So when he asked his mother for permission to move to Korea with EoT Hammer — which would eventually turn into Rave — his mother understood the reason why. “I did work abroad before, so I know how hard it is,” his mom explained in DJ’s Manila Major profile, “I told him, ‘Is it okay for you to go?’ So he was saying, ‘Yes, of course mom, let me try this.’” [Scroll down to watch full profile interview]
When he left, he was a relative no name mid player on an obscure South East Asian team.
When he returned two and a half years later to Manila for ESL One and the Major, now as a part of Fnatic, he was widely recognized as the best position 4 player in the entire region.
For DJ, the pair of Manila events represented more than just a homecoming. It was the moment when he realized that the opportunities that he had once sought abroad were now slowly becoming a possibility in the Philippines.
“I never really thought that we would ever get these huge tournaments,” he recalls fondly, “When I was in high school, my vision for esports in the Philippines wasn’t this big at all. I never thought this would be possible.”
Standing in front of sold out stadiums, DJ was left in awe. “It felt extra special to play in front of my home crowd,” he confirms, “As a Filipino playing in the Philippines in one of the game’s biggest tournaments, it was amazing to hear the fans cheer my name.” He could feel the adoration through the walls of his booth — affirmation that he had come home a success.
In return, he treated his fans to a show, though his shy and reserved character still belie his penchant for the spectacular. “I think the fans were expecting me to do something crazy,” he admits about the pressure to perform, “But Filipino fans are unbelievable. They’re crazy about Dota.”
However, as big as the Manila Major was, DJ knows that much is still needed to raise the country’s profile in the sphere of Dota 2. “I think it’s important,” he says about holding big tournaments in the country, “It inspires a lot of young people to play and compete. They’ll start joining open qualifiers and hopefully get discovered.” Abed, Fnatic’s prodigious young midlaner, is the newest Filipino superstar, and he certainly won’t be the last.
Unfortunately, things haven’t always gone according to plan. The recent controversy regarding Galaxy Battles’ revoked status as a DPC Minor might have negative consequences for the region’s tournament prospects, according to DJ. “We should have just applied the local regulations for accreditation to local players, instead of extending it to international players,” DJ says with a surprising firmness, “I don’t think it was a good move.”
The government in the Philippines requires all tournaments with prize pools above $10,000 to have all participating players acquire local esports athlete licenses. With esports law still young and largely uncharted, the precedents are still unclear. Several high profile teams backed out under the belief that local governments should not dictate international player licenses. DJ agrees: “It’s too strict and too difficult for international players to get licenses just to play in one tournament.”
DJ and the rest of the Filipino community will hope that tournament organizers continue to consider the Dota-mad country as a potential destination for tournaments. Despite these setbacks, the Fnatic player acknowledges that in the long run, legislation might be an important part of professional gaming. For now, he has yet to notice any impact.
“Being recognized as an official athlete hasn’t changed anything in my daily life,” he reveals. It’s not surprising as esports and governments haven’t exactly collaborated on the issue for very long. “Personally, it doesn’t matter to me. But it does matter to a lot of people, including parents, sponsors, and government agencies.”
The one area where it has made a difference: immigration.
As an OFW, DJ lives in the Fnatic house in Malaysia, jetting to and from the many international events in which they participate. When he finds the time to come home, he’s greeted with a warm reception right at the airport. “Most of the people in immigration know me by now,” DJ declares with a laugh, “So when I pass through immigration in the Philippines, they sometimes take pictures with me. I’m really happy that they know me and give me an easy pass through. It’s nice to be welcomed home that way.”
Someday, proper legislation will hopefully lead to easier athlete VISAs and more support from the Philippine government. The country has certainly proven that it belongs among the best: 11 players from the South East Asian nation competed at TI7. It is a number that has grown over the past few years. Yet, despite sending the second largest contingent of players last year, no Filipino has ever placed higher than DJ’s 4th in 2016.
As the most accomplished player in the country, DJ recognizes that he has a role to play in the country’s esports growth. Aside from investing in a series of LAN shops — a throwback to how he started his career in Marikina City — he understands that he can serve as a role model for aspiring Filipino pros. The success of Filipinos in Dota is vital, he believes, “Especially now that esports in the Philippines is growing so fast. Hopefully we can encourage more players.”
Whether he inspires a legion of aspiring Filipino pros to gain experience in more decorated regions, only time will tell. Certainly, his example, and those of OFWs that have come before him, stand as testaments to the Filipino’s kagitingan.