AT 11 a.m., the bootcamp day begins.
It’s a late start, but then again, Mobile Legends pro players have long days. Normally lights out for them is at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., and when their phone alarms sound off, the sun is already high in the sky. But when call time arrives, it’s down to business.
In the Work Auster Force camp, team manager Bhamba Bagting is up before her players, getting their things ready. She also personally supervises the first meal of the day. It’s a very important task, she says, considering the players she handles. Her roster of growing boys is eternally hungry.
“Mahilig silang kumain talaga,” Bagting said, laughing. Throughout the day, she expects to hear the constant refrain of “Ate, ba’t naman nagugutom ako?”
Meanwhile, at Aura PH, athletes are expected to report downstairs to the game room, fully dressed and ready for action.
Country manager Mitch Liwanag described the disciplined call times. “They are required na nakaligo na, gising na, kumain na,” she said “If they're not able to attend that exact time, they will be penalized.”
At Onic PH, it might be a bit more difficult to get the athletes up and out of their beds. Even at 11 a.m. “Di kami morning person lahat,” team manager Milly Dolor admitted. But she has a secret weapon up her sleeve.
She said mischievously: “Wala silang choice kundi magtiyaga sa boses kong napakalakas. Ala una, pag wala pa sila sa baba, sisigaw na ako dito!”
Road to manager
Before Bagting, Liwanag, and Dolor were team managers, they were players.
Liwanag remembers getting seriously into Mobile Legends in her previous job at a four-star hotel. The job, she said, was so deadening, that she would pull out her phone and tap away furiously at the mobile arena battler during breaks.
She eventually hit the global ranking. It was in Mobile Legends that she met her future husband, current Aura PH jungler Jaypee “Jaypee” dela Cruz. “Nagdu-duo kami, naging top player kaming dalawa,” Liwanag said of her days playing as “Mits”.
Eventually, she began drifting more and more into the managerial side. Her first manager gig was at the Digital Devils Demon Kings, but she was soon snapped up by Bren Esports, where she pulled double duty as the team’s coach and manager. There was one point when she was handling three different teams, including her own all-female squad. Liwanag’s also got national gold under her belt: She was the coach of the MLBB Sibol team in the 2019 SEA Games.
Then, in July 2020, Indonesian esports organization Aura acquired Jaypee’s team, MPL-PH Season 4 and 5 champs Sunsparks. As the team rebranded into Aura PH, Liwanag was offered a bigger role this time — that of country manager.
Like Michelle, Milly Dolor also came from another dead end job. “From call center to mommy to ML to manager!” she said of her unconventional career track. She started out by organizing a tournament in Iloilo, but soon became a shoutcaster, as well.
At Dream High Gaming — where the deadly duo of Johnmar “OhMyV33nus” Villaluna and Danerie "Wise" Del Rosario got their start — Dolor was assigned as marketing manager. She began building up the organization’s business side, and played a key role in the deal that would see Onic Indonesia acquire Dream High. The newly-minted pro team would then enter MPL-PH Season 4 as Onic PH.
Both Liwanag and Dolor recalled those heady, early days of the league, mostly because they always felt like they were surviving by the skin of their teeth.
“Nagtitiyaga kami sa sobrang liit na budget,” Liwanag said — a budget so small, she recalled, that they were happy to be eating sardines, or play on aging iPhone 3Gs. “And walang sponsors at all. Lumalaban kami na naka-black shirt lang, tapos ibang team naka-jersey.”
She remembered, “Sabi ko sa mga boys, 'Makakarating din tayo sa ano yung meron sa kanila.'”
At Dream High, Dolor said she remembers watching another team dig into a meal of eat-all-you-can samgyupsal, while her own players had to make do with corned beef sandwiches.
“Yung mga amateur ngayon, nakakaloka,” she commented. “Pag hinikayat mo sa ML, ‘Uy sali ka sa team na 'to.’ 'Ano sahod?' Ay sino ka? Sarap ganunin. Eto yung pinagdaanan namin dati: masaya na kami basta may pagkain kami.”
As the new kid in the MPL-PH pro roster, those rocky amateur days feel a little closer for Work Auster Force. They only turned pro this season, and Bagting doesn’t need to look too far back to remember those seasons when, as she said, “Dumating talaga kami mula sa hirap.”
“Ako nagpo-provide ng lahat, wala naman din kaming mga sahod, wala rin kaming mga gaming phone,” she said. Still, even with a slim budget, she wanted to reward her players.
“Every time na magtsa-champion kami, binibigyan ko sila ng phone,” she said as a promise to her players. She became as good as her word. Even if the phones didn’t all arrive at once, and the athletes had to wait a while before they would get them, Bagting fulfilled her promise.
“At least kung ano yung sinabi mo, matutupad mo naman. Kasi syempre, pinaghihirapan nila yan,” she said.
Now, of course, things are much different.
“Ngayon kasi, andami nang nadagdag, tapos, meron na kaming mga sponsors, may mga bagong cellphone, lahat ng mga gusto nila, nabibigay na,” she said.
Inside the Work bootcamp, Bhamba Bagting is a nurturing, motherly presence. She calls all her players “anak”, and back when they were still amateurs she took care of every little thing they needed. But even now that the team is pro and the number of meetings she had to be in multiplied, she still feels the need to be there for her players, the same way she was before MPL.
“Dati ako pa ako ang nag-aayos ng mga gamit nila,” she said, talking about her routine when she would lay out their jerseys for them the night before. “[Ngayon], wala na talaga akong oras.”
It’s especially taxing for Liwanag, who’s the country manager for the entire esports organization. A bulk of her day has her checking the giant machine that Aura PH has become, keeping an eye on every department and making sure that nothing’s gummed up the gears.
But even with their added responsibilities, these team managers carve out pockets of time to be close with the players. “Kapag tinawagan ka at kailangan nila ng tulong, like, anytime, you will attend to them. Kung anong oras nila ako kailangan, kahit may meeting ako, naka-mute ako, kinakausap ko yung player,” Liwanag said.
She added, “Every moment of my life, lagi ko silang kasama.” With her demanding schedule and the way the players have a habit of flooding her notifications with messages, she’s only slightly exaggerating. “I don't treat them na parang work. Kahit day off ko, kahit Christmas time pa yan, I make sure na kausap ko sila.”
It’s a feeling all managers can agree with. For them, the players come first.
Within the tight confines of a pandemic-era esports bootcamp, a little horseplay is unavoidable. Of course, we had to ask: Sino yung pinakamakulit sa loob ng bootcamp?
“Si Markyyy talaga number one!” Dolor said, laughing. “Mukha lang mabait yan. Di mo siya makakausap nang matino.”
Liwanag doesn’t have to think too hard. “Si Greed. Dyusko! At si Bennyqt. Nung pumasok si Bennyqt, silang dalawa, combo talaga.”
Bagting can’t decide which among her players would get the kulit top prize. “Gusto ka nilang buwisitin,” she said, barely containing her laughter. “Gusto nilang nagtatalak ka. Kasi one time na nagtatalak na ako dahil ang kalat-kalat — 'Ang kalat-kalat na, di niyo maayos ang gamit niyo!' So gagayahin ako ng mga players, 'Nya-nya-nya-nya-nya!'”
Pranks also abound. In Aura, players would sometimes put pancit canton inside the coffee thermos of “Ate Mits.” Meanwhile, in Onic, there was one night when a brownout hit, and the players would slowly, scarily open Dolor’s bedroom door, pretending to be the resident bootcamp ghost.
But, of course, it’s not all fun and games — even if the players’ profession is playing games. The pressure to win, the mounting noise of social media, the tough schedule of a bootcamp; it can get into a player’s skin. Disappointment and stress will wear even the most happy-go-lucky player down.
It’s then that the managers shift into another role: that of counselor.
“Nung natalo kami, yun yung pinaka nakita kong worst yata, yung na-down talaga sila nang sobra,” said Bhamba Bagting.
The entire team was fighting back tears, but jungler Shemaiah Daniel “Chuuu” Chu took it particularly hard. “Meron yatang nag-comment doon sa kanya na medyo intense, like siguro pinapagalitan siya dahil doon sa pagti-TP dahil wala siyang discipline,” remembered Bagting.
She immediately sat down beside him and gave him a heart-to-heart.
“Like what I said, I’m clingy,” she said. “Sabi ko sa kanya, 'Anak, hindi naman kita papagalitan. Hindi totoo iyan. Dahil kung may pagkakamali naman, pwede naman din ayusin.'”
Bagting added: “Hindi naman malakas ang players natin kung hindi kami malakas.”
As a former pro player herself, Liwanag knows all about bashers. “As in, minsan may mga death threats pa sa Messenger ko,” she said. “Pero that's the reason why matatag yung mga players ko, kasi di nila pinapatulan ng mga bashers, kasi nakikita rin nila sa akin na hindi ako papatol.”
She admits that her style is not as sweet as Bhamba’s. But in her own way, she hopes her own steely, no-nonsense facade can also inspire the players.
“We have to be strong,” she said. “Make yourself better. Don't stoop down on their level. Wag niyo silang papatulan, hayaan mo sila. Maging mabait ka na lang sa kanila, improve mo na lang ang sarili mo.”
At Onic, Dolor and her players don’t mind the bashers. Instead, after a loss, Dolor has a serious talk with both the athletes and the coaches about how to fix their mistakes. “Di sila nati-tilt dahil sa mga comments na nababasa nila,” she said. “Nati-tilt sila dahil sa lost opportunities.”
But what tilts Milly Dolor as a team manager? Surprisingly, she says, it’s the emotional attachment she forms with the players.
She remembers the time when OhMyV33nus and Wise announced they were moving to Blacklist International. “Sobrang hirap sa akin,” Dolor said. She had to go up to her room and cry.
On their last day, Wise knocked on her door. “[Sinabi] niya, 'Ate Milly, uwi na kami bukas.' Mga ganun. Sobrang bait kasi ng dalawang yun. Ginagawa nila yung 100 percent nila para sa trabaho nila. Sobrang mahal na mahal ko yun,” she said.
Her eyes fill with tears as she tells the story.
“Whenever someone walks out, it's really hard. One week ko siyang iniiyak,” she admitted.
She knows it’s part of the job. But over the hours-long interview we conducted with Bhamba Bagting, Mitch Liwanag, and Milly Dolor, it’s clear that this is more than just a job to them. They are more than coaches, they are more than operations heads, they are more than managers. Over the course of managing the careers of these young athletes, most on the cusp of adulthood, these managers see themselves as something more akin to older sisters… or sometimes, even moms.
“Family.” It’s a cliche expression, but a heartfelt one coming from both Liwanag and Dolor, when we asked them how they saw their players. And despite all the stress, there is an immense pride in all of them that they’re not just helping shape the industry, they’re also watching these talented young men grow up before their eyes.
Bagting knows exactly how they feel.
“Nanay din ako,” said Bagting. “Ang tanging hiling ko lang naman din talaga which is the benefit for my kids. Yun na lang naman talaga. Gusto ko kasi yung future nila, maging maayos sila.”