The forgotten region: How Saigon Buffalo are putting VCS back on the map at MSI 2022

Andrew Amos
Saigon Buffalo at VCS Spring 2022 playoffs

It’s been more than two years since we’ve seen the VCS on stage at an international League of Legends event. For many, it’s the forgotten region. Now, young upstarts Saigon Buffalo have a big job ahead of them putting VCS back on the map at MSI 2022, and the region is hyped.

A lot has changed since GAM Esports were handed defeat by Splyce on Day 5 of Worlds 2019⁠ ⁠— the region’s last international game more than two years ago.

The Elemental Rift was added to League of Legends. The game now has Mythic items. We nearly had back-to-back Worlds winners for the first time in more than five years. Thousands of professional games have been played. There is a virus that has been going around the world.

Back then, there was talk about the “ferocious VCS style” that would soon return to the world stage, but all hopes and dreams were put on ice for two years as tough restrictions saw Vietnam left out of Worlds 2020 (MSI didn’t run), MSI 2021, and Worlds 2021.

The VCS has always been a region to watch in international League of Legends. If no one else was going to bring the fight, the kill-thirsty mechanical prodigies from the Southeast Asian nation would. They constantly pushed macro-centric teams to their micro limits, and it worked.

It was all forgotten, ⁠though — not so much at Worlds 2020, where there was a solemn mood about their omission. But by the time Worlds 2021 came around, the narrative had moved on.

MSI 2022 is a new chapter for the VCS, though, being led into a new era by a young team of untested domestic stars. There’s a slight bit of trepidation about how they’ll be accepted back into the fold, but in Vietnam, fans are glad that the region is finally back in the conversation thanks to Saigon Buffalo, who have two years of missed opportunities to make up for.

Phong Vu buffalo walk off worlds stage in 2018
Vietnam are getting behind Saigon Buffalo (formerly Phong Vu Buffalo) again at MSI 2022. However, the roster has changed drastically from the 2018-19 powerhouse.

What’s happened in those two years

While the world started running again at the tail-end of 2020, Vietnam was still under a strict lockdown. The visa situation made it impossible for players to travel out to China or Iceland and back. Local competition kept ticking along ⁠— even if disrupted, like it was in Summer 2021, with the VCS putting on a later Winter split to compensate ⁠— but with no overseas goal in sight.

For the region’s titans GAM Esports ⁠— who would have qualified for MSI 2021 ⁠— it was especially hard.

“At the beginning, we were very upset and disappointed because we couldn’t go, but we knew about the main reason why. We didn’t have much to do so we kept waiting until the situation was safe,” GAM analyst Huỳnh ‘HanKay’ Tấn Đạt explained.

The sentiment was echoed by star jungler Đỗ ‘Levi’ Duy Khánh. The shining light of the VCS and Vietnamese League of Legends (outside of Weibo Gaming’s Lê ‘SofM’ Quang Duy) missed out on an opportunity to go international three times ⁠— the second place in Summer 2020 and 2021 should have secured his team a Worlds Play-In seed, while the Spring 2021 victory should have seen him play at MSI 2021.

To see the rest of the world get the chance while he had to hang tight at home was heartbreaking, even if understandable.

“It’s been really hard for me especially since I qualified for Worlds,” he said. “I missed the chance to play at an international tournament not one, not two, but three times ⁠— four if you include this MSI.”

“At that time I was really sad but the thing is it’s happened and I knew I had to move on.”

It’s important to emphasize here that those were lost opportunities not just for GAM, but for the region as a whole. There are players who would have qualified for these events that are lingering on lower-tier teams in the VCS now, without an inch of recognition.

That’s something VCS English caster Tom ‘Carix’ Newing brought up almost immediately.

“The region is really hurt because the VCS goes through players very quickly if you don’t have international success,” he said. “Some of these legacy players like Palette and Bigkoro who have moved out of that role, part of the reason they’ve got staying power is they can point to international success. You have other players who are fantastic but they don’t have anything.

“Kati on GAM won three splits in a row and didn’t go international. Yoshino, on Flash, won two splits but fell off and will never go international. That’s where it really hurts, with players’ legacies.”

Levi and GAM Esports at Worlds 2019
It’s been nearly three years since the VCS went international with GAM Esports at Worlds 2019.

Saigon Buffalo is attending MSI 2022 in lieu of VCS Spring 2022 champions GAM Esports. The historic organization will instead be competing in the SEA Games, representing their country against a dozen other nations in the region.

“Before the season started, the SEA Games added League of Legends and they had an agreement with us that they’d open a qualifier and whoever won would go no matter what,” HanKay explained.

“We won the qualifier, and even though we won the VCS title, we have to stay and participate in SEA Games and second place would go to MSI.”

However, that doesn’t mean Saigon Buffalo is some pushover team. GAM did finish the VCS split undefeated ⁠in a “tier of their own”, Carix stated, with a 14-0 series record and only two games lost to rival T1’s run in Korea. Saigon Buffalo finished a respectable second, with a 9-5 series record, and tied for game difference with third-placed Team Secret.

In the playoffs, SGB just edged past their rivals to book a spot in the final against GAM Esports ⁠— and ultimately punch their ticket to Busan before even having to play in the grand final.

They are a young team about to take to the world stage, though. Their oldest player, Bùi ‘Froggy’ Văn Minh Hải, is just 19 years old. There’s some experience on their side with veteran Đặng ‘Bigkoro’ Ngọc Tài as a positional coach, as well as head coach Nguyễn ‘Ren’ Văn Trọng.

Whether that’s a point of concern though, is mixed: “One of the scary things about SGB is that they haven’t played on the international stage and they’re young,” Carix said.

HanKay took a more optimistic view of it: “They have Ren coaching them and he has a lot of experience, and the sub player, BigKoro, who was someone who destroyed G2 before [at MSI 2019]. They might be able to get past that [mental hurdle].”

Despite that, there’s a lot of hope riding on the aggressive herd stomping through the masses at MSI, and even though they lack the international reputation, they have the fire in their hearts.

BigKoro playing for Phong Vu Buffalo at Worlds 2018
BigKoro played for Phong Vu Buffalo, the spiritual predecessor for Saigon Buffalo, at Worlds 2018.

Unleashing the Buffalo herd

When you ask anyone about how Saigon Buffalo plays, you’re going to get the same answer.

“They’re young and aggressive,” HanKay said. “You can see the team in half of their name ⁠— they play like a buffalo, and they’re young. They are very surprising with aggressive play early in the game or even from the draft.”

“They’re going to play with no fear just like other Vietnamese teams you’ve seen before,” Levi added.

Saigon Buffalo are a dynamic team with innovative drafts. They very much value counter-picking, so much so that support Đinh ‘Taki’ Anh Tài has flexed onto picks like Camille, Sylas, and Sion across VCS Spring 2022. In terms of global champion diversity, he had some of the highest in any region ⁠— 18 unique champions in 36 games.

This is so they can get star top laner Lâm ‘Hasmed’ Huỳnh Gia Huy onto the best pick possible.

“We’ve been talking about this Camille support, like [Taki] went 5-1 in lane against a mediocre team, but it allowed Hasmed to get a counter-pick that went 10-0. That was the bigger part of that story,” Carix said.

It’s not the whole story even there. Jungler Trần ‘Bean J’ Văn Chính has enabled a lot of Saigon Buffalo’s playstyle with a heavy-invade, heavy-gank mentality, constantly keeping the enemy jungler on their toes.

“Levi is still one of the best players to come out of Vietnam, but he’s actually not in a league of his own anymore. BeanJ is right there with him,” Carix said.

“The thing that Saigon do ⁠— and you know they’re confident in a match when they do this ⁠— is they’ll play the first 10 minutes of a match scripted. Every movement is insanely scripted. The coach says, ‘You do this, then this, then this’. About 50% of those ‘this’ things will be gank, fight, invade.”

This kind of aggression is what has the VCS fandom hopeful Saigon Buffalo can launch out of the gate strongly at MSI 2022. In a group against hometown heroes T1, Japan’s DetonatioN FocusMe, and the LLA’s Team Aze, Saigon Buffalo can really throw them for a loop.

“If any team is going to beat T1, and I don’t think it’s likely, I think it’s SGB,” Carix claimed. “I feel like DFM play a similar game to T1, but they’re not as good because of course they’re not.

“However with SGB there’s like a 10% chance that they just come in and T1 is like, ‘Why are they constantly fighting us?’, and you just hands-check them a couple of times and win the coinflip.

“I’m not going to sit here and say SGB is going to beat T1 because that’s just silly, but if T1 loses a game it’ll be very likely it is to SGB because there’s just a chance they pick some crazy stuff, they get Hasmed a counter-pick ⁠— he’s insane when he has one, he plays the top lane Vayne ⁠— and maybe you steal a game.”

All this talk about unfettered aggression always gets shut down at international events. It’s an unclean style of play, one that gets cut down by macro gods like the LCK teams; that’s always the criticism.

A big stigma around the VCS generally is that when they come to MSI or Worlds, they just get one kill a minute and then fall apart with mid-game macro. Carix assured pundits “we don’t have the best macro, but to say we have no macro is silly. SGB can play macro, they’re fine.”

They thrive in chaos, and that’s what they’ll bring to the table. But League of Legends still has a traditional handbook on how to win, and Saigon Buffalo haven’t torn out the pages of that.

Putting Vietnam back on the map

It’s a proud moment for the VCS to finally be sending another team internationally come MSI 2022. Over two years without their presence, a positive aggressive force on the Rift, has certainly left us lacking a couple of barnburners.

However, for them, it means so much more. Finally, the region can start planning and preparing to have these opportunities going forward, and rebuild the storyline that was so swiftly derailed after Worlds 2019.

“It means a lot for us because we have something now that we can go to,” HanKay said. “We don’t have anything to worry about, no matter who hosts international events we can go. We have more to train and fight for, and we can set more goals as a region.”

There might be a slight bit of trepidation about how the VCS ⁠will stack up against rivals like the PCS and LJL.

“We were legitimately competing with the PCS for who was better. There was a huge debate between the two,” Carix stated. “However, two years have passed and it’s the PCS ⁠— you can’t have that discussion and be honest when one region hasn’t been competing.

“It doesn’t matter that they’re the second team, they’re the ones we’re sending. They’re going to make us proud, but it’s scary for VCS fans because we can do all this analysis but it could turn out that the VCS sucks.”

Evi Detonation FocusMe thumbs up at Worlds 2021
DFM will be Saigon Buffalo’s biggest competition in Group A.

Even then though, Levi, HanKay, and Carix agree just having representation is more beneficial than anything else.

“It’s been so sad to watch a region that is so different to other regions in terms of the way they play [not compete internationally] ⁠— they’re hyper-aggressive, there are no imports,” Carix said.

“One of the things that take away from other minor regions is they’re really good but they’re carried by their Koreans. When a VCS team goes international, it’s five Vietnamese players, some of whom have come from very harsh backgrounds.

“That’s why we love the region and it’s been so sad that people have forgotten the region. People have forgotten the VCS is there, [they say] that it’s dogsh*t. That’s nonsense. They’re fantastic, and we need to prove it.”

All eyes will be on Saigon Buffalo at Busan, but it’d be remiss to not give a nod to GAM, who are off fighting their own international battle at the SEA Games.

The two teams are likely to be the ones that will help put Vietnam back on the League of Legends map, especially with Worlds creeping up, and it’s the only goal Levi has in his sights.

“All I care for is winning VCS Summer and actually going to America for Worlds, it’ll mean everything for me. I can’t miss it, I really can’t!”