Bloody and beaten, Nguyen “Leviz” Huu Doan hunkered down on the second floor of a decrepit hospital across from Duong “Sapauu” Cam Hoa, waiting for the right chance to strike. The rest of their PUBG squad had been killed, and neither Leviz nor Sapauu knew how much longer they had left. The sound of gunfire was coming from every direction.
Only a moment later, three rugged Americans stormed the stairs of the hospital with guns drawn. As soon as they hit the second floor, they turned down the hall toward Sapauu. Seeing an opportunity, Leviz emptied a clip in their direction. Disoriented from Team Vietnam’s split position, the American squad was finished by Sapauu and eliminated from the first match of the PUBG Nations Cup’s second day.
“We didn’t feel any pressure going into the tournament. We can get accustomed to any environment we get put in,” Team Vietnam coach Lê Đức “DjChip” Anh told me through a translator after the first day of the competition. “No matter what situation we’re in we’ll do our best. Our first win is only the beginning.”
Sixteen teams consisting of players from 16 countries gathered in Seoul, South Korea, for the first PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Nations Cup at the Jangchung Arena earlier this month. Team Vietnam finished fourth overall in the tournament, netting $44,000 in prize money, after dominating some of the best players in the world from countries like Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Vietnam’s stellar performance was an impressive accomplishment, especially considering that tournaments aren’t even legal in the country.
The scene was vastly different three months earlier when Leviz was denied the chance to compete at FACEIT Global Summit, one of the biggest PUBG tournaments to date, after his visa was rejected by the British High Commission in New Delhi. Reasons for the rejection weren’t clear, as developer PUBG Corp. had helped confirm Leviz’s documentation and reason to travel to London.
“Obviously, I was pretty sad and disappointed when I found out that I couldn’t compete. I wasn’t expecting the rejection,” Leviz told me. “But now that we’re allowed to compete here, I think we can take the accomplishments we’ve gained in Vietnam and do the same here. We have high hopes.”
While the rejection was disappointing for Leviz, it wasn’t anything new. Other Vietnamese players had previously been rejected from tournaments like the Grand Slam PUBG Global Event. Visa issues have haunted other e-sports in the region as well, due to the complicated nature of the US and UK’s visa application processes.
That’s not the worst aspect of participating in the competitive battle royale scene in Vietnam, though: PUBG does not have a license from the Vietnamese government, meaning local tournaments are run illegally. “In Vietnam, we’re working with partners to host events rather than host them ourselves. That’s due to multiple reasons and one of them is that we don’t have a government-issued game license,” PUBG e-sports director Jake Sin said. “That bars us from a lot of activities that take place there.”
The Vietnam Divine Championship, one of the biggest PUBG competitions in the country, was canceled due to the licensing issue in April. Its abrupt end has led some to worry about how sustainable the scene is in Vietnam. It’s not clear why PUBG hasn’t received a commercial license in Vietnam. (We asked PUBG Corp. if there are plans to go through official channels to receive that license, but we haven’t received a clear answer.)
Even with that huge disadvantage, a vibrant community of passionate players and fans has grown and continues to grow in Vietnam. More than 80,000 viewers tuned in to a special Vietnamese YouTube stream of the PUBG Nations Cup, and more than 50,000 people tune in regularly to local weekly tournaments.
“We looked at each country by their player base, e-sports viewership, and the number of pro players competing at the highest level within the nine regions we support,” Sin said. “There’s a robust e-sports ecosystem in Vietnam. You’d be surprised. There are huge viewership numbers, a lot of country-level tournaments, and there are always many Vietnamese fans watching international events. Vietnamese players have also really stepped up. They are one of the strongest countries in Southeast Asia.”
Sin isn’t exaggerating: Vietnamese teams, despite the issues they encounter within their country and when trying to travel to international tournaments, continuously place high in regional tournaments against Korean, Chinese, and Japanese teams. Those who have played against the Vietnamese teams know how talented they are.
Team Vietnam — comprised of Refund Gaming’s Trần “Nhism” Thái Linh; Cerberus Esports’ Ngoc “BAsill” Bao An; as well as Leviz and Sapauu, who compete for Divine Esports and Sky Gaming Daklak, respectively — made their way to Seoul for the Nations Cup knowing they had less experience and resources than most other teams there. But in the first match of the entire tournament, after 13 other teams had fallen to the wayside, Leviz and Sapauu handled Team Chinese Taipei and Germany swiftly to win the match and grab a chicken dinner. They finished first in that match to a shocked crowd at Jangchung Arena and racked up 62 kills over the course of the three-day event.
“Vietnam definitely came out strong. It’s game one, so if you hit your stride and get a couple breaks, you get the confidence early on,” said Team USA’s Keane “Valliate” Alonso. “To start an event like that, it’s easy to roll with it and feel like you could dominate the whole world.”
Vietnamese players had been known for their aggressive playstyle, opting to take other teams head-on early in the match whenever possible. It’s not something that’s vastly different from other teams, but European and North American teams had little to no experience playing against any Vietnamese players. They didn’t completely know what to expect.
Their quick tempo strategy worked at times — like during the easy finish to the tournament’s opening match — but it also failed them. At one point during the end of the third match of the tournament, only four teams remained, each sitting on a different edge of the circle. Team Vietnam jumped into three vehicles in a mad rush to find better cover within the safe zone. But only moments after emerging from a cluster of houses, Leviz, Sapauu, and BAsill were immediately lit up and taken out by gunfire from Finland, Russia, and the United States. It was a bold move that fell completely flat. “We were trying to go for the win there,” Leviz said. “But we had some kind of misunderstanding between us, and it didn’t work as intended.”
Mistakes are warranted as the PUBG Nations Cup is different compared to other tournaments. While it has the same standard ruleset as other official tournaments, players only compete in 15 matches, whereas other competitions contain more. Each team was also made up of all-star players who don’t play together regularly (with two players being chosen for their achievements and two getting picked up through a vote) meaning most squads were rusty with their game plans. The cup is a first for the competitive scene, but that doesn’t take away the fantastic performances showcased over the course of the event.
“I’ve cast for Vietnamese teams before at PGL in Bucharest, Team Divine. The first time I watched them, they stood out to everyone, they were just nuts,” North American PUBG caster Mike “Porosaurus” Navarro told me after commentating a day two match in Seoul. “They would see another team in a house, and they would just full four man crash it. They would team fight anybody. It didn’t go so well for them the first time. But the second time, three or four months later, they started winning fights and showing that they could play.
“We’ve seen them improving,” he added. “But the question was always: can they do it on a big world stage like this? Was the stuff before a fluke or is their scene getting better and better? Now, after other tournaments and this, people realize that these guys, as well as the others from Southeast Asia, can compete and win.”
Ultimately, Leviz and crew couldn’t keep up with the high-flying South Korean and Russian teams who opened a massive score gap between themselves and everyone else. While Team Vietnam is undoubtedly disappointed in themselves for not taking the whole tournament, they should feel pride at how far they’ve come.
“It’s about the pride aspect for them as well. They want people to not disrespect the Southeast Asian region. Unfortunately, in PUBG and in other e-sports, some of the Western teams do disrespect them. They’ll laugh at them,” said Australian PUBG commentator and analyst Jake “ZeNox” Brander, who casted the PUBG Nations Cup. “They’ll feel superior to everyone except South Korea. But this event is a chance for Vietnam to say, ‘Hey, we’re just as good as you guys. We just don’t have the infrastructure, viewers, or whatever, but we can still compete.’ They want the respect, and they’ve got it.”
PUBG e-sports are incredibly popular in many Asian countries, including South Korea, China, and Vietnam, with more long-term plans for growth on the way. So succeeding at the inaugural PUBG Nations Cup, which is effectively the World Cup of the game, is an accomplishment that could turn people’s attention to players like Leviz and Sapauu, possibly encouraging major teams within and outside Vietnam to consider recruiting them.
“I want to let people know that Vietnam is a strong team,” Leviz said. “Vietnam has great players, and we are here to compete.”