do it as a team. With 5 people, 6 people, 7 people, it doesn’t matter. You have 11 people on football and if you play for yourself you lose.
You need unity in sport, and that’s what we are working to have in our team and spread that mindset to other teams. If we do, and if other teams in the league become strong, our region will become more strong. We will have more chances to attract more fans, big investors, and make a big noise throughout the world. We want the world to know us and respect us. Right now they’re talking about Europe, China, Korea, and NA. Someday they’re going to talk about Vietnam, like we’re just there with them. You guys have NA pride, and yeah we are going to have Vietnamese pride!
To be recognized is our dream. To be viewed as an industry, or you can even say an empire of esports, is our mission. I put that on myself six years ago when I started in esports. I was writing a script for another game, and I was a shout caster and translator, etc. But back then I was thinking, “If one day I can make an impact in this game, and make everyone love the game beyond being a ‘game’ but for it to become a sport, it would be the meaning of life.”
I was very young, but that’s the dream I carry. All my ideas come from that. I’m really thankful that EVOS contacted me and gave me this job, it’s giving me a chance to make this dream happen. Also, to any fans here or internationally that love games, anyone reading your articles, the world is going to change. But it’s going to change by very small factors at a time. But each of us can change the world if we change ourselves. One person, one family, one team, one community. Why don’t we just start?
That’s an incredible philosophy. You mentioned a lot of things I want to follow up on, the first is obstacles. I know every region has their own obstacles, but can you go into a bit more depth about some of the things plaguing the VCS scene right now?
The obstacle here is really that we are a third world country. We have very low common knowledge about the world and economies. We lack a lot of things because our system isn’t high enough. But we are getting there. Now that English is a very common language, and youngsters are more fond of learning English and learning quite well, that makes us more able to communicate internationally [and market to a broader audience]. But before, we didn’t know English. We did content with only ourselves. But now we understand the others’ content and the knowledge that flows through other regions. So we can read the stats and infographics made in English.
So that’s one thing. Another is public recognition and infrastructure. Now we finally have some investors where before we didn’t. At first there would just be a team supported by a cyber cafe. They’d put their name on it and use the esports team to brand their cyber cafe. It was just using them to say, “Hey here’s a team doing esports, come to our cyber cafe.” That’s it. Then Garena jumped in and did a very excellent job creating the whole esports system. It’s very basic, but it’s getting there.
But the public recognition in Vietnam still does not consider this as a job. Because of this, it’s very weird for someone even in their mid twenties to think playing games is actually good money. My parents don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Seriously my whole family doesn’t know what I’m doing. So to explain to them requires time. And even for good players to decide to have a career in esports, there are obstacles within their families and themselves.
They can argue that they’re still young, they’ll play a couple years and then quit. But the response is, “Nah, get a job, get a job.” And because of that thinking, they can not focus on the game since they see no future after this. And essentially, there is no future after this in Vietnam [in this field]. I mean you can become a coach, but how much can you get? You sacrifice your whole entire youth, but after the game what do you have?
That is the big question because there is no system after they finish. There’s just the team – the players and the coach. If you can not be good enough, and if you can’t become a coach, you have to retire and start your life over again. You didn’t have time to go to University, or at least you didn’t finish. So you go back into life with zero knowledge about actual life. Zero.
But that’s changing, and we have to be the ones changing it. We have to create jobs in this field beyond just players, like analysts. And other than that we have to create a system that gives benefits to those here and give them more knowledge of life. The mindset is the biggest obstacle. The money and stuff will come in after people start to think that they can do it. Everything comes after that. If you think you can, you’ll try it! If you think you can not do it, it’ll never happen. And everything you can see in your mind is only because it actually happens first. It has to actually happen. And then you have to see it and believe it in your mind.
So to recap, the main obstacle is changing the mind in the players, the community, the society. Because right now they think it’s not serious. Like, “These kids can’t get $10,000 to play a game, what’s the point?” But now Ninja with Fortnite – a game for kids – got freaking huge. Nobody would think that. So we have to change the minds of investors in Vietnam and start putting money in. The money will change the game, sure. But before money, we have to change the mind. It’s the biggest obstacle we have to overcome.
How do you think the region is at supporting each other? Some regions do it well, but others don’t. Also, do you feel like there are others in Vietnam working with you to lift the region up?
For me personally, I used to work in Garena, so I of course support every team. EVOS, Buffalo, Gigabyte Marines, any team is just the same. I am Vietnamese so I support the Vietnamese team that goes to the international tournament, right? So because we keep pushing the standards in EVOS – we even have a documentary showing what we are doing – people will see that and learn. They will see that and learn how we grow [at EVOS]. And because of that series, we will basically create a textbook for the esports scene in Vietnam.
We studied. We analyzed the scene from my knowledge and the coach’s knowledge. We understand the Vietnamese players and found a lot of ways to improve. So imagine in two years from now someone wants to build a team, what will they do? They’ll look at GAM, at Phong Vu Buffalo, at us! They have the role models to follow, they’ll know exactly what to do to grow. Their journey is going to be a lot faster. Not like us, we were the first. So our journey has to be difficult. But others who follow us, they will be easier because we’re here.
Before GAM we were nothing. Zero. Before them we couldn’t even beat Thailand. We were just the second best in our own small region. But in 2017, [at MSI] we beat Turkey [to qualify for the group stage]. Everything changed after that moment. Investors then realized, “We can go to Worlds. We can win there. We can become a representative.” We saw we could even become our own independent region…
While I worked in Garena, a lot of coaches and players actually sacrificed their youth because they believed in esports. They made it grow this far. So I was just one of the onlookers, but I felt passionate about their sacrifice and that’s why I want to now sacrifice my own time to continue that and push esports here to go further.
Everything begins with someone who dares to stand up and just do. And there are a number of people here in this scene that have done that, but you’d have to meet them to understand their story.
There’s always a story of a silent hero who makes things happen. Each region has their own problems, even the bigger ones them. And when we fix ours, there will be teams to stand up to them. Because we love the game, we will invest in the game. The mission is to create a community. And from that community the heroes will grow and make things change.
So you mentioned the documentary, is that something typical of NA content that’s done for fun, or is it just something done to help the scene grow?
Well, it’s quite serious, but it is very enjoyable to watch too. We call it EVOS Rawr [which phonetically sounds like “raw” with an American accent], because it’s raw moments and raw thoughts. But also we at EVOS are tigers, so it’s kind of a wordplay like rawr. But also you eat things raw, like fish and you [consume that]. So yeah, we also have English subtitles as well, so I can share it. [LINK]
We have two seasons so far, I started making it last year when we lost at Rift Rivals, and then this past spring as well. So this season we added the subtitles. But I think it would be great if international fans watched it to see how this region is growing. Because this past season, we were sharing our story and showing our progress, and then of course each has their own little story inside of it.
But it’s very fun to watch. In addition to producing this serious documentary for us, the content manager for EVOS is working on a short film to talk about the dream of a young player and the faith of the family that believes in his career. We talk about how that trust and faith connects the family. It’s quite short but I hope it has an impact on the community and society. That’s my whole mission in my career, to make things change.
Do you have any role models in other regions? Any specific things other teams do that you try and follow?
To be honest, I watched TSM Legends before joining EVOS. I watched Liquid’s Squad. And I grew very fond of The Heist for 100 Thieves. I enjoyed how Nadeshot became the spokesman of the team and explained everything so friendly, and he became close to the fans. That method is awesome. We try to produce our own as well and strive to be good. So there are a lot, I can’t say just one role model.
I just feel passionate about the system behind everything. The owner of TSM was the face behind all the pros and their careers, but then he actually took a step back to manage things and push things behind the scenes. So I grew far more passionate about that which led me to become a manager. I also watch a lot of Misfits’ as well because they basically talk about how they operate the team. It’s a lot more about operations than the actual pro players which is really nice because I can learn.
I know it’s a bit easier in NA though, because we in Vietnam are not public speakers. We aren’t good at that, even I am quite shy with it. So we have to learn. I have to learn to not lose confidence and just hide at home playing games. Hahaha. I want to go out! But that’s the direction I want to move in. I want our team to be more proactive in our video scene. They are establishing their own story. The younger athletes are now more confident. So I think one day, one day. We are getting there.
So since [Dashing] Buffalo got into groups this MSI, how big of a bump is that for the VCS’s growth (besides getting into Rift Rivals)?
So this is a huge moment since Buffalo won and got into groups at MSI, we may have two slots at Worlds and the VCS will be more intense than ever. We can say Buffalo is freaking huge right now, they’re strong and they have the most skillful players. Their roster isn’t going to fall apart, they have at least a year I think before they could really drop down at all.
So to get a second chance for worlds is a huge thing that will dramatically increase investor attention and the battle to reach worlds will be more epic than ever. I am so hyped this season. Players have more ambition and more motivation now to get that second spot at Worlds. That’s everyone’s dream to get to go to Worlds, and thanks to Buffalo, we have that.
Also, just the fact that MSI happened in Vietnam is really huge for the community and for public recognition. We have to thank GAM, we have to thank Buffalo, and us too at EVOS, which brought Vietnam more into the scene and got Riot’s attention to give them the vision of hosting MSI in Vietnam. It being here brings more attention to this game and to the esport industry as a whole. We will grow faster because of this and I believe that Phong Vu showed that we will all become stronger. The goal for all players is to get to touch the Worlds trophy. That would be a dream come true and I want that to happen. This helps it become closer than ever.
There’s been conversation around the emerging regions and which seems to be the strongest. It usually used to be Turkey and Russia, but now it seems a lot more like Vietnam is in the conversation. Do you feel that presence in the conversation? And how close to you think you are to competing with the LMS now?
Well, we make teams scared. We made Team Liquid scared [in the play ins]. Even Doublelift said, “This was a slugfest.” He paid his respect to Phong Vu Buffalo and our whole region. So how close are we? We say we are just right after them. We are there! Watch your back. We are there already, it’s a close, thin line already.
So sure Flash Wolves is still strong because their esports industry is more advanced than us. They have a strong region, they have the coaching staff and other resources, yeah. But we are very close. They even have Koreans in their roster, we don’t! We are all Vietnamese. We are just playing from our cyber cafes to join together and go to Worlds. We are a dream come true. So with everything we have now, with the system we at EVOS are trying to build, we can actually go to Worlds with a full Vietnamese roster. We’re getting there.
You mentioned earlier that money is one of the pitfalls. Do you worry at all about one of these big players here – lets say Zeros – going to another region like Korea or even NA etc. since they have more money to offer? Is that a worry or do you think that the players are more interested in staying here to help their home region grow?
I don’t worry about that because going to an international scene gives another spot for the VCS to grow, for young people to grow [and compete for that opening spot]. Also, they’ll see that and think, “One day, if I try hard enough, I could make 10K a month! I can play in Korea, I can play in China, I can go anywhere in the world and change my life.” If they see that, if they see their role model do that and see that target, they’ll want that. Before, nobody did it, so nobody ever thought China would one day want one of us to play for them. But now we have two players there! [Đỗ “Levi” Duy Khánh has since moved back to the VCS].
So yeah, it will make young players believe this is a serious career. Then they have a name to show their mom and dad. “Look Dad! This guy plays for 10K per month. I can be that, I am that good. Let me try. In a few years I can get there.” It’s not like they’d just believe us, now they have a name to persuade them. It’s big enough to go to national television. And then we will have more players, we will have a much more competitive scene.
That creates a more interesting league, and that attracts money, and that money changes the league again and again. It’s a very proud thing to see, our player is going to compete in another region. We will produce more, our population is huge, we will create more. It’s really only Korea you see sending players abroad, so now Vietnam is moving up. We are getting there!
This part of the interview was conducted a bit later, after the announcement of the VCS’s addition to Rift Rivals.
So the VCS has been given a slot at Rift Rivals now as well, how do you think that will impact the growth of the region?
Well, anytime the VCS enters an international event, it’s always great. Luckily we got the chance to attend again this year. We’ve been attending for two years now, but last time it was against the wildcards in Vietnam, and we didn’t win. That is a memory we try to forget! That was after our team was at MSI and then going into Rift Rivals was very hard and exhausting. We didn’t recover and perform very well. But this time we are traveling to Korea! We are facing the top teams, not just wildcards. We’re facing the LPL and LCK. We’re really excited for that.
This EVOS roster is really young and eager to go abroad. I’m really excited to take them there for their first international event. And we are going side by side with Dashing Buffalo – they are no longer Phong Vu Buffalo, they changed their sponsor. But [Phạm “Zeros” Minh Lộc] is no longer with them, he went to GAM already. So a lot of things have changed for them but it’s very exciting overall.
Were you expecting to be invited to Rift Rivals?
Well we were originally expecting to continue with the old Rift Rivals regions [the LCL and TCL] but a lot of things changed. And now we have Korea which is much more exciting. It’s a much more important and meaningful tournament now. We get to play against [Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok]! Against Griffin! And of course a lot of other stars, so it’s a really great event both for our players and staff.
We are really grateful for this event. It’s a dream come true for our players and even for me. To finally see Faker face to face and shake his hand, oh my god. Hahaha. I’ve met him before, but I was a cameraman, just holding a camera far from everything. Now I get to be with my team in this tournament, it’s incredible.
But anyway, we are really grateful for this event. It’s a really good chance for us to learn, gain experience, and have valuable team bonding. We will know how to prepare better since we are facing the best. So the experience is really valuable for us to grow.
Any major goals you have for the tournament?
Well I hope our team performs their best but we just want to make sure to take this as a learning experience. It’s like a mini Korean bootcamp. I hope in general we will gain more attention and each region will really compete with each other.
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