After another year of heartbreak at Melbourne Esports Open 2019, Brandon ‘Claire’ Nguyen didn’t feel anything.
That fateful day on August 31 at Rod Laver Arena left the star Chiefs mid laner numb on stage. It wasn’t because he was emotionless.
He was overwhelmed.
By the spectacle of playing on stage once again. By once again, falling short of a Worlds berth. By being outclassed by a Mammoth roster who stormed through the end of the year to carry the Australian flag in Europe.
“There were too many emotions that I was feeling all at once I can’t even remember what I felt like after we lost,” he said. “I just remember I barely touched social media for a month.”
It was far from his first loss while being in the spotlight. While many OPL fans can remember the time he carried the region to a Rift Rivals victory on Legacy with an insane Zoe performance, it’s the only gold stamp on his career results-wise.
He’s finished second in the OPL regular season five times. He’s lost in playoffs seven times. In his short stint with Overdrive in the LJLCS in Japan, he managed to top the table before failing to qualify for the top-flight.
It’s always easy to look at these ‘so-close’ moments in Claire’s career, but they should hardly define it. In 2020, he’s looking to carve out a new path and turn those bridesmaid appearances into triumphs — not just as a player or by-stander, but as a leader.
The new Chiefs roster for OPL 2020 features two of Oceania’s best rising stars in top laner Romeo ‘Thien’ Tran and Robert ‘Katsurii’ Gouv, as well as two fresh Korean imports in Park ‘Croc’ Jong-hoon and Kang ‘KoreaCK’ Cheol-gyu. Many thought the now five-year veteran would have to take a step up to command the Chiefs back to glory, but he says that it’s no different to the pressure of last year, and the role he played within the team back then.
“If you compare this year to last year then that’s definitely an easy assumption to make, but I feel as though there’s little difference between the role I need to fill this year and the role I had in 2019.
“We have not played much as a team yet but I do feel like my performance is affected negatively when I have to try and think more about other people’s roles. However, I think this will actually improve me as a player at a much more rapid pace than previous years.”
He’s got good competition. Although some of the region’s mid lane veterans have defected to North America or Europe, a host of bright stars have filled in the gaps. While some have thought that without Triple, ry0ma, and Swiffer that Claire would default to becoming Oceania’s best mid laner, he’s wary of the new kids on the block.
“I had an insane amount of confidence heading into this year when those three got the chance to go overseas as I always considered us to be the top four by quite a margin for the past two years,” he said. “The problem is, I feel like I’m in a bit of a slump at the moment.
“Emenes, Haeri, and Shok look very impressive this year. I haven’t played against Emenes yet but I expect him to be quite an explosive player. Once I get over my slump and we start working on our team cohesion and I get to play with our jungler then I believe I can be the best.”
But League of Legends isn’t all about one player. It’s a team game, and while Claire’s been honest about his team’s shaky start, he’s also excited to show that the Chiefs roster aren’t just going to be pushovers.
Thien was Claire’s teammate last year, even if he spent most of his time riding the bench and starting for the academy team. He’s taken a step up in 2020 to become a full-time starter in Brandon ‘Swip3rR’ Holland’s absence, but he’s ready for the task ahead.
“Thien had an environment really suited for him to thrive when he didn’t have as much pressure on his shoulders,” he said, reminiscing on the top laners highlight plays from 2019. “He could just step in whenever we needed his champ pool or Swip3rR wasn’t feeling himself on the day.
“Now that he’s a starter I expect that he will need time to fill the role of a proper high level OPL top laner as he’s just a bit of a loose cannon at the moment. I don’t think the pressure will get to him in the end and I think he will only improve from this point onwards.”
And as for his jungler in Croc and support KoreaCK, the preparation has been a bit rougher between all the visa issues and language barriers. However, he remains hopeful that the team can pull it together as the year wears on.
“I’ve heard Croc’s good at identifying lane stages and waves so he knows which side of the map needs his attention the most and when,” he said. “As for KoreaCK, he has a very solid grasp of support fundamentals but we’ve been struggling in terms of communication.
“We’re not quite sure what he wants and he’s not sure what we want in-game yet. That said, we have barely even scrimmed so I expect this all to change once we play with each other more and get our second Korean player over.”
“It’s all about working hard, shedding ego, not getting complacent, and realising how much time and effort you have to commit to be the best. As long as we can abide by these then we have the skill and fundamentals to represent Oceania.”Claire
Although they don’t have a plethora of scrim games under their belt, the Chiefs know where they stand, and who is going to be a threat come January 31.
“Pentanet has really surprised me in their gameplay,” he said. “I think they are a really solid team and can make very nice plays together. I would’ve said they’re underrated but I was surprised to see most people actually rate them quite highly. I think they’re at a playoffs level.”
The Chiefs got a year to work with to iron out the kinks of a mixed roster, get to know each other better as players and as teammates, and hopefully qualify for Worlds. While the dream is to win the OPL, Claire has also set a new gold standard for himself.
“I want to build my brand as a player and elevate my level of play to a new standard,” he said. “I think I have a good environment to build myself up as a player and I would need to do it if I want the rest of the guys to succeed also.
“I think as long as we continue to hold ourselves accountable for our own improvement and learning then we have the potential to become the best team.”
Whether Claire will be able to find the result that turns his career into a succession of “so-closes” to tangible success remains to be seen. However, if there was every one year to prove himself, and one year to have a shot at glory, it’s 2020.
The Oceanic Pro League returns on January 31.
Follow Claire on Twitter.