How online BL series ‘Gameboys’ injects Pinoy flavor, resourceful flair in the genre


The first episode of “Gameboys,” the Pinoy online series produced by The IdeaFirst Company which premiered on May 22, came almost without warning or publicity. Ther was just a simple social media post announcing that the film outfit is releasing a Boys Love (BL) series.

The company is known for producing hit movies such as "Die Beautiful" and "The Panti Sisters," but they’re not a social media powerhouse. Their Youtube account, before the release of “Gameboys,” had around 10,000 subscribers. It wouldn’t be hard to find an obscure Youtuber with a stronger online presence.

So while “Gameboys” was riding the wave of popularity of the BL genre, expectations weren’t high.

More than a month after the premiere of its first episode, it can be said that “Gameboys” exceeded those expectations. The show’s current five episodes—uploaded on Youtube, with new episodes out every Friday night—have a total of more than three million views.

The show has a loyal local following, making “Gameboys” an instant trending topic on social media when new episodes air. Foreign audiences have also taken to the show, supporting it the same way they do BL media from countries like Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, and China, where the genre has been popular since the mid-2010s.

Love in quarantine

“Gameboys” tells the story of Cai (played by Elijah Canlas), a live game streamer, who meets fellow gamer and admirer Gavreel (played Kokoy de Santos) online. The two become rivals, but their rivalry quickly blossoms into something more.

Basically, it’s about two young men falling in love online. It is considered to be the first Filipino BL series produced by a professional media outfit.

Courtesy of IdeaFirst Company

According to Perci Intalan, President of IdeaFirst Company and Executive Producer of the show, “Gameboys” began as a means to boost the morale of the outfit's staff. Morale was down; quarantine forced all media outfits to stop production.

While the lockdown was initially set for only a month, nobody was sure how and when the film industry would return to status quo.

“We thought, why don’t we try telling a story in this current situation?” Intalan said.

So they set the parameters of the show they will produce. It was going to be uploaded on Youtube. It was going to be a BL show, which is currently very popular among local viewers online. It shouldn’t be expensive to produce. It should follow quarantine safety protocols, which means everyone will have to do the project at the comforts of their own homes. The result was “Gameboys.”

The idea for “Gameboys” came before they planned the logistics of the show’s production, Intalan said. Director Ivan Andrew Payawal and writer Ash Malanum, along with the show’s staff and crew, knew the show would be about two online gamers before they planned how “Gameboys” will be presented.

In “Gameboys,” everything is presented from the point of view of an online device—mobile phones, webcams, messaging apps, social media, and, occasionally, old fashioned text messaging. The main characters, after all, are gamers, so this makes.

But the show has a present day setting, in the time of the quarantine, with COVID-19 a very present danger. So the characters can’t just go out and meet each other, the way lovers would pre-pandemic.

The show does not break this point of view — not only because they’re working around the limitations of the quarantine and the parameters they have set, but also because they wanted to maintain the laws of their narrative. “If you break that point of view, as a viewer, mawawala ka doon sa mood,” Intalan explained.

He added, “Ayokong isipin ng tao na ito lang yung story natin kasi ito lang ang kaya nating gawin. Gusto kong isipin ng tao na kasi ito yung way to tell this story.”


Cairo played by Elijah Canlas. Photo: IdeaFirst Company

It worked. At its very core, “Gameboys” tells the story of two boys in love during the quarantine. The distance between the would-be lovers and the online tools they use to communicate are important characters in the show, too.

More importantly, it tells a story of how love and relationships have changed — and, perhaps, made more challenging — because of the pandemic. It tells a very specific story about where we are as people navigating love, desire, and relationship with COVID-19 very much in the air.

“The reason why kinikilig yung mga tao now is ramdam nila, e. Ramdam nila yung pagkakahiwalay nung dalawa. Ramdam mo yung isolation. Ramdam nila yung longing na magkita pero hindi pwede,” Intalan said.

Production during a pandemic

All of this created a show that’s both smart and engaging. But this also involves working around a lot of limitations.

The show’s staff — particularly director Payawal and writer Malanum — has the unique challenge of making sure every story element of “Gameboys” can be presented using its mobile device point of view. They have so many stories they want to tell about Cai and Gavreel, but they need to be resourceful in telling it.

“Hindi naman pwedeng basta naka-on lang ang camera tapos magsasalita sila,” Intalan quipped.

Gavreel played by Kokoy de Santos. Photo: IdeaFirst Company

Another challenge is the production itself. The IdeaFirst Company has done shows for online streaming sites, but they haven’t produced one that’s made for Youtube viewing before. Now, everything must be done remotely.

The director, writer, and Intalan looked at how other shows, both local and international, worked around the stay-at-home orders.

Notably, in the US, “American Idol” completed its 2020 season remotely, with its contestants at home, using mobile devices to stream their performances. Reality competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” also held its finale virtually. For both shows, producers had to send contestants props and equipment. But the contestants had to fix everything themselves, from the props to the camera equipment.

“Gameboys” employed similar tactics. They filmed the show using mobile phones. The actors — Canlas, de Santos, actress Adrianna So, and actor Kyle Velino — had to film themselves using phones.

Director Payawal and other crew members listen and watch the actors film their scenes via Zoom on a different device so they can give directions.

But the whole process takes a lot more than actors filming themselves using a phone.

Payawal, production designer Nestor Abrogena, and Executive Producer Jun Lana had to go on a tour of the actors’ houses (via a video call), inspecting every nook and cranny to see which areas they can use for filming.

From there, they decided how they can improve the available spaces. They sent ring lights (“Kailangan di malakas sa kuryente at hindi mainit,” Intalan said) and props. Abrogena had to instruct the actors where to place the props while Payawal had to tell them where to place the lights to achieve their desired look and effect. The light placement involved a bit of trial and error, since the crew wouldn’t know how the video would like with the lights until they saw the actual video file.


Cai's room in 'Gameboys' is a product of production design. Photo: IdeaFirst Comopany

To make Canlas’ room look like it really belongs to a young gamer, Abrogena had to procure props. “A lot of what you see in Elijah’s home are props,” Intalan said. It doesn’t seem too hard now, but during the first weeks of the quarantine, buying props is next to impossible and getting a courier to deliver items from different points in Metro Manila wasn’t easy. It took a lot of resourcefulness to finish the makeshift sets alone.

Canlas and de Santos had to use their clothing, although Abrogena occasionally sends some shirts to the actors when needed. They also had to learn to do their own makeup, though the show doesn’t really require heavy use of it.

To film the scenes for “Gameboys,” Intalan thought they could simply ask Canlas and de Santos to use their personal phones. But this presents a problem: since they use different models of mobile phones, the videos they produce do not look the same.

Intalan and some members of the staff had to send their own phones to the actors. Admittedly, “Gameboys” has a limited budget. “We make do of what we have. Kung ito yung limitation na meron ka, you adjust everything else,” Intalan explained. This took effort and some personal sacrifices just to create visuals and colors that don’t look jarringly different when streamed on Youtube.

But again, it isn’t a matter of using the same mobile phone brand. It took a great deal of trial and error to match the quality and color the videos of the phones produce. “We had to find the right balance with what’s available.” It took a while before they managed to find the right combination of gadgets to achieve this balance (The show does not have a colorist; the equipment they use does not allow color grading)

Once the equipment was ready, “Gameboys” was ready to be filmed—which also took a great deal of trial and error. For example, Canlas, for example, films himself using a mobile phone (the scenes are filmed using a device, not via Zoom or a video messaging app to prevent lags or delays, and to control the quality of the video).

Canlas then sends the file to Payawal via cloud storage. Payawal downloads the file, and watches the scene. If Payawal sees an error or if he wants another take, Canlas will film the same scene again. They do this process, which obviously takes time and effort, again and again until they are satisfied with the result.

Payawal does this for every scene, with every actor, for every episode.

Photo: IdeaFirst Company

A typical episode of “Gameboys” runs for about 20 minutes. (Its first episode is the shortest at 10 minutes)

“Hindi naman makikita ni Ivan yung footage until it’s uploaded. Kasi hindi naman siya naka-live patch sa phone. Ang tagal kasi every take ipapadala mo,” Intalan explained. “Ang scene, ire-record, ipapadala. Maghihintay lahat habang inu-upload, habang dino-download. Papanoorin ni direk. Tapos one more take. Ulit-ulit.”

This kind of filming arrangement also means the actors have to be in their A-game every single time, in all aspects of their looks and performance—even without the physical presence of the crew.

“Because of the limitation of the coverage of how we shoot it, hindi ka pwede na hindi ka magaling na artista,” Intalan said. “How I wish may depth of field kami na pwedeng laruin. Or play around with the lights. But we don’t. And lahat pa, stark. Stark meaning it’s full on frontal. Hindi naka-anggulo. Kung yung artista mo may tinatagong anything, kitang-kita yan ng lahat. Kasi bukod sa nakatitig ka lang sa face niya the whole time, wala kang malalaro na anggulo. Hindi pwedeng sabihin ng artista na, ‘Mas maganda ako sa left.’  Wala kang choice na ganun.”

Graphic artist Ryan Valencia works on any graphics and effects needed for the show; Jay Mauricio and Kristian Palma edit. 

An episode of “Gameboys” takes around five days to finish. 

They haven’t changed the filming process even after quarantine restrictions have eased from Enhanced Community Quarantine to General Community Quarantine in Metro Manila. “The GCQ did make sending stuff back and forth easier though,” Intalan said.

More BLs in the future

Translating Boys Love — a form of fictionalized media that features homoerotic relationships between men; a genre that originated in Japan and has enjoyed popularity in many Asian countries the past decade — to a local setting proved much easier for the “Gameboys” team.

Malanum has been a fan of the genre even before writing the show, while Intalan has seen some BL shows from Thailand during the quarantine. The IdeaFirst Company, too, is known for creating LGBT-themed stories for a broad audience.


Courtesy: IdeaFirst Company

“For me, BL is kind of almost a fantasy and it's a world where social norms are not even a concern. Nobody has to justify why they like people of the same sex. They just do. That’s how the world should be. But at the same time, napansin namin na masyadong magaan yung treatment ng BL, na hindi naman nage-exist yung societal concerns,” Intalan said.

(It should be noted while the recent Boys Love shows from Thailand that became popular in the Philippines fit this description, many other shows of the genre do not fit this mold.)

They also wanted to feature more than just “fantasy,” to make “Gameboys” more palatable to the Filipino audience. For instance, family is an important factor both in the lives of Filipinos and in Pinoy fictionalized media. “In the Philippines, it’s important that we still address that in a BL way,” Intalan said.

Hence, the introduction of some “Filipino” elements in the show. For instance: Cai’s father in the show has COVID-19 so familial concerns can be featured in “Gameboys”; De Santos’ Gavreel telling Canlas’ Cai he’s willing to show a bit more skin for him “with his consent,” adding a “woke” aspect to a genre that is occasionally problematic with its depiction of sexuality; So’s Pearl casually admitting that she likes Alden Richards, but is also interested in Catriona Gray, making her possible bisexuality a normal character element, not a novelty.

“We’re not interested in doing something if we cannot espouse a few messages in it. Yun yung gusto namin maging brand ng BL namin, na it’s woke. It’s still BL but it’s a woke kind of BL. Importante yun, e,” Intalan said.

The IdeaFirst Company considers “Gameboys” as a success, though perhaps not in the traditional sense. It relies solely on Youtube monetization, and an episode of the show costs more than your usual Youtube video.

But many other revenue streams opened up because of the popularity of “Gameboys.”

The show was originally meant to run for four episodes. Now, they’re set to do 10, with plans to do a movie once filming restrictions (and the schedules of their actors and crew) allow them to do so.

“I was already talking to potential partners. We have songs streaming on Spotify. May inquiry na ako for streaming and may inquiry na ako for TV rights,” Intalan said.

The IdeaFirst Company also announced a spin-off series for “Gameboys” breakout character Pearl. The show, “Pearl Next Door,” will be a Girls Love series, to the delight of the fans.

Boys Love shows are generally made for a female audience. For this reason, fans believe Girls Love aren’t as common; there is no guarantee the same female audience of a BL show will support a Girls Love show. “Pearl Next Door” is a risk, and Intalan and his team are willing to take it.

They have already filmed materials for the “Pearl Next Door,” though details about it are still under wraps. 

Intalan said they are “definitely” making another BL series after “Gameboys” completes its planned 10-episode run.

What isn’t set in stone is if their follow-up will be a series set in a different “cinematic universe” or if, like “Pearl Next Door,” it will share the same fictional setting with “Gameboys.” Which means there’s a chance their future BL shows can interact with Cai and Gavreel. This is similar to how different Thai BL shows share the same narrative setting.

“Marami kaming naiisip,” he said, but they want the story to feel right. “We’ll do it if it’s time to tell it. Ayaw naman to just seize the opportunity.” What’s certain is they’ll continue doing it. “As we see it kasi, ang dami pa niyang pwedeng puntahan.” — LA, GMA News