Dota 2’s prestigious annual contest, The International, is fast approaching its sixth incarnation as the world’s best teams prepare to head to Seattle at the end of this month. Probably best known for its absurdly large fan-funded prize pool – which just surpassed last year’s $18m and is still rising – there is far more than money on the line for these teams.
This year has seen the highest levels of professional Dota split into distinct ‘seasons’ around three Major tournaments, and The International marks the end of the new structure’s debut cycle.
Though intending to offer more stability to the scene, roster lock windows and shuffle penalties have resulted in some of the most dramatic developments as players jostled for the best squad to claim the Aegis, and the lion’s share of that gigantic prize pot.
That drama began almost immediately after last year’s TI, as champions Evil Geniuses ditched Kurtis “Aui_2000” Lang from their winning side to make way for former team-mate Artour “Arteezy” Babaev who left Team Secret.
This move set the scene for the rest of the year, as Arteezy will go on to move back and forth between the two, causing roster chaos within North American and Western Dota teams for the entire year.
The International 2015 also saw the death of North American team Cloud9, dogged by under-performance issues despite reaching almost every major competition of the year.
From the death of Cloud9, and the ensuing post-TI roster shuffle, Johan “n0tail” Sundstein formed a new independent team (monkey) Business, soon to become OG, with the intention of competing at the first of the seasonal Valve Majors to begin in autumn.
The Fall Major in Frankfurt initially showed TI champions Evil Geniuses were onto a winner with their Arteezy trade, with a dominant run through the upper bracket. Meeting Arteezy’s former Team Secret in the upper bracket final, however, showed his replacement Jackie “EternalEnvy” Mao – picked up after Cloud9’s dissolution – to be a more capable opponent than expected.
However, surprising everyone, was the lower bracket survival of qualifying team OG, fighting tooth and nail all the way through the toughest teams with no second chances.
Scraping 2-1 past EHOME, China’s de facto strongest team in the post-TI shuffle, and then defeating the TI champions EG was statement enough. But going on to win the first Major with a comfortable 3-1 over Team Secret put OG immediately onto the board.
Through the next two transfer windows, OG remained together, a rarity which has no doubt contributed to the continued success and close teamwork of the side.
Dota 2 Frankfurt Fall Major Finals – Team Secret versus OG
Video Credit: DotA Digest
The window between the Frankfurt Major in Fall and the Shanghai Major at the end of winter was relatively stable. A single tournament not deemed enough to know what was working and what wasn’t, Shanghai offered a chance to re-test each others’ line-ups.
This re-do, despite having what many will remember as the worst tournament production of any in recent memory, had a similar script to Frankfurt. Team Secret, Evil Geniuses and OG all entered the playoffs in the upper bracket, though OG quickly dropped to lower. Unable to repeat their survival run of four months prior, OG fell to a much improved Malaysian Fnatic side.
Despite being in their home country, China’s teams all fell off the bracket before the penultimate day of competition, something the region has been struggling to correct after utter dominance during The International 4. Secret and EG had their customary showdown, in which Secret came out on top again, though this time the two were joined by another surprising, rising team.
Team Liquid, also struggling for relevance after staking the organisation’s name in Dota at The International 3, found a strong pace this year. Along with OG, Liquid has kept a solid roster while all those about had lost theirs and – to continue paraphrasing Kipling – theirs is the world and everything that’s in it. Though not quite managing a win at Shanghai, their second place to Secret showed another team to be wary of in the next season.
Dota 2 Shanghai Major Finals – Team Secret versus Team Liquid
Video Credit: DotA Digest
The run up to the Manila Major was the most chaotic. After two tournaments, and with this last roster lock lasting until after The International, teams made some desperate deals to secure better chances.
Arteezy, having missed out on Team Secret’s Major title at Shanghai, decided the grass looked greener on the other side once more and left Evil Geniuses, this time taking star off-laner Saahil “Universe” Ahora with him.
The two-player gap was made by dropping Rasmus “Misery” Filipsen and Aliwi “w33” Omar from Secret, while EG plugged their double roster hole by bringing back Kurtis “Aui_2000” Lang (no hard feelings, eh?) and Kanishka “Bulba” Sosale both from American side Digital Chaos, who then filled their ranks with Misery and w33.
The North American Dota Roster Musical Chairs Championship began and concluded just hours before the window closed, but was it all worth it?
In short: no. In long: hahaha, no.
In the interim between Frankfurt, Shanghai and Manila, other teams with consistent rosters began to show new strengths in this chaotic void. Liquid won their first big international tournament at Epicenter, despite coming extremely close on several other occasions and Alliance, the Swedish champions of The International 3, reformed their TI3-winning squad to take first at the World Cyber Arena in China.
Alliance’s TI3 rivals Natus Vincere, long suffering a slow decline throughout 2015, also saw high placings with a rash of second places across ESL One tournaments.
At Manila these teams that have had the chance to gel and improve made extremely short work of Evil Geniuses and Team Secret’s rapidly assembled super teams. Both were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, while China’s Newbee team, arriving at Manila through the qualifiers, had another name-making tournament.
OG again demonstrated why they are the current best in the world after less than a year of existence with a flawless upper bracket run, before defeating Team Liquid in the final. A second Major under their belt, OG are certainly looking the strongest candidate for this 2016’s Dota 2 International.
Dota 2 Manila Major – OG versus Team Liquid
Video Credit: DotA Digest
Their improvements throughout this year earned Newbee, Na`Vi and Liquid direct invites to Seattle for The International’s main event. Joining them are LGD Gaming, China’s second strongest side, as well as MVP Phoenix, South Korea’s pride and joy in Dota – a game in which the usually dominant nation in eSports has had little representation.
After such disappointing performances at Manila, both Evil Geniuses and Team Secret took the drastic decision to break their roster lock to swap offlaners Bulba and Universe, therefore forfeiting any form of invite to the qualifiers or the main event.
The result was two of the biggest teams in Dota 2 being forced to qualify through the Open Qualifiers, 1000+ teams of any skill level whatsoever – from friends out for glory to semi-pro amateurs trying to break the bigtime. Both survived the gauntlet, and the subsequent regional qualifiers, along with another team from North America and Europe each.
Alliance, scrappy eternal underdogs that they are, qualified alongside Secret, while Digital Chaos came through with Evil Geniuses. From China, Wings and Vici Gaming Reborn, while TnC and Fnatic qualified from South-East Asia.
Four more teams, the runner-ups in each region, will fight it out for the final two spots in the 16-team tournament; Complexity (America), EHOME (China), Escape Gaming (Europe) and Execration (SEA).
Of these qualifiers, many are surprisingly strong opponents, as Wings demonstrated last week by defeating OG, the on-paper favourites, in a 2-0 stomp at The Summit 5.
While upsets like this can happen in Dota, the teams that win Major tournaments like TI are the ones most capable of consistent results. However, in such a chaotic year, consistency is a rare commodity. So much for stability from the Majors system, eh Valve?