Plagued by visa issues on countless occasions and classified as a wildcard region for a large part of competitive League’s history, the Vietnamese region has been one that has gone largely under the radar. Despite having the second largest viewership in Asia (behind China), with domestic matches being broadcasted on television networks and stadiums being filled out for offline events, it wasn’t until 2017 with the breakout performance of the Gigabyte Marines did the Vietnamese region appear on the international map to many long time followers of the game.
At the center of that performance? Crazy tactics, innovations and a jungler who provided the muscle that made it all work - Đỗ "Levi" Duy Khánh
With his name originating from the Attack on Titan series, trolling fans of the anime in his interview at MSI would come a close second to his nocturne play at the World Championship when it comes to the times the spotlight of the international stage was on him. In between and even before that, Levi has been long touted as top talent, often being the focal point of what many followers would call 1v5 performances as he would tear the opponent team apart in the jungle.
That summer of 2016 proved to be a rather interesting window of time for Vietnamese jungle talent, with SofM moving to the LPL the season before and a few mainstays of the SAJ roster retiring to pursue studies or a career in broadcasting. The Boba Marines (now known as Gigabyte Marines) swapped an AD Carry into the jungling position in the form of Tik, while SAJ, were choosing to spend time cultivating an underage Yijin rather than focus on their main starter Hanyian. There was a void and a throne as the jungle king to be claimed and that’s where Levi’s story begins.
The Vietnamese scene has been largely dictated by two influential figures in the coaching position, with Garena hired Lee In-Cheol being the coach of the Saigon Jokers and Saigon Fantastic Five organization, and Tinikun who was involved with the Saigon Jokers in the early days before coaching the Full Louis teams after a brief stint overseas.
The dominance of these two figures and the teams they led continue to be felt to this day, with the majority of top players in the domestic tournaments having been coached by either. For Levi, his start was not paved in the same manner to be gifted with the tutelage that many of other top Vietnamese talents had. His debut season on SkyRed had him finishing 5th in the domestic league while the Saigon Jokers took top spot. It was a difficult split for Levi and the SkyRed team, having just made it through promotions in the Spring Split and having to play on a broadcasted stage for the first time.
Despite failing to make the playoffs, Levi was hailed as the impetus behind his team’s success. Seen as a mechanically skilled jungler with a keen ability to bust the game open by hunting his opponent counterpart down, many considered him to be one of the best performing junglers that split.
Levi represents SEA at the 2017 All Star Event
A Taste of the Limelight
That performance earned him his spot on the Vietnamese All-Star team that went on to win in the GPL qualifier and then the IWCI All-Stars event. Casters and followers of the Vietnamese scene stated that this all Vietnamese roster and their performance at the All stars event would be a sign to come for the 2017 season, with a big shuffle on the cards for many of the teams and the possibility of Levi joining forces with Optimus on what would become GAM.
While many ridiculed the format and non-serious nature of the All-Stars tournament, for the Vietnamese team, it was all business, having to go through what was effectively a 3rd GPL before playing a 2nd qualifier to earn the chance to play in an overseas event and gain international exposure.
Despite strong performances in the qualifying run, their actual performances during the All-Star event was largely overshadowed by the big names and the format of the event. A decent run in the 1v1 bracket before getting knocked out by eventual champion Uzi and a highlight clip or so was enough to reaffirm the recognition of the local audiences back at home - Levi was a strong jungler. Still, the world had yet to take notice.
GAM get ready for their Play-In Stage matches at MSI 2017
The next time Levi would appear on the international stage would be after an undefeated domestic season where the team would qualify for MSI’s Play-n stage after a format change saw the tournament do away with the hassle of the International Wild Card Invitational.
Their performance in the group stage was dominant, bending the other teams to play to the paces of their unorthodox strategies and going for interesting combinations that hit from outside the box of what was considered to be one of the more narrow metagames in recent history that tournament.
Facing off against Team SoloMid (TSM) in the second stage of the Play-In would be where the team captured the attention of the world, forcing the North American champions to five games while once again forcing them to play to their pace. Forget what you knew about chaos style being defined by the LPL or the Unicorns of Love, GAM were all about hitting you when and where you least expected it. Running Ziggs in the AD Carry position (an innovation considered to be outdated by the first half of the split) and combining it with a Gangplank and Zed mid lane for some insane picks and map-wide fighting presence.
Shenanigans and cheese were the name of the game that GAM played and at the center of it was the jungler that was always in their opponent’s face, pressuring them with a pace many teams were unfamiliar with.
While GAM was unable to pull off the ultimate upset against TSM in the Play-In stages, they did qualify for the main event and continued to catch teams off guard. Before people knew it, the likes of Europe’s G2 and China’s World Elite were falling prey to them as well; their brawling style quickly snowballing leads around the map that overwhelmed the opposition. Still, the upset victories they scored were not enough to earn them a spot in the playoffs, but it proved to be a fresh breath of air for both the spectators who wanted to see a bloodsport spectacle and the macro connoisseurs who they impressed with their interesting tactics.
They didn’t win the tournament, but they won the hearts of the audience, and they left the world with two takeaways, that GAM isn’t afraid to redefine the meta and that Levi was a can put on a masterclass when it came to reinventing the jungling role as a carry position.
Lightning strikes twice
Earning themselves a guaranteed seed in the group stages from their performance in MSI, Levi and GAM did not let up in the Summer Split, finishing the split in dominant fashion once again.
Levi quickly became the face of the favorite underdog everyone wanted to cheer for as the team continued to score upsets against Fnatic and Immortals, most memorably with Nocturne catching Fnatic off guard with a pre 6 minute ultimate. Bringing tournament favorites Longzhu to a long game in the second week saw them deviate from their regular tactics, but it was a sign that the team had evolved beyond the tomfoolery they showed in the first half of the year.
GAM and Levi once again shocked the world taking games off of Immortals and Fnatic at the 2017 World Championship
It was clear that Levi was a big part of the team’s success and his superstar status was well deserved. That led to many cries from international audiences for him to be imported into a major region, with the GAM coach Tinikun personally helping to advocate the strengths and passions of Levi.
As with all superstar players, the inevitable question was posed - Was it Levi that made GAM look good, or was it the gimmicks and shenanigans of GAM that enabled Levi to shine the way he did on the international stage.
A flash in the pan? Or a legacy in the making?
While Levi has gained the adoration of western audiences in recent times, in the east and locally in Vietnam, many have yet to consider him their best jungler. When asked who the best player from Vietnam is, the response is almost always Snake’s Sofm, who went over to the LPL in Season 5.
The likes of jungle greats in the history of League of Legends have all earned names for themselves: Bengi - the jungle himself, Jankos - the first blood king, Condi - son of baron. Now without the mythos of the legendary warrior leading a bunch of ragtag underdogs no longer available to him, Levi would need to do more than just better than average if he wants to catch up to the celebrity status of his fellow countryman.
While the North American League of Legends Championship Series Academy does not host the highest level of competition, his games are still watched from all across the globe back in Vietnam by many. Having joined the 100 Thieves Academy team in Season 8, his team’s performance in the first split has been rather lacklustre, failing to make the playoffs by quite a wide margin.
With Levi only joining in halfway through the split with a long laundry list of things that need to be done in adapting to a foreign culture and learning english, perhaps some leeway can be given. Still, the cards are stacked against him and the expectations are building. For the Summer Split, doing just “great” is not going to be enough for him, exceptional is the word he needs to have people describe him as should he want to make an impact on the international stage once again and cement his status as a legend.
Photo Credit: Riot Games