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League of Legends

Saigon Buffalo Are Here to Fight

Nikhil Kalro

You’re an up and coming team from your region, desperate to make a mark, desperate to emerge from the shadows of some of the more illustrious teams in your continent. You have everything going your way when suddenly Covid-19 wipes out two full years and the very purpose of your existence.

saigon buffalo

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 30: (L-R) Bui Hai "Froggy" Minh, Nguyen "Shogun" Huy and Dinh "Taki" Anh Tai of Saigon Buffalo pose onstage after their victory against Isurus at the League of Legends World Championship Play-Ins stage on September 30, 2022 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games)

All the good momentum built up is wiped out in a jiffy, leaving you pondering a tense future. It leaves you with little option but to begin from scratch, put pieces of the jigsaw back in order, one by one. Except, there are a million pieces to be strung together.

But the clock is ticking fast. Before you realise, the rest of the world has moved on so quickly that it leaves you with no option but to embrace the new. You have to either shape up or ship out. Your pace suddenly has to be 100x. There’s a very realistic chance of all your good work from the past being consigned to zilch. 

Does this sound familiar? Well, it’s somewhat a reflection of what Saigon Buffalo have had to undergo as a team. It’s also a reflection of what they have to traverse going forward in the immediate future. Saigon are one of 24 teams at the League of Legends World Championships, there purely on merit. Season 12 of the Summoner’s Cup is upon us.

At the Mid-Season Invitational earlier this year, where they were VCS’s first Vietnam representatives since 2019, Saigon proved how good they can be, even though they fell short in the Rumble Stage. It was an opportunity that came out of the blue, especially after they appeared to have made peace with the non-qualification that hit them hard. 

However, with GAM opting to compete elsewhere, Saigon had a backdoor entry by virtue of finishing second.

While they performed creditably by easily qualifying through the group stage, they had to paper over some cracks especially while competing against tougher opponents. As the tournament progressed, their weaknesses against top teams from the bigger regions were beginning to be magnified even more, and things got tougher and tougher as they approached the Rumble Stage. Ultimately, they bowed out with a 2-8 scoreline.

You’d look back and won’t be mistaken to believe it was an abject failure, but in reality, it’s an event from which they would’ve drawn massive confidence from,  having beaten teams like G2, and demonstrated an explosive game style that caught several of them unawares. They came into that tournament on the back of a prolific run at the 2022 VCS Spring Split, even though they didn’t win the title (they finished second).

Heading into the tournament, they’ve had to overcome several roadblocks. Visas of their squad were in limbo, until a last-ditch effort has now translated into all squad members and coaches receiving necessary clearances, following second rounds of interviews. That they needed visas for both Mexico and the USA made things slightly tricky. 

But hey, what’s a visa hurdle, though, for a team that has seen worse? For a team denied opportunities to compete on the big stage for reasons beyond their control. For reasons like Covid-19, that caused border closures and mind-numbing quarantine and travel rules that nearly cut them off from the rest of the competing world. 

Their build-up has been steady, not spectacular. The critics may argue they haven’t won titles coming in, but they haven’t looked off the pace either, which is commendable despite the challenges they’ve ensured. Often when teams are denied opportunities to compete, you can expect the squad to undergo a churn.

Imagine players who spent more time training than playing matches. Several of them admitted to a sense of emptiness, because you’re training without knowing the end goal. Without a purpose. Which is why the players who stuck by and the team giving them an extended run proved to be a win-win situation.

Without any roster changes, they looked better with every series in the spring. And while they couldn’t beat their arch-rivals and fellow travellers to the worlds, GAM Esports, they really haven’t had it tough from the others.

Teams have struggled to even push them hard to the limit. Saigon overcame Team Secret in the semi-finals and then faltered to GAM in the finals. However, the mistakes they made in that final loss were corrected emphatically at MSI, where their explosive botlane traps and overall play style elicited plaudits from several quarters.

If spring was a stepping stone, the summer truly had them soul-searching, which isn’t bad for a team aspiring to be the region’s best. It was a reality check in the sense, as victories didn’t come easy and they were under no illusion whatsoever. Whatever could get tough, remained tough. 

They dropped to third in the summer, finishing with an 8-6 record and then had to battle inconsistency right through the rest of the split. With Team Secret emerging second in command to GAM, Saigon knew they had quite a challenge at hand to step up in the playoffs.

The one big takeaway from MSI 2022 was the strength of Saigon’s bot lane. It’s one area that gives them an air of intimidation, which they hope will work to their advantage. This is where Nguyễn “Shogun” Văn Huy’s skills will be mighty important. 

But as with any sport, this is a team game, and as much as the bot lane will be in focus, they will also hope Trần “BeanJ” Văn Chính, the jungler, is at the peak of his prowess. In the summer split, he landed 6.62 assists, second best in the team after Bùi “Froggy” Văn Minh Hải, apart from landing 3.89 kills and 2.5 deaths on an average. He is central to their plans of sustaining their aggressive tempo right through.

Unlike in the VCS or any of the local tournaments where Saigon have ridden piggyback on individual brilliance, the dynamics at a world event are totally different. As such, they’re in a super tough group with champion teams from three major regions. This means they will need to click together as a unit, and the cohesion they’ve developed over time, thanks to circumstances not under their control, will be put to test again.

On the face of it, they’re not a team like any other. When they’re good, they can challenge the might of the best. When they drop, they can slip behind so badly that you’d barely believe they’re a team capable of challenging the top sides. Therein lies a challenge. Not just for them but for the opponents, too, in trying to wade past their mercurial ways. 

One moment, they’re the underdogs fighting like their lives depend on it, at other times, they can be an immovable force riding roughshod over opponents that show inklings of vulnerability. For long, it’s this trait that has been the overarching emotion around the group. If they can translate that to more consistency, just like they have with their rosters, they can yet be a big surprise at the tournament.