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The Rise of Sanji: From Red Bull Rituals to World Championships

Alston “Sanji” Pabico was panicking. “Nasaan na po yung Red Bull ko!” (“Where is my Red Bull!”)

Sanji pleaded for his favorite energy drink before ascending the stage for their second match of the season. 

ECHO has an unlimited supply of Red Bull at the boot camp, but for some reason, Sanji did not bring any to the Shooting Gallery Studios where their match takes place. 

“We asked Ivvi, our merchandiser, to run to Lawson just to get Sanji’s Red Bull!” Liwanag told this editor after the match. 

As Ivvi sprinted back to the holding area with Sanji’s pre-game ritual beverage, Sanji downed it with satisfaction. He finished two cans.

ECHO defeated Smart Omega that night, closing the series with a 2-0 score. Sanji was electric on the map, even devising a secret segue play with Jaypee and Sanford to break the Barangay Boys. 

“Eh Nakapag Red Bull ang Alston ko,” said KarlTzy in a Facebook post, showing Sanji downing the can. 

(“[We can’t lose.] My Alston had a Red Bull.”)

KarlTzy: ‘Eh nakapag Red Bull ang Alston ko.’

"Eh nakapag Red Bull ang Alston ko," says KarlTzy.

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Sanji was a lucky find for ECHO. 

In a conversation with ECHO’s country manager Mitch Liwanag, we learned how Sanji was a lucky find for the team. 

“We are lucky we have Sanji and Sanford. They have high battlefield IQ, and their decision-making skills during matches are on point,” Liwanag said, as she recalled how Sanford, Sanji, and Jaypee outplayed Omega, whose draft is much stronger, to win Game 1 of the series on March 17. 

ECHO’s Sanji and Sanford, aka SanSan Duo, are two of the league’s most lethal tandems, thanks to their unparalleled chemistry and mental connection in the game. They know what each other will do on the map without saying a word. 

Sanji clinched the Week 1 MVP in the MPL-PH Season 13, with a kill participation of 76 percent and an average KDA of 10. It’s a tough statistic to achieve, especially if you’re the midlaner. 

“Sanji displayed excellence in team fights and his timing with the use of his Novaria’s skills. It’s undeniable he’s one of the best midlaners in the country and was able to dictate the result of ECHO’s matches during the first week of Season 13,” the MPL Philippines said. 

Alston Pabico, midlaner of ECHO
Alston “Sanji” Pabico. Photo: Greg Mayo for ALL-STAR

Sanji was playing on a broken phone

Before he became a pro player, Sanji was playing on a broken phone when he was discovered by ECHO from the amateur scene. He was already a KDA phenomenon at that time. 

“Hindi kami mayaman, hindi rin kami gaanong may kaya, sasabihin ko nang mahirap kami kasi wala akong cellphone, wala kaming internet,” Sanji tells ALL-STAR

“Yung tanging mayroon ako ay yung cellphone ni Papa, hinihiram ko lang siya tuwing umuuwi siya mula sa trabaho para makapag ML (Mobile Legends: Bang Bang) ako. Sobrang bagal nung cellphone. Sira na yung LCD, basag-basag na yung screen, pero nakakalaro ako,” added Sanji.

(“We’re not wealthy. I can say we were poor because I didn’t have a cellphone and we didn’t have internet. The only thing I had was my dad’s cellphone, which I borrowed from him every time he comes home from work. It had a broken screen, and that’s what I used to play on.”)

When he discovered Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, he found it easy to play. 

“Nakita ko lang yung ML sa mga streamers, naglalaro kasi talaga ako ng mga PC games. Noong nakita ko yung ML, sobrang dali na lang para sa akin na laruin iyon.”  

(“I saw live streamers playing ML, that’s how I discovered it. I used to play on PC, but when I tried ML, I found it very easy.”)

Alston Pabico, aka Sanji
Alston “Sanji” Pabico. Photo: Greg Mayo for ALL-STAR

To be able to play for amateur teams, Sanji used his father’s broken cellphone, which he only had access to at night when his father comes home from work. Sanji was one of the so-called “RG boys”—kids whose in-game ranks are so high, they top the world rankings for certain heroes. He tried out for the amateur team White Rascals, one of the many amateur teams he would join before coming to ECHO. 

“Iniisip ko lang noon ay maglaro nang maglaro. Kung makapasok man ako sa MPL, ang gusto ko lang naman ay maging champion.”

(“I only thought of playing. My ambition was to become champion if I ever made it to the MPL”).

Ever since Sanji was in high school, his dream was to become a professional esports player and become a world champion. 

“Na-in love lang po talaga ako sa mga games,” (“I fell in love with games”), Sanji tells ALL-STAR when he was asked what inspired him to become a pro player. 

Sanji’s rookie run was a not seen since FlapTzy’s M2 

Alston Pabico, aka Sanji
Alston “Sanji” Pabico. Photo: Greg Mayo for ALL-STAR

In his rookie year during Season 11 of the MPL Philippines, Sanij played like a veteran. His play was so clutch, ECHO decided to let him keep playing instead of midlane veteran KurtTzy. ECHO shocked the esports community that season, soundly defeating crowd favorite Blacklist International 4-0 in a best-of-seven finals match. 

ECHO once again pulverized their Filipino rivals in a PH vs PH grand finals matchup at the M4 World Championship, sending Blacklist International home with a 0-4 record against the Orcas. For Sanji, it was unbelievable. He did not expect a rookie like him would win the MPL-PH championship and M4 World Championship in a single year. To this day, that championship run is the most memorable experience Sanji has ever had. Now, Sanji is part of history for being one of only two rookies in the world who won the MPL Championship and then the World Championship in a single calendar year. The other rookie was FlapTzy during his M2 run. 

“Sobrang saya ko po noong manalo kami sa M4. Rookie ako noon, first MPL ko, tapos first world ko pa,” Sanji tells ALL-STAR. “Wala po akong kaba sa katawan noon.”

(“I was ecstatic when we won the M4. I was a rookie, and it was my first time at the MPL, and then I was able to win at worlds. I never felt nervous.”)

But the two championships came at a cost. 

“Sobrang hirap ng mga sakripisyo. Malalayo ka sa pamilya mo, ang gagawin mo lang puro ML, pero once na nakapag compete ka na, once na nakipaglaban ka na, makikita mo yung resulta ng mga sakripisyo mo. Bilang player sa ECHO, kailangan mo maging consistent, magkaroon ng disiplina sa katawan. Nagsisimula kami 1 p.m., tapos tuloy tuloy na iyon hanggang sa matulong.”

(“The sacrifices are very difficult. You’d be away from your family, and all you would do is just ML. But once you compete, you’d see the results of your sacrifices. As a player in ECHO, you have to be consistent, have discipline. We start at 1 p.m. and grind until we sleep.”)

Snacking Sanji: Routines in the Boot Camp

Inside ECHO’s boot camp, players wake up at noon, eat breakfast, take a shower, and then start their scrimmages at 1:00 p.m. They take a break at 4 p.m. to hang outside and play basketball or work out in the gym at ECHO’s garage. By 5 p.m., they are back at the boot camp and quickly grab a snack before resuming their scrims until 7 p.m. or dinnertime. After eating, they play their third leg of scrimmages until 10 p.m., and then they do their nightly rituals. 

Sanji’s usual nightly haunts are the convenience stores outside their gated subdivision. He’d buy random things such as siopao, hotdog, or chips. He’d usually ask someone in the team to drive him there. Sometimes, we’d catch Sanji and his teammates on the main avenue at past 10 p.m., wearing flipflops and carrying their haul of snacks from a nearby store.  

It is these little things that help Sanji stay sane and happy inside the boot camp. 

“Palagi kami nagdyi-gym kami, basketball, at movie night. Sobrang importante ng mga iyon kasi kung puro ML ka lang, made-drain at made-drain ka talaga,” said Sanji. 

Sanji plays Counter-Strike and Valorant with KalrTzy during their free time. We asked Sanji if he thinks KarlTzy is as good on FPS games as he is on Mobile Legends: Bang Bang

‘Karl sucks at Valorant.’ —Alston “Sanji” Pabico, 2024. 

KarlTzy and Sanji of ECHO pose for ALL-STAR
KarlTzy and Sanji of ECHO. Photo: Greg Mayo for ALL-STAR
KarlTzy and Sanji of ECHO pose for ALL-STAR
KarlTzy and Sanji of ECHO. Photo: Greg Mayo for ALL-STAR
KarlTzy and Sanji of ECHO pose for ALL-STAR
KarlTzy and Sanji of ECHO. Photo: Greg Mayo for ALL-STAR

“Hindi magaling mag-Valo si Karl,” Sanji said sardonically, mocking the two-time world champion. “Mas magaling ako doon.”

(“Karl sucks at Valorant. I play better than him.”)

As midnight chimes, Coach Tictac calls everyone to the living room for movie night. Sanji and KarlTzy stop playing Valorant and obey the only man they fear. 

The boys pick another Korean horror film to watch for the night.

“Sobrang tagal na naming magkakasama, nandiyan na ang chemistry, nandiyan na ang bonding. Nakakapag-usap kami nang maayos.”

(“We’ve been together for so long, we’ve quite bonded and have good chemistry. We are able to communicate well.”)

Alston Pabico, aka Sanji
Alston “Sanji” Pabico. Photo: Greg Mayo for ALL-STAR

Unlike most of the professional players who were scolded by their mothers for playing too much video games, Sanji was left alone to play. 

“Gamer din kasi yung tatay ko kaya hindi ako pinapagalitan ng nanay ko,” said Sanji. 

(“My father is a a gamer too, that’s why my mother doesn’t mind if I played.”)

When he entered the esports scene, his parents just allowed him to play, confident that he would make it someday. 

“Kampante naman sila no’ng nakapasok ako sa MPL,” said Sanji. (“They were confident I could make it in the MPL.”)

And when he finally made it to the world championship, he was worried about getting on a plane. 

“Sobrang hirap na wala sa piling ang mga magulang ko noon, kasi first time ko mag ibang bansa noon, first time ko sa eroplano. Pakiramdam ko walang gagabay sa akin. Mabuti na lang, nandoon si Ate Mitch,” said Sanji, referring to Mitch Liwanag, country manager of ECHO.

(“It’s very difficult not having your parents around. It was my first time to fly outside the country at that time, and it was my first time on a plane. I felt like I didn’t have a guide, but luckily, Mitch was there.”)

Outside of work, Sanji operates a computer shop that seats 10 players and charges P20 per hour. He also wants to put up a rice store or bigasan, and a pet shop. Sanij loves animals and keeps a Chihuahua as a pet. 

Now that Sanji is a world champion, what else keeps him thirsting for more? 

“Sobrang sarap mag compete sa iba’t ibang bansa. Iba’t ibang team ang mga nakakalaban mo. Sobrang sarap sa pakiramdam. Gusto kong maranasan ulit iyon.”

(“It was very fun competing outside your country. You’re up against various teams. It feels so good. I want to experience that again.”)

As the youngest in the team, Sanji is quite content with what he has now, as long as there is Red Bull every time he plays. 

Alston Pabico, aka Sanji
Alston “Sanji” Pabico. Photo: Greg Mayo for ALL-STAR

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