The next day, the gang met up at the NetCow Cafe as usual. They just started to get settled into their private room, but they hadn’t yet queued up or started a game. Then the door to the private room opened and a fat middle-aged man walked through. It was unexpected, and everyone turned around to gawk at this stranger. “Why hello there! I’m the owner of the NetCow Cafe. I heard from one of my managers that you’re the youngsters who recently won the Collegiate Cup, and that you’re regulars here. I heard you even did some of your practice sessions for the Cup in this room. Is that true?”
Lin Feng scratched his head, confused by the appearance of this stranger. But he slowly nodded. He didn’t know what to say or how to respond beyond the nod. Zeng Rui decided to step in after shooting an exasperated look at Lin Feng. “Yes sir. We’re the team from Shanghai who won the Collegiate Cup, and it is true that we held our practice sessions here. I don’t mean to be rude, but you seem to know a lot about us and we don’t know who you are at all.”
The portly middle-aged man took a few steps into the room and closed the door behind him. Then he chuckled and said, “Oh-ho-ho! That’s right, that’s right. Where are my manners? As I said earlier, I am the owner of this fabulous NetCow Cafe! My name is Qian Lu.” Then he fished around in his pockets for a business card, which he handed over to Lin Feng. “As for why I’m here, it’s because I’ve got an opportunity for talented League players such as yourselves! I’d like you to be the official NetCafe Team of the NetCow Cafe! Doesn’t that sound exciting?”
“A NetCafe Team?” Lin Feng muttered, scratching his head. He’d just accepted a business card from the internet cafe owner. Now there was talk of a NetCafe Team. It was more than he could process at the moment. Lin Feng had questions, but he didn’t know where to start or what to start asking. Thankfully, Zhang Hao jumped in to ask the most important question that Lin Feng bungled.
“Yeah, what does that mean? You want us to be the team for the NetCow Cafe?” Zhang Hao asked, equally confused. “Does that mean… Well, I think what it means is… you… IS THIS THE SAME THING AS A SPONSORSHIP OR SOMETHING?”
The large-bellied owner of the NetCow Cafe let out a laugh that made his belly shake like a bowl full of jelly. “Oh-ho-ho-ho-hahahaha! No, no, no. Nothing like that at all. I’m just the humble proprietor of a small business, this tiny little internet cafe. Sponsorships and that sort of thing, that’s something beyond us.” Qian Lu waved a hand to dismiss the thought entirely. “No, no. What I’m asking you to do is represent the NetCow Cafe. You guys are the winners of the Collegiate Cup, and that makes you very famous. All I’d like is for you guys to continue playing exclusively at this branch of the NetCow Cafe, using it for your practices, and be seen here. That will attract other customers to this establishment, and make us much more famous and renowned. I’d also like to use your pictures on posters, maybe hold a few events where you play against local teams. It’s all very small-time and simple, you see. Oh-ho-ho-ho-hahahahahaha!”
“So, what should we call you? Boss Qian?” Zeng Rui asked. He’d glanced at the business card in Lin Feng’s hand and saw the name, Qian Lu.
Qian Lu waved his hand with a flattering smile. “Hahaha! Boss? No no no! What? Do I look like a boss? Oh-ho-ho-hahahahaha! I’m just a humble business owner. Feel free to just call me Ol’ Qian.”
Ol’ Qian? Old money….? Zeng Rui’s eyelids twitched.
Zhang Hao almost burst out in laughter. He was amazed by Qian Lu’s thick skin. It was only their first meeting, but Qian Lu was already trying to have everyone treat him like they were old friends.
Lin Feng finally caught on, and decided that there was nothing odd about this at all. He jumped into the conversation and asked, “Hey, Ol’ Qian. If we’re gonna be representing you, what do you want us to do?”
Qian Lu’s face lit up, and his cheeks turned red. He looked very much like a smiling Buddha. “You don’t need to do much at all! Your presence here is more than enough. But I would like you to do a few tiny things… you know, like participating in the occasional competition. Or helping us defend our turf if a rival cafe’s team shows up and challenges us. Simply put, you’d be the honorable defenders of our little NetCow Sect! Oh-hoho-ho-hahahahaha!”
Qian Lu was a shrewd businessman. Before anyone could notice or object, he’d managed to convince them all that the honor of the NetCow Cafe and his own honor as the owner of the establishment was, in fact, everyone’s honor and that Lin Feng’s gang absolutely had to help defend that honor.
“Oh, I see. That makes sense!” Lin Feng slapped his thigh. “So, we’re basically like your hired muscle, right?”
Qian Lu’s expression froze for a couple of seconds. Then he let out another one of his frequent laughs from deep in his belly. “Oh-hohoho-hahahahaha! Hired muscle? That makes it seem so violent and dangerous. Nothing like that at all! No, no, no. I’d just like you to defend the honor of our humble NetCow Cafe dojo. Yup! You’d be our guardians. Yes, yes. That sounds perfect! The Guardian Deities of the NetCow Sect!”
Zeng Rui’s lips faintly twitched. Guardian deities… Seriously?
An Xin finally joined in on the conversation and asked with a pleasant smile, “Boss Qian. We’d be happy to defend the honor of this cafe, of course. We practice here and we spend so much time here. But… well, the thing is that even guardian deities need regular offerings. Or they become displeased and bring down disaster on the villages they’re supposed to protect, if you get what I mean.”
Qian Lu gulpd. Then he broke into a flattering smile, “O-of course…”
The ‘offerings for guardian deities’ that An Xin was referring to, that was her roundabout way of asking about the compensation they would receive in return for representing the NetCow Cafe. The deal that Qian Lu offered them was that the members of Team Shanghai would receive a base stipend ¥2,000 a month. On top of this, they would receive a bonus of ¥500 for every match victory in a tournament. Qian Lu also promised them that if the tournament was especially difficult, the bonus for each victory would increase accordingly.
Lin Feng considered the offer carefully. Hm… the compensation for the match victories sounds fair to me. But the stipend… that seems a little low. I should say something and try to negotiate. But make it seem like I don’t actually care. I can do this! I’m really good at negotiating too! “¥2,000…” Lin Feng appeared to be mulling the number over as he thoughtfully rubbed his chin. Then he turned to look straight at Qian Lu and said, “That’s only ¥400 for each of us. Ain’t that a little low? Unless you mean that we’re each going to get ¥2,000 a month. In that case, it’s a very generous offer Ol’ Qian!”
Qian Lu blanched. “No, no. I meant ¥2,000 for the whole team. So, yes, that would be ¥400. But if you feel that is too little… err, well… I’m just a small business owner… Still! Let me think. How about ¥3,000 every month? Does that sound fair?” Deep within his heart, Qian Lu was conflicted. On the one hand, he was relieved that he did not accidentally created a misunderstanding that would result in him having to pay ¥2,000 to each team member every month. But on the other hand, he felt the pain of losing an extra ¥1,000 from his wallet every month.
“That sounds good to me. Deal!” Lin Feng agreed.
Qian Lu breathed a sigh of relief. “Deal!”
The two didn’t haggle any further and immediately agreed on the price.
An Xin watched on from the sidelines with a faint smile as Qian Lu and Lin Feng ended the negotiations and agreed on the terms of the deal. She didn’t have any plans of jumping in and haggling for them. If I tagged in… poor Qian Lu. I’d milk him for every penny he’s got stashed away in that belly of his! That would be fun. But this is fine too, Lin Feng did well getting some extra money out of him. Our goal isn’t to make money right now, but a little bit of pocket money could always come in handy. Yes, this is fine.
Zeng Rui suddenly thought of something and asked, “Boss Qian? No, I will not call you Ol’ Qian. But I do have a question. Are the other internet cafes putting together teams like this too?”
Qian Lu replied, “Yup. Over the past couple of months, all the internet cafes across Shanghai have started forming their own teams.”
Zeng Rui nodded. Then he continued asking, “So, what kind of players are these other internet cafes recruiting for their teams?”
“Oh, some recruit semi-professional teams who already use their cafes for practice. Others recruit top players from elsewhere and wrangle them up to form a team,” Qian Lu answered, wondering what Zeng Rui was getting at.
Zeng Rui raised an eyebrow. “So I assume these semi-professional teams get paid more?”
Qian Lu dryly coughed. “Oh well, you know. It depends on the situation. Of course the better you are, the more you’re compensated. But I’m just a humble owner running a small business…. There’s no way I could afford to recruit people like that.”
“Is that so?” Zeng Rui nodded, his lips curving into a faint smile. “I wonder…”
Qian Lu looked at Zeng Rui oddly, not understanding what he was saying. He could only smile and nod along.
However, Zeng Rui’s words were correct. Qian Lu had no idea that the team who won the Collegiate Cup was far more skilled than he thought. Or could possibly imagine. He also had no idea that he’d somehow managed to recruit the former number one Midlaner in all of China, and one of the best in the entire world, for only ¥600 a month.
A businessman never did anything without profit in mind. This applied to Qian Lu, who recruited Lin Feng’s team for a very good reason. Just like he told Zeng Rui, many internet cafes across Shanghai were starting to recruit players to build powerful teams. And the point was not to create a stable of influencers to attract customers. The bigger prize was that more and more tournaments and competitive leagues for internet cafes were popping up across Shanghai. And there was a rather large and important tournament coming up soon. That was the primary reason for Qian Lu approaching Lin Feng’s gang.
The tournament was called the Shanghai Net Cafe Battle Bonanza, and the details of the whole thing were sparse at the moment. All anyone knew was a few vague inklings and rumors. But the fundamental idea was that every internet cafe across China would send in teams to represent them in battle. Then the teams would duke it out, after which the tournament organizers would tally up all the points and announce the final results. That’s when they would announce the prizes, and what each team earned for their internet cafe. At this point in time, only the lowest of the prizes had been revealed. But those were more than generous enough to get Qian Lu salivating. He immediately signed up for the tournament, and then started trying to put together a team. That’s when he heard from one of the workers at his NetCow Cafe that there was a group who played there regularly in a private room. A group that won the Collegiate Cup.
Dev Thought: So despite my best efforts, it happened. The worst thing possible. I got sucked into the unending torment and bait-and-switch that is Lost Ark. Initially, I didn’t really want to do anything or be sweaty about the game. I just wanted to hit end game and play in the raids with everyone else on the Rise Discord server. Because it seemed like a fun time. I was given assurances and promises by Shanks and others that it would take no time at all to breeze through the main story line and hit Lvl 50, at which point I’d be able to do all the end-game stuff with them. So I slogged through all of the quests and side-quests, sacrificing sleep and meals. Because I wanted to play with everyone.
AND THEN! Right when I got to Lvl 49 and started celebrating, that’s when Shanks decides it is a good time to tell me that I can’t actually do the end-game at Lvl 50. Apparently, he stated it poorly which led to a misunderstanding. No, in order to participate in all the end-game stuff with everyone else, I had to make it through two more continents worth of main story quests. One of which happened to take place in a weird Sci-Fi/Warhammer 40K continent that dragged on endlessly and made very little sense. The game even recognizes that fact. At the end of the Sci-fi continents’ story line, they outright tell you that they have no idea why they have this Ark thing you’re looking for or why it landed on their continent. But they have no use for it, and they have very little to do with the whole demon invasion that you’re fighting against. They’re happy pursuing evolution through technological progress. But since you showed up and helped them with their problems, they’ll give you this thing that they have no use for and send you on your merry way back to fantasy settings and the demon invasion. It was literally the worst way to spend a Sunday. I was so mad. But I did it all, and I got to the end-game point that Shanks mentioned I had to get to.
THEN HE TELLS ME THAT I’M ONLY AT TIER 1 END GAME, and I GOTTA MAKE IT ALL THE WAY TO TIER 3 ENDGAME BEFORE I CAN PLAY WITH THEM! And it turns out that I’ve got like a week’s worth of grinding to gather all the materials required to get to Tier 3 gear and upgrade them to the point where everyone else is.
That’s been my entire experience with Lost Ark. Just slogging through an endless game that makes very little sense, only to be told just as I’m on the cusp of victory that I have way more to do. But that I shouldn’t give up because I’m almost there.
I hate this game, I definitely hate Shanks, and I really just want to go back to climbing in TFT. At least that isn’t so maddening.