The Dota 2 world exists in a state of flux. It is no surprise considering that the game is headed by Icefrog, the most praised and enigmatic game developer in esports history. His trademark move is the tsunami of hero and system changes, periodically delivered after The International, led by unexpected adjustments that somehow fix longstanding gameplay issues. His thought processes are foreign to us, his true identity a mystery. Yet time and time again Icefrog has enacted immense changes without overplaying his hand; with a few exceptions (6.83) he has deftly expanded the hero pool without sacrificing technical nuance or pigeonholing what qualifies as viable strategy. In turn, the Dota 2 world follows his lead. Scrubs and professionals alike have learned to place faith in Icefrog and talk about him in tones reserved for religious figures and mythic icons.
There was no bigger example this year of relentless change as guiding philosophy than the tournament circuit itself. The Major system, Valve’s initial attempt to impose a modicum of structure on the Dota 2 season, was demolished. The two-year experiment proved a mixed bag. Holding 2-3 Majors per year provided focal points that prevented audiences from drowning in the glut of tournaments; in exchange, third party organizers got the short end of the stick as top teams turned down invitations to solely focus on the big events. In the revamped system, the organizers have been integrated into the circuit as Valve elected to subsidize events like DreamLeague and Dota PIT League. Instead of 2-3 satellites orbiting TI, an abundance of Majors and Minor steadily contribute points towards TI rankings.
ESL One Hamburg will be the first Major and third event in the Dota 2 season. It is the largest clash so far as 1,500 circuit points are on the line. Hamburg also coincides with the two month gap following TI, making it a risky venture for any team depending on the current meta for success. Fans are already waiting with baited breath for the big patch update and with Icefrog at the helm of Dota 2, no one knows when or how the game will radically shift.
No matter how IceFrog turns the world upside down, we can safely predict Liquid will emerge with barely scuffed hair. Out of the two TI finalists invited, the winner continues to display skill and fortitude a class above its peers. Right now the squad is so powerful, so versatile that its success throws opponents into despair. As Want “ChuaN” Hock Chuan said on Twitter, only Icefrog can stop them now. Liquid looks to be the most dominant team, completely unaffected by the fabled “TI curse.” Liquid’s continued momentum is likely due to the ethos Kuro “KuroKy” Salehi Takhasomi has installed into the team. Get the right team, create a style that emphasizes that team’s strengths, and force the patch to work for you instead of working for the patch: this is the approach that has worked wonders for Liquid.
Where Liquid has retained supremacy since raising the TI7 trophy, its counterpart has stumbled. The tournament organizers optimistically hoped both TI finalists would show up in prime form, yet Newbee’s atrocious performance at Starladder i-League Invitational Season 3 must shake their confidence. The second favorite besides Liquid didn’t take a single game at Kiev, inexplicably losing to compLexity in the upper bracket before being rudely booted out the door by Team Secret. It was an unsettling failure from one of the most consistent teams in the world. The only caveat is Starladder was Newbee’s first major showing in the new season. Off days happen to everyone, and all eyes will be looking at Newbee to prove its abject collapse was a post-TI aberration.
Beyond Liquid and Newbee, Evil Geniuses and Virtus.Pro stand as the big dogs. Both are making their post-TI7 LAN debut. EG scraped out the dangerous thunderdome of the NA regional qualifiers with bruises and cuts galore, while Virtus.Pro casually kneecapped all insurgents to remind the silly peons why they remain the kings of CIS. With Ludwig “zai” Wåhlberg’s departure, EG has brought on Clinton “Fear” Loomis as the 5 and shifted Andreas Franck “Cr1t-” Neilsen to his original 4 role. While I still doubt this team’s ability to make a TI run, it should perform well during the Dota Pro Circuit season given the talent assembled. As for Virtus.Pro, I have them pegged as the greatest threat to Liquid’s looming hegemony. Liquid’s run has been awe-inspiring, but the team has had close run-ins, one of the biggest being against Virtus.Pro at TI7. Like Liquid, Virtus.Pro proved it can play any hero — its Summit run was a cheeky work of art — and the brutal, disciplined play style makes VP a viable contender as the best team in the world.
The four remaining challengers represent the rising tides of Dota 2 competitive play. Keen Gaming announces the arrival of the next generation of Chinese players. Secret has long dominated tier 2 EU competition and struggled to maintain a tier 1 bearing, but they now have more talent than ever with the recruitment of Marcus “ace” Hoelgaard and Adrian “Fata” Trinks. Their inability to maintain pace with the likes of Liquid and VP continues to haunt them, so expect Secret to be anxious to get the monkey off their back.
The final team is SG e-sports. Briefly sentimental darlings of the scene when it placed top 8 at the Kiev Major, the original roster had retreated back to the mean. It was decided that a roster change was needed and Digital Chaos pulled the trigger. DC recruited William “hFn” Medeiros and Danylo “KINGRD” Nascimento from SG e-sports to make a potential SA superteam; that forced SG e-sports to revamp its roster by buying out the Midas Club Elite squad, with the only remaining player being Adriano “4dr” Machado. The near-complete substitution worked as SG-esports continue to stay atop the SA scene. As a team, SG is in a unique position like Secret: by dominating the local region, it will likely make it out of most SA qualifiers to the Dota 2 LANs. SG is guaranteed a large amount of exposure, but whether or not it can harness that experience to productive ends will be up to the players.
Change is inevitable in the world of Dota 2. Icefrog dashes the meta at his whim; teams dissolve and reshape like mercury at the slightest possibility of increased success. Here at ESL One Hamburg, the dominant teams of yesterday will face off against rising stars to see which faction will take that one step further to TI, lift that Major trophy, and etch their legacy into Dota 2 history. The first Dota 2 Major of the 2017-2018 circuit has begun.