Felipe “brTT” Gonçalves raised two fingers into the air towards the hundred-plus fans pressed against the barricade. They’d been screaming for him for minutes. His name. His tagline – “respect.” All those chants lost coherency once he acknowledged them and turned the air molecules into little hooves which barreled through the top floor of Rio de Janeiro’s Jeunesse Arena. brTT had mostly kept his back to them – doing his best to keep his attention on the people he was talking to. But he couldn’t keep the grin off his face. And it’s easy to see why. In a stadium hosting the best League of Legends player in the world, Faker, and Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldo, the most adored person was brTT.
Walk into the suites on that floor, though, and you’d find a bigger crowd thundering along to the 2017 Mid-Season Invitational Final.
One of the world’s major hubs for tourists was hosting visitors from all the corners of the League of Legends world. This was the largest esports event ever hosted in Brazil. It might be years before an event of this magnitude returns to the beautiful country.
And yet CBLoL’s biggest stars – those whose opportunities to play in front of a live audience are already few and far between – were mere spectators. Having been knocked out in the play-in stage in São Paulo, the CBLoL’s RED Canids couldn’t even make it to Rio de Janeiro. Whatever solace they’d find in the hallways – the clusters of fans screaming and asking for autographs and photographs – would be flanked by the crowd at large cheering as some other team claimed victory on their home soil.
“I was so sad when we lost,” said brTT. He stood in a suite next to me and watched as SKT T1 proceeded to secure their third straight international victory. brTT is a large man, and the tattoos on his arm lend themselves to his “bad boy” persona, but he is clearly happy to see so many people cheering. His love for the game and for his fans and for his country is at the core of his persona.
I was so sad when we lost.
“[MSI] was the first time we had a chance to play on a big stage and represent Brazil – against the best teams in the world. I was sad because I knew we could win. We had a team that could win. But other teams played better than us. A lot of fans bought tickets to see us, but we just lost. That’s what makes it so bad.”
Nearby were another 15 to 20 professional CBLoL players. The confetti would fall. SKT would hoist the trophy. And in those waning moments, perhaps, those players wondered what exactly separated them from that stage.
In Brazil, the phrase “O Jogo Bonito” means “The Beautiful Game.” It is, of course, about soccer. The country is famous for its soccer prowess – to the extent that Riot’s own Bruno “Butcher” Pereira, a former caster, says that Brazil’s entire culture stems from and revolves around the sport. Or, rather, it is more than just a sport. Or a game. Soccer there is religion. It is life.
“Joga bonito,” then, means “play beautifully.” The meaning of this is stretched and nuanced enough that any number of people might give you a different answer. It is a kind of duende – a passion or a feeling – but at its core it seems to be antithetical to the idea “the results justify the means.” It is the means which matter – it is, perhaps, more important to play beautifully than it is to win.
Joga bonito has trickled down to esports, for better or for worse. There is a major emphasis on individual play – by and large Brazilian fans love individual players more than they do teams. I am told the one exception is perhaps paiN Gaming because of their early rise to prominence in the scene. This intense focus on individuals means there is sometimes a little pressure to be flashy.
Murilo “Takeshi” Alves, mid laner for the Keyd Stars, said, “If you do a big play here, the crowd will remember you. Even if you lose, fans will say, ‘But duuuude. Nice play!'”
Takeshi is one of the longest tenured pros in the CBLoL scene. He has an unfortunate reputation for always finishing second – having now lost five CBLoL finals. But still he remains one of the most prominent and beloved figures in the scene. There are worse things than making five finals. I set out to see a bit of Rio de Janeiro together with Takeshi, INTZ e-Sports’ top laner Marcelo “Ayel” Mello, and INTZ assistant coach, Lucas Pierre.
We rode in a bondinho – a cable car – up Sugarloaf Mountain, a 1,299 ft peak that was recently declared a World Heritage Site. Rio de Janeiro is a beautiful city – mountains dot the many coastlines to create little bays all along the oceanfront. At the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is a panoramic view of the city that includes a good look at the famous Christ the Redeemer statue – at night a light projects a shadow of Jesus into the clouds.
At times it might seem like a mountain separates the likes of Brazilian League of Legends from Korea or even North America. But 2.5 million people tuned into the 2nd Split Finals of CBLoL 2016 — Brazil is far from being a minor region. Ayel and Takeshi also shared a fear for heights – they were not terribly fond of the cable cars, but I am hopeful it helped them build some courage.
“It doesn’t matter if you lost to SKT,” said Ayel. “If you solo killed Faker, you’re a fucking hero.” He grinned as he said this. Ayel is one of the rising faces of the CBLoL scene. He is the embodiment of everything you might expect from a Brazilian player – full of good natured passion.
Takeshi continued, “Individually the crowd would cheer louder for solo killing Faker [than for beating SKT]. In a dream final, if I got a solo kill against Faker like level 2… oh my god. Like I’m done. I could just pause and go [home].”
This was a sentiment that was repeated no matter who I asked. From pro players and personalities right to the fans themselves, they agreed fans preferred it if their favorite player solo killed a big name over actually winning the tournament. Over and over I was shocked. But when you contextualize it with the biggest names in Brazilian soccer — Pele, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Neymar, and so on — it is a sports culture full of players that are so individual they only go by one name. Esports is built on nicknames.
Ayel said, “Here in Brazil they follow individual skills and plays too much. When a guy solo kills someone, the people go crazy like, ‘Oh my god, he just solo killed.’ I actually don’t understand why in other countries people don’t value it as much. People go crazy here.”
I don’t know if this is a healthy expectation from fans, but perhaps that’s a pessimistic take. It’s rarely a decision between the two as big individual plays will lead to wins. But it may also be hard to yearn for a big international win when it seems so far out of reach.
The players, of course, don’t exactly brush this information aside. It’s not that they intentionally make bad plays, but there’s always a voice in the back of their heads reminding them they could be heralded as a god.
“Sometimes it affects me,” said Ayel. “I dream of killing someone or winning or backdooring with Fiora.”
Takeshi agreed and said, “Brazilians will remember every good play. If you did a pentakill today, they would remember it five years from now. So I think, ‘If I solo kill someone on this stage, people would shout my name.'”
Even when it comes to foreign teams, the Brazilian fans find specific players to latch onto.
“They are not cheering for SKT,” explains Takeshi. “They are cheering for Faker.”
Outside of Faker, the one player whose name kept coming up was one of his teammates: Peanut. Sure, there was Peanut’s highlight reel with 14 kills in 12 minutes as Lee Sin – that probably elevated his status in the fans’ eyes quite a bit. But the reason Brazil loved him was a lot simpler.
As Ayel told me, “In Brazil, we love cute people.”
“It’s a mix of feelings. I’m proud of what Brazil has accomplished. We brought MSI here and we see esports being taken seriously. That’s the good part,” said Takeshi. I asked him what it was like to watch other teams dominate on Brazilian soil. After all, the main stage was prepared by and filled with Brazilian people, and yet no Brazilian teams could grace it.
“But the bad part,” he continued, “is we tried a lot. We scrimmed a lot. We practiced a lot. And we still didn’t manage to get to the big stage. And every time there’s a huge final going on and I’m not there playing, I feel sad. I think, ‘Oh I should be there if maybe I practiced one more hour a day.'”
The CBLoL studio is tucked deep in the concrete sprawl of the Sao Paulo metropolitan area. On regular weekends, there is no live studio audience. Chances for fans to meet the pros are few and far between – and those pros who don’t regularly make Finals appearances don’t even have a chance to play in front of a live audience.
The way Riot sets up major events these days means pros are surrounded by fans on every side. Walking on and off the stage to the booming crowd is, certainly, a memorable experience. LoL esports doesn’t have home and away games right now so having your country host an event is as close as it gets to having a home crowd. And beyond that, the level of nationalism is amped up if it’s an international event, especially one that gathers the best teams from the world.
In Brazil especially the fans are hungry for more. “[Because] soccer in Brazil is almost a religion, if you are born here, your father will bring you a ball. For people our age, esports is second or third,” said Takeshi. Fans waited for his team in the Recife airport – where the BR Spring Final was played. They’d calculated the travel time based on a couple tweets. The chance to meet their heroes would not be overlooked. Even on Sugarloaf Mountain we ran into at least ten people who stopped the duo and asked for pictures.
My impression of the CBLoL scene was that it was very tightknit. From the Riot support staff to the players and the coaches, it seemed like they were all friends. Throughout the MSI Final they stopped each other and did secret handshakes. They hugged. They smiled – they seemed genuinely happy to see each other. It’s not that NA teams are necessarily cold, but they don’t share the same type of camaraderie.
That stems from their culture, too. “I think the passion is very good. In everything we do,” said Ayel. “When we really want to do it, we give it every we got.”
“Not just in esports,” nodded Takeshi. “In Brazil, things are not always that good. But we always try to see things in a nice way. The good part of things. Even when super hard things are going on, we try to put a smile on our face. There’s a phrase, “Brasileiro nunca desiste,” that means Brazilians never give up. No matter what’s going on – in our families, in Brazil in general – the Brazilian people will always try.”
“Faker did something almost impossible,” said Takeshi. In one of the games between SKT and the Flash Wolves, Faker forced Maple’s LeBlanc out of lane at level 1 and went up 11 or 12 CS to 0 immediately. “But it’s Faker, you know?”
The Brazilian players don’t feel like they’re mechanically behind the other regions. Ayel thinks they may even be better. It’s not a lack of talent or player base or interest that’s keeping Brazil behind. But League of Legends’ ceiling becomes limitless once you factor in team play and coordination – and the backbone of all this is decision making. This is where Brazil falters.
Ayel said, “I actually identify myself with Smeb – because he has a dark past. He wasn’t as good. But now he’s really good. And I feel like that too. I was really bad and I didn’t know how to improve. I tried hard but I didn’t know where to start.”
“We’ve only had a stage where we could go play since 2015. So we are newer to being really professional,” elaborated Pierre. The assistant coach was quiet during the trip and generally deferred the time to the players instead.
He continued, “We are a newer region to LoL. Our players are getting better and better but our coaches are just beginning. We don’t have a culture like Korea. They have like 10 years in advance because of [StarCraft] Brood War. Recently [coaches and analysts] come from elsewhere – those guys bring some experience so we can develop new staff.”
A few Korean players have spent some time in Brazil – mostly notably Crown and Olleh – but they alone couldn’t elevate the region to a Worlds contender. At the end of the day, it seems it comes down to having a proper support structure to help the players elevate their macro play. As Pierre suggested, development of the coaching staff and infrastructure may be the most important thing.
This is a consistent theme across all the major regions of the world. EU and NA teams didn’t grow their staff just for looks. There is still, however, a big lack of experience when it comes to coaches and staff. Only a handful of people have more than a couple years of coaching experience – you won’t find many wily veterans with a decade or more of experience outside of Korea.
Takeshi added, “I think we don’t adapt really well. Like you look at SKT and they adapt to the meta really quickly. Maybe they create their own meta and Brazil tries to copy that a lot. It makes us be one step behind every time. That’s a thing we are trying to develop.”
“In Brazil, we never innovate,” said Ayel. “We always watch NA or KR and then we copy from them. I feel like we need to innovate and create our own meta or playstyle. Like the [Gigabyte] Marines – they created their own style and made playoffs”.
“Like they even swap lanes. That’s a thing nobody does [anymore]. If you get caught off guard by that you just lose the game,” said Takeshi.
The run that Vietnam’s Marines made at MSI could be a major point in history for the up-and-coming regions of the League of Legends world. League of Legends is a game with one ultimate objective: the destruction of the opponent’s Nexus. There are limitless avenues to get to that point. I wonder, too, if Brazil can develop a style of play to take to the world stage with them. Perhaps it’ll rely on their players making flashy individual plays — even if it seems counterintuitive to how everyone else plays League of Legends.
Until then, though, they are still left a little in awe and maybe disappointment by the disparity. “The part that blows our minds,” said Takeshi, “is we didn’t win against SuperMassive, and SuperMassive didn’t win against the Marines — the Marines stomped SuperMassive. And then the Marines go to big stage and get crushed by SKT.
“So we said, ‘Okay we need to think about doing things in a different way. The way we have been doing things are not paying off.'”
One of the most prominent coaches in CBLoL history was former paiN Gaming support player – and later head coach – Gabriel “MiT” Souza. When I sat down and talked to him, he was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do next – one thing he considered was attempting to shadow coaches in other regions to further develop his ability. I wanted to learn more about the people who spearheaded the coaching infrastructure in Brazil.
“I saw HotshotGG play Nidalee and I saw the potential in the game,” said MiT. Esports was a risk in Brazil like in every region – dropping out of school to pursue a career is an incredibly tough choice. And in Brazil, it was perhaps even more difficult considering just 10 years ago owning a computer was much rarer.
MiT said, “I didn’t have a computer. My family is not that poor, but we couldn’t afford it. We were medium. [Then for my birthday], my sister asked me what I wanted – I said a computer. In high school, we had a crisis with money.
“We couldn’t buy my books for example. So what my Mom said was you need to get into college. So I said to my sister just get me a computer so I can use the computer to be good at studying to get into college. So I got a computer and studied a lot and got into college, but I still played DotA a lot. I just study, play. Study, play.”
Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were wonderful cities to visit. Drive in and out of the city, though, and you’d see a clear difference between some of the different neighborhoods. It wasn’t just the favelas. On one stretch of highway leading to the studio, a concrete wall with barbed wiring laced across the top of it seemed only to serve as a barrier. From what I didn’t know – maybe just the view.
Parts of the city had a dystopian feel to it. As an outsider I fell decidedly on one side of the wall. This is the type of thing that’s easily brushed to the side when comparing some of the major regions with the likes of Brazil or Vietnam.
These days, though, many people in Brazil have computers – it’s the internet that is costly, but even that’s become good enough to at least play League of Legends. And MiT at least doesn’t think this has too much impact on the CBLoL scene being a step behind.
“In Korea,” he said, “When you are growing up, you have a responsibility to be good at one thing. Everytime I see their parents, it’s ‘you need to study you need to be the best.’ In Brazil, parents are softer. They don’t have such high expectations for their kids.”
Cultural differences play a huge role in a player’s mentality and approach to competition. That’s the type of thing that’s impossible for regions to emulate. And it’s why it’s so critical to develop your own style – teams and regions need to figure out the type of play and regimen that best suits their players.
MiT said you can see some of the emphasis on individual plays even in solo queue. It trickles down from the big streamers like brTT. “For example, brTT is a bad boy and everyone wants to be like him,” said MiT. “When he kills someone, he says, ‘Respect.'” It’s a tagline akin to saying, “Who do you think you’re dealing with?” That in itself may be fine, but if it causes players to put themselves in more situations like that, then perhaps it may create bad habits.
MiT said the players just suck at making decisions. Their individual mechanics do not suck. For example, instead of rotating to take a turret, “Sometimes they prefer to stay and get one more wave for farm to get a bigger number. They think, ‘I have 100 CS and the other guy has 95.'”
Ultimately, for MiT, these smaller personality quirks aren’t the reason teams lag behind in Brazil. The passion – the moments of joy – those things are good for the game and for the scene. The Brazilian players are perhaps the most expressive in the world. This makes it very easy to want to root for them.
All that’s left is for the right investors to come along to see that energy. With that comes more staff. With the right personnel, Brazil may be able to channel their passion into a true tidal wave towards the world stage. It will likely be at least a year before they can start those ripples but Takeshi believes they may surprise some people as soon as this Worlds.
It’s tough to buy into the hype until they prove themselves, though. Brazil is also not the only region with grand aspirations. The Marines’ run can be pointed at by any single team in the world now. It is not impossible to stand on the big stage with the big names. All it takes is, as was the case of the Marines, a lot of fight.
Ayel said something that really stuck with me. He said, “The world is moved by the internet. And esports is part of that.”
It’s only a matter of time before the playing ground levels out.
On one of my last days in Brazil, I was presented with two options. One was to climb up to Christ the Redeemer – the biggest tourist attraction in all of Brazil, and the other was visit a bar that sat at the top of a favela. The latter now becoming more and more of a tourist destination. Even if at night you can see men with machine guns. I went with the guns.
On the way there, I was told we’d pay some gang members to take us up to the hill. I was told that would “buy us protection.” But we lucked out and our driver decided to go up with us. He wanted to see the top of the favela as well. It was one of the safest ones. To this day, I’m still not sure if the danger was exaggerated, or if I’m being flippant.
But at the top of the big hill you could see the whole coastline. All the big beaches just in the distance. Just beyond the big mountains which pillared into the sky like crops. And just before that the tightly packed favela full of people who must have thought I was dumb as hell for being there.
I tell you this story because that was the moment that best captured my time in Brazil and my understanding of the CBLoL scene. There are lots of concerns, yes, but there is beauty. There are millions of people there who make it work. And amongst them are those who might move with the internet.
Those with the kind of passion to turn a knife kill in Counter-Strike at a cyber cafe into a fond memory of times past. Those who can turn a 500 capacity stadium into a sound worthy of 5,000. Those who might skip out on a Grand Final featuring the best team in the world just for a glimpse of their favorite player. That is what joga bonito meant to me.
Brazil didn’t have a chance to properly display “joga bonito” at MSI. I think there’s a world in which Brazilian players can flex their muscles on the Rift. They can play beautifully. And even if League of Legends is a team-oriented game, big individual plays can open a lot different options for macro level calls. The solo plays are, of course, risky. But perhaps that is a style they can develop — one that is unique to Brazil and is simultaneously symbolic of their culture. After all, they don’t really have much to lose. Their fans already love them.
“I will do everything I can to be there to represent my country.”
“We are in Rio, you know?” said brTT. “That’s my city. I have a lot of fans here. More than in Sao Paulo. People always get crazy when I talk with them. When they see me – that’s the best thing. There’s no money that can compare.”
brTT, too, matured in cyber cafes. He’s seen the fights. He’s been right in the middle of them. Virtual knife in someone else’s back. Virtual knife in his. For now, the knife stays there – lodged between the great joy brought to him by his fans and from missing out on that grand stage. What’s next is the largest stage possible.
“I want to go to Worlds,” he said. “It should be me. I will do everything I can – no matter how many times I need to try to be there to represent my country.”