Header art by Gareth Damian Martin.
No team in Dota 2 history has ever displayed the combination of versatility and skill that ushered Wings Gaming to a first place finish in The International 6 on Saturday. There have been teams with equally voluminous hero pools—remember Mushi’s 8 billion heroes at TI3?—but none of them match Wings’ sheer firepower. Plenty of teams pick random shit on occasion to catch their opponents off guard, but Wings appears to be the first team for whom “metagame” means nothing, for whom “hero pool” is the entire roster, for whom everything truly can work. It was extremely satisfying to see them win. One year ago, these guys were nobodies. Hell, at this year’s Manila Major they tied for last place after being eliminated by compLexity, of all teams. They’re young and energetic and adorable. What more do you want from your TI Champions?
It was actually a weekend of uplifting stories in all corners of the esports universe. Cloud 9’s Mango emerged from ignominious defeats at EVO and Clutch City Clash, at the hands of Hungrybox and SFAT respectively, to take a Super Smash Con victory over both these nemeses back to back. It’s tremendously satisfying to see Mango crush Hungrybox, given the latter’s lopsided dominance in their matchups this year. Plus in StarCraft II, True taking down Polt just about made my day. Polt is the kind of guy who is good at everything and knows it. He went to the best university in South Korea; now he’s a graduate student at the University of Texas, and he places top three in every single North American tournament. Before the series, True indicated in exceedingly broken English that he intended to show that university didn’t matter. I’m not sure whether he proved that point, but I am sure that his 4-1 victory over Polt was a good old-fashioned bop.
Wings bopped DC. Mango bopped Hungrybox. True bopped Polt. Life, in my estimation, is good.
P.S.: The feel-good series of the weekend had to be Axe vs Mew2King at Super Smash Con: two fun guys playing a game they both love at a level far beyond anything the casual player could dream to attain.
In his classic profile of pugnacious Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, writer Frank Deford asks Knight what it means to win once you’ve won so often that it’s routine. Knight’s response is worth quoting in full: “Look, I know this. If you’re going to play the game, you’re going to get more out of it winning. Now, at West Point I made up my mind to win—gotta win. Not at all costs. Never that. But winning was the hub of everything I was doing. Winning was more important there, and I had a point to prove. I was just coming off a playing career during which I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. I had to win. And so, to some extent, I won’t ever change. But somewhere along the way, I decided that I was wrong. You could win and still not succeed, not achieve what you should. And you can lose without really failing at all. But . . . I’m sure I’d be easier on myself and on other people if just winning were my ultimate objective.”
Knight’s confession was on my mind this weekend as The International 2016 hurtled towards its historic conclusion. TI6 was not kind to its favorites; Team Secret, OG, and EHOME all suffered relatively ignominious eliminations early in the tournament. Better off were two the North American teams, Evil Geniuses and Digital Chaos who, if not expected to lose per se, were hardly expected to win.
Let’s talk about EG, and I might as well admit I’m rather biased when it comes to them: they’ve been my team since 2014 (I still have a SADBOYS sticker on my Accord, a reference to the name under which the core of the squad originally played. And Yung Lean or whatever). It hardly matters that they won this event last year (LiquidDota described the team as “defending underdogs”); it’s been such a tumultuous year for them that many people didn’t expect to see them here at all. Back in March, after losing their offlaner, Universe, and the enfant terrible Arteezy to Team Secret, EG had more-or-less concluded that disbanding was their only option. It was a dark time. So coming back from all of that tomfoolery to place third at the biggest, most competitive tournament in the history of esports is in its own category of achievement.
And, look, I don’t say any of this to take away from Wings’ achievement—as Justin notes, there’s never been a team that so gleefully makes the game bend to their eccentricities, and they deserve every bit of their championship. But I think what I’ll remember—and this is all about the difference between winning and succeeding—is how Evil Geniuses defied expectations, shrugged off betrayals, and defiantly stepped back from the edge of oblivion. Since 2013, there’s never been a championship team that managed to place well in the next year’s event; hell, both Alliance and Newbee were the first teams eliminated in the two Internationals after their victories. “Money changes people,” Evil Geniuses’ captain PPD once tweeted, setting himself (and his team) a bar for success available only to those for whom a championship is a welcome goal, but also a familiar one. So, even if Evil Geniuses couldn’t overcome their competitors, at least they could best history. And that’s rare indeed.
At TI5 last year, EG came through the upper bracket to face CDEC, a previously underrated Chinese team they’d faced in the group stages. After a loss, they dropped down to the lower bracket where they won 2-0 against LGD, giving them a spot in the Grand Finals. This year, Wings Gaming played the role of the dark horse EG lost to in the Upper Bracket Finals. But then, EG dropped a Best of 3 to Digital Chaos and went out with a third place finish, and Wings went on to beat DC for 1st place at the biggest Dota 2 tournament there is, having finished as near the bottom as you can at the Manilla Major only two months ago. The biggest difference at TI6 was, as Will points out, the absence of favorites. EG remained a huge part of the narrative for a few rounds, but big-name teams like OG, Team Liquid, and Secret dropped out fast. NaVi and Alliance, two former winners poised for possible comebacks, also lost out quickly. I was expecting to see a lot more of EHOME, even though they placed as well as they did, and in the end the finals were two teams that haven’t existed for much more than a year.
Meanwhile, hero picks followed an oddly similar pattern: the heroes the average Dota 2 player is tired of dying to in 6.88 were nowhere to be seen. Phantom Assassin and Legion Commander both appeared in 31 percent of public games this month, and saw minimal pick-rates of 6 percent and 4 percent respectively at TI6. Last year, Gyrocopter was all over public games and was picked or banned in every single game at TI5. This year, the honor of the highest pick/ban rate (at 85 percent) went to Elder Titan, who only shows up in 5 percent of public games. Before he was strong enough to see competitive play, the running joke about the seven year old Elder Titan was that, having never been seen before, he must be a new hero debuting in whatever match he was in. Aside from Mirana and Timbersaw, some of the defining heroes of the tournament—Batrider, Oracle, Shadow Demon, Beast Master—have public pickrates under 5% The popular scapegoats of the angry Dota 2 player were largely absent from the tournament, and the heroes that did show up are replete with skillshots and carefully timed abilities that are incredible to watch when performed at the highest level.
As much as everything seems balanced now, the Post TI period is infamous for the rearrangements that come with it. It’s hard to say what teams will survive with their current rosters, what dark horse team could put everyone to shame at the Fall Major, and who knows where RTZ will go next. On top of that, this patch—held up as a paragon of balance—is about to be replaced by one with two new heroes. Dota 2, at its present peak, might be about to get shaken up pretty hard.
Polt didn’t need this win at the WCS Summer Circuit Championship, but TRUE did. Good ‘ol college boy Polt won the WCS Winter Circuit Championship, so he’s already qualified for the WCS Playoffs at Blizzcon. TRUE, on the other hand, came into this weekend with barely any points. Which is why, I think, a lot of people wrote him off. And that’s silly, because he is a Code S–level player. Dude knows how to move zerglings.
I don’t know what it is about StarCraft II and its tournaments, but dang, do they have awkward closing ceremonies or what? Despite being forced to stand on the WCS Summer Circuit Championship stage—by himself—and open a bottle of champagne, TRUE handled his lap around the track like a boss. After spraying a bunch of expensive equipment with a burst of champagne, TRUE took a hefty swig from the bottle. He didn’t stop there: “I am still thirsty,” he said, “… to win.”
We’re getting there, folks. Copa Intercontinental is the last chance for players to earn WCS points—after that, the WCS circuit points are locked in. Then it’s all about Blizzcon.
This may have been Dota 2’s big weekend, but League of Legends came through with its own share of history-making moments. Over in Korea, the story of the week was the best-of-five matchup between rival teams SKT T1 and KT Rolster, who are both consistently top competitors in the country. Not only does SKT boast multiple World championship wins, they’ve also got Faker—the best League player in the world.
After two convincing wins, it seemed that SKT would sweep the series with ease, as they’ve been known to do against top competitors in the past. But KT Rolster had a fire in their bellies, and their ADC Arrow pulled out some absolute season-making plays to help guide his team to a reverse sweep. With SKT T1 out of finals contention, Faker and co. will need a minor miracle if they want to make it to Worlds this year which, after their convincing victory at MSI, seemed unthinkable just a couple months ago.
In North America, Cloud 9 battled Team Envy in a series that ended after game 4. Watch out for Jensen’s sick plays, and make sure to stick around for game 4, where Jensen went 20/2/5 on Leblanc to destroy not just the morale of Team Envy, but also the playoff record for most kills in a game. Chalk it up to the failure of Envy’s early game snowball comp if you want, but Jensen is one of the best midlaners in North America, and this series made that abundantly clear.
Finally, Sunday’s quarterfinal matchup brought a series between Team Liquid and a CLG squad that’s been underperforming for a majority of the season. Still, even after a mediocre split, CLG is famous for its post-season rallies, and this one was pretty convincing. Even with some massive mistakes by pretty much every CLG player (Darshan should know better than to dive an Irelia with such low health), their macro-level play was pretty clearly on a higher level than Liquid’s. We also got to see a special kind of tilt this series: after two quick defeats, Liquid pulled its ADC Fabby in favor of Jynthe, a rookie who’s never played an LCS game in his life. Game four was Liquid’s first (and only) win of the series, with toplaner Lourlo absolutely going off on Irelia, but even that wasn’t enough to bring them back from the brink, as CLG proceeded to absolutely crush Liquid in game five. Next week should see even more history-making League in the NA semifinals, with C9 vs. Immortals and CLG facing off against their age-old rival TSM.