Dota 2 is a unique game and scene. Much like other games, it is a sequel to a beloved but older competitive game. For StarCraft 2 it was Brood War. For Counter-Strike: Global Offensive it was CS:Source and CS 1.6. For Dota 2 it was Dota. The big difference is that only Dota has kept the same developer through most of its lifetime.
IceFrog is one for the most mysterious developers in the scene. His design and balance philosophy veers more toward constant expansion, experimentation and a refusal to stay stagnant. Each of the massive patches could very well be passed off as an expansion set in any other game.
The Dota 2 scene in many ways mirrors his approach. It is chaotic. Players switch teams all the time, as the constant meta changes created by both players and Icefrog means that the fastest way to deal with any change is to roster swap. Valve tried to come in and regulate some of the craziness with roster locks, but it has only shortened the intense roster swaps to a specific week gap after each Major.
Because of that, it is hard to keep up with the ever-changing game, scene and history of the teams and players. And yet, there has been one constant through the game’s history: The International. As this week marks the sixth version of the tournament, which has again set the record for the largest prize pool in esports history, it’s worth a look back at exactly how the last five iterations set the stage for this year’s tournament.
The first two TIs were in a weird territory. The first was just a tournament where 16 teams were invited that had beta access. It was a chaotic group, and in that field Natus Vincere — being the most flexible and skilled of the bunch — won. By the time TI2 rolled around, the game was open to the public, but a strong tournament circuit had yet to be set up. Regions were still very much divided and the amount of competition hadn’t reached it’s zenith yet. And, most importantly, the game was still in beta. The favorites, however, were clear in iG and LGD, as Chinese dota was at its height and those two teams were the epitome of that style. With star mid laner Luo “Ferrari_430“ Feichi and support Wong “ChuaN“ Hock Chuanwhich, iG went on to win TI2.
The most notable team from this time is Na’Vi, which won TI1 and made it the finals of the second. Both placings at TI1 and TI2 were in large part due to two players: Clement “Puppey“Ivanov and Danil “Dendi“ Ishutin. Puppey was one of the world’s greatest Dota captains, and Dendi was the best Western mid player in the world, someone who took over games and was only equaled by Ferrari_430. The runs of Puppey and Dendi came to characterize Na’Vi’s entire legacy and was what would later lead them to a strong year heading into TI3.
After TI2, the tournament circuit opened and five teams came to dominate the year running up to the next International. They were Alliance and Na’Vi from the West and Tongfu, DK and LGD from the East. Alliance was the best among all teams during the year and was the big favorite heading into TI3. The Alliance play style was formed around three players in Jonathan “Loda” Berg, Henrik “AdmiralBulldog” Ahnberg and Gustav “s4“ Magnusson. Loda was the carry player who opened space for AdmiralBulldog. AdmiralBulldog played a unique farm-heavy offlane style that created a large split-push threat that would inevitably win games. S4 was the drafter and the star mid player who initiated and won them the early to mid games. Together, they won five LANs leading up to TI3, six if you included the Notidehunter iteration with Jacky “EternaLEnVy” Mao. Their only rival in the West was Na’Vi, which had won seven.
Three Eastern teams were at the top: Tongfu, DK and LGD. Tongfu saw the rise of Chen “Hao“ Zhihao, one of the eminent superstars of the Dota 2 world. DK had strong placings and had China’s greatest Dota 2 star in Xu “BurNIng“ Zhilei, a player who considered by many to be the greatest carry player in Dota history and one who dominated the world for six years. LGD was led by Zhang “xiao8“ Ning, China’s best captain and one of the best captains in history. LGD was considered the best team going into the event and had Liquid not upset them, they could have made a deep run. Instead TI3 stands as the sole time xiao8 did not lead his team to a top five finish at a TI.
TI3 was particularly special for a few reasons. It was the first TI to do crowdfunding. It was the crowning achievement to cap off Alliance’s era, as it had come to dominate the Dota world with a unique style of play. It would also mark the end of the Na’Vi’s era of dominance at TIs, as it would hit a downturn for various reasons that eventually made Puppey decide to leave. And it was a kind of turning point in Dota2’s history as it marked an increased level of competition across the board.
Going into TI4, there were two clear favorites in EG and DK and one team right behind them in Newbee. EG was led by Peter “ppd“ Dager. A former Heroes of Newerth player, he came from the NA region, where Dota 2 had been a joke, as despite good individual skill, they couldn’t form a competitive top-level team to save their lives. Ppd changed that, as he teamed up with Clinton “Fear“ Loomis, the oldest veteran and most versatile player in the NA scene, and budding superstar Artour “Arteezy“ Babaev. The combination led ppd to creating the one of the most consistent cores in Dota2’s history. In the year leading up to TI4, EG was the clear best Western team.
DK was the All-Star Eastern team that had either the best or one of the best players in every position, with the centerpiece being BurNing. DK had the two best support players in Zhang“LaNm“ Zhicheng and Lei “MMY!“ Zengrong. Malaysia’s best player of all time in Chai“Mushi“ Yee Fung. The fifth was Daryl Koh “iceiceice“ Pei Xiang, one of the greatest off laners of Dota 2. DK’s dominance was so ridiculous that other Chinese teams refused to scrim against them in the lead up to TI. Newbee was the answer to both, as China’s best captain in xiao8 teamed up with the world’s best carry in Hao and came to show incredible skill leading up to TI. Newbee bombed out of the groups, but still managed to run the gauntlet and eventually won the aegis.
Much like TI3, TI4 became another landmark event. Most remember — or rather try not to remember — it for it’s infamously bad grand final, but it led to teams trying to fill out their rosters with as many superstar players as they could find and constant roster switches. The biggest culprit of this was Secret. At the end of TI4, the best players from Na’Vi, Fnatic and Alliance created a super team made up of Puppey, Kuro “KuroKy” Salehi Takhasomi, s4, Johan“N0tail“ Sundstein and Tal “Fly“ Aizik. It didn’t last long as they didn’t get the results they wanted and kicked n0tail and Fly for Arteezy and former EG support player turned best off laner in the world Ludwig “zai“ Wåhlberg.
On paper it, was the scariest team ever formed in Western Dota 2. And it delivered with four tournament victories in the run up to TI5. Much like Alliance, Secret was the consensus best in the world.
The other favorites of the tournament included EG, which while having lost Arteezy made up for by getting Syed Sumail “SumaiL“ Hassan, a young explosive mid laner, and moving Fear to the carry role. That, combined with ppd’s drafting, meant a near unlimited number of answers in the draft. VG was led by Xu “fy“ Linsen, a superstar support player that was also a rising captain from China. He teamed up with Hao to create a team based around aggression and team fights all across the map. The last of the favorites was LGD, led by legendary captain xiao8 after his annual retirement. He teamed up with MMY! and a rising mid talent in Lu“Maybe“ Yao. In a strange twist of fate, Secret collapsed due to internal conflicts and bad performances across the board. EG won the tournament, but the real surprise came from the wildcard team CDEC. Led by Fu “Q“ Bin, he would end up dictating the entire meta of TI6. That, along with Sun “Agressif“ Zheng rising as the best carry of the tournament and a superlative from Chen “Xz“ Zezhi, had them make the miracle run all the way to the finals.
All of this has set the stage for TI6. Many of the players have returned including Chuan, Puppey, Dendi, all of Alliance, Hao, xiao8, EG, fy, Agressif, Maybe and others. There are many new faces on the scene that can make a deep run this year, including superstar players like Amer “Miracle-“ Al-Barkawi, Akbar “SoNNeikO“ Butaev, Kim “QO“ Seon-yeop and Lasse“MATUMBAMAN“ Urpalainen.
This International will be the most fierce yet; it’s the most wide open in the entire history of the event with the most even playing field ever. It is a combination of old players and new, a conflict between team ideologies in formation and draft and style. It is a battle between the constant swaps of Secret/EG against the steadfas of OG and Liquid. It is Wings’ wild drafting against the meticulousness of everyone else in the world. It is MVP’s wild recklessness against Alliance’s tried and true split-push meta. This will be the culmination of the past and the present as the teams head into the largest TI yet and the biggest prize pool in esports history.
All photos courtesy of Valve