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The Audacity of Coach Panda

“I want to create a team that is undefeatable for at least three seasons.” 

Coach Panda ascended the staircase and looked unsure about something.

“Am I wearing the right outfit? You said pastel. Is this okay?” Coach Panda asked while adjusting his suit and pants. 

The usually stern coach is not used to the spotlights and flashes of light from the softboxes. 

“I don’t know how to pose!” he laughs. “Just direct me, okay?”

Coach Panda has been the head coach of RSG Philippines since Season 8 of the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang Professional League, and was instrumental in securing the country’s first and only Mid Season Cup title in 2022. In the same year during Season 9, he led his team to its first MPL championship. 

Unknown to many, Coach Panda is one of the earliest professional players in the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang scene, starting in 2018 during Season 2 of the MPL Philippines. He was recruited by the team Arkangel, which scouted him from ranked games. Panda was 25 years old at the time and trying to establish a medical business in the Philippines. When that did not turn out well, he decided to bury himself in gaming. He played 35 games a day from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. 

Six years on, a lot has changed in Panda except for his dedication to the game and his audacity.  

Coach Panda: ‘I want to create a team that is undefeatable.’

Reeling from a painful fourth-place defeat in MPL-PH Season 12, which he describes as the most heartbreaking experience in his time in esports, Coach Panda opens up about why he’s still in the Philippines. 

“I really want to create a team that is undefeatable for at least three seasons.”

A brief silence punctured our conversation. 

“But Coach Panda, that’s never been done before!” we said. 

Coach Panda, head coach of RSG Philippines
Coach Panda, head coach of RSG Philippines. Photo by Richard Dizon Esguerra

In the history of the league, no team has won three consecutive championships in the MPL-PH. And throughout its run, only two teams succeeded in clinching back-to-back season championships: the now-defunct Sunsparks, which won the title in Season 4 and Season 5, and Blacklist International, which won back-to-back titles in Season 7 and Season 8. 

As we pointed this out to Coach Panda, his eyes glimmered excitedly. It was rare to see him get excited about something, like a child. 

“It’s never been done! And I want to do that! I want to have a team that people will remember as the strongest team in history because they won for three seasons,” said Coach Panda. 

“That is my dream team. And to do that, it would not only be my effort. All the players must have that thirst to win. They should be very hungry for a win. For three seasons straight. I know that’s very exhausting.”

In esports, it’s hard to stay afloat if you have no championship. And it’s been two years or four seasons since the team won any title. At the end of their Season  12 run, Panda was not even sure he could continue. 

Considering his background as a biomedical engineer who trained in the U.S., his parents, who are both renowned in South Korea for their professions, had very high expectations. This was the future that Coach Panda sacrificed for Philippine esports. 

“My biggest sacrifice are two things. First is my personal family time with my wife and my family. Second is the sacrifice of letting go of the opportunities that I can take at my age with my experience in other jobs in other countries. But I have no regrets. I did my best. 

Not too long ago, Panda was not even sure he was accepted by the Filipino community in the industry. That was until the members of the press bestowed him with the Coach of the Year Award in 2023. 

“That was the first award that made me realize the community welcomes me, and also that I am considered a respectable coach in this industry,” said Coach Panda. 

That night during the awarding ceremony, Coach Panda was quite unsure if he deserved an award. “Who else was nominated?” he asked this editor. “Coach Bon Chan,” we said, referring to Blacklist International’s head coach. “Oh, wow,” said Panda.  

It was like he could not believe the media would rank him among multi-titled coaches such as Bon Chan. “Over fifty members of the press voted for this award, you know,” we added. 

It was a night Coach Panda will never forget. 

 “I was really happy to receive an award and be appreciated. That was a really meaningful memory for me.”

Coach Panda, head coach of RSG Philippines
Coach Panda, head coach of RSG Philippines. Richard Dizon Esguerra

Another profound experience was when he was inducted into the Hall of Legends in 2022, cementing his reputation as one of the most formidable coaches in the esports scene in the country. 

“It is something I am proud of. Even though not many people notice me, I also feel that I have been part of growing the esports scene in the Philippines.” 

Coach Panda was one of the first coaches who started the trend of acquiring amateur players for the professional league. 

“In the past, teams did not look for players from the amateur scene. But now, all the teams are looking for strong amateur players in the MDL or even in ranked games! International teams also pick up amateur players from the Philippines. I am really happy to partake in that kind of improvement.” 

Of course, one of the star players Coach Panda picked up from the amateur scene was none other than John “Irrad” Tuazon, dubbed as the next Kairi of the Philippines. 

“I am really happy when I get players whom I feel will be a new start for the team. Just like when I first got Irrad.” 

On the battlefield, Irrad was a loose cannonball who liked to take creative and risky plays that paid out well. But he had a lot to learn in terms of discipline in play. Panda never really minded. He does not look for discipline or character in scouting players. He’s looking for something rarer: mechanical skill. 

“Number one, I look for mechanical skills. Number two, I also look for creativity, it is something that makes you distinct from other players,” said Coach Panda. 

Why isn’t he looking for disciplined players?

“Discipline should be taught by the coaches. All the players are actually very young and inexperienced in life. Coaches already have that experience in life, so they should be the ones to help players in discipline, and communication with the team.”

But sadly, just after two seasons with RSG, Irrad left for Indonesia’s RRQ Hoshi. It surprised even Coach Panda, who planned a whole season with Irrad in mind.

This is something he has learned about people through esports over the years. 

“Don’t expect and don’t put too much personal attachment on people, especially with the players.”

He pauses and ponders for a moment. 

“I had my MSC lineup. Some players rested. I took new players in. I was disappointed because I also got excited. At the same time, if the players want to leave you, no matter how much effort and passion you put toward them, there is no guarantee they will stay with you until the end.”

RSG PH’s lineup in MSC was stellar. Apart from the mainstays Emman, Light, Nathzz, and Aqua, they also had Demonkite, Exort, Kenji, and Kousei, who all left for different teams locally and abroad. It was a painful reality to embrace for Coach Panda as nearly half of his team was wiped out. 

With roster changes becoming a norm every season, this makes Coach Panda’s audacious ambition of making a dream team that will be undefeated for three seasons even more challenging. 

“I’ve always thought about that.  But slowly, I came to believe that if the players want to leave, just let them go. Because it’s not the players that make you shine, it’s your hard work and your brain that make you shine.”

But more than leaving a legacy of building the strongest team in the MPL, it’s something much deeper that drives Coach Panda’s thirst for victory: It’s his love for the Philippines. 

“Of course, I’m doing this for myself, but also to help the youth grow, mature, and improve so that the Philippines remains the strongest among all the regions.”

Coach Panda smiles. There is work to be done, and he is still far from the finish line.

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