(Banner image: Ubisoft/Joao Ferreira)
It’s taken a while, but the Koreans that terrorized APAC North in 2020 are back. They sport a new coat of paint, SANDBOX Gaming, instead of the Cloud9 banner we saw them play under at SI 2021.
Cloud9 dropped the team just days before the Mexico Major commenced, but the team had not even made it there after an abject Stage 2 APAC North performance. Reverting to the mantisFPS moniker, and out in search for an organization, the former Cloud9 players could only watch their compatriots on DWG KIA light up the stage from afar.
One may have thought that Cloud9’s shaky performance at SI 2021, which featured just one win against non-APAC opposition (FaZe Clan, 7-2), may have been the cause. The Koreans had been "figured out", it seemed. And now, their confidence had evaporated after realizing that they were far adrift international opposition.
Reality was somewhat different, however.
"During Stage 2, my (physical) condition was not that good," revealed Sihun “Nova” Lee in an interview with SiegeGG. "In the early period of Stage 2, I tried to play but I decided to have some rest instead. Our coach played instead of me, as a stand-in."
The physical condition he spoke of was an issue with his neck and waist. He had been sitting down too much, and had developed pains. He was not the only APAC pro to suffer an ailment from sitting too much -- Fnatic’s Patrick "MentalistC" Fan was hit by a subcutaneous infection, also from sitting down too much.
But as Nova returned to play in Stage 3, Cloud9 effectively left the chat, putting his team under great pressure once again.
"During the period we didn’t have an organization, we really tried hard -- just like when we were preparing for the Six Invitational (in 2019) -- to find a Korean organization like DWG KIA," explained Nova.
A lack of success in the server in Stage 2 turned into a lack of success finding an organization out of the server before Stage 3, and the mantisFPS players had to go an entire stage without an income. Unlike the referenced SI 2019, the players did not even have their old part-time jobs at McDonald’s.
But, with Nova back, so was the fearsome team that had run amok in APAC North in 2020, when they were only stopped twice in five attempts by Giants Gaming. In Stage 3, eager to join DWG KIA at the Sweden Major, mantisFPS won six matches out of seven, though that one loss nearly cost the team its auto-qualification spot.
With the in-game success in Stage 3 also came success in the search for a Korean organization -- SANDBOX Gaming signed the team just a few days after the end of the season. Yet, based on the Korean players’ track record, signing with a new organization just before an important tournament could put immense pressure on their shoulders like it had before.
Cloud9signed mantisFPS just after SI 2019. But the stress to impress had been so great that they had capitulated in near-straight maps in Sydney, and failed to make it to the Milan Finals. The team had struggled all throughout 2019, only recovering with the new format in 2020.
"Cloud9 was our first (big) organization, so that made us really nervous," recalled Nova, but acknowledged the risk of it rearing its head again. "So, we’re trying not to be nervous this time."
The fact that they have already gone through the pressure cycle once with a big organization like Cloud9 helps, said Nova, but what he feels has already helped more is the fact that SANDBOX is local.
"This is our second organization, but also SANDBOX is a Korean organization, so we can communicate fluently with them and it’s helping us not be nervous," he explained.
Also helping boil away the stress is the motivation that fueled the SANDBOX players in Stage 3, born from enviously watching DWG KIA in Mexico.
“Now we have this kind of common goal; 'let’s do this like DWG KIA!'," explains Nova. "It’s made us recover (our form) really fast and be less nervous."
The rivalry with DWG KIA is certainly one with much respect and friendliness. Both teams spur each other on, and neither wants to lose to each other. But beyond that, the pride both feel at being able to attend an international event together while representing Korea is unmistakable.
"I watched all the APAC Playoff matches, especially those of DWG KIA," said Nova. "After they successfully qualified for the Major, it was a very impressive moment and I almost cried a little bit thinking of two Korean teams participating in the same Major."
But just like DWG KIA’s Byeonguk "RIN" Jang had said, there’s much more they still hope for. Nova admits that both teams’ groups aren’t easy -- DWG KIA is in the 'group of death' with two other Mexico Major quarter-finalists and one grand finalist, while SANDBOX shares Group B with defending champions Team oNe.
Yet, he still hopes both teams will make it to the playoffs together and secure qualification to the Six Invitational 2022.
Catch SANDBOX Gaming’s international debut in "Siege" on Nov. 8, when the Koreans take on Team oNe in the Sweden Major curtain-raising match.