Anyone who is a fan of Dota 2 probably knows Xu “BurNIng“ Zhilei. He is the face of Chinese Dota, a legendary player and one of the most recognizable names in esports. His list of accomplishments in Dota would require an article in itself. Suffice to say he won a lot of events.
During the early days of Dota 2, he became synonymous with the “4-Protect-1” strategy, as he was perhaps the greatest carry of the era. In particular, his play on Antimage was so masterful that IceFrog gave the hero BurNIng’s name as tribute. He remains the greatest player in Dota 2 history to never win The International, and the ambition to pick up the aegis fuels him to this day.
The nickname the Chinese players gave him was “Emperor.” In the finals of The Dota 2 Asia Championship, he came back to reclaim his throne.
The road back was long and arduous. Despite all of the accolades, the truth of the matter is that BurNIng’s prime has passed. The last time BurNIng won a tournament, he was on DK alongside other superstars back in 2014. Since then, the teams he joined had success but were never championship contenders. BurNIng never became a bad player, but he ceased being the God of days past.
Becoming good enough to win titles is hard. Becoming the best in the world is harder. Staying the best in the world is even harder than that. But the most difficult feat of all is climbing back to the top after falling down. Once players pass their peaks, few ever get back up to win a title again. This is especially true for competitive scenes with a constant influx of new talent every year. The competition gets fiercer, it gets harder for veterans to keep up with the daily grind, and old champions slowly phase themselves out of the game.
In BurNIng’s case, the last time you could say he was the best carry player in the world was when he played for DK. That was also the last time he won a premier tournament. Over the next three years, numerous patches came and went. The map and meta changed to a point where both would be unrecognizable to 2014 players. Throw in new heroes, items, mechanics, teams and players, and the world has become overwhelmingly different. The only thing that remained the same for BurNIng was his intense ambition to win.
Each time he went to TI, he went in dreaming he would win the title and believing he could accomplish that vision. Each time he failed, he left with bitter disappointment and as a broken man.
The pain always seemed too much. Each time he lost, he contemplated retirement. At some points he even announced retirement. And without fail he eventually came back, the lure of reaching his dreams too large to ignore.
BurNIng attended every TI except the first and most recent ones. He couldn’t go to TI1 because of visa issues, and he failed to qualify for TI6 with Vici Gaming. As minor compensation, he decided to cast the tournament with Bai “rOtk“ Fan. During it, he saw the rise of Wings, a group of players who watched him from afar when he was winning tournaments; now he was on the other side. When he saw Chu “shadow“ Zeyu play the tournament of his career with BurNIng’s signature Antimage pick, all he could said was, “So jealous.” The time of B-God had long since ended and he could only watch as players surpassed him. But the fire inside hadn’t died yet. The world had changed, and so would BurNIng.
The evolution coincided with joining iG. There he teamed up with three young star players in Ye “BoBoKa” Zhibiao, Lin “Xxs“ Jing and Ou “Op” Peng. Fu “Q” Bin rounded out the team, the former captain of CDEC who once made a legendary run to the TI5 finals (where he lost to Evil Geniuses). It almost seems like kismet that BurNIng ended up on this team among all possibilities.
When we look at BurNIng’s career, the closest comparison from North America is Clinton “Fear“ Loomis. He, too, was a great player who was lost for a long time as he bounced around NA teams. None of those squads realistically had a shot at becoming the best, and it often felt like Fear was wasting his time. That was until EG signed S A D B O Y S in February 2014. With a group of players who could all contend with the best, Fear finally evolved into the versatile carry player who took whatever role was needed and played each at a high level.
In many ways, the current iG members mirror that team. Q is the young leader of the team, analogous to Peter “ppd“ Dager. BoBoKa is a high-impact playmaker like Ludwig “zai“ Wåhlberg. Op is the explosive mid player comparable to Syed Sumail “SumaiL“ Hassan. Xxs is the strong off-laner pivotal in overall strategy and team fights much like Saahil “UNiVeRsE“ Arora. And BurNIng takes up the role Fear did in EG.
BurNIng is a great carry player, but he no longer needs to be the superstar to win. Instead, he does whatever the team needs him to do. He will farm and take over the game when necessary; he will tank on the front line and act as vanguard to set up his other teammates. He can play the supportive carry role with heroes like Vengeful Spirit. When Op is having a bad game, he picks up the slack. BurNIng is incredibly consistent in his performance and can always be relied on to make the right plays.
Unlike EG, iG wasn’t an immediate success. The team had to slowly grind its way through qualifiers and online tournaments to find an identity and build experience. As a team, iG doesn’t have incredible diversity, which might hurt its chances of success down the line. But iG has a specific identity, with select core champions working within polished strategies. That much was evident in its DAC run. Throughout the the group stages and playoffs, iG lost only one series (to OG in the upper bracket), then earned revenge with a lopsided 3-0 win against OG in the grand final. With this victory, BurNIng has returned to the top of the world.
When I watched iG ascend that stage to pick up the trophy, I was reminded of another Emperor in a different game. Lim “BoxeR” Yo-Hwan once said, “I don’t believe in superstitions. But I did feel that there was something special about the nickname ‘Emperor of Terran’ that was given to me. Though I regularly practice over 10 hours and my entire body feels like it will melt down, I hold myself up, thinking, ‘I should live up to the name.’”
BurNIng has honored his title and more. iG proved to be the best team in China and one of the best in the world. The world has changed since he was last a superstar. There are new patches, new metas, new teams, new players. But only one thing has remained the same. There is but one Emperor in China and there can only ever be one.
And he has returned. Long Live the Emperor.