From Jeepney Driver to Esports Player: Escalera's 'Biyaheng Tagumpay'
Jomearie "Escalera" Santos is a former jeepney driver and crew at fast food restaurants. Currently, he plays tank for TNC Pro Team, which competes at the MPL Philippines. His unique story as a jeepney-driver-turned-esports-player has inspired many people who are dreaming of a career in the esports industry.
Escalera is a high school graduate but did not get the chance to go to college. After finishing high school, he went straight to work at fast food restaurants as a member of the crew. “Nasa 17 to 18 years old po ako noong nag crew po ako sa Chowking at Jollibee,” Escalera tells Esquire Philippines.
“Noong wala pa po ako sa esports, isa po akong jeepney driver. Pero bago po ako naging jeepney driver, naging crew po ako sa Chowking at Jollibee. Eighteen years old po ako noong nagtrabaho ako sa fast food restaurant. Noong nagkaroon na po ako ng driver’s license, sinubukan ko pong mamasada ng jeepney. Mas nagustuhan ko pong bumiyahe kaysa maging crew ng isang fast food restaurant.”
According to Escalera, he had been driving his father’s jeepney for over a year before he decided to try out for esports.
Bakit ka naging jeepney driver?
“May sarili pong jeepney iyong pamilya ko, kay Papa po iyon. Bata pa lang po ako, mahilig na po akong sumama sa kanya sa mga biyahe niya. Tinuruan niya po ako noong 13 years old pa lang ako. Sa una, pinapaapak lang po niya ako sa silinyador. Pagtungtong ko ng 15, pinahawak na po niya ako ng manibela,” says Escalera. “Natuto po ako paunti-unti sa pagsama sa kanya.”
As he reminisces on this core memory, he couldn’t suppress a glint of happiness in his eyes. When he finally got his license at 19, excitement took over him.
“Noong nagkaroon na po ako ng lisensya noong 19 years old po ako, itinakas ko po iyong dyip niya at ibiniyahe ko ng madaling araw.” It was a life-changing moment for him and his parents. “Nakita ko ang sarili ko na kaya ko nang bumiyahe nang mag-isa. Sinabi ko sa Papa ko iyon, at pinagbigyan naman niya akong maging ka-relyebo niya.”
In a day, he would earn a net of P700 to P900, starting his trips at 1 p.m. and ending as late as 1 a.m. It was hard work, but at least it allowed him to earn a daily wage higher than what he used to earn at fast food restaurants. “Depende rin po kasi sa sipag iyon kung kikita ka nang malaki o hindi,” Escalera says. “Kapag gabi na, tiyagaan na lang po talaga sa mga pila-pila kasi wala ka na ring makukuhang pasahero sa kalsada.”
One of the most unforgettable experiences Escalera has driving the jeepney was when he accidentally bumped a police vehicle.
“Nabunggo ako, pulis pa iyong nabunggo ko! Hindi ko malilimutan iyon. First time ko lang halos magbiyahe ng dyip noon sa kalsada, tapos nakabunggo ako, pulis-Makati pa!”
Escalera smiles and scratches his head as he recalls this encounter.
“Dumulas po iyong preno, hindi naman totally bunggong bunggo, nadaplisan lang iyong bumper. Napakiusapan naman kasi hindi naman masyadong malaki iyong tama ng sasakyan. Parang alikabok ng bumber ko, nalipat sa kanya,” says Escalera.
The jeepney was the family’s prized possession and only source of income, and for Escalera, it was his inheritance.
But everything changed with the onslaught of the pandemic. All forms of public transportation were severely hit. People were not allowed to travel, and jeepney drivers all over the country had to tighten their belts and look for other sources of income just to feed their families. But for the Santos family, things were even grimmer: Escalera’s father had recently had a stroke, and his mother was out of a job.
“Noong pandemic, ibinenta ni Papa iyong dyip.”
It was a very hard decision for the family but they had no choice. “Noong panahong iyon, maraming dyip ang nahihila ng wrecker dahil walang garahe. Wala rin naman kaming garahe at wala ring magbabantay ng dyip.”
Jomearie "Escalera" Santos
‘Nalulungkot po ako tuwing may strike ang mga jeepney.’
As someone who grew up loving the jeepney and the road, Escalera feels great sadness about issues surrounding jeepney drivers’ plights.
“Nalulungkot po ako kapag nakikita kong nag-istrike sila kasi malaking bagay din po arawang biyahe nila. Iyong iba, halos doon lang kumukuha ng pangkain araw-araw. Tapos hindi sila makakabiyahe dahil sa krisis na phase out.”
Escalera was referring to the issue of phasing out traditional jeepneys because of the government’s jeepney modernization program, which calls for the phasing out of jeepneys, buses, and other Public Utility Vehicles (PUVs) that are at least 15 years old. Those opposing the program claim it is anti-poor because of the insufficient subsidy provided by the government for purchasing new vehicles, and the reported very high capital needed to obtain a franchise, further alienating low-income jeepney drivers and operators from making a livelihood out of the modernization program.
“May mga jeepney rin pong lumang-luma na pero kaya pa namang bumiyahe. Para sa akin po, napakaraming mga pamilya ang mga maaapektuhan kapag na-phase out ang mga jeepney. Hindi lang sa mga jeepney drivers, pati mga commuter din po,” says Escalera.
Fortunately, a window opened for Escalera—Esports.
Escalera would play mobile games after finishing his trips.
“Wala pa po akong pangarap noong namamasada po ako ng dyip. Gusto ko lang po maglaro nang maglaro ng games,” he laughs. “Siguro, iyong pangarap ko lang noon, mnagkapera nang marami saka yumaman. Iyong unang tournament na pinanalunan namin na malaki ay yung PPGL o Philippine Pro Gaming League. Noong nanalo kami doon, kinuha kami ng ex-pro team na Arkangel.”
Boosted by their fresh win at the 2019 PPGL, which had a quite decent prize pool of P600,000, Escalera and his teammates tried out for the MPL Qualifiers under Arkangel. They lost three times. But Escalera’s efforts were noticed by TNC Pro Team, which recruited him.
In early February of 2023, TNC Pro Team took inspiration from Escalera’s story as a jeepney driver when they released a video of their roster reveal for the MPL Philippines Season 11.
“Noong binubuo po iyong idea ng roster reveal namin, sabi ko gusto ko maging jeepney driver sa video. Hindi ko akalaing seseryosohin nila!” says Escalera. “Biro-biro lang naman, eh iyong boss namin may isang salita, pag tinoyo siya, tuloy-tuloy at gagawin iyong gusto niyang gawin. Kaya nabuo ang ganoong setup at sobrang ganda ng kinalabasan ng roster reveal.”
Watch the well-produced roster video by TNC below.