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WINNABLE: NOTES ON VIETNAMESE LEAGUE OF LEGENDS

AT 29 YEARS OLD, I am drowning in enough sweat to need a life vest, stuck in the dividing line of a Ho Chi Minh City street that is no more than 30 feet wide. I am waiting for the family of four across from me to brave into traffic first, and they are waiting for me, and this impasse continues for a few minutes. It is here that I best understand why Mufasa died when he was cast into a frenzied stampede of wildebeest. It is here that hundreds, maybe thousands of cars and bikes pass me by.  

Eventually the family takes the first step. The father holds out his hand to signal for oncoming traffic to stop, and, when they don’t, he takes his daughter’s hand and they move forward like a game of Frogger, which is exactly what people warn you to not do in Vietnam. One of the first things you are told is to just step into traffic with a constant stride and the traffic will avoid you. In theory this sounds really damn hard, and in practice you may as well be telling someone to throw themselves into a meat grinder. There is nothing intuitive about it all.

The traffic, though, avoids them. Just as they avoid me some moments later. And it is here that I first begin to understand Vietnamese League of Legends and what it means to just go.

***

MY FIRST MEAL IN VIETNAM is at a restaurant called Cuc Gach Quan and features seven dishes, including a purple stew and stir-fried cactus. Before I eat any of it, I have no idea what any of them are, but by the time the meal finishes, I remember four of them. One dish is one of my mom’s specialities: thit kho trung.

I’m at lunch with a fellow Rioter who introduced me to VCS Caster Hoang Luan (Lu for short), who you may not have heard of but have probably seen on air behind Phong Vu Buffalo in a One True King T-shirt, and if you are Vietnamese, then you definitely know him — with over 400,000 Facebook followers, he has a larger fanbase than most personalities (and even teams) in the LCS or LEC. But on the international stage, he has instead become the team handler for Vietnamese teams. To him, it is important for all of Vietnam to unite in support when it’s time for the big tournaments.

He waved me off when I asked if it was weird to just kind of become a “nobody” at international events and said he didn’t want the fame to go to his head at all, but it seemed kind of wild for me that a caster of such prominence would choose to take a much less visible role for the sake of his region. He’s a former sportscaster who has been involved with the Vietnamese scene since 2012 and recounts an old story of one of their first international broadcasts: “Two guys were casting. Two were sleeping right behind the desk.” He laughs thinking back on those days.

I am also told that at one point, Young Generation once slept on the floor of a PC Bang because they didn’t have anywhere to stay for a bit. These days, many more VCS teams own gaming houses, but matches are still played out of a PC Bang. They hope to move into a more permanent home so that fans can come show their support more frequently, but when compared to the big four regions, the difference in infrastructure is still immense.

Vietnam, though, is not lacking in passion. Doublelift has talked about how he feels like an A-list celebrity in Vietnam, and about a hundred fans line up outside the venue every night to cheer for the teams as they exit. There are tables full of team-related stuff to show your support, and thousands of fans packed the stadium every day in Hanoi. Big events like this are not par for the course in Vietnam, but maybe in the near future they will be.

I am thinking about these things when I think back on how Lu told me, “If you watch a VCS game, one of the most popular calls is, ‘It’s winnable.’ Every fight winnable.”

I am thinking about the language that slowly comes back to me. I am thinking about the food I have remembered. And I am thinking about the VCS — how all of it is winnable.

***

BEING WINNABLE, however, doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to win. Phong Vu Buffalo finished the Group Stage with a meek 2-8 record, with both wins coming against an erratic G2 Squad. Vietnam’s combined record in the main stages since Gigabyte Marines first burst into prominence at MSI 2017 is 11-32. Every single one of these teams has been eliminated in the Group Stage.

The Worlds 2018 loss haunted Zeros in particular, who felt like he played too timidly on the big stage. You could see him trying his best to fix that mentality even in the Play-in stage, where his aggression at times was way too forced.

“I deeply regretted not performing my best,” he says. “So after the tournament, I [felt like I needed to] reinvent myself to become the player I have always wanted to be — to be the best in Vietnam.”

I don’t think that feeling of regret has been exorcised from him just yet. He knows better than any of us that there’s still a long road ahead of them. Sometimes, though, if you focus too much on the destination, then you forget to focus on the steps it takes to get there.

After their first win against G2, the crowd let out a big sigh of relief. Their representative would not go winless. Palette says, “I felt absolutely happy to bow on the stage because you can hear all the Vietnamese fans cheering for us. When I started League of Legends, I dreamed of the big stage with this many home fans, but I did not dare to imagine I’d reach this stage.”

Being winnable doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to win. But it does guarantee you a chance.

WHEN YOU ARE ON THE BACK OF A BIKE, it becomes excessively clear that the pavement is only an arm’s length away from you. You start to think about how likely it is for you to die if you were to fall off, and you think about what kind of somersaults you might be able to do to limit the injuries. At any given moment, you might be surrounded by 20 or 30 other bikes. Families of four. A girl holding a new LCD TV. A man hauling dozens of boxes of instant noodles tied together by a thin rope. A woman carrying a floor fan. A man transporting ice — the bags dripping like they, too, are thinking about the pavement.

One thing you do more of in Vietnam is make eye contact with people. When you are crossing a road, your body language can say so much about what you intend to do. Sometimes bikes pass just inches in front of you or behind you. And, well, it’s a lesson in trusting complete strangers to not hit you with their death machines.

So you make eye contact with them. You make eye contact with other riders on the road when you are part of the traffic. You make eye contact because there aren’t as many lights to dictate the road, and even when there are, people will often ignore them. You make eye contact with them because their visages aren’t obscured by their cars. Their bodies instead cut through the air. If in America you are always watching cars and lights, then in Vietnam you are always watching people.

If in Vietnam you are always watching people, then you are always ready to react. There is a great emphasis on the individual in the VCS — the solo kills and the hero plays. The 1v1s and the 1v2s. The line between life and death is blurred.

***

AT TWENTY-NINE YEARS OLD, this is the first time I have been to Vietnam. My family left the country one uncle or aunt at a time the decade before I was born in Michigan, which is a state people don’t even drive through. Neither of my parents have ever returned, and even now as I am writing this, the little language I’d started to pick up again is returning to a dormant state.

Every interaction I had in Vietnam is one of almost-understanding. The sounds are familiar. The faces are familiar. Everything about the country has the feeling of an almost-home. There are restaurants and food I almost-remember, and there are gestures and clothing and even the way a taxi driver might run loops on me are familiar. There are exchanges where I am briefly mistaken for being fully Vietnamese because I can still say some phrases perfectly.

And when I am interviewing the PVB players, I can almost understand them. When I am watching their games — their seemingly senseless aggression — I can almost understand them. I always find that in dense cities, there is a strange comfort to being just a single dot in a crowd. There is nothing else that makes me want to be bigger.

And in the streets of HCMC and Hanoi, you can easily find men huddled on small stools. Sometimes smoking and sometimes napping. Sometimes it is children running between small alleys and tiny shops. Sometimes they are drawing on the floor, and sometimes it is an old man lying in a hammock under some shade. Sometimes old women will try to sell you fruit, and sometimes they’ll try to sell you teeth whitener.

There is a kind of persistence in these cities that I can almost understand. My upbringing, though, is very different, and so I will never fully understand. I could teach myself to just go, but it’s not the same thing, and it never will be, because I know too well how to not go. I could tell you that Vietnamese League of Legends is about being super aggressive. I could tell you that it’s about trusting in your own ability to create miracles. But these, too, are just almost-understandings.

Even if they aren’t winning right now, there is a non-stop-traffic kind of pace to their play. It is mesmerizing, and it can freeze you right in your tracks — sometimes in the middle of the road — and if you stutter half-heartedly into it, you might just get run over.

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