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stuchiu
Written By: stuchiu

Esports writer in search of the play.

Aug 28, 2019

In the first eight years of The International there was one unbroken tradition: that no player could ever win TI twice. It wasn’t the first one OG broke over the course of the last two years: at TI8, they ended the tradition of Chinese teams winning on even years as they pulled out a miracle run of the ages and defeated PSG.LGD in an epic bo5 finals. At TI9, they dominated their group stage and smashed through the tournament becoming the first team to win back-to-back TIs. OG’s victories can shed light on the nature of what it takes to win The International. 

The TI8 Miracle Run

To understand the nature of OG’s feat, we need to look at their run in the last two years, from the beginning of the DPC 2017-2018 to their TI9 victory. In the year leading into TI8, OG’s original five-man lineup was: Johan “n0tail” Sundstein, Tal “Fly” Aizik, Gustav “s4” Magnusson, Roman “Resolut1on” Fominok, and Jesse “JerAx” Vainikka. The team never gelled and OG split up with Resolut1on on March 17th.

After Resolut1on departed, OG used their coach, Sebastien “7ckngMad” Debs, as their stand-in. While it was a solid team with top 8 placements at EPICENTER XL, MDL Changsha Major, and ESL One Birmingham, there was a barrier between them and the championship contenders. 

In the week before the Chinese Dota 2 Supermajor, Fly and s4 pulled a surprising move as they left OG and joined Evil Geniuses. It was an abrupt and shocking change that left OG reeling. The team made last-minute roster changes, recruiting Topias “Topson” Taavitsainen and Anathan “ana” Pham as their fourth and fifth players. They also had to make multiple role changes as n0tail became the 5 support and captain, 7ckngMad returned to playing the offlane, and ana went from support to carry. 

Read more: OG accused of using Adderall during their TI9 run by broadcast talent

The rest is history. They started 1-5 in their first three matches of the group stage, then rallied back to get top four in their group. They then beat VGJ.Storm, got their revenge against EG in the upper bracket second round, then played PSG.LGD in two of the most epic sets of Dota 2 history in the upper bracket finals and the grand finals.

It was the biggest underdog run in Dota 2 history, and arguably the biggest we’ve ever seen in esports. As the dust settled, it looked like OG was primed to become a championship contender in the following 2018-2019 DPC Season.

The Missing Year

That reality never came to fruition. At the beginning of the 2018-2019 DPC, the OG team took a break from the game as they had to mentally and emotionally recover from their TI8 run. As it turns out, winning The International is one of the most draining things to do in Dota2. The reason is because TI is the dream that all Dota 2 players aspire to. It is so hard to win that no player ever thinks about what actually happens after they do win the Aegis. Every TI winner (with one notable exception) had a significant drop-off after their victory. Once the new season started, the TI winners often looked like shades of their former selves, as if sapped of all their will and energy.

The only team that continued to be a consistent force was Liquid after their TI7 victory. I once asked their Lee “Heen” Seung Gon, their coach at the time, what separated Liquid from the previous generations. He replied that “Previous generations’ end goal was TI. I think they imagined that life would just be ‘happily ever after’ after winning TI.”

This was a question that seemed to plague the OG roster for the entire season. Their extended player break gave them some breathing room to try to figure out these questions on their own. The answers they were looking either didn’t come or never coalesced into a return to form throughout the entire season. This malaise plagued OG for the entire 2018-2019 DPC as ana took an extended break and was placed on their inactive roster. The team tried playing with other players in the interim like Per Anders “Pajkatt” Olsson Lille and igor “iLTW” Filatov. While both were good players, they never clicked in the same way as ana. He eventually returned to the squad in March 2019 and the team’s form and results significantly improved off the back of this development – top six at MDL Paris Major, top eight at ESL One Birmingham, and another top eight at EPICENTER with a stand-in. 

While OG were a solid team, they weren’t close to the top five teams of the DPC. Secret was utterly dominant. Virtus.Pro had an incredible run early on and were trying to gear up for TI. Vici Gaming won two of the majors in the season. EG never won a Major title but made consistent deep runs as they got third at three of the Majors.

Going into TI9, OG were a dark horse squad. In order for them to win, they needed to capture lightning in a bottle a second time. They needed to regain their lost form from TI8.

OG’s TI9 Run

While not as ludicrous as the TI8 run was, OG’s TI9 run is one of the more surprising underdog runs in the competition’s history. TI9 had three big favorites: Secret, Virtus.Pro, and Vici Gaming. While EG never won a Major, they were a consistent top three team the entire year. Liquid’s recent roster change of adding Aliwi “w33” Omar netted them a second place at the EPICENTER Major. 

Beyond the usual suspects, there were also multiple dark horses. NiP and [A]lliance often played OG close in the qualifier stages of the EU regional qualifiers. Fnatic had incredible skill on paper. TNC was building steam in the tournaments leading up to TI9 after adding Heen as their coach. While OG was a dark horse in this tournament, they were one among many.

OG then went on to dominate the group stag, finishing in first place, then they smashed almost every team they met in the playoffs: 2-0 Newbee, 2-1 EG, 2-1 PSG.LGD, and 3-1 Liquid. 

Consistency doesn’t matter as much

When reviewing OG’s victories and the year in between and contrasting them to past teams, there are a few commonalities that stand out. The first is the matter of consistency, which is critical in dominating an era, but less important when it comes to winning The International. Secret dominated the 2018-2019 DPC and many were on the verge of crowning them as one of the best teams to ever play Dota. Virtus.Pro did a similar feat when they added Valdimir “RodjER” Nikogosyan in the latter half of the 2017-2018 DPC.

While the two squads played different forms of Dota, they had two things in common. The first is that their overall star power was off the charts. Most of their players were either the best or one of the world’s top five in their respective roles. The other factor was that their style of play and ability to consistently perform made them the ideal teams to dominate for an extended period of time.

Both of those qualities are mitigated at The International. Since there are less games played at TI compared to the rest of the season, the variance of overall performance increases.  For instance, if I compared Topias “Topson” Taavitsainen to Vladimir “No[o]ne” Minenko over a long span of time, No[o]ne has consistently outperformed Topson. While they may have similar ceilings as players, No[o]ne has historically had far more consistent performances outside of TI. However, Topson could easily outperform No[o]ne in a single tournament as we’ve seen at both TI8 and TI9. The same logic applies to the overall team. 

Read more: TI9 highlight's Dota's accessibility issues

This is why we haven’t seen a dominant force win The International since [A]lliance at TI3. The only potential exceptions to that were Wings at TI6 and Liquid at TI7, but both of these teams were contenders for the crown rather than the consensus favorite to win the entire thing. The additional knock-on effect of being the best dominant team of an era is that they play the most official LAN games of any team in the circuit. So once they get to The International, the opposing teams will have the data and experience in watching, playing, and countering teams like Secret and Virtus.Pro. This is why Liquid had to remove Lasse “MATUMBAMAN” Urpalainen as their drafts, strategies and movements became too predictable for their opponents.

While being a consistently great team is proof that a team is the best in the world, it doesn’t guarantee victory at TI itself. The nature of being the best team in the year is fundamentally different from being the team that will win TI. The year-long circuit tests a team’s ability to win over the course of a long span of time across multiple different metas. TI tests a team’s ability to reach the depths of their Dota and to play their absolute best in the highest-pressure environment possible. 

TI, the Pressure Cooker

Pressure is the name of the game at The International. TI is unlike any other tournament in the Dota universe. No other tournament can simulate the weight of expectations placed on you there. OG with Fly in 2015-2016 won the Frankfurt and Manila Majors but dropped out in 9-12th at TI6 to TNC. OG from 2016-2017 won the Boston and Kiev Majors but LGD eliminated them at TI7. In both instances, OG failed to perform at the same level they did throughout the season and the pressure seemed to eat them alive at those Internationals.

In more recent times, Virtus.Pro has fallen under the same situation. They were among the favorites going into TI7, TI8, and TI9. They failed at all three events and the only playoff series where they played to their usual season forms was the lower bracket elimination match against Liquid at TI7. Outside of that, VP consistently capitulated to the pressure of the event.

When you look at OG’s last two runs, the pressure didn’t faze them at all. There were a few reasons for this. In both tournaments, they were underdogs. This meant that there was no external pressure as they had no expectations they had to meet. The bigger reason was the nature of the team’s breakup with Fly right before TI8 happened.

I interviewed 7ckngMad at TI8 and asked him to describe what it was like in the shuffle’s aftermath. He described it as “one of the hardest times in my life...where you feel like the world just collapsed on you.” In the aftermath of that shuffle, he decided that

“JerAx, n0tail, and I, we’re going to turn it into fire...into something great.”

The emotional turmoil of that shuffle gave OG a few psychological edges. First, they wanted to prove Fly was wrong. While Fly has never spoken fully on his reasons for the roster shuffle, he did make a comment to Cybersport that

“to me, this team [EG] has all it takes to become a TI champion team.”

At that point, OG had nothing left to lose and everything to prove. The personal stakes gave them incredible focus at TI8. This sharpness was honed throughout the entire tournament run as the event became a gauntlet for them. OG started horrendously with a 1-5 score before rallying back in the group stage. From there, each successive victory was harder than the last. OG had EG on the ropes, but in game three were on the verge of losing before making a huge comeback to secure the series. The upper bracket finals was an even closer set with PSG.LGD pushing them to the very brink of destruction before OG barely clutched it out. The grand finals was just as tense as it went the entire distance with PSG.LGD nearly pushing OG off the cliff, but each time, OG reversed the situation with a clutch play.

That TI8 run was so harrowing that it seems to have desensitized OG to the pressures of The International. Kobe Bryant once said “If practice is more intense and harder than a game 7 will be, then game 7 will be easy...but if it’s not that’s when teams start folding and capitulating.” In the case of OG, they faced the worst possible scenarios in their TI8 run. Their team nearly broke before the tournament, they had a hard start at the beginning of the group stages, they had to make harder and harder comebacks as the tournament progressed onward. The event then culminated in a clutch play in the fifth game where OG continued to play composed while PSG.LGD crumbled under the pressure. TI8 was the hardest run of all time and so when they came to TI9 with a more standard difficulty, they cleared all the obstacles in a convincing fashion. As 7ckngMad puts it, “...you have players and teams that are willing to​ go through hell in order to get to the heavens. That is the only way to get there I think.”

The Answer to Dota

The final factor to look at is the answer to Dota. Dota 2 is a complex game with constantly changing variables. The patches come in and out of the game at a rapid place. Teams and players have to shuffle and find the best combination of skill and teamplay. The meta constantly shifts as people find new solutions and answers to whatever tactic is the most effective at the time. In this shifting arena, the best teams and captains have a guiding philosophy to how they answer the eternal question of Dota.

For instance, in a Cybersport interview with Clement “Puppey” Ivanov said that “Finding a new thing that is the best thing — and knowing it's the best — is a different thing. I think a lot of people are thinking how to win TI, but a lot of people don't know how to win TI. Crazy shit looks only crazy if it doesn't work.”

Puppey has played with various different lineups over the years, but his modus operandi in how he approaches the game hasn’t changed. He is constantly looking for the advantage in the draft, always looking for the next hero or thing that will give his team the edge in victory. In contrast to that, Kuro “KuroKy” Sakhasomi’s answer to Dota was different. He wrote in a Player’s Tribune article that “What really separates the winners and losers isn’t about how you handle yourself personally, but rather how you coexist with your teammates. Leadership, cooperation and chemistry — those are ultimately what define a champion.”

As for OG, their answer to Dota is harder to pin down. This particular lineup has only had massive success at two tournaments: TI8 and TI9. Outside of that, there isn’t a lot of data to draw on. However, I did once ask 7ckngMad if intuition was the ultimate answer to Dota. He said it was his answer and expanded on what he believed intuition was comprised of:

“Maybe intuition is all the hard work. Now take all the hard work and now you’re so well prepared that now it takes you 0.5 seconds to solve the problem. You don’t even realize you solved it, but you solved it. That’s what people call intuition...this gut feeling that you have, that you can’t explain. It’s probably the most useful thing you have with you. If you start, if you want to break everything down… sometimes you just can’t do it. It’s a team game. So you need to make sure that the others they follow the same…first of all, do they have the same approach to the game as you? Maybe they don’t want to get that deep. Maybe they don’t, maybe they do. If they do, that’s great. So if they do, can you get them to understand what you have in your mind? Can you explain it well enough? Are they going to get it, are they not?”

From the outside it’s hard to know when OG had pre-prepared a certain strategy or when they ran with intuition, but there are two scenarios where the intuition likely took over. The first time was in the fourth game of the TI8 finals: OG last picked Axe. 7ckngMad hadn’t played Axe for months, but he recognized that it was the exact pick they needed to punish PSG.LGD and allow OG to transition to the late game without dying. The other instance was in the TI9 group stages against NiP.

The last pick of the draft, ana suggested OG pick Io. It was a surprising pick as it had never been played in the carry position in an official LAN game. It was even more shocking as Alexander “XBOCT” Dashkevich revealed that according to the OG coach, Titouan “Sockshka” Merloz, the team had never practiced carry Io before. 

In both events, the team were given a complex Dota question from their opponents. One that they couldn’t pre-plan for. In both cases, their years of experience and Dota problem solving coalesced into a single pick that they knew could break the game. The Axe pick won the critical fourth game. The Io let OG win the game and became one of the defining picks of the entire tournament.

Puppey, KuroKy, and 7ckngMad each came up with their own answers to the question of how to win at Dota. While I’ve only focused on these three, if you look through all of the TI winners, they all share this single commonality. Each of them was trying to answer the question of Dota and in each of their TI runs, they became the culmination and epitome of their answers to it. To win The International, a team needs to become the epitome of their own ideals.

The Nature of Winning TI

There has always been something different about The International compared to the rest of the Dota 2 circuit. An intangible aura that made it seemingly impossible for any player to win two of them. OG have done just that with their back-to-back TI victories. It is only through their triumphs that we can see the nature of what it takes to win The International. The first is that consistently great teams are not the same qualities that leads to TI winning teams. The second is the importance of the emotional and psychological aspect of the tournament. The current OG lineup is the clutchest we’ve seen in Dota2 history, They are not only composed under pressure: they ascend to even greater heights when playing under it. The final aspect is the adherence to Dota ideals – and OG’s intuition and game knowledge defined both of the TIs they won. 

When you consider these factors, it is fitting that the team that broke the East-West cycle and the team that became the first repeat winners are OG. They may not be an era-defining team like Secret, but that isn’t what TI tests for. What matters there is a team’s ability to read into the meta as deeply as possible and to play at their zenith under the highest-pressure situations possible. 

It demands that teams play to win rather than play to not lose. In that sense, no team has been as bold as OG whether it’s in their draft or in the game. They are unafraid of making the bold choices in the hardest situations. The team will let 7ckngMad pick Axe even if he hasn’t played it for months in the grand finals and they will let ana pick Io even if they’ve never practiced it as a team before. They don’t bat an eye when one of their players makes a potentially risky move: they encourage it, firm in their belief that they can win, no matter what the game state is. OG are willing to bet it all on their intuitions and that of their teammates. While they are not an era-defining teams like Virtus.Pro or Secret are, their victories at TI and how they won them will permeate through Dota 2 history for years to come.

Photo credit: Valve (Flickr / Dota 2 The International)

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