Every game needs a face.
If Starcraft: Brood War had BoxeR and SC2 has MVP, Dota 2 found its human avatar in Dendi.
You might know him from his insane Pudge hooks, or his three hit rax with Tiny. You might know him from the scores of tribute videos on Youtube, or from the Balls-to-the-wall Dendi meme that has a home on these forums. You may have even pieced together an impression of Dendi from the victory-flushed post-game interviews.
Still, there’s a lot to Dendi hidden under all the boyish charm, high cheekbones, and that dense brush of sandy brown hair. Beyond that, there’s a sense of Dendi as a man whose personal narrative is as convoluted and difficult to disentangle as the Dota scene itself can sometimes be.
Like the game he’s come to represent, there’s a lot to Dendi that happens below the surface. As with Dota, it’s a lot easier to get to know the underlying intricacies if you have someone to introduce you to them. So, without further ado, let us introduce you to Dendi.
We approach Dendi over IM, sending him a contact request on Skype. It takes a little while for him to accept. A near daily Dota 2 streamer, he is a full time player, and interviews, especially conducted over IM, are probably not his number one priority. Just to be sure, we hop into #dendi on Quakenet and ping him. He’s quick to answer, and we exchange the necessary details. Polite and down to earth, he agrees to meet on Skype and we talk back and forth over the next few days.
Dendi is, on some level that seems fundamental to who he is, a busy man. Interviews with him take the same form as his games of Dota; they're tumultuous and improvised on the fly. They might be long or short, without any indication until the end suddenly sweeps over us, and under it all there's the sense that you're getting an insight, just a glimpse, into something special.
He rattles off responses leading in multiple directions at once. At first, it seems confusing, but over time it becomes clear that it’s he’s chipping away at the question, finding the best angle of approach. The sentences come broken into their component clauses, as though the order is interchangeable as long as all the parts arrive. It’s tempting to think that this trait reflects his play, but we get the impression he’d be dismissive of reading even that much into it. Indeed, he seems almost blasé when we ask him about the creative play that’s made him famous,
“How do I decide if it’s innovative? I see if it’s working good, and effective [...] I tried, it worked, nothing special.”
When we ask him to describe his approach to the game in his own words, he tells us that it falls somewhere between idiotic and chaotic. He rattles that description off immediately, and it’s hard not to get the sense that it’s something he’s considered before, and “chaotic” is a descriptor that can be applied, to varying degrees, to almost every aspect of Dota. When we ask how that fits with way Na`vi plays, he says we’d have to hear the way the teams plays to understand just how chaotic it gets. Everyone listens to team captain Clement "Puppey" Ivanov, we’re told, except when they don’t.
That’s not to say that Na`Vi’s players don’t listen to the guy calling the shots, rather that the ideas being thrown around are subject to some interpolation and recontextualisation before they’re put into action. Players follow Puppey’s ideas, Dendi tells us, but he hastens to add, “We don't follow his ideas like he thinks of them.”
Na`Vi.Dota is a motley bunch. Ivanov himself is of Estonian origin, with Dmitriy ‘LighTofHeaveN’ Kupriyanov and Sergey "ARS-ART” Revin hailing from Russia, and Aleksander "XBOCT” Dashkevich (alongside Danil himself) representing the Ukraine. They know each other well, and this means that the are several key differences in the way Na`vi plays the game compared to other teams; Na`Vi is not known for having a strict practise regime. In fact, as far as pro teams go, they have something of a reputation for practicing seldom, or at least practising very little in the conventional sense of the term. Na`Vi is a team of individuals, rather than a single unit.
When we talk to Dendi about the speculation that Na`Vi doesn’t practise as much as other teams, there is a lengthy pause. After two minutes, he replies with a directness that catches us off guard, “Might be truth.” When we ask how the team keeps on pulling in wins, the reply is almost immediate, “Might be luck.” The absence of the smileys that had saturated our other conversations is ominous, and for a moment we feel as though we might have offended him, the question might have cut too close to the bone somehow.
After a few moments, he elaborates, suddenly back in good form, “Sometimes we practice, but rarely. Most of the time, we play alone [...] in pubs. Before LAN tourneys, we go to bootcamp.” Just how long these bootcamps last depends on the tournament, but we’re told that they can last anywhere between five and ten days, sometimes more.
The key is that the players have an intimate knowledge of one another’s playstyles and, when they do play together, it shows. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call their play unorthodox, even weird. If we were to look for one archetype that corresponds with the approach Na`vi has taken, the image that comes to mind is that of a comic book villain; the logic that leads to a particular position might seem detached or strange, but there is a clear drive, and an overwhelming sense of confidence, that ties the whole thing together.
Na`Vi is Christopher Nolan’s Joker and, just as Heath Ledger’s character didn’t care about good or evil in the traditional sense, Na`Vi doesn’t see Dota as a stable platform on which it can rack up wins and losses. Instead, it sees Dota for what it is; a world in flux, a maelstrom. The game, though years old, is constantly broken and remade, with bugs being found and new heroes being added. From patch to patch, Na`Vi is there, pushing the boundaries of the map, the game, the universe. If you’ve watched a Na`vi game, you will be forgiven for thinking that the team’s main export is insanity; the five Eastern Europeans do not so much manufacture disorder as revel in it. The roiling tumult is already there; the team just finds it, and channels it.
While his team as a whole is known for unorthodox play, Danil takes the concept to a new level. He is one of those rare individuals who, at the very upper limit of play, seems to see conventional wisdom as a trap to be avoided. He takes the way a hero has been played for years and, in the space of a game (sometimes in a single play), changes the way people think about that character.
He has the mechanics to pull off some of Dota 2’s most mind-blowing plays. Moreover, he has the vision to make these otherwise disparate plays tie into something bigger, both for himself and his team. Whether he’s managing last-minute Roshan snipes from near the Dire secret shop using Storm, or building a Sacred Relic on Windrunner, Dendi’s decisions are never random. His play might often seem irrational, even careless, but a careful examination of his games shows that there’s a deep, carefully considered method to the madness. In short, Dendi knows what he’s doing; he knows exactly where he’s taking a game when he throws the switch and executes the strangeness.
From pioneering a carry Earth Shaker and sunstrike Invoker to striking terror into the hearts of progamers everywhere with what can only be described as a terrorist Pudge, Dendi’s contribution to the development of Dota 2 is wide and varied. He possesses an uncanny ability to know what to do, when to do it, and an eery understanding of just how his opponents will react in scenarios they can never have encountered before.
While pubs are famous for diving towers in search of kills, and then dying in the process, when Dendi dives, it just works. We ask him how he decides what to do in the heat of battle, and his response is straightforward. “I take it step by step,” he says. “If I see it's working good, I do more of it. I like taking risks, but as I do, I always calculate to make sure the results are worth the risk. There is some math involved.”
The math behind his actions are clear if you watch the way he approaches an engagement; his hero’s hitpoints and damage stats are spattered across some vast mental whiteboard, stacked against those of his opponent. Equations are sketched out, with physical and magical damage being calculated with reference to Dota's many other variables - strength, agility, damage, armour, all of which modified in dozens of different ways by hundreds of different items. This isn’t just raw mathematics in the sense we’d normally consider it; there are too many variables, too many possibilities. This is the theory that underlies the chaos.
We don’t get to see the numbers being crunched, there’s no consideration of the algorithms behind the action; we just see Dendi’s Pudge in the trees, waiting. When all the maths is done, we get to see his instincts take over.
“When playing a hero like Pudge, it’s much easier to play against good players,” he says. “I try and think what they would do, and then target my hook.” Any pubbie can crunch the numbers on a team fight. It takes a Dendi to do the math, dive a tower, net a handful of kills and then walk away unscathed. “We’ve been playing this game a long time,” he says. “I generally can just feel what someone is going to do, and that’s what helps when playing heroes like Pudge or Invoker.”
At this point, it’s worth noting that Dendi’s Pudge play has become the stuff of small-scale legend; it’s that strange combination of knowing the map with an unparalleled intimacy and an understanding of the ways in which other players react. The hook is deployed in the dark, scything through the treeline, trawling for an enemy hero. At times this sort of play looks inspired, at others it seems wild and optimistic, and yet, informed by the breadth of Dendi’s game knowledge, it is successful.
In our conversations with him, it feels as though Dendi prizes the maths behind those actions, but it’s the marriage of that mathematical approach and his sharp insight into his opponents’ play that delivers those unerring hooks to enemy heroes. It is, in short, the combination of attention to those numbers and his particular clarity of vision in Dota's storm of interactions that sets Dendi apart.
On top of the on-the-fly maths and those instincts developed and honed over years, an enormous amount of the flexibility in Dota comes from the items players choose to employ. Dendi seems to have a knack for ferreting out interesting item combinations; we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask him how he comes up with his oblique approaches. “We have to ask, when you’re preparing a play, how do you decide what is innovative and what is stupid?”
The question is answered with a smiley face, indeed our conversation with Dendi is littered with the broad double-smiles of:DD. He continues, “Six battlefuries on Ursa is stupid,” he says. “But, after trying that build I noticed that five furies can be effective. On some heroes and in some hero combinations, of course.” Six is “stupid,” but five “can be effective.” It’s hard not to wonder just how he’s come to that conclusion, but then, finding the right option in a teeming morass of bad ideas seems to be his strong suit.
Everyone agrees that his decision making is stellar, and yet, as you watch his VODs and highlight videos, you get the feeling that those same decisions would backfire for pretty much anyone else. For example, in this game vs MAD at Dreamhack Summer 2012, Dendi jukes perfectly, first evading an enemy Chen and Pudge combo, and then proceeds to (quite literally) run circles around ES and Leshrac before finally picking them both off and assisting in the dispatch of Chen.
We watch that segment over and over, getting a feel for the minutiae. There are a dozen different scenarios in which single poor decision could have cost him his life, and in some instances, even turned the tide of the team fight. That’s the thing though - there were no bad decisions. Throughout the tumult, he chose to attack the right heroes at the right times, and his shackles and powershots were always spot on. It was as close to perfect as anyone could hope for.
That’s not to say that Dendi is some kind of lone ranger; he can play a Windrunner as well as he can a Tiny, and he will rock an initiator just as beautifully as he plays a pusher. He can farm, he can gank, he can initiate. Despite his status as a solo-mid legend, he will happily work a trilane, jungle, or defend a lane while his team pushes another. Time and time again, we’ve seen him sacrifice himself for the good of the team.
In short, Danil Ishutin gets Dota in a way that very few, perhaps no one else, can. It’s not something that’s developed overnight though, the truth is that Dendi has been playing Dota for a long time.
Though many will first have encountered him during his successful run through Valve’s The International 2011, the Dendi story begins years ago in the beautiful city of Lviv, Ukraine (population, 760k). Here, it’s worth mentioning something about Lviv, whose Wikipedia page lists (among other things) the concept of Lvivian batiar, there described as a class of urban mischief maker, whose 21st century manifestation has been described as, ‘continuing to develop with time, trying out different styles.’ It’s a description that ties Dendi’s signature play to a sense of place, though whether it’s a comparison he’d welcome is another question altogether.
Like most gamers, Danil started young. “We got our first PC when I was 5 or 6,” he says. “Actually, my brother got it, and I didn’t get to play much – he was pretty strict.” When his brother married, he left home, taking the only PC in the house with him. He began to frequent gaming cafes; he picked up Counter-Strike first, but soon found himself sinking significant time into Warcraft 3.
By the time he had a computer at home again, he was already well versed in the affairs of Azeroth. “Though I had a PC, I had no money for good Internet, and began by playing on cheap night Internet, using a modem that gave me terrible speeds,” says Dendi. “I did OK with Warcraft 3...”
It would be nice to say that the rest were history, but that would be, at best, disingenuous. A player of Dendi’s calibre doesn’t simply manifest once all of the relevant pieces align. He was still playing on a terrible connection. Moreover, without a stable daytime connection, he had been relegated to playing in the witching hour.
“I had to play on a 32kBps connection,” he says, recalling those early days playing Warcraft 3 from home, “I even won a few championships here in the Ukraine [...] But after a while it got boring. Then I found Dota.” Absent a few clicks, or a chance download of a custom map, we might only know Dendi as a Warcraft 3 player. Fortunately, whatever force it is that ushers those with a seemingly preternatural talent into the right place at the right time seems to have smiled on Dendi, and he found Dota.
He took to it as only he could. “At first I played just for fun but slowly I wanted to improve,” he says. Like everyone else, Dendi started playing support heroes. At the time, in order to play at a high level, he would have to be vouched into the IHC league. He improved so rapidly however, that he soon found himself vouched in.
“I never begged anyone for a vouch,” he says. In truth, that message arrives in caps, studded with exclamation marks (after both “NEVER” and “VOUCH”), it seems tactless to ask whether that’s to underscore the weight of the achievement or because of some old grievance. Whatever else you can say about Dendi, he seems proud of what he achieved in those early days.
Dendi went on to create a small, local team, a team that started doing well in 3v3 tournaments in Lviv. We ask for a little more detail about the way things were in those early days. “It was a long time ago,” he says, “I don’t remember a lot of what happened back then.” That stray statement hammers home just how long the man has been doing this; at a time when so many of us are trying hard to espouse the virtues of esports, Dendi has already been playing long enough to have forgotten some of his own competitive roots. Though he’s a sprightly twenty three at the time of this piece going to print, at the time he was just a teenager.
“I just remember I was invited to Team WG around that time.”
Having taken his fledgling team to Kiev for a 5v5 tournament, Dendi led them to a championship in the capital, appearing for the first time on Ukraine’s national Dota map. He was drafted by Wolker Gaming (WG) and, for the first time, paid to play the game he loved.
The year was 2006, and Dendi had become a progamer. He was seventeen.
“I was the only one from outside the capital,” he says, recalling the beginning of his career. WG did well, netting podium positions in several online tournament. Starting off at WG, he moved with the team to Ks.int when they merged. He would oscillate between Ks.int and DTS Gaming for the next few years, which gives some impression of just how volatile team lineups can be in Dota. He played several tournaments, both offline and online, and made a name for himself in the Ukrainian and European scenes. In fact, Dendi was skilled enough to represent his country at the game he loved. As early as 2007, he was a member of the Ukrainian National Team and was there as it finished on the podium at the MYM Prime Nations tournament.
Though a progamer, Dendi was also a student. “During some periods, I hardly played Dota at all,” he says. “At other times I played a lot, but I don’t think it ever affected my education.”
He pauses. “Well, maybe it did, in a way. I could have probably gone for all As if I had focused only on my studies,” he says, a trailing smiley showing that, even in retrospect, he has no regrets. Continuing the double-life of the progamer/student, Dendi continued into third level education. “I went to uni mainly as a backup plan,” he says, “So that even if I ended up not playing Dota, I could find some work that I would enjoy.”
“If you don't enjoy what you are doing, there’s no reason to do it just because your parents want you to,” he says, addressing young progaming hopefuls everywhere. “At the same time, you have to be smart and understand that if gaming doesn’t work for you, you have to have something else you can end up doing. Nowadays you have a lot of options, and you should take advantage of those possibilities.”
We ask him what he would be if he wasn’t a progamer. “Strip dancer?” he says, undermining the seriousness of the question with the same off-beat charm he’s treated us to throughout our time together.
Dendi isn’t asking young gamers to stay in school out of a misplaced sense of responsibility to the community. In fact, before he launched into his view of education and careers, he wondered aloud if he should say what was on his mind. The truth is, Dendi is no dreamer. While visions of a future in Dota no doubt danced through his dreams during his teenage years, he had the foresight to chase that goal without losing his grasp on more immediate concerns.
The overwhelming impression we’re left with is that Dendi approaches life in much the same way as he approaches Dota - with a strong understanding of the manifold possibilities and a constant willingness to take calculated risks. Behind both of these qualities is something far more important; a clear, no-nonsense view of the situation at hand. Dendi took the risk of devoting a significant proportion of his late teens to professional gaming, and yet he did so while making sure that he also left room for higher education.
In 2011, Dendi graduated from the Ukrainian Academy of Printing with a degree in IT.
Already a part of Na`Vi’s then freshly formed Dota squad, Dendi was finally a professional gamer in every sense of the term. He was being paid to play, and he could, if he were so inclined, play all day. Having known Dota pillars like the aforementioned Ivanov, Kupriyanov and Dashkevych, as well as then Na`Vi frontman Ivan "ArtStyle" Antonov, for years, Dendi was immediately at home with his new teammates. The outfit began to train in earnest, readying themselves for Valve’s The International 2011.
By the time the event was announced to the public, Na`Vi was already in the thick of things. Having played the game for months, they had a strong understanding of what was a very young game. A month before the event, they came together in Kiev. They would be facing some of the biggest names in Dota, not least of which the Chinese powerhouse EHOME. They knew they had their work cut out for them, and yet, with Ivanov, Kupriyanov, Antonov, Dashkevych, and Ishutin together, they knew it was the closest they would ever get to a European dream team. Not only were they some of the continent's biggest names, they were arguably the best players outside China. This was their chance.
It was to be the first of many moments in the sun.
Going up against some of the fiercest competition in the world, the Ukranians blazed through the first Dota 2 tournament and not only walked away with the million dollar cash prize, but did so with style and panache. It’s not just that Na`Vi was just efficient, its play was beautiful. Unlike the cold, farm-heavy style of the Chinese, or the ineffectual play of lesser known teams, Na`Vi played a quick and efficient style, centered around taking towers early. Later, Dendi would sum up the team’s strategy in an interview, saying,
“What's the point of going late-game if you can push and win in 20?”
So Na`Vi pushed and won; the money was split six ways, with a cut for each player and one for the team. Still, thanks to exchange rates and the comparatively low cost of living in the Ukraine, Dendi’s share was more than enough for him to be branded The Dota Millionaire. Though he was a household name for those involved in Dota in the Ukraine, and was quite well known in those circles across Europe and North America, it was his run through that first The International tournament that made him a truly international phenomenon. As the panoply of highlight and tribute videos that litter YouTube shows us, Dendi’s fan following grew in the weeks and months after Na`Vi’s run through this inaugural Dota 2 tournament.
The memes flowed, the likes followed, with internet gaming circles struggling to come to terms with this new game, and the team that appeared to have mastered it. The scene moved into 2012 with Na`Vi netting a first place finish at ESWC 2011 (beating EHOME once again in the finals) and then a silver medal at the Dota 2 Star Championship. Without a doubt, it has been the most successful Dota 2 team so far, and alongside the likes of mTw leads the development of the competitive scene. In 2012, Na`Vi won The Defence, The Premier League, and more recently SLTV StarSeries, with Dendi’s Invoker playing a lead role in its efforts.
Having been on the professional Dota scene for more than half a decade, Dendi is able to look back and reflect on how far things have come since he first found it in the mid-2000s.
“I like the way the proscene is shaping up at the moment,” he says. “Of course, it would be nice if there were more team houses and even more people got to play full time.”
Conversation meanders until we find ourselves talking about the idea of a Dota professional league similar to the Shinhan Proleague that existed for Starcraft: Brood War in South Korea (now in the final stages of what has been a bumpy transition into Starcraft 2). Danil thinks that a league like that - one with televised games three or four times a week - would work well for Dota. “I’d play in it,” he says. He pauses for a moment, perhaps reflecting on what that might entail, before adding, “Then again, I’m highly competitive, and I’d basically do whatever it takes to play more at the high level.”
While he is already a professional Dota 2 player, and certainly one of the most respected pros on the scene today, Dendi still wishes he could play more. For a while, the Na`Vi Dota squad lived with its Counter-Strike counterparts, and played from the same training facility. He remembers the time in the teamhouse fondly, espousing the easy communication offered by close proximity. Now though, they stay in the ARENA in Kiev.
Though the team spends a lot of time together, finding players at such a high level has been tough. “The scene is young at the moment and tournaments are few and far between,” says Dendi. When a big one is on the horizon, Na`Vi goes into serious mode, organising a boot camp where they rent a space and live and work together leading up to the event. “We train hard for offline tourneys, but during the off time between them I don’t really know what to do with myself. Even when we train though, it’s pretty hard finding top players to practice with. I almost wish Valve had a special matchmaking feature that would match progamers with each other.”
That wish can only be stronger with The International 2012 upon us, and Chinese teams showing Na'Vi they aren't the same lackluster performers of last year. The kingpins of Dota 2 aren’t just defending a tournament title; they find themselves consolidating their position on the throne. As the outfit that walked away with the coveted first professional tournament win in the Dota 2 universe, the pressure to repeat that performance is profound. Though their appearances over the past few months might generously be referred to using terms like mercurial, it is their run at TI2012 that will truly set the tone for the year ahead. Puppey will lead the way, of course, with XBOCT, ARS-ART, LightOfHeaven and Dendi following.
Though their performance at Dreamhack Summer 2012 did not meet the expectations of their fans, as a community it may be worthwhile to pause a minute and put things in perspective. Na`Vi lost a LAN series. One series, and by one game at that. In a post game interview, mTw captain Troels "syndereN" Nielsen said that it was a “dream to win against Na`Vi on LAN."
Though they are obviously not happy about their loss, and Dendi is noticably upset, his team also knows that the throne is still very much theirs to surrender.
August is here, and Na`vi is ready in Seattle.
For the last year, Puppey and his team have been the team to beat. Now in the throes of The International 2012, Na'Vi finds themselves in an uncomfortable position, as possible underdogs to some Chinese giants.
As a game, Dendi really likes Dota 2. “It’s a great game,” he says. “Valve has done a good job keeping the latency at an acceptable level, even during online play. Though LAN support would be good, the delay when playing on servers is so small that it’s really not a big deal at the moment.” We ask him about the lag related pauses that sometimes occur during tournaments. Those stoppages don’t seem to annoy him. “You get used to it,” he says.
When the talk moves around to heroes, Dendi says that there are some characters he is looking forward to playing once they are ported to Dota 2. “Magnataur and Geomancer, maybe.” His pick for the most successful hero of the beta is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Antimage. When we ask about his favourite hero overall, we learn that Dendi doesn’t play favourites. “I love all active heroes,” he says, “I don’t have anyone special for myself.”
Perhaps this is what makes him stand out. Though he plays a mean Pudge and a stunning Invoker, Danil’s view of the playing field is simple. He sees the game as a whole, and approaches each hero differently, identifying his or her strengths and adapting everything from builds to items. People have called his playstyle creative, and while this is no doubt true, Dendi’s underlying strength is not that he can think outside the box. It’s not even that he can execute a strange build with stunning precision or pull off the most difficult micro with impeccable style and finesse.
Danil’s strength is perhaps best summed up in the words of the aforementioned Nielsen, as heard from the commentary box during a game he casted.
Is there anything Dendi can’t do?
Is there? In the immortal words of Bruce Lee, Dendi is like water.
Show him a hero, and he will play it. Show him a build and he will perfect it. Show him a game and he will master it. Some would say Na`vi is Dota 2. Some would even condense them down to Dendi; he’s become the team’s figurehead, its face.
Dendi is not the face of Dota 2 because his hooks and sunstrikes seem to defy the game’s physics, nor because he experiments with unearthly item builds. Dendi is not the face of Dota 2 because his charm and charisma make him one of the most approachable players on the scene.
Dendi is the face of Dota 2 because he breaks the game and then makes it all over again. He is the face of Dota 2 because he embodies what the scene is; a young, vibrant, and above all volatile competitive scene in which limits mean nothing, in which every day, every game, every play is a chance to show the world something new.
From that doddering internet connection to the team he constructed on his own for those first 3v3 tournaments, Dendi has been taking the tools available to him and making them work in new and unexpected ways. Today a hook, tomorrow a sunstrike; the way he interacts with the world around him undergoes constant revision. Whether that sees him dialing up at 1am from Ukraine’s Lviv, or breaking a barracks in three hits in a bit spun alternate reality, Danil lives to tread the line between insanity and genius, between (to use his own words one last time) “chaotic and idiotic”.
With Dota 2 still in beta, and with years of competitive play in front of us, Dendi is at the forefront, coiled and ready, not only to lead the technical development of the game, but to represent it to the gaming community at large.
As we write and rewrite this piece in an effort to manhandle the text into the shape our subject deserves, it’s hard not to feel as though it’s missing something, some sense of an overarching narrative, some tiny barb with which to reach out and snare a reader, and in a way there’s a sense that that’s how the Dota 2 competitive scene has been for a while now; everything is in the right place, all of the pieces are as they should be, but there’s still that all-pervading feeling of flux, of instability. There is a sense that people have just been waiting for a hook.
Who better to deliver it?