The first impression people get from Pongphop “Mickie” Rattanasangchod is that he has a really nice smile. It’s the first thing most people see, because it’s always on his face. It’s a smile you want to carry around with you so others can see it too. That first impression never really goes away, and while it’s a simple gesture, it’s a big part of what makes Mickie a beloved figure in the Overwatch League.
On Sunday, at the Overwatch League’s All-Star Game, Mickie received the inaugural Dennis Hawelka Award as the player deemed to have the most positive impact on the community. The award was introduced in honor of Dennis “INTERNETHULK” Hawelka, who passed away last November and is remembered for his contributions not only as a player but as someone who deeply affected the Overwatch community.
For fans and observers, Mickie’s selection feels as natural as the fact of sunrise, because of his extraordinary charm and relentless positivity. For Mickie himself, though, Hawelka’s impact was metamorphic and deeply personal. It transported him from Thailand to South Korea to Los Angeles, and transformed him from local talent to a household name in the Overwatch League.
Or, as Mickie puts it: “It’s not just an award. Dennis has changed my life.”
In Thailand, whether in esports or traditional sports, the passion is there, in small pockets, but it’s not an easily accepted path in life. All it takes, though, is one person to break through, make it big, to turn an impossibility into a dream. Mickie offers the analogy of South Korean soccer player Ji-Sung Park being signed to Premier League team Manchester United as a more mainstream example of what can happen when there is someone to aspire to.
For kids in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia, Mickie is their Ji-Sung Park, perhaps to an even more extreme degree, given the way he was plucked from an obscure region in the most serendipitous of ways.
Dennis Hawelka played an indelible part in that.
As INTERNETHULK, Hawelka competed with Team Germany at the 2016 Overwatch World Cup, which was held at BlizzCon, and crucially took place between the group stages and playoffs of South Korea’s APEX tournament during its first season. Hawelka and the rest of his team, EnVyUs, were scattered across a few different countries, and would need to regroup quickly for their playoff push.
Meanwhile, Mickie and Team Thailand were turning heads in the group stages, narrowly losing to China and defeating France before dropping both tiebreakers. During the tournament, Mickie became close with a player from Spain: Jonathan “HarryHook” Tejedor Rua, Hawelka’s teammate on EnVy.
“Before we left the World Cup, they asked me for my Skype,” Mickie recalled. “For nothing, at that point. No one had left [EnVy], but Dennis told me that it was for the future. He was saying that maybe one day, if he needs someone…”
That was early November, and a couple weeks later, it became apparent that EnVy was going to need someone. A player had left the team suddenly, a week before their APEX quarterfinal match against Rogue. Hawelka had to scramble, and there were precious few good players left without a contract at that point in the season. Picking someone up from the Korean ladder was an option, but language and national pride (EnVy is an American organization) both seemed to be barriers.
So Hawelka contacted Mickie, who wondered, at first, why me? He was a flex tank; the person who had left played DPS. Why not one of his teammates? But Hawelka’s reasoning had nothing to do with the game.
“He told me he looks at personality—how I manage my emotions,” Mickie said. “He told me that if he wants to find someone who’s good at gaming, at aiming and killing, he can find it anywhere. He thinks positivity is hard to find, and he needs that on the team. That’s why he picked me up.”
พร้อมจะบินแล้วววววววววววววววววววววววววววว— Mickie Pongphopʕ•ﻌ•ʔ (@MickiePP) November 16, 2016
Watch the VOD of Mickie’s APEX debut—after only a few days of practice, against a confident, undefeated Rogue team—and you’ll see what Hawelka saw.
You’ll see that when EnVy break from the pregame team huddle with a cheer, Mickie brings his hand down instead of up, but he does it with that big smile of his. You’ll see him mimicking the poses of his teammates, arms crossed, wide stance, mugging for the audience. You’ll see him in the booth, looking nervous (who wouldn’t be?) but focused. You’ll see him settle in, flashing a smile at the camera every time it finds him, no matter the situation or score. You’ll see that the team hasn’t had time to get him his own jersey yet, so he’s wearing his manager’s shirt.
You’ll see him animated after helping EnVy full-hold on Gibraltar to force a deciding fifth map. You’ll see him net multi-kill Self-Destructs on that fifth map, Eichenwalde, to help EnVy secure the victory, one that was made all the more surprising because of Mickie’s presence. Not because he wasn’t supposed to be there, but because he looked like he’d always belonged.
Timo “Taimou” Kettunen, who has been Mickie’s teammate for nearly two years now, has fond memories of those first few days.
“When Mickie came to the team, he barely spoke any English,” he said. “We had three or four days before our playoff match against Rogue. He would come out with us to a shop or out to eat, and he would try to mimic what we were saying, but his accent was so strong.” Taimou laughed before adding, “He still does it all the time—it’s really annoying.”
Mickie’s personality endeared him to all of his new teammates, but he enjoyed a special bond with Hawelka, who he was able to communicate with easily despite his lack of proficiency in English at that point. Their friendship extended beyond Overwatch, naturally, partly due to Hawelka’s ability to unite his teammates.
“When we were chilling during our downtime, or on holiday, or a Friday night or something, he would be the one who would invite everyone—‘You want to go somewhere?’” Mickie said. “And that’s a part of life—you don’t want to sit in front of the computer for 12 hours and keep practicing. Of course you’ve got to do something [outside of the game]. I liked him because of this.”
I never forget that why Im here. I wasnt rdy to be a pro player but Hulk gave me the biggest chance to proof myself. Rest in peace Dennis. pic.twitter.com/hH35nn1Vkj— Mickie Pongphopʕ•ﻌ•ʔ (@MickiePP) November 9, 2017
To those who knew him, that was Hawelka’s superpower—the ability to bring people together, both in and out of the game. It’s not a stretch to say that Mickie embodies a lot of his spirit and character, which the Dennis Hawelka Award seeks to recognize and celebrate.
“In a season full of ups and downs for the Fuel, Mickie was the constant force of positivity,” reads the team’s letter to nominate him for the inaugural award. “He is welcoming. He is a teacher, a mentor, a [student] of the game, a hard-worker, a crowd-pleaser, and the first person eager to meet a new addition to the Fuel and get down to work. He takes the time to authentically get to know his fans, his fellow players, his support staff, and everyone involved in the Overwatch League.”
The Fuel’s letter also describes Mickie as “undeniably the happiest player in the Overwatch League,” and if this were measured in units of smiles, there would be no argument.
“He tries to be [positive] all the time,” Taimou said. “He tries his hardest to uplift the spirits of the other teammates. If the team gets angry and he can’t calm people down, then he feels like he’s failed his job.”
For Mickie, keeping a positive disposition isn’t just a pretense, nor is he trying to fool anyone—he simply wants to let people see the best parts of him. It’s a principle that Mickie finds difficult to put into words, although, as always, he’s more than willing to try.
“It’s hard to control feelings, right?” he said. “But I just try to think, I don’t want to be depressed, and I don’t want to make the people who are behind me cheering be sad. Of course, when we’re losing, I feel bad, but I don’t want to show it. I’m not happy [all the time], or I would be insane. I’m just a normal human. Sometimes I feel bad, sometimes I’m down. I talk to my team [and tell them], just don’t show it outside. It’s bad for the fans. Also, my family is watching me, so I don’t want them to worry about me.”
Mickie doesn’t remember the last time he played a LAN tournament in his home country. The Thai team didn’t make it to the 2017 Overwatch World Cup, and they wouldn’t have made it this year, either, if Thailand had not been selected as a Group Stage host. The skill difference between Mickie’s team and the rest of the group—which includes China and Sweden—is obvious, but none of that can dampen his excitement for the event, which will be held in Bangkok from September 14–16.
“I just feel happy,” he said. “In Thailand the competition [for Overwatch] is not that big, and I just want them to show what they’ve got, so the World Cup is a very good opportunity for them.”
Mickie is one of two returning members from that 2016 team, and as the only player to represent Southeast Asia at the highest level of competition, he acutely feels the extra pressure to not only perform, but also to lead. While the added responsibility weighs on Mickie, he also sees it as a chance to cultivate more widespread acceptance for esports in the region.
“It’s a good opportunity for the next generation in Thailand or SEA [Southeast Asia],” he explained. “At least they can show their parents—here, this is real esports, people around the world accept it.”
As an ambassador for Overwatch, you couldn’t ask for more than what Mickie has already given. He’s not quite Ji-Sung Park, but people around the world still buy his jerseys, and kids still look up to him as an example of not only what could be, but how to be. Getting a chance to showcase his skills and express his passion in front of his home crowd won’t feel that much different, Mickie says, because he’s not planning on being anything other than himself.
“I’m not saying my team is the best, but we will try hard to be one of the best,” he said. “We’re not going to just compete and keep losing, we’re going to try hard in the World Cup. We’ll try to make it to BlizzCon, and I hope you guys are rooting for us. Even though we are not the best at gaming, we’re going to be the best at entertaining.”
Can you envision it—that smile?