It only took Ralph Mico “Coco” Sampang around 45 days to go from the very basics of Axie Infinity to defeating the biggest names in the game today during the recently concluded UGG Axie Pro Tournament— earning him his new moniker, Axie Infinity’s King Slayer.
The 25-year old Coco is better known to most as a professional Mobile Legends esports athlete but earlier this month he made a splash in the Philippine Axie Infinity scene as he carved a swath across the best of the best and emerged victorious.
In his incredible Axie Pro Tournament run he took down the likes of Pakut, OverXyze, and inaugural Axie Infinity Creator Cup Grand Champion Hezelya as well as previous UGG All-Stars Tournament Champion Jobols—again, with only just a month and a half of Axie Infinity experience under his belt.
It feels like an almost impossible achievement for sure but when I sat down for an interview with Coco after the tournament, I learned he was actually no stranger to swimming with the sharks. He told me that he had grown up playing the original DOTA, as a fourth grader at the time, playing against college students almost twice his age.
“My family owned a canteen near a college campus near us. Every time I was there, just so I wouldn’t bother the people doing their jobs, my mom would take me to a nearby computer shop. That’s where I started playing DOTA with the college kids.”
From DOTA on the PC, Coco eventually transitioned to playing Mobile Legends on Mobile. He soon became a titan in the scene conquering many tournaments, becoming the first-ever champion of the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang Pro League Philippines and bringing home the championship in the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang Southeast Asia Cup Season 2.
Just recently though, in December of last year, Coco found a new and exciting battlefield in Axie Infinity.
How the King Slayer got started
I was curious as to how he found the change in gameplay since in Mobile Legends you play as a team and in Axie Infinity, you play solo.
“In ML, there’s 5 of you and each player has a different objective. If one fails their objective it gets harder because everyone is affected by that. It’s like a domino, if there’s a lane that becomes unproductive that effect cascades downward. In Axie Infinity, since you’re only worrying about yourself, if you stay strong, you’ll never lose.”
Apart from the freedom of just having yourself to depend on, Coco says he was drawn to Axie Infinity because as a high school chess player, he immediately gravitated towards the game’s deep strategic elements.
This affinity for strategy shines through whenever Coco talks about how he approached the mind games and tactics aspect of Axie Infinity, a game that hinges on anticipation, counterplays and even counter-counterplays.
“Sometimes you just have to accept the fact that you got countered. Then you just have to find a way to still outwit your opponent. Sometimes you just have to think about what your opponent wants to do in order to avoid it. Other times you also have to do what you opponent won’t expect.”
“My mindset is that I’ll never be able to fully predict what’s on my opponent’s mind. So I just focus on what my goal is and what is right for me.”
He also adds that a great deal of preparation was done after he had got into the Top 16. That’s when he really started laying down plans.
“When I was in the qualifiers, I really didn’t know what was going to happen so I just played the game. When I got into the main tournament that’s when I started researching my opponents, what teams they’re comfortable with, and thinking of how to counter that. And how they’ll counter my counter. You always have to have a plan. Plan A. Plan. Plan C.”
What’s unique about Coco’s perspective is that it seems to come from an innate instinct for strategy that he struggles to put to words. He says it all boils down to a feeling. “It’s hard to explain”, he says. “Sometimes you’ll just feel it like ‘This is the right thing to do’.”
Fighting the good fight
However, I learned that it’s not just Coco’s instinct for strategy that makes him a championship caliber athlete. During my brief talk with him I pieced together that, true to his nickname, the King Slayer has a fierce competitive nature hiding under his fun-loving and jovial demeanor. And although he likes to cover it up by downplaying his feats and laughing it off, there’s no denying it: The man loves a good fight.
It comes across more than once. First, when he was talking about his first time buying a team (Bird-Mech-Plant) in Axie Infinity and losing hard but powering through the night to rise above it:
“I remember the first day that I bought that team. It was my first time and I didn’t know a lot of things so I immediately went down to 900 MMR. I said ‘I can’t allow this!’ so I kept playing, I didn’t sleep for 24 hours and I got it up to 2000 MMR the very next day.”
I also asked him about player matchups that he was looking to avoid during the tournament. To which he jokingly replied “I don’t know about that since I got matched up with everyone that I was hoping to avoid!”
He calls himself a “saling-pusa” here which is a Filipino term used to describe a child who pretends to play with all the bigger kids. This was accurate given his relative inexperience going against Axie juggernauts like Hezelya and Jobols.
However, Coco’s competitive side showed itself once again:
“…But that’s ok, I took that as a challenge really and maybe that’s when I got competitive. I also realized that the pressure was on them, I had nothing to prove so I’ll just shoot my shot here and it worked out alright.”
Yeah, I’d say it worked out alright as well.
Prepping for the Axie tournament
As far as preparation for his first Axie Tournament went, Coco states that he had very little to work with as compared to other more established players in the scene:
“I didn’t have any connections back then since most of the other players had their guilds and groups and I didn’t. I just had my scholars so I fought against and trained with them instead.”
Despite that, Coco also says that he was surprised that he just kept on winning, even until he got deep into the playoffs.
“I really didn’t expect that I would win. When I got to fourth place I said ’This is good enough for me!’ but the run kept going and told myself ‘@#$%^ Why am I still winning?!” he jokes.
Ultimately, Coco would arrive at the Grand Finals where he’d face Pads, the very person who dealt him a critical loss in the semi-finals and sent him down to the lower bracket. Coco had clawed his way back up and now that competitive side fired up once again: “When I arrived at the Championship match, I knew that Pads beat me early on. So that’s when I became competitive in the championship, I said ‘I’m going to get this guy back’.”
Pads had a good counter team to Coco’s God Reptile team and Coco knew it —that’s how he got beaten down to lower bracket to begin with—but to Coco just like the college kids in that computer shop, just like champions he took down along the way this was just another challenge to conquer.
“It was a complete shutdown since what Pads was using was a counter to mine. But I still said ‘Even though he has hard counter, I’m going to beat this guy.”
It wasn’t easy though, as the two would have a slobber-knocker of a Best-of-7 series, exchanging wins against each other in the early going, almost always coming down to the wire. However, ultimately Coco would have his sweet, sweet revenge and become the first-ever Axie Pro Tournament Grand Champion, the newly-minted King Slayer.
Funnily enough, despite all of that, Coco describes his tournament run almost like a fluke. A one-off miracle that he was able to pull off despite all the odds stacked against him.
However, to the people that know him and know even just a bit of his story, it really isn’t that hard to see that this was quantifiably more than that.
It wasn’t just luck or fate at work here, it was the sheer will of an individual to take every challenge as just another mountain to climb and slay the kings at its summit.