An ominous sky settles in over the Hanoi cityscape.
Outside Vikings FPS Stadium, the sky is a foreboding gray. Distant thunder rumbles and lightning casts everything in sharp relief. It’s Vietnam’s rainy season, and a storm is roiling over Hanoi’s corrugated metal rooftops. This is one of the city’s largest gaming lounges, and the sea of gamers inside is oblivious to the impending downpour. Leaning close to screens, their fingers dancing over the keys, they’re conquering bases and taking down enemies in everything from worldwide hits like DOTA 2 and PUBG, to regional favorites from China and South Korea.
The lounge is packed, and the red-backlit keys and sleek copper accents on the ROG Strix GL502VS are right at home in this vast expanse of glowing headphones and swanky gaming couches. A few games of Overwatch turn into a few more, and it quickly becomes clear how people lose entire weekends playing in gaming lounges like these. With a full kitchen, bar, and even bubble tea, who wouldn’t want to spend all their time here?
Gamers settle in for a rainy day at Vikings FPS Stadium.
But the plush surroundings can't take sole credit for today's crowds. A different storm is brewing just around the corner: ROG Masters Vietnam. In the nearby tournament area, five CS:GO players and their captain are crammed into a hot, narrow glass competition box, frenetically preparing for the impending match. Hanoian team Ultimate, or UTM, will soon be facing off against Ho Chi Minh City’s X.Rebellion in the first game of the ROG Masters Vietnam.
Their nerves are justified. The ROG Masters is the country’s largest national CS:GO championship, with a combined prize pool of over 200 million Vietnamese đồng ($8800 US dollars). It’s part of a completely unique esports tournament format that pits amateur teams against pros for a $500,000 USD prize pool and ultimate glory. Three of today’s four teams advanced through open and regional qualifiers. Some, like X.Rebellion, competed mostly against other amateurs. Others, like UTM Esports and 24BHB, were pro or semi-pro teams who were invited by ROG and battled their way through the bracket. And others still, like Vikings.Sabertooth, were invited to join only for this final gauntlet. Regardless, the ROG Masters are an opportunity for amateur teams to prove themselves against some of the world’s best. And the weekend’s outcome would not only determine the Vietnamese ROG Masters—it would also decide who moves on to the Asia Pacific Regionals.
Little rest, win or lose
“Tee” Phạm Hưng Triệu focuses intently during warm-ups.
But one step at a time. For UTM, today is all about getting through the first few matches. With the right combination of luck and strats, they might even make it to Sunday’s grand final. In the tense pre-match atmosphere, some UTM players slurped noodles from soup bowls, their last chance for a quick bite. Others, too nervous to eat, were already warming up. Eyes locked intently on the screens, mice deftly flicking, and monitor glow illuminating their faces, they took down bots with skillful practice shots.
Heading into the game, “kotk” Tô Thành Chung and “Naokai” Võ Văn Khoa were feeling the pressure. Despite school, jobs, and social lives, they’d been practicing every week, Monday through Friday, for four-plus hours per day. They were trying not to think too hard about the game outcome. But if they won, they knew exactly what the plan was. “We’ll be going out to party,” said Chung with a grin. If it were up to him, there would definitely be beers involved.
Other UTM players eat or chat before the games begin.
But if they lost? His eyes were thoughtful as he pondered the question. “More training, and focusing on the next tournament.” Win or lose, there wouldn’t be much time for rest. They were in tournaments every week, with the ROG Masters this week, an NVIDIA tournament next week, and online tournaments, too. Such is life as a pro gamer.
Then, just like that, it was game time. Soup bowls set aside, hands scrubbed on pants, energy drinks placed within reach, and headphones adjusted, they poised for battle. But could UTM actually become the ultimate?
No fury like a Sabertooth
The uninitiated might expect Vikings.Sabertooth to be full of themselves. Last year’s champions and one of Vietnam’s best CS:GO teams, they’ve got serious street cred. In 2016, they made it to the ROG Masters final round, and Vikings FPS Stadium is their home turf. They could easily strut in like they own the place. But, quite the opposite, every single player is completely humble.
"Xiah" Nguyen Vũ Hải Nam wasn’t at all nervous before the match. A 23-year-old marketing entrepreneur and seasoned CS player, he’s been playing for seven years, since CS 1.6. But he wouldn’t comment on whether he thought Sabertooth would win. However, grinning shyly and ducking his head, he admitted that if they did, he’d be saving the money for a very special purpose: getting married. (And yes, his girlfriend knows.)
Sabertooth players Oliveria and Xiah laugh while discussing what they’ll do if they win.
Losing isn’t something he wants to contemplate, but Xiah says that they’ve vowed one thing: “Never give up.” Not like they’ll have a chance to, anyway. Like many of the other teams here, there aren’t too many opportunities for breaks. In the next few weeks, they’ll be playing in at least three tournaments throughout Southeast Asia.
As Sabertooth settled in for their first battle, a group gathered to watch the action unfold. Time would tell whether their reputation as Vietnam’s best would lead them to victory.
A crowd gathers to watch the CS:GO matches throughout the day.
UTM and Rebellion squared off in their first match, and the Hanoians showed up strong. On Cache, Naokai was on fire, quickly proving himself with a five-kill streak on B site and unstoppable AWP kills. But in the second half, X.Rebellion dominated. They were clearly in their element as CTs, and they later dominated on Cobblestone, leaving UTM in the dust. The Hanoian team’s dejected faces were clearly visible through the competition window glass, but this wasn’t their only chance to compete. Thanks to the double elimination format, they’d get at least two opportunities to advance, including a lower bracket match. There was hope for them yet.
UTM lost against Rebellion, but they’d have another chance to compete in the double elimination bracket.
Then there was Sabertooth’s first match. The battle quickly turned against them opposite Ho Chi Minh City’s 24BHB on Cache. As the Ts, 24BHB were kicking ass and taking names. By halftime, Sabertooth was barely hanging on at 4-11. But by the end of the second half, they turned it all around, preventing 24BHB from scoring even a single point in a huge recovery.
In the second round, 24BHB once again gave Sabertooth a run for their money. 24BHB’s cLb got an epic five-kill streak in round 19, and the game pushed into a nail-biting overtime. Vietnam’s top team just barely eked out a 4-2 win. Their victory shouts were muffled behind the competition room’s glass but were nonetheless contagious. The crowd favorites were advancing to the upper bracket finals where they’d be taking on Rebellion.
In the lower bracket, UTM and 24BHB were matched in a best-of-one. And so the Saturday battles raged on.
UTM player “kotk” Tô Thành Chung had an incredible headshot in his team’s battle against Rebellion.
The surprise turnaround
Early Sunday morning, UTM once again faced down Rebellion. On Saturday, UTM had lost to them in their very first match. It was the game that initially put them in the lower bracket. Later on, Rebellion lost against Sabertooth, also relegating themselves to the lower bracket. So, the question on everyone’s mind was whether the outcome would be the same.
While this was UTM’s first big international tournament opportunity, they had just recruited "crazyguy" Ngô Công Anh, team Skyred’s sleeper hit at 2015 DreamHack Stockholm. Still, the situation didn’t start out well. Rebellion players Rap and Iris ambushed UTM on Storage Room, B site, and Rafters for a strong start. However, UTM quickly turned it around for a decisive 2-0 victory on Cache and Mirage. Commentator Mạnh Cường shouted with glee when kotk executed Zac with a lightning-fast squeak door headshot during round three. And on Mirage, UTM kicked ass during all-out brawls, including one that ended in a heart-pounding pistol showdown between Nort and Iris. UTM’s surprise victory meant they were progressing to the evening’s grand final.
Finally facing off
Come 6 p.m, the grand final arrived, and it all came down to Sabertooth versus UTM—Vietnam’s top team against the valiant underdogs. UTM had fought tooth and nail through the lower bracket to get here, but it wasn’t a walk in the park for Sabertooth, either. 24BHB had given Sabertooth a run for its money in the first match. Only late game recoveries had saved them.
Because both teams hail from Hanoi, they were all facing off right there in Vikings FPS Stadium. A crowd gathered in the main viewing area and thousands were actively tuning in via the Garena.live stream. As the players warmed up, spectators openly placed online bets and discussed the potential outcomes. UTM had their work cut out for them, especially given the fact Sabertooth was starting with a one point upper bracket advantage. In low tones, people discussed another unexpected twist: Hoag, UTM’s former captain, had recently joined Sabertooth. Now he was fighting his former teammates in the grand final.
Crowning the CS:GO Masters
First up, Cache, a popular map and Sabertooth’s pick. But UTM beat Sabertooth at their own game. They showed up with superior team coordination and owned during all-out melees. In the very first round, they picked Sabertooth off at A site, and they repeated this strategy round after round. A fifth round firefight led to a standoff where kotk not only planted the bomb, but also clinched another UTM team kill by shooting through boxes and walls, taking out his opponents one by one. UTM closed the game out 16-4. With the overall match score at 1-1, everyone was now waiting with bated breath.
Inferno was UTM’s pick, so bystanders expected even more ownage. But Sabertooth clawed their way back in a surprising second half twist, dominating 16-8. The most gripping moments spanned a blistering 31 seconds, when Shyn hung back behind the smoke in quad and took out three UTM opponents. Kim quickly mopped up Rambutan in balcony, then the Sabertooth squad surrounded Naokai in second mid. It was the round ten turning point that Sabertooth needed to get back in it.
With a 2-1 match score, Sabertooth needed to win the next map to take it all. If UTM won, there would be a fourth tiebreaker. On Cobblestone, Sabertooth snatched an early T lead, but UTM fought hard, pushing the map into a second half overtime. Sabertooth’s players grimaced on camera, rubbing their faces in dismay. Over the course of a furious round 33 rampage, Rambutan took out both Xiah and Tony as they snuck around a corner to B site, then quickly blasted Kim with his M4A4. Sabertooth’s Shyn tried valiantly to withstand the onslaught, but Naokai was UTM’s last man standing and put him out of his misery.
Initially, the overtime scores were neck-and-neck, but Sabertooth wouldn’t let go, first scrabbling into a 19-18 lead, then widening the gap. In round 41, Sabertooth obliterated UTM at A site and finally won the overtime 22-19, ending the white-knuckled frenzy once and for all.
Victory! Sabertooth fans in the crowd fistpump as their favorite team wins.
Taking care of business and signing all the necessary paperwork after a well-deserved win. Who knew victory was such hard work?
As the lobby stream caught up, there was also some delay to the Sabertooth team's reactions, as if the players weren’t quite sure what happened. It finally registered with huge cheers as they jumped out of their seats, grabbed their heads in disbelief, and hugged each other as best they could in the tiny room.
Outside the competition room, team Sabertooth held up their prize with huge grins. They were going to the regionals. As for the other teams? Although they didn’t win, they all had something to be proud of, from UTM, the recently-anointed pros who claimed second, to Rebellion, the amateurs who put the pros through their paces. Not only did these teams prove that they deserved to be there, but the ROG Masters once again showed how even amateurs have what it takes to compete with the best.
By Kimberly Koenig