It was unbelievable. Not in a million years did the pundits predict that Team Secret, fan favorites and one of the safe bets to win The International 5, would be in the fight of its life in the lower bracket. A team with four consecutive tournament wins — all in comfortable fashion — and a dream roster was getting bullied by Virtus.pro, a perpetual CIS letdown. Under the onslaught of a zip-zapping Storm Spirit and the classic Drow/Visage combination, Secret was gradually hemmed into its base. Any comeback felt hopeless. Artour “Arteezy” Babaev valiantly struggled to maintain hope on his fed Shadow Fiend, but his net worth floated near the top at the expense of his team. Fan hopes shuddered every time Secret ceded a rax, gave up Roshan, or came out even in a fight after blowing 2-3 buybacks. When Arteezy was ambushed outside of the base while pushing out the mid creep wave, his team didn’t bother to defend the throne.
It was in the impish spirit of Dota that an intended powerhouse would fall to the traditional underdog. TI5 was supposed to christen Team Secret as the apex predator of Dota 2. Formed by key players from Fnatic.EU, Natus Vincere and Alliance after TI4, this amalgamation of European talent aimed to be the Western answer to DK: an all star team that could rise above the batch of intimidating opponents coming out of China. The inaugural squad was a who’s who of famous names: Johan “N0tail” Sundstein and Tal “Fly” Aizik, the vaunted playmaker Gustav “s4” Magnusson, Na’Vi’s mastermind Clement “Puppey” Ivanov, and original Dota legend Kuro “KuroKy” Salehi Takhasomi. Besides the common drive to win shared by all pro gamers, they were sparked by burgeoning dissatisfaction with the state of EU Dota and personal exasperation among the inaugural members. Bluntly, TI4 had been a disaster for the European scene. A year prior, Na’Vi and Alliance headlined TI3 as the undisputed best teams at the event. Two years later, five EU teams barely made a dent in the final results, earning the ire and mockery of viewers with their tepid and uninspiring gameplay. Even Na’Vi, the sole EU representative in the top 8, had squeaked into its position on a technicality. When it came to challenging Newbee in the Phase Three matches, Na’Vi proved just as impotent as its compatriots. The cold splash of water seemed to be the catalyst that would shake the scene out of its stupor.
The inaugural Team Secret never quite fulfilled its vision of becoming a towering behemoth. Although it claimed the title of best EU team several times (and certainly deserved consideration as best in the world during the first half of 2015), its greatest legacy might be the modern teams created in its wake. After departing separately, N0tail and Fly rejoined to create multi-Major champions OG. Arteezy and Ludwig “zai” Wahlberg eventually returned to Evil Geniuses after their escapades created an appetite for stability (yet in the strange elliptic dance between Arteezy and Secret, who knows when Monsieur Babaev will circle back?). Puppey stuck with Secret through thick and thin. But among all of the stories to have come out of that calamitous moment, KuroKy’s was the most dissimilar. Everyone else enjoyed the continuation of the narrative that had so far defined their careers. N0tail and Fly only continued their winning ways from Heroes of Newerth; Arteezy and zai returned to the comforts of home; Puppey continued to be one of Dota 2’s great captains. For KuroKy, he had to restart from scratch.
KuroKy’s entire Dota career was in some way tied to Puppey. The two of them had a long standing relationship, and their friendship translated into mutual success. Together they brought KingSurf.int into prominence during their Dota 1 days. In the sequel, they paired up again as part of the legendary 2013-2014 Na’Vi lineup. It was the best stretch Na’Vi ever had which, combined with Dendi’s affable personality, laid the groundwork for the organization’s enormous fan base. Prosperity followed after the pair left Na’Vi and established Team Secret.
TI5 was a disaster for everyone involved but none more so than KuroKy. Not only did he endure the standard throes of shame and regret that come with underperforming, but he also publically bore the brunt of the blame. Whether it was personal beef or indiscretion, Arteezy called out Kuro as the main reason why Secret had bungled the tournament. His initial chastising spread into an inferno as diehard fans fanned the flames and their enthusiastic bashing polarized the rest of the Reddit community. KuroKy, for his part, acted maturely. He said he empathized with the anger Arteezy felt and extended an olive branch in hopes of quashing the conflict. Perhaps it smoothed out the personal animosity, but the offer backfired in the public arena. Many observers took this as a passive-aggressive statement that proved his toxicity.
By the time the debacle settled down, KuroKy had assembled a new team. 5Jungz was his new project created to participate in the upcoming Major qualifiers. It consisted of KuroKy, Lasse “MATUMBAMAN” Urpalainen, Adrian “FATA-” Trinks, Ivan “MinD_ContRoL” Borislavov and Jesse “JerAx” Vainikka. This was the first time KuroKy formally took up leadership responsibilities, and his first decision was to bring together young and overlooked talents. Besides FATA-, no one else had significant international experience or success on a well-known team.
5Jungz had a slow start. It matched up well against other teams in Europe but nevertheless failed to qualify for the Frankfurt Major. Yet KuroKy’s philosophy was markedly differed from Team Secret’s. There were no drastic roster changes at the first sign of trouble. He believed 5Jungz already had enough talent to beat the best teams. It needed to improve teamwork, unity, and time to advance to the next level.
Once Team Liquid acquired the roster, it quickly soared in the rankings. Liquid won The Defense 5 and EPICENTER, took second at the remaining two Majors of the year, and had top placings at multiple other tournaments. But all that success, and the accolades that followed, didn’t satisfy him. KuroKy wanted more — needed more. After losing in the finals of the Shangahi Major, KuroKy only said, “Thank you everyone. I failed.” Sadly he didn’t find redemption at the subsequent Major (second place again) and dropped out in the top 8 at TI6.
Losing at TI is a critical turning point for any team. It is the biggest event of the year, and the rosters of every top team are implicitly built around the possibility of winning the event. As Kyle “melonzz” Freedman put it: “It’s just sort of trauma and you don’t want to be reminded of it every day when you look at each other. it really is fucking traumatic.”
At that critical moment, everything could have fallen apart for KuroKy again as it had at TI5. Unless a team placed well in addition to having great results throughout the year, failure at TI almost always meant roster shuffles.
In the end JerAx and FATA- left, but there were no hard feelings in their departures. JerAx accepted an “upgrade” when he transferred to OG while FATA- needed time off to reconsider his career path. The rest of the squad still believed in KuroKy. Liquid recruited two members in their place, Kanishka “BuLba” Sosale and Amer “Miracle-” Al-Barkawi. BuLba was a player respected within the pro community for his knowledge (and mocked by the rest of the scene for his in-game blunders), while Miracle- was considered the best mid 2 player throughout 2016.
Once again, Liquid struggled to capitalize on the full extent of its talent. The players were good, but the team didn’t function properly. In particular, BuLba seemed inconsistent as support and it felt like he was unwilling to commit to the role full time. This problem was eventually rectified as KuroKy recruited Maroun “GH” Merhej to take his place. GH’s MMR alone indicated his potential, but just like the early days of Jungz, KuroKy needed time to harmonize the disparate elements on the team.
But this wasn’t the end of 2015. Last year, none of his players was hot prospects on the market, and they were concurrently undervalued by the pro community at large. Joining Liquid was a priceless opportunity that might never occur again. Now they were well-known entities and top-tier organizations were very interested if anyone indicated they were dissatisfied. With each loss, it became more and more possible that a player could lose faith in KuroKy’s leadership and get off the ride. Despite losing in multiple tournaments and qualifiers, no one jumped ship. Their faith in the team’s potential paid off as Liquid won Starladder i-League Invitational #2 and EPICENTER back to back at the end of the year. These two victories returned Liquid to the top of the Dota 2 world with KuroKy at the helm.
Two years ago, KuroKy was another star player, someone whose success appeared to be contingent on his partnership with Puppey. When that relationship couldn’t churn out gold for the first time, KuroKy briefly turned into a pariah under the barrage of community outrage. Today public perception is as sunny as ever, but it didn’t turn in a war of words. KuroKy proved his approach to Dota 2 not only works, but can beat the best in the world. Through his decisions, he has become a fully fledged leader in his own right. Now he addresses The International 7. The closest KuroKy ever got to winning the TI was in TI3 in the famous Alliance/Na’Vi finals; this time, he looks to win it on his own terms.
Cover photo by Alexander Scott/DreamHack