SINGAPORE - As Singapore e-sports team Paper Rex made history by qualifying for the grand final of the Valorant Champions Tour (VCT) Stage 2 Masters in Copenhagen last month, it was not just their gameplay that caught the attention of fans.
Paper Rex, who are the first team from the Asia-Pacific region to reach the grand final of an international Valorant Masters or Champions event, have also earned themselves the adulation of fans on the Internet with their fun-loving nature and on-stage antics.
In Denmark, where they finished second in the 12-team tournament, team captain Benedict "Benkai" Tan, who is known for his costumed walkouts at competitions, kept up the trend. During one of his walkouts, he donned a dinosaur onesie as a nod to their team name Paper Rex and in the grand final, he appeared on stage in a pink tracksuit with a striking pink wig.
Even as their rise in the game has added a target on their backs ahead of the Aug 31-Sept 18 Valorant Champions - the biggest competition for the first-person shooter game - in Istanbul, Turkey, fans can be assured of more of such moments from the team.
Tan said: "A lot of e-sports players lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day they're playing a game, they're supposed to have fun with it.
"That's what we have a lot of emphasis on in Paper Rex - we have a delicate balance of 'it's our job and it's a game at the same time' and we always manage to keep that balance."
The 25-year-old, who also acknowledged the need to keep innovating and tweaking things, said having fun is something that they have been doing to differentiate themselves from the rest of the teams.
It took them some time to discover their own playing style in Valorant, which was released in June 2020, especially with some players making the transition from another first-person shooter game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
Tan explained that the team initially watched and tried to mimic what other professional teams from other regions were doing, but soon realised that in order to stay ahead of the competition, they had to be creative.
But this is what has helped the team - whose roster comprises Singaporeans Tan and Wang "Jinggg" Jing Jie, Indonesians Aaron "mindfreak" Leonhart and Jason "f0rsakeN" Susanto and Malaysian Khalish "d4v41" Rusyaidee - reach new heights in a game that is usually dominated by North Americans and Europeans.
Wang, 19, said: "The way we play is different from teams in Europe and North America. When we watch their games, the way they play is slower, they're playing safer.
"They're not sure how to adapt to our play style and even if they adapt, we can just change our play style any time."
Paper Rex have risen in prominence over the past two years, claiming titles in the Asia Pacific region before making their mark on the wider international scene.
This year, they also qualified for every major VCT tournament, which has been one of the highlights of Wang's e-sports career so far.
Wang, who is completing an online diploma in sports science, said: "The atmosphere is different and going overseas to play is something new. You also get to play against teams that you don't usually get to play against and they're usually the top of their own regions so you understand where you stand in the whole world."
Wang and Tan's ventures into e-sports were not intentional - they both did not consider making a career out of gaming when they first picked it up casually with friends.
But that changed when they got signed by e-sports organisations and realised that they were able to match up with teams in the region.
While it still may not be a conventional route to take in Singapore, both their families have been quite supportive of their decisions to pursue e-sports.
As they take to the international stage once again in Valorant Champions which will feature 16 of the world's best teams, they see the competition as a chance to keep improving.
Wang said: "Our goal was to qualify for Champions, which we already did so we're going to go there, have fun, play games and just grow. We're just happy to be there."
Tan, who also freelances as a graphic designer, said: "Going to the grand final was something new for us and now that we've known what that feels like, we've grown from it by learning what that feels like in terms of the nerves and how to manage it so if there's anything new that we are going to get in Istanbul, I just hope that during the event we'll learn how to adapt no matter what the situation may be."