As the biggest and best Dota 2 event of the year draws ever closer, newcomers and hardcore fans alike will be tuning in to watch the action unfold live. After a year of roster changes, developing rivalries, and intense competition, viewers will see one team emerge victorious as champions of the Aegis. This is The International, and here are some of the top storylines to emerge after a year of grueling hard work.
We’ve already touched on the teams directly invited to the event by Valve, so I will attempt to avoid those teams and instead focus on the ones who qualified for the event.
The Wild Card: Last Chance for Second Best
After CDEC bulldozed its way to second place at last year’s International, most viewers would be hesitant to count out any of the teams in this year’s wild card.
With that said, none of the teams playing for the last two spots at the International besides EHOME looks particularly convincing. But even the venerable Chinese squad has had shaky moments leading up to the showdown in Seattle. Basically, the wild card is truly wild. It’s anyone’s game to take. The stakes are high, as the two teams that fail to make it to the main event also finish outside the money and go home with none of the more than $19 million in prize money.
Despite once being the team to beat in China, EHOME sputtered to a 10 place finish in DPL behind the likes of iG Vitality, FTD club C, CDEC Gaming, and Invictus Gaming — teams that didn’t even manage to make it to the International. As worrying as that might be, EHOME has a roster that appears stacked on paper in spite of constant changes. Daryl “IceIceIce” Koh Pei Xiang and Zhang “LaNm” Zhicheng are both attendees of every International and know how much hard work and preparation are required to succeed at the biggest event in esports. If EHOME fails to win one of the wild card positions, we’ll see the list of people to attend every International’s main event shrink by another two players.
compLexity has fallen from its lofty position as the No. 2 team in North America, with Digital Chaos finally fulfilling Kurtis “Aui_2000” Ling’s lofty aspirations and seizing that title. After ending up in the bottom two at StarLadder i-League StarSeries Season 2, compLexity looked down and out, lacking direction. Considering that Kyle “swindlemelonzz” Freedman was once hailed as one of North America’s top captains, seeing coL in such a desperate position is disheartening.
Last year, however, swindlemelonzz helped lead his team to a 9-12th place finish in Seattle against all odds. There’s no reason to say that they could not cause a similar upset in the wild card and carry that momentum forward, despite the recent poor results. The former Stay Green team will need to rally behind their captain’s strong vision for the game and new coach Alan “Nahaz” Bester’s analytical talents to make it through the wild card.
Escape Gaming – formerly No Diggity – is a relatively new team with two players who have never played an International. After a hot start in the fifth season of DreamLeague after its formation in February, the team finished last at the DreamLeague LAN finals and proceeded to lose nine series in a row shortly thereafter. With Troels “syndereN” Nielsen captaining the mostly-European squad, the team has a leader who is no stranger to intense competition, despite having abysmal results at previous Internationals. SyndereN has placed in the bottom four of his two Internationals – in 2012 and 2013 – due to his teams’ internal issues. Escape Gaming’s main priority will be making it out of the wild card in the first place. After a recent fifth place finish in the online Global Grand Masters tournament, Escape Gaming still seems to be finding its groove in the new meta.
The most interesting player on this team is Adrian “Era” Kryeziu. Era used to play on Fnatic back when it had a European team instead of its current Southeast Asian roster. Due to personal health issues, Fnatic attempted to replace Era with Steve “Excalibur” Ye shortly before The International 4 in 2014, but Valve ruled the team had to play with Era as Valve invites players, not teams. Fnatic sputtered out to a bottom four finish that year, despite showing incredible promise just months before, and the team fell apart. Now Era is back to reclaim what he lost and prove that he’s still the same player who sometimes single-handedly carried his team to victory a few years ago.
For a while, it seemed Execration might not even play at The International. The ever-present issue of acquiring travel visas reared its ugly head once again, and the Filipino squad spent most of the time leading up to the event just hoping its visas would be approved. Against all odds, Execration and TNC Gaming are here to play, but they still have a gargantuan task ahead of them. Southeast Asian teams not named Fnatic or MVP Phoenix have not fared well internationally in recent history. As the clear underdogs of The International, with even U.S. customs standing in their way, it’s hard not to root for the Filipino squad to take its beautipul doto to the main stage.
Four of the organizations who won previous Internationals are attending this year, with only Invictus Gaming conspicuously absent. Which of these champions can pull off the repeat, if any?
Evil Geniuses is the reigning champions, with four of the players who lifted the Aegis high last year still on the roster. With 13 first place tournament finishes since the organization signed the team captained by Peter “PPD” Dager, its shoddy performance as of late is a big concern to their fans. Evil Geniuses and longtime rival Team Secret were involved in roster changes back in March. Kurtis “Aui_2000” Ling and Sam “BuLba” Sosale joined Secret for three months, until a last place finish at the Manila Major prompted another trade. Saahil “UNiVeRsE” Arora has returned from his brief stint with Team Secret, and Ludwig “Zai” Wåhlberg also joined after completing his required schooling.
On paper, this lineup looked unstoppable. But the reality hasn’t been quite as promising. Evil Geniuses stomped the North American competition in the open and regional qualifiers for the International, but finished fifth-sixth at StarLadder alongside Digital Chaos. Losses to Natus Vincere – which went on to win the event – and ex-Virtus.pro show how far this team still has left to go. Considering that OG, Team Liquid, LGD Gaming, Newbee, and MVP Phoenix were all absent from the competition at StarLadder, it’s hard to imagine Evil Geniuses defending its title this August. There’s an argument to be made that Evil Geniuses might not have taken StarLadder as seriously as The International. Why bother peaking at a $300,000 tournament instead of saving the hard work for the almost $19 million in prize money that’s up for grabs in Seattle?
Middle of the pack is a bad way to be, considering the team’s pedigree. The pressure is on for the reigning champions to put together a game plan in just a week. At the very least, PPD’s squad should be fighting tooth and nail to avoid the dreaded International Curse. Alliance failed to qualify for the main event in 2014 after being crowned champions in 2013. Newbee placed dead last in 2015 after dominating in 2014. Evil Geniuses’ diabolical plan for 2016: don’t disintegrate.
When I look at Newbee, I see members of the “old guard” – veterans of the scene – ushering in new talent to give them the experience and knowledge necessary to become truly great. Chen “Hao” Zhihao, the greatest carry in China; Zhang “Mu” Pan, one of the most mechanically skilled mid players in the world; Wong “ChuaN” Hock Chuan, a support player tirelessly committed to self-improvement and practice. Together, these three International champions are helping Kaka and Damien “kpii” Chok find their place in the highest level of Dota that is known to chew up newcomers and spit them out. These newcomers will be instrumental in Newbee’s quest to be the first team to win two Internationals.
Alliance has somehow flown completely under the radar. After a long period of time during which this Swedish team seemed to change players like it would change clothes, the organization finally decided to recreate the roster that won The International 3 in 2013. Bringing back Jerry “EGM” Lundkvist had an immediate effect. Alliance won WCA 2015 and StarLadder i-League Season 1 shortly thereafter. Since then, however, Alliance has accomplished very little. Defeating Escape Gaming in the International European Qualifiers was a high note for the team to end on, and the team has been quietly practicing together ever since. Losses to Team Empire and Vega Squadron – teams that both failed to qualify for the International – in Global Grand Masters might not be encouraging signs for fans of the team. Obviously the effort put in by Alliance for an online tournament as opposed to the International is going to be considerably less, but securing wins before the biggest tournament of the year would be a big confidence boost.
Watching the Alliance comeback against Na’Vi in the grand finals of The International 3 is one of my fondest esports memories. I had totally counted the Swedes out of the game, and suddenly they were ahead through a miraculous series of plays. I can only hope that Alliance brings that same “victory-by-any-means” attitude to their games this year. If so, Alliance might end up being one of the most exciting teams to watch. Flying under the radar could pay off.
Even though Na’Vi has the ability to beat Fnatic, Evil Geniuses and Team Secret, the fact is that the strongest teams in the scene right now didn’t even show up to StarLadder. Just a week before Na’Vi won StarLadder, it had been crushed by both Wings Gaming and Team Liquid at The Summit 5. It will be more than difficult for Na’Vi to break the top five at the International, but if one thing is clear, Na’vi will never stop fighting to make it there. Dmitry “Ditya Ra” Minenkov, Victor “GeneRaL” Nigrini, and SoNNeikO won their first major tournament this month. Now that they’ve tasted victory and know what it takes to succeed in the world’s most fiercely competitive esport, they might have just what they need to go far when it matters most.
Wings Gaming is such a confusing team. It won ESL One Manila and placed last at the Manila Major shortly after. Then it came back and won The Summit 5, beating the venerable OG in the grand finals. This team of renegades that bucks trends and creates its own is rightfully feared going into the International. The ideas might not always work out as intended, but the fact Wings is willing to experiment with Venomancer, Pudge, and Keeper of the Light shows that it thinks about the game in much different terms than other teams. Whereas the name of the game for many teams going into The International will be stability and safe strategies, Wings is going to put its opponents in uncomfortable situations that they haven’t seen. Because Wings has the individual skill and the strong leadership of Zhang “Innocence” Yiping to make the strategies, it has a serious chance to take home the Aegis this year.
Wings exemplifies the year of new, talented players disrupting the status quo formerly upheld by Dota’s old guard in China. Old legends of the game are still active, but this year not even Xu “BurNIng” Zhilei is in attendance. Instead, Wings is here to begin its own legacy. Not to say that these players are new to Dota. They’ve honed their skills for years. With their plain grey t-shirts and quirky strategies, teams like Wings are turning competitive Dota on its head. Simply put, I admire the simplicity and focus of players like Zhang “Faith_bian” Ruida, who has quickly become one of my favorite in the scene. They play Dota. Their approach to the game might be a little different than what we expect from a top team, but at the end of the day Wings is a team with no frills. They play Dota, and they’re here to take the Aegis home for China.
The other team to qualify from China, Vici Gaming Reborn, has a long road ahead. Zhou “Yang” Haiyang had his visa application repeatedly denied, meaning that the Reborn squad will play at the International without its off laner – one of the best in China. Coach Tong “Mikasa” Junjie will stand in for the team. That alone is not a huge cause for alarm, as Mikasa is perfectly capable of standing his own against top players, evidenced by his first place finish at the StarLadder Invitational in April when he played the mid position. It’s hard to justify any replacement for Yang, but Reborn will have to make do with Mikasa and hope things turn out for the best.
You can’t talk about Vici Gaming without mentioning Xu “fy” Linsen. After being relegated to the “B team” of the organization, the young captain immediately put his team to work and began outperforming the “main” squad featuring BurNIng, Bai “rOtK” Fan and Chen “Cty” Tianyu. That is the sign of a truly great captain. Given the opportunity to start fresh with a new roster of players, he exhibited the competitive edge necessary to push his team to the limit. He took the previously unknown Wang “Nono” Xin and made him a part of a whole. His impressive mental fortitude allowed him to come in swinging during their lower bracket game against Evil Geniuses at the Manila Major, despite not winning a single game in the group stage. Fy learns from his mistakes and comes back stronger every time while also captaining his team at the highest level of competition. A strong performance at The International with one of his key players forced to watch from the sidelines would be a gargantuan feat, cementing him as one of the best captains in the world.
Digital Chaos was hastily put together in the aftermath of the roster shuffle that occurred before the Manila Major. You can read my original article about the team here. While my initial prediction that American teams would rise to the challenge and hold their ground against the European newcomers ended up being off the mark, I’m still happy to see this team find success. Mind you, the success they’ve seen has been mostly limited to stomping North American teams in regional qualifiers. Against international competition, Digital Chaos looks shaky at best. At the Nanyang Championships Season 2, The Summit 5, and StarLadder i-League Season 2, Digital Chaos did not once manage to defeat a team that will be attending The International. They’ve taken games off top teams on occasion but haven’t won a series against any non-American International attendees since the Manila Major.
Even though the North America-based European squad has struggled, the team is full of individually skilled players at every role. Aliwi “w33” Omar is chief among them; the star who won the Shanghai Major was kicked shortly thereafter by Team Secret. The International has been his goal for years, as he famously said in 2015: “I’m not looking for money or sponsors. All I want is [The International], and I’m gonna go there whether people like me or not.” w33 and his scorned teammate Rasmus “MiSeRy” Filipsen – a veteran who has attended every International thus far – will have to put together all their brains and skill to cause an upset for the ages.
The Southeast Asian stars Fnatic might be one of the best teams representing the region this year, but recent results might not fill fans with confidence when it comes to winning the whole event. Fnatic plateaued at fifth-sixth place at both the Shanghai and Manila Majors, and their results since then have improved from unstable to decent. The poor performance at ESL One Frankfurt in June is forgivable. The squad had been traveling for months, placed high at the Manila Major, and had to face both Alliance and Team Liquid in its group. But Valve decided the poor result in Frankfurt meant Fnatic needed to prove its worth in the regional qualifiers, but Fnatic weathered the storm and came out intact. Fifth-sixth at The Summit 5 against tough competition didn’t inspire confidence. Third place at StarLadder shortly thereafter was more encouraging. The end result is that I really don’t know what to expect from this team. I suppose my answer would be “cautiously optimistic” considering the pedigree of Chai “Mushi” Yee Fung and Chong Xin “Ohaiyo” Khoo. Throw in Djardel Jicko B. “DJ” Mampusti, the Filipino star, and the ceiling for Fnatic is unlimited when they heat up.
The other Southeast Asian team to qualify, TNC Gaming, is also promising but lacks the past results to inspire confidence. While most of the players are native to the region, Jimmy “DeMoN” Ho joined TNC at the very last moment after announcing that he would be moving to Peru to compete with Infamous. While the sudden change in plans angered Infamous’ management and meant that the Peruvian squad had basically no chance find another player and compete in the open qualifiers, the decision proved fruitful for DeMoN. A former legend of North American Dota whose career had stagnated since 2014, DeMoN said in an interview with Red Bull that “I’d fully committed into retirement if I did not make it to TI6, and decided to go all in to make sure I had zero regrets on the outcome.”
Of course, this team isn’t all about DeMoN, even if he is the most well-known team member in the Dota community. TNC wouldn’t be at The International without the incredibly talented original members of the team. Through their time together with numerous roster changes, TNC seemed to always be just short of qualifying for everything. Fnatic always stood in the way, making it impossible to advance. It’s a lot like back in 2014 and 2015 when Evil Geniuses dominated North America so hard that no other team from that region could qualify for international events. Their ceiling for improvement was stifled because they only ever played the same teams. TNC now has a chance to play against and learn from the best players in the world. They have a chance to do some teaching of their own. With their all-out intense style of Dota, TNC can bring thunder and lightning to KeyArena.
Finally, we have Team Secret. Love them or hate them, I think most people agree that their seventh-eighth place finish at last year’s International was surprising. It was an upset. A team that had won four consecutive LAN events suddenly fizzled out, and the team fell apart shortly afterward. In the shuffle that followed the International 2015 Team Secret signed Jacky “EternaLEnVy” Mao, Aliwi “w33” Omar, Rasmus “MiSeRy” Filipsen, and Johan “pieliedie” Åström. The new iteration of Team Secret went on to place second at the Frankfurt Major and win the Shanghai Major despite appearing to be in a slump leading up to the event. It was the first time any of the new additions had won a Valve event.
And then they made more changes.
With w33 and MiSeRy kicked, Artour “Arteezy” Babaev and Saahil “UNiVeRsE” Arora left Evil Geniuses to join Team Secret. After a short adjustment period and a last place finish at the Manila Major, UNiVeRsE went back to Evil Geniuses and Sam “BuLba” Sosale traded places with him. The newest iteration of Secret looks like it has potential, posting a second place finish against Na’vi at The Summit 5. It’s definitely a start, and much better than where they used to be. The roster has not had much time to find what works, though, and they have still proven to be formidable opponents.
So, can Team Secret win the International? I’m not sure. Anything can happen at the biggest esports event of the year. With some of the best teams we’ve ever seen in attendance, Team Secret have a long road ahead of them. EternaLEnVy and Clement “Puppey” Ivanov have the brains and the dedication to make the impossible happen. For this superstar team, anything less than taking home the Aegis would be a disappointment.
Cover photo courtesy of Valve.