Image by StarLadder on Flickr
2014 was the height of Chinese Dota. Two Chinese teams faced off in the grand finals of TI4, and all 5 Chinese teams placed within the top 8 of the then biggest Dota tournament in history, which fielded a prizepool over triple of TI3’s and was the first TI to take place at Key Arena. But that moment of glory was just that: a moment. It all began to crumble again, as several veterans (xiao8, YYF, LaNm, BurNing, to only name a few) announced their retirements following the event. Fast forward to DAC, the Dota 2 Asia Championship, in 2015, when the Chinese scene completely embarrassed itself on home soil. 11 of 20 participating teams were Chinese, yet it was the Western team Evil Geniuses who ended up grabbing the title. To make matters worse, the 2nd best Chinese team at the event was “Big God”, a stack of then retired players.
Something needed to change in the Chinese scene. The old guard was no more, yet teams were reluctant to rely on other talent–be it foreign or young blood. Vici Gaming, the 2nd placer at DAC and the only Chinese team to gain international success in this period, had immediately made changes to their roster following the 2nd place at TI4. Instead of exchanging players in the same vein that other Chinese teams were doing it–meaning shuffling around already established and proven, though also not successful players–VG was not afraid to reach overseas. Former Team DK player iceiceice, despite not being Chinese, and German player Black^ joined their ranks. What followed were a string of strong performances, leading to various titles, such as ESL One New York 2014 or The Summit 2. Vici Gaming was without a doubt the strongest Chinese team, and that was largely because two of their players were not from the old guard of Chinese veterans. The players they employed were not there because they were Chinese and already established, but rather because they promised to elevate the team to a new level. The unique abilities and skillsets both Black^ and iceiceice brought to the table allowed VG to be a fearsome opponent around the world. They had either distinct hero pools that made them incredibly strong (Black^’s safelane Invoker or iceiceice’s Timbersaw to name a few), or unique perspectives on the game that VG wouldn’t have had, if they had stuck to the same pool of players the other teams relied on.
Fast forward to TI5. LGD Gaming impressed with youngster Maybe (and would have with youngster Sep if his visa hadn’t held him back) and EHOME took 5th/6th place by storm with Cty and Zyf. VG may have swapped out Black for Hao, but still was a force to be reckoned with. But the story of the event was CDEC. CDEC consisted of players that were initially grouped together to help Maybe develop into the star player he was meant to be. As Maybe’s friends, they played together under the LGD.Youth squad, but never accomplished anything. When Maybe moved on to LGD, the team played as if it were freed from shackles, but with the support of the LGD/CDEC organization, they were able to become a fearsome opponent and contestant at TI5.
CDEC sparked a small revolution in China and the post-TI5 era was flooded with various academy teams. From CDEC.Y to EHOME.K, China was willing to invest into youth squads. Together with tournaments such as DPL, which is a recurring league between top teams that has a relegation system to allow aspiring squads play against top teams, the Chinese scene should have prospered.
Following TI5, Valve introduced the Majors into the Dota 2 scene. Majors are Valve events outside The International that create high quality competitions around the year. In 5 Majors so far, no Chinese team has ever made a finals. In fact, only 4 times did a Chinese team even place among the top 4. While Wings did go on to win TI6, only one other Chinese team placed among the top 8 at that event and TI6 was also the first Valve event to invite only 2 Chinese teams directly.
Now, as TI7 approaches, one has to ask themselves: Will this trend continue, and will China once again not perform at TI?
Since TI6, China has yet again failed to make a splash on the international stage. Poor Major performances aside, China has only won 4/15 premier events so far and two of these events could be considered to be not on par with other events’ prestige (Zotac Cup and WCA).
Where did it all go wrong?
Image by Valve on Flickr
Stubbornness. Chinese teams yet again feel reluctant to make drastic changes within their squads. It is easier to stick to players you know, players who’ve played on the grand stage before, players who have at least remotely had success before. Yet, the two most successful teams since TI6 were not teams decorated with true veterans and established star players. The two most successful teams since TI6 have been Newbee and INVICTUS GAMING. Newbee had to replace both Hao and Mu and did so with youngsters Sccc and uuu9. Invictus Gaming had been building their squad for a while now, and the iG you see today used to be their youth squad, together with the experience of BurNing and Q.
PSG.LGD looked promising at the Boston Major and was largely considered to be a top 4 team, if it hadn’t been for their sister squad LFY that knew them better than any other team at the event. Instead of holding onto the promising roster full of talented individuals, LGD took in Yao to replace Jixing. And when this iteration failed to qualify for the Kiev Major, they replaced Xz with old eleven, only to move Yao to a support position.
EHOME asked LaNm to return out of retirement, as their post Boston squad failed to meet expectations. Vici Gaming did try it with younger players, but they continuously fell short and have once again resorted to equipping themselves with veterans, namely Hao and ChuaN, but the mix between young and old is still very much present.
The Chinese scene right now is weak. Going into TI7 invites, only two Chinese teams look strong enough: iG and Newbee. And even iG has struggled since their DAC victory, which was emphasized with an early 5th/6th place exit at the Manila Masters vs. Team NP. Newbee may have won Zotac Cup and placed 2nd at Manila Masters, but before that they too looked weak, with a last place finish at the Kiev Major, losing in two online qualifiers and a 3rd/4th place finish at StarLadder i-League, which may read well on paper but their performances were anything but confidence inspiring.
Right now, it is difficult to think of a 3rd Chinese team. With Epicenter, The Summit and Galaxy Battles as the last LANs left before TI7 invites go out, any Chinese team left in these competitions needs to win the title to secure an invite. LFY, LGD, VGJ, VG and iG.V are all still competing, but none have a good track record so far that would allow them to feel safe even with a 3rd/4th place finish. VGJ could be considered, but their performances and results at both the Kiev Major and DAC 2017 were not great. LGD.Forever Young look very promising, with a recent Group A 1st place finish at Epicenter. And LFY too is further proof that the solution for success often lies in the unknown. Before AhFu, former WG.Unity player, joined the team, LFY was not worth considering. Now, they remain undefeated as a top 4 finisher and even 2-0’ed Kiev Major champions OG.
If China wishes to receive 3 invites going into TI7, it seems likely that any of these teams need to win a LAN event. In the long-run however, it may be best for the Chinese scene to not have this happen. They may need a wake-up call to realize that the future belongs to the young generation. In fact, LGD-Gaming only got to The Summit because CDEC, the actual qualifier winner, didn’t get their visas. This is further proof that new blood is consistently tied to success in the Chinese region. At the very least, this shows that the established scene lacks a certain perspective and perhaps attitude. The sooner teams and players come to realize that, the sooner they can succeed again.