Who is worthy to inherit the throne of an emperor? T1 fans don’t know the answer to this question yet, and hopefully, they won’t have to know anytime soon. Long-tenured but still at the top of his game, Faker doesn’t look to step down in the near future, continuing to add another chapter to his own epic. After all, legends never die, and nobody seems more immortal than the Unkillable Demon King himself.
But he is not the only demon who has reigned over a Summoner’s Rift. Deity in a smaller realm, Vietnam’s top-lane empire was once ruled by a man known as Zeros who entered the stage at the young age of 17 but cemented his legacy as one of his region’s all-time greats just within a few splits. Striking down every enemy with his daring and skillful play, his first coach Tinikun named him “ma vương” – the Demon Lord.
Although Vietnam’s very own demon had made his initial steps for GAM Esports, he only became a true star by changing colours: After winning both Summer 2018 and Spring 2019 in dominant fashion as the centrepiece of Phong Vũ Buffalo, Zeros was widely regarded as the best player in the league. But just when a bovine dynasty was about to be established, the prodigal son suddenly returned to his initial home, leaving PVB with one big question to answer: How do you fill the footsteps of a giant?
Mr Buffalo knew: You can’t. When PVB announced their new top laner for Summer 2019, it was an unknown trainee by the name of Raizo who was given the starting spot which had once belonged to Zeros. Just like his predecessor, he was merely 17 years old when he entered VCS, having met the age requirement a few months ago. Entrusting an untested rookie without any competitive experience to continue Zeros’s legacy in the top lane was a huge risk, but there was an even bigger problem: Raizo was not a top laner at all.
As it turned out, Zeros had never been fully signed by PVB but was only part of an opaque loan agreement which however included a contractual loophole, allowing Zeros to pull off his shock return to GAM. Totally blindsided by this surprise move, PVB all of a sudden had to fill a gigantic void in the top lane with no notable free agents left on the market and therefore decided to look at their academy team, making a virtue out of necessity. Upon realizing that their top lane trainee was still underage, head coach Ren approached Raizo instead – a marksman player idolizing SKT Teddy who was just as dumbfounded as everyone else. In a conversation with Inven Global before Rift Rivals 2019, he recollects: “When the coach asked me to play as the team’s top laner, I seriously thought that he was joking. When I found out that he was serious, I felt very pressured.”
Confident in his own abilities, Raizo was still up for the autofill challenge and felt assured by his experience on a wide variety of champions in SoloQ. He introduced himself to the world in style: His pro career was only ten minutes old when he assertively turned around a gank in his very first game of competitive play and coolly mowed down both the enemy top and mid laner for a 1v2 double kill. Raizo then finished the next match with a 12/3/4 scoreline and won Player of the Game for his dominant performance.
Looking as strong as ever, the newly renamed Dashing Buffalo (DBL) squad came out of the gates scorching hot with four consecutive series wins, and Raizo was on the verge of taking over the league by storm. A flare with flair, he immediately caught the audience’s eye with his glaringly red hair, and his brash and bold playstyle on the rift matched his extravagant looks. Raizo was not intimidated by any challenge but continued to push opponents to their limits with unrelenting aggression, making viewers forget his former ADC days thanks to his astonishing mechanical mastery of melee champions. Raizo’s raw skill seemed to transcend any positional boundaries, and DBL fans were sure that the team had found the perfect replacement for Zeros in both skill and mentality – fierce, forcing and fearless, a superstar carry in the making.
But behind the flamboyant façade, there was a little kid called Lâm Huỳnh Gia Huy from the coastal town of Rạch Giá who had to overcome severe obstacles on his way to VCS. Known to his friends by the nickname “little Bi”, he had to drop out of school after 9th grade. He was 14 years old. Instead of enjoying his youthful days, Raizo was working 12 hours a day as a waiter in restaurants or net cafés in order to financially support his family who was in serious trouble after their business had gone bankrupt. “Every time I went home from school and saw my parents arguing, I just went out to a net café, playing games and thinking about how I could earn money to help my parents. It was the hardest time of my life”, he tells Vietnamese website Zing News.
When he wasn’t working, he mostly kept playing League of Legends, a game he had known since 5th grade. Soon, Raizo made a name for himself thanks to his high placement on the Vietnamese ladder, peaking within the Top 10 and competing in amateur tournaments where he earned small amounts of cash. “The game has given me a lot of things. Friends, money and joy”, he says. Even then, his income was often not enough to sustain a normal lifestyle; one of his friends frequently paid for food and net café fees when they went out together, and on many days, little Bi was only living on instant noodles.
For Raizo, these dire living conditions were simply a motivation to persevere. One day, he met a famous player in a SoloQ – it was none other than Ren, head coach of the Buffalo. He was impressed with Raizo’s skills as well as his passion for the game upon learning that he regularly watched competitive matches in his free time. They continued to queue up together occasionally, and when Raizo couldn’t make a living with his meagre salary as waiter anymore, he asked Ren for help. “He called me and said he had no place to go. Therefore, I decided to use my own money to get Raizo from Rạch Giá to Saigon. His journey with the team started from there”, Ren recounts. After Raizo received his first salary, he took his old friend out for dinner.
From poverty to stardom over night – a fitting anime storyline for a boy with an anime name. But life doesn’t follow tropes, and Raizo soon began to struggle once opponents figured out how to exploit his inexperience. Even when his exciting play was turning everybody’s heads, veteran mid laner Optimus bluntly remarked: “Right now, people have not recognized the weaknesses of DBL’s top laner yet, but in the future, it will be easy to see.”
And he was right. Blessed with tremendous mechanical skill and a courageous attitude, Raizo had all the tools of a great top laner but was still fundamentally unsound. Aggressive without any restraint and unwilling to acknowledge the existence of the enemy jungler, one or two deaths were often enough to turn Raizo into an unstoppable chainfeeding machine. Besides some blatant deficits in teamfighting and map play, he was also suffering from a small effective champion pool, regularly resorting to comfort picks such as Akali, Irelia, Vladimir and Aatrox.
When remembering the early days, Ren stresses the challenges he had to face as a coach when preparing his apprentice for his new role: “Moving from the ADC position to top lane was an extremely difficult time for Raizo as well as the Buffaloes at that time. He needed to gather a lot of skills in terms of champion handling, wave management, split pushing or teleport usage. I did a 1-on-1 plan to focus specifically on Raizo.”
The season ended in disaster: Coming off two consecutive domestic championships and solid showings at Worlds and MSI, the Buffaloes entered Summer 2019 with an unchanged roster except top lane but finished Regular Season in 4th place with a mediocre 8-6 record. Their season concluded with two losses in playoffs, and especially a rough 0-3 beating in their final series of the year left an ugly last impression. Following this disappointment, the gradual dissolution of the former PVB core continued: Not only support Palette, but also Ren left the team.
Raizo was now on his own. As the final days of his first season had painfully shown, he was far from ready to become a legitimate replacement for Zeros, but it was equally evident that he possessed immense talent which was only waiting to be further moulded. Raizo on the rift but Huy in real life, he recognized that a new stage in his career had just begun and started to look for a new in-game name starting with H. Accidentally coming across surreal images of angels drawn by artist Peter Mohrbacher, he decided upon his new moniker: Hasmed – the Angel of Annihilation.
What an apt sobriquet. On the stylistic spectrum of top lane, two extremes exist: There are weakside chads in the vein of Impact who are not only willing to function on low income and absorb as much pressure as possible but will even bring marshmallows whenever the enemy is going for a camping trip. And there are pugnacious madmen graduating from the carry-top university of TheShy who will push their lane no matter what and warp the map towards them, flipping the game to either team. A classic feast-or-famine player who has never seen a trade he doesn’t like, Hasmed clearly identified with the more reckless school of thought, always looking to contest and crush his lane counterpart but lacking the necessary refinement to make this philosophy reliably work in favour of his team.
In the following year, the downward trend continued for the Buffaloes as they missed the postseason in both splits and even had to fight for survival in relegation after Summer Split, but for Hasmed, 2020 was a full success. Staying true to his identity, he led all top laners in damage share, solo kills and total kills – an incredible feat for a player whose team finished 6th and 7th in an eight-team league with a 29% winrate overall. His old weaknesses were still an issue in need of further improvement and he struggled to consistently maintain his peak level throughout an entire season, but overall, Hasmed had developed into an upper-tier VCS player and provided more spectacle than maybe anybody else in the league.
A fan favourite thanks to his dazzling play and dashing looks, Hasmed had become a natural in the top lane, a role which has outgrown the dark ages of dull tank battles and become a haven for explosive carry players. It is hard to imagine how Hasmed’s in-your-face style could have worked in the risk-averse marksman position where safety and survivability are more important than anything else, and his extemporized role-swap may put him right where he belongs – an assessment actually shared by Hasmed himself who however also stresses that he equally enjoys the supportive element of his position. “I feel that top lane suits me well because I want to crush the enemies with damage champions and also sometimes help the team with tanks. Whether I play carries or utility, my contribution to the game is still large”, he says, and then adds: “I am bloodthirsty, but still very careful and in moderation to not negatively affect the team.” When asked if he would ever consider a return to the ADC role, he replies: “I don’t think I will return to ADC because I’ve lost interest in that position.”
Only one relict of his bot lane past has remained: Hasmed’s love for Teddy is unwavering. “Teddy is very funny, I often watch his streams or go to T1’s YouTube channel to watch videos about him”, he tells us. An avid watcher of both LCK and LPL, he nowadays takes inspiration from Nuguri whom he admires for his teleport usage and laning. These two also share a penchant for Vladimir who had been Hasmed’s most-played champion in his debut split but has become irrelevant in pro play since, much to Hasmed’s displeasure: “I really want Vladimir to be viable again, but right now, the meta is quite fast-paced. Vladimir becomes a strong champion in the late game, so I think it’s unlikely he comes back, but if the tank meta returns, so will Vladimir.”
Just as Nuguri eventually made the jump to another league, Hasmed expresses he would like to compete in China one day if given the opportunity. But before that, there is still domestic business to be handled. Denied any team success in 2020 despite his strong individual play, Hasmed found himself as the centrepiece of a complete rebuild before Spring 2021 which was most importantly led by his old mentor Ren. Part of a squad consisting mostly of supremely talented but untested rookies which was now going by the name of Saigon Buffalo (SGB), he had somehow become the oldest member of his team at the age of 18. Remembering how his PVB hyungs had taken care of him when he joined the scene, Hasmed tried to impart his knowledge to his younger teammates, as he states in an interview with Lienminh360: “I told them all the things I know and I am good at, just like my PVB brothers were guiding me when I started.“
Defying all odds, a reinvigorated Saigon Buffalo line-up unexpectedly stormed into second place in the Regular Season, and while it was the debutant jungle-support dynamo of Bean J and Taki which stole the headlines, Hasmed silently made another leap and evolved into the most complete version of himself yet. Still dominant during the laning phase and a fearsome damage dealer in teamfights, his most impressive new trait was his consistency. Where other players look to raise their ceiling, Hasmed raised his floor and transformed himself from a volatile wild card into a reliable rock. In his first three splits, he had averaged 3.50, 3.96 and 4.06 deaths per game; in Spring 2021, this number plunged to 2.22 – a testament to his improved composure and game knowledge.
Showing more restraint on the rift than ever, his looks have also changed accordingly. His trademark red-coloured hair has not been spotted in Ho Chi Minh City’s GG Stadium for quite a while, and this is unlikely to change: Hasmed does not intend to dye his hair again in order to preserve his feng shui. His fiery appearance has softened, but this doesn’t mean he has been tamed. When asked about his favourite champion, he names Akali, a style pick whom he loves for her mobility and stealth. Does he consider himself the best Akali in VCS? “I don’t know if I am the best Akali”, he states, “but I am certainly the most effective.”
Hasmed however also emphasizes how much he has worked on his champion pool, adding new signature champions such as Kennen, Gnar and Wukong to his arsenal. Many observers notice his diligence and maturity, and Ren agrees, commending the development of his protégé: “Hasmed has gradually proven himself to be a top player in Vietnam, and hopefully, he will always be.” The Zeros-led PVB iteration has become a memory, but the era of Saigon Buffalo is just in its nascence, and Hasmed doesn’t need to shy away from a comparison with his predecessor anymore. Ren knows better than anyone, he has coached both. When contrasting these two, he says: “Both of them do not accept losing. When they see a trade, they will always try to challenge the opponent in the laning phase.” However, he also stresses one aspect where Hasmed differs from the good-natured but inflexible Zeros: “The difference between these two is that everyone plays for Zeros, but Hasmed plays for everyone.”
However, there is another difference: Zeros has won titles, Hasmed has not. Much earlier than expected, a first opportunity for a domestic crown emerged in Spring Finals 2021. Their opponent: None other than behemoth GAM Esports. Hasmed in particular faced a tough challenge, going up against Kiaya who was widely regarded as the best top laner in VCS. Despite their big underdog status, SGB stomped their way through Game 1 and had already amassed a gargantuan gold lead in Game 2 thanks to Hasmed’s heroics who dominated his lane and even managed to solokill his renowned counterpart.
In the end, the teenage squad’s inexperience was too much to overcome, but even in the wake of a 1-3 loss, Hasmed could leave the arena with his head held high after an admirable individual performance. Looking back on his duel against Kiaya, he concludes: “I think I did really well last season against an experienced player such as Kiaya. This season, I will try to surpass him.”
With a new split on the horizon after a seven-month hiatus, he will have his chance now. Even as VCS Winter approached, Hasmed of course still followed Worlds and was impressed with Flandre whom he considers to be the best top laner in the world at the moment. The story of EDG’s championship run cannot be written without Graves, so how confident is Hasmed in his skills on that champion? As it turns out, very confident: “I will play Graves like Flandre did at Worlds, maybe even better,” he pronounces. Such speaks the kind of man whose pocket pick is Vayne.
But these flair champions are only a final remnant of his marksman past. Self-assured yet reflective, dominant yet unselfish, he has found a new home on the other side of the map. What would have happened to him if Vietnam’s Demon Lord would have stayed a buffalo? We will never know. It was a mere coincidence which opened the door to Hasmed’s career, but he walked the entire path himself. Perhaps it was just meant to be: The Angel of Annihilation – a top laner not by choice but by fate.
Big thanks to Dat Nguyen from Saigon Buffalo for getting us in contact with Hasmed and Ren, forwarding them our questions and translating their answers. He is also reporting about VCS news on Twitter.