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Pay It Forward: Leo Gaming’s Mission In Philippine Esports

12:33 PM February 18, 2021

This article was first found on Medium. Follow Izo Lopez on Twitter.

Last January 24, Bren Esports made history by becoming the first-ever Filipino world champions in any esport at the M2 Mobile Legends: Bang Bang World Championship. Far from home but standing mere meters from this momentous occasion was Dan “Leo” Cubangay.

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“Kid is the only one left. Can he defend? LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BREN ESPORTS IS YOUR M2 WORLD CHAMPION.”

Alongside his co-casters in the English broadcast for the tournament, Leo’s voice was among the first to officially declare the victory, spurring millions (yes, millions) of viewers around the world to erupt in joy (or despair, if you’re a Burmese Ghouls fan, sorry!).

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It is at this moment that one would expect a moment of clarity. For Leo, not just the victory but the whole event was a dream come true. From periods of unemployment, freelance shoutcasting gigs, and immense personal tragedy, there he was, standing where all esports shoutcasters dream to stand — behind the desk of a world championship broadcast.

Yet, he tells me over our hour-and-a-half online interview, that there was no such movie moment. No slow-mo, flashbacks, or montage of successes and failures. Instead, Leo was thinking about work. How could I have done that better? How should I spend my 15-day quarantine? I need to prep for MPL Season 7 in a few weeks.

For Leo, there is always more work to be done. His boots are always on the ground, and they’re always facing forward. This attitude has shaped his entire career.

EQUIPPED FOR BROADCAST

From around 2018 to the present, Leo has been a standout name in the Philippine esports industry’s small pool of broadcast talents. Starting off as a streamer-shoutcaster under the Brentertainment banner in 2018 before the brand dissolved its influencer roster, Leo has since casted for the country’s biggest esports leagues including The Nationals and the Mobile Legends Bang Bang: Professional League. More recently, he was a shoutcaster for the English broadcast of the Mobile Legends World Championship.

But despite his obvious talent for public speaking in elementary and high school declamation contests, Leo never really had an ambition for a career in broadcast. In fact, in college, he literally walked into University of Santo Tomas’ broadcast radio club (“TomCat”, Tomasian Cable Television, in 2010) completely by accident.

“At that point, I was just looking for an org that had an air-conditioned room so that I could hang out during breaks. My friend invited me and I asked, is the org room in the library where there’s air-con? Yes? Okay, count me in.

That got Leo DJing for the university’s online radio station, which ultimately led him to considering a broadcast career post-graduation and even taking up commercial gigs as a student. At the time, Leo was a part-time “pinch-hitter” for Mellow 94.7, a popular easy listening FM radio station in the Philippines. He was bottom of the list, pitching in whenever one of the starting DJs couldn’t make it to a shift. But by 2012, he became an official part of the roster after going up against a hundred other auditionees in Mellow’s School of Jocks program.

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Leo as a backup DJ for Mellow 94.7.

Professional broadcast, however, was a completely different world from a college org radio station, Leo quickly learned.

“When I was in Tiger Radio, I really thought I was the shit. I wasn’t shy so it was easy. They were asking me to do a lot, and it fed my bravado.”

“It was misplaced. I was put back in my place when I started to train with my mentors in Mellow. They would shout at me every single night. But it was worth it. It molded me into a better broadcaster and a person with better work ethic.”

Leo suggests that this is where he probably picked up his professional core. When it comes to his craft, all his thought processes are directed inwards. He means it when he tells me, I couldn’t care less if I was broadcasting to a hundred people or hundreds of thousands. I need it to feel right; that I’m doing it right based on what my mentors taught me.

When he entered esports seriously as a streamer-shoutcaster in 2018, this experience in professional broadcast gave Leo an edge that a lot of other esports talents in the country didn’t have. Where other casters were just going by instinct, conversational hosting styles, and copying from the OGs of Philippine shoutcasting, Leo had hard-earned professional standards and technical know-how. He had a mastery over his voice as much as a mastery over game knowledge, and keeping a show going with nothing but his gift of gab was already natural for him.

Leo interviewing Mobile Legends pro team Cignal Ultra in 2019, for Brentertainment’s The Lion’s Den show.

On this, I picked his brain a little about a thought that I’ve had about Philippine esports shoutcasting for a while. I asked him if it ever bothered him that local shoutcasting has always focused on game knowledge, without really investing in the media-readiness of talents. Not a lot of attention has been paid to actually sounding good first, I suggest.

“I feel like I’m part of this halfway mark between the old guard and whatever new blood is coming in. I respect what the OGs have done — none of us would be here if it wasn’t for them. But we’ve gotten everything we can learn from them already. It’s our time to think about how to take the craft of shoutcasting forward.”

Leo here is talking about what I’d say is a specific era of Philippine esports from maybe 2016 to 2020, where our small industry started attracting professionals from other fields.

In the earlier years of Philippine esports, everyone who worked in it was endemic to the scene. Imagine guys who used to just run cybercafe tournaments and the gaming equivalent of basketball pickup games suddenly responsible for the foundation of a whole industry. Most esports veterans are self-taught.

But Leo’s point still rings true. The OGs of esports learned through trial and error how to do business, production work, logistics, event marketing, content creation — but that eventually hits a wall where one no longer knows what one doesn’t know.

2016 onwards saw esports events in the country scaling up, and so there was an equivalent influx of professionals from other fields. In Leo’s case: professional broadcast.

“When I finally launched the Madrigal Project in 2020, I could have gotten so much flak. Who is this kid? Who are we to listen to you? Why should you teach us about esports when we’ve been here for so long?

“But what I was asking myself was: if these people have been here for so long, why haven’t certain crafts levelled up? Where are we getting new knowledge? That’s how I knew I had something to contribute.”

STARTING THE MISSION


The Madrigal Project is a passion project of sorts for Leo. The concept is simple: it is a free app-based and online course for aspiring esports shoutcasters. It features online classes with professional broadcasters, shoutcasting workshops, and the chance to actually get work in major events.

“In 2019, it was me, Manjean, Shinboo, and Ico. We were doing this tour in Zamboanga for STI College and we thought to ourselves, hey this approach is pretty okay: education plus esports. Then the conversation snowballed. We should do a series of talks, we should get aspiring broadcasters, we can even learn a lot from each other. We started to make plans to organize something — anything — in the off-season.”

But as with most spur-of-the-moment business ideas between friends, as soon as Leo and his co-casters were back to their normal lives, the idea was shelved for the meantime. The boys knew they wanted to create some sort of shoutcasting-centric module that could turn aspirants into viable members of a talent pool.

Would that mean potentially training their own competition and replacements? Probably, but as with all things, for Leo, the craft comes first.

“Somehow the pandemic helped me start, as I gained more free time and needed something to keep me busy. By around August of 2020, I was having conversations with esports people in my circle. If I do this, are you G? Can I ask for your help?

“I started to write the framework. I used experience I had making ESL language modules at one of my odd-jobs before. I planned the logistics of the whole program. I was essentially a one-man operation so it took so long to get everything lined up, and it’s still a little messy.”

Messy or not, The Madrigal Project graduated its first wave of amateur esports broadcast talent in September of 2020, filtering the best of the best from hundreds of applicants. By November, Leo announced a Wave 2.

Now, The Madrigal Project is partnered with both the Esports AcadArena collegiate program (from since TMP’s inception) and the Philippine Pro Gaming League (as of Wave 2), both long-running esports leagues with plenty of slots for up-and-coming talents. The Madrigal Project is also partnered with Kovenry, an esports talent agency in the Philippines.

“The ultimate goal of this program is that we want to be able to promise that finishing the course automatically means a casting contract. Like an American Idol kind of thing where you WILL land a spot in the industry.”

“Right now, though, realistically speaking, we’re still only just able to put boots on the ground. We’re still in the stage of teaching people how to fish, but we don’t have the scale yet to buy them their own boats. For now we’re simply arming these kids for auditions.”

But Leo remains optimistic about The Madrigal Project’s growth. He admits he’s not a businessman, but he’s surrounded by esports professionals who are all willing to contribute.

And ultimately, he admits, the project is borne from values he got from his parents: his father who always supported the family with a quiet sense of duty, and the his mother who showed him the joy of teaching others. In more ways than one, the Madrigal Project is truly Leo’s homage to all his parents.

DEATH AND SECOND CHANCES

Among all the other familiar faces in the Philippine esports industry now, Leo seems to be particularly characterized by his positivity. And this isn’t just his on-screen persona either — everyone who has worked with him knows him to be an endless font of positive mental attitude.

This is despite the fact that in 2014, Leo suffered personal tragedy of the sort that easily ruins other people and sours their perspective on life. Had he not climbed out of that hole — no, I was saved, he insists — there would be no Madrigal Project, no M2 casting experience, and no Leo Gaming.

“Dad’s kidneys were bad since ’01. But I think the turning point was when he required dialysis in 2012 just to stay alive. Then in February of 2014, ultimately there was a heart complication caused by the kidney failure. Then a few months later, mom’s leukemia took her. My grandparents accompanied me to my graduation, and we celebrated in the hospital with my mother in the ICU.”

For his father in particular, Leo had been expecting it for a while. A military man, Colonel Dante Cubangay carried his family on his back for decades all while managing a stressful career. Then on top of everything else, his kidneys were failing. Leo said, “how could we expect him to go further than he already has?”

Left to right: Dan, brother Capt. Alfredo, Macris and Col. Dante Cubangay.

In the years leading up to 2014, the conditions of both parents were already on the decline. Leo is an only son with an adopted older brother, a military chaplain always assigned away from home. So aside from his work gigs and his school life, Leo was his parents’ driver, their nurse, their cook, and everything else that they needed him to be.

I tell him it’s a wonder he didn’t crumble. He responds, “why would I? It was a service to my parents. Not everyone can say that they got a concrete opportunity to give back. Sometimes it’s too sudden. At the time I simply thought, it’s okay. It’s my turn to take care of you.”

But even then, this strength was predicated on a thin strand of hope. Leading up to his father’s final month, Leo was prepping him for a kidney transplant. They were already on the list, and the new set of kidneys would have been available in another month or two. Then afterwards, there was still his father’s ambition of becoming a general in the Philippine Army, if he could just live long enough.

“We’re going to get you that star, man,” Leo would tell his father, as if like a soldier carrying a wounded brother-in-arms through a battlefield. “My dad was always carrying us. I knew he needed a best friend, someone he could rely on. I became that.”

But on a random February morning, Colonel Cubangay did not wake up.

For Leo’s mother, she had been mentally not present since a brain hemorrhage struck her over the new year holiday. But after her husband’s passing, she recovered. “Until she took a fall in May,” Leo said, “and it was downhill from there. She was a training and dev consultant who gave me my passion for teaching others.”

Whatever sense of duty was keeping Leo upright throughout this ordeal had finally run out. He lost both his parents within the span of a few months from each other. In his words, he was in shambles. He was out drinking every night, and living as if he, too, was on a timer for that year.

“At some point my bank even called me to ask if I really spent as much as I did.”

But then towards the latter half of that year, his parent’s close friends offered Leo a place to stay. They were the Madrigals, and General Benjie Madrigal Jr. was Colonel Cubangay’s friend from military school.

“One night while I was at my lowest low, and living alone in our old house, Mrs. Madrigal just texted me. Anak, kailan ka uuwi? (Son, what time will you be home?)

Leo understood immediately. This was her way of saying, you can come home to us, okay?

“To be given a second chance like that was all I needed. I can never repay them. I can never thank them enough. So what do you give someone who asks for nothing in return? What can I possibly offer to a family that opened a slot for me and said, ‘you’re our son now’?”

There’s nothing except to use the second chance to its fullest, we agree. And so for Leo, everything he does now must be in some way of use to others as well. Leo naming the Madrigal Project after his adoptive parents was, to him, simply paying the act forward.

He is succeeding, so far. Many of the participants in the Madrigal Project are young adults who have been through their own hardships but Leo proudly says that the program has given many of them an opportunity into a new career, and to pursue dreams they thought were out of reach.

“However many kids I have in the program that say “thank you, TMP” are by extension saying thank you to the Madrigals for helping me even get here. That’s my mission.”

BOOTS ON THE GROUND, LEAD FROM THE FRONT

As we wrapped up our interview, I asked Leo what the next step is for his Project and his career. Unsurprisingly, he told me, more of the same.

“In this industry, I’ve always felt replaceable. I felt like just any body could replace me on the shoutcaster’s chair. Even now, I still feel like I have a shelf life.”

“But I’ve started to allow myself to feel differently. That chair at M2? That was my chair. The modules in TMP? Mine. The Nationals, MPL, every gig that I am on. I don’t think just any random streamer can deliver what I deliver currently. It’s like I’m not just a visitor anymore but a contributor to this industry, and people have started to expect things of me. It keeps me going and I can’t imagine any career other than this, currently.”

In everything he does, Leo maintains a mantra: boots on the ground, lead from the front. When he says it he means putting the work in first and earning every inch of ground he gains.

From randomly chancing upon a start in radio broadcast to being an official English caster for an esports world championship, nothing for Leo has ever been destined or even easy.

“Like I said, there was no slow-mo dramatic moment in M2 for me. If there was a moment of clarity, it was only to realize that there’s more to be done. Gotta keep moving forward.”

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