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Ppd’s absence loomed large in EG’s disappointing TI7

Ppd's absence was felt from EG at TI7
Ppd (Peter Dager) was sorely missed during Evil Geniuses' TI7 disappointment. Photo by Steffie Wunderl/ESL.

Once upon a time, I believed no roster shuffle could be more amusing and less levelheaded than the continued water cycle of Artour “Arteezy” Babaev, as he rotated between Evil Geniuses and Team Secret. As it turns out for everything, my disbelief always finds another sub-basement when it thinks it has hit rock bottom.

One year ago, EG announced its full roster after TI6. It was composed of Arteezy, Syed Sumail “SumaiL” Hassan, Saahil “UNiVeRsE” Arora, Ludwig “zai” Wahlberg, Andreas Franck “Cr1t-” Neilsen and Clinton “Fear” Loomis as coach

Man for man, no one could deny it was one of the most skilled lineups in the world. Arteezy and SumaiL were superstars, even if Arteezy occasionally struggled to find his proper footing whenever adjusting to roles. UNiVeRsE was considered one of the most stable and dependable off laners outside of China. Zai was an incredible prodigy who had just returned from hiatus to claim another third place finish at TI. Rounding out the roster was Cr1t-, one of the best supports of 2016 during his tenure on OG. His recruitment was out of left field but a welcome sight; he had displayed world-class prowess on several heroes for his last team, particularly during the Manila Major. Fear, perhaps the most respected figure in North American Dota, anchored the assembly of talent with his coaching and implicit respect from his peers.

Fans, pundits and commentators believed this iteration of EG could easily be the best team in the world. On paper it was a fantastic lineup, and once the players ironed out the kinks, EG would undoubtedly be a prominent challenger at TI7. Yet I couldn’t shake an ominous feeling of discontent. One large reservation cropped up every time I pondered the potential and future of this lineup: where the hell was ppd?

Losing Peter “ppd” Dager, one of the all time great leaders in Dota 2 history — amid rumors that ppd’s exit was a lot less voluntary than he made it out to be — left a void that couldn’t be easily filled. Cr1t- had never led and though Fear could ease the transition a bit (there was no evidence Cr1t- couldn’t transform into a good captain given time), I doubted he could ever match ppd’s overall expertise, especially in the fields of drafting and targeting structural weaknesses in opponents. The only advantage Cr1t- had going for him was amicability. Ppd had been notoriously strong-willed throughout all permutations of EG, and his insistence on maintaining a unified front had led to butting heads with almost all his teammates. Maybe Cr1t would never be a frosty intellectual wizard like his predecessor, but the hope was he could rally his compatriots with elan and camaraderie instead of faith that he had the right answers.

On top of that, the balance between roles was off. As a player, ppd’s style smoothly accentuated EG’s approach to resource distribution and positioning that he molded during his time on EG. Ppd played the sacrificial 6 role, granting greater space to accelerate Arteezy’s farm and assigning increased responsibility for the 4 position support to be a playmaker. Meanwhile, Cr1t-’s role on OG was as the 4 support, and he largely excelled once he acquired key items that boosted his effectiveness in team fights. Being the better mechanical player wasn’t much of an advantage as he ceded his former position to zai. That showed as Cr1t never reached the same proficiency as ppd did in that style of play.

Despite those systemic issues, EG largely proved optimists correct. EG became one of the strongest teams in the world; Cr1t- was never as adept of a poverty support as ppd, but whatever inadequacy existed rarely played a noticeable role in games. The rest of the team made up for the incongruencies, and there were no outward signs of discontent in the EG camp. When all was said and done, their hypothetical potential bore fruit onstage. The results speak for themselves:

First: MDL Autumn, China Top, Dota Pit 5, Manila Masters

Second: EPICENTER 2017

Third: Summit 6

Fourth: NA BEAT Invitational, Boston Major, Kiev Major

By TI7, EG boasted one of the best resumes of any team in the scene. But even at the height of its powers, I could never shake the strain of doubt. I don’t think Cr1t- is a bad leader by any stretch of the imagination. As a leader, Cr1t- was fairly good all things considered, and his flaws were unduly exaggerated by the more rapid critics. He was average in drafting, he played his heroes to an exceptional level and he harmonized well with the team. But he was no ppd.

And that could have been the difference between hovering in the upper echelon and being the absolute best. There is no end of praise when it comes to evaluating the individual talent of EG. We already talk about SumaiL and Arteezy as if they were legends. Fear is regarded as the greatest player to have ever graced NA Dota, as well as the most experienced and wisest; zai is one of those naturally great players who can effortlessly shapeshift to accommodate the role; UNiVeRsE’s impact on the off lane alone rockets him into the realm of myth. But the ubiquity of skill was always present in NA. Fear’s position in Dota history was assured whether he ended his days in this organization or somewhere else. Instead, NA Dota’s reputation as a laughingstock came from nebulous factors. Cohesion and leadership proved the stumbling blocks that stopped NA teams from achieving international success. That’s why if someone asked me who was the most important player to ever grace NA Dota 2, I would say ppd. Players impress and teams can briefly snatch at brief periods of relevance, but It took a leader the likes of which NA Dota has never seen to forge a true powerhouse.

Ppd pulled it off with a stylistic flair that this modern roster had yet to replicate. One of the trademark stories about EG is its predilection to make insane lower bracket runs in tournaments. It is cited to this day as a classic EG maneuver, but the truth is that only the ppd version had that trait. The current iteration never showed the ability to adapt and grow stronger after losing. It stays at a consistent level throughout the tournament; either EG was stronger than everyone else or it wasn’t. The roster under ppd seemed to get stronger the further it went along in the bracket.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is with The International itself. TI is the tournament that everyone wants to win above all others. It is the tournament where everyone gives their maximum effort in practice, in theorizing, and with roster shuffles to try to conquer. In the history of TI, I’d argue the four players with the most success in TI’s history have been Chen “Hao” Zhihao, Clement “Puppey” Ivanov, Zhang “xiao8” Ning and ppd.

The only standout on individual merit is Hao. Everyone else was a captain, and there is a clear logic as to why they disproportionately dominate the conversation. In a game with so many factors to calculate (drafts, heroes, items, players, teams, the possibility of game theoretic scheming), only a captain has the ability to intuit the best ways to win in this ever-changing game. Even though Hao wasn’t a captain, his strong personality and authoritative voice made him a strong leader in his games, and that often led to victory.

On top of that, the very nature of TI creates an atmosphere akin to a pressure cooker. The intensity can destroy teams that succumb to self-doubt and panic. This is where a highly focused, no-bullshit captain is worth his salt. And none were able to bend other players to their will as ppd was able to do. Jacky “EternaLEnVy” Mao once called EG the most cancerous team known to man, but it didn’t matter to ppd. He forced what could have devolved into a rowdy mess of talent into one of the best teams in Dota 2 history.

It’s startling to comprehend EG’s recent failure at TI when looking back at the lead-up. Prior to TI7, every roster had a stroke of bad fortune before attending Seattle. Before TI4, Fear’s injuries forced him to step down and EG replaced him with mason; at TI5, ppd had to rebuild team identity and chemistry after Arteezy and zai departed for Team Secret in January; at TI6, EG was in shambles and ppd had to scrap together a working roster just to fight out of the open qualifiers. By contrast, EG had no major upheavals to worry about this time. There weren’t roster changes, no juicy drama. In terms of form, EG had just won Manila Masters and took second at EPICENTER. SumaiL was earning accolades as the best player in the world. The team chemistry was simmering nicely and the team still had the indefatigable confidence that existed since ppd’s days. There were zero mitigating factors in the run-up to TI7.

Even in the group stages, EG looked impressive in placing top four in its group with an 11-5 record. EG’s chances in the upper bracket looked even better by drawing Newbee, the team it defeated at the Manila Masters finals. But when it got to the main stage, when the bright lights were turned on, when it counted the most, EG was like halfway crooks. Shook.

People tend to focus on drafting errors when it comes to games between top-tier teams, but that was not the primary reason why EG lost. The team as a whole was outplayed by Newbee. EG lacked coordination and sensible playmaking, and the litany of individual errors continued in the series against Empire. There was only a smidgen of hope by the end but even then it was too late. Empire, riding the back of Resolut1on and a wave of good feelings, overran an EG squad that felt like it had never showed up to play. This ended EG’s TI7 run at 9-12th, the worst result in the organization’s history since 2012.

I’ve pointed out all of the factors that went wrong, but at the previous three TIs, EG showed incredible mental fortitude while never finishing below third place. This is because ppd, as a player and drafter, was incredibly flexible in the face of problems. He was the type of leader who could dominate a group stage, but also learn an incredible amount about the meta of the tournament. From there, he found ways to make his star players shine while negating the enemy’s strengths and emphasizing their weaknesses. The example par excellence was the EG TI5 run. CDEC had standardized the meta for that tournament and had beaten EG in the winner’s bracket. But when they met again in the finals, ppd had solved the puzzle in an ingeniously simple manner. He recognized Huang “Shiki” Jiwei was a mediocre Leshrac player and Leshrac was such a high-priority pick CDEC would take it if left in the pool. So he took a strategic and drafting gamble in the finals: he left Leshrac in the pool and focused his energies on stuffing Shiki’s performance in-game.

Even if you think this is an isolated incident, consider this: from TI4-TI6, EG has been pushed down into the lower bracket every time. And every time the team seemed to reach another level of strength. This isn’t to say that EG were unstoppable then, but it took a hell of a lot to stop them. This year they were like Wings, nowhere to be found. For me that is the big difference between the 2017 EG and the EG of seasons past. The biggest factor I can point to as to why is ppd. The old EG under ppd grew stronger as the tournament progressed, as they were forced to fight for their lives and adapt. This current iteration did not..

One year ago, EG made the shocking announcement of creating an all-star line-up, but a lineup without one of the faces of the organization. One week ago EG have been eliminated from TI7 outside the top 8. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the EG players had asked ppd to stay. Ppd himself has gone on record saying he was done in Dota, but here is the thing about Dota players: they are all addicts. Even when ppd took over as the CEO, a part of him wanted to keep playing. He made random stacks to play in tournament qualifiers from time to time, and dabbled in Gwent to keep his competitive wits sharp. If the entire EG roster had convinced him to stay, perhaps things could have been different. For me that roster change was the critical moment. This year’s EG had almost everything it could have wanted: a great coach in Fear, SumaiL in the best form of his career, and skilled players in every role. But they didn’t have one of the greatest drafters and strategic minds in Dota 2’s history. They didn’t have one of the greatest captains in Dota 2 history, and that could have made all the difference.

Cover photo by Steffie Wunderl/ESL, eslgaming.com

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