This time last year, the Chinese Dota 2 scene was in upheaval. Having just failed spectacularly in Shanghai at the season’s second Major, Chinese teams were blowing up their rosters left and right, making good on trade agreements from before the Major and looking to return to parity with the West. With the roster lock for Manila and The International quickly approaching, the region had no time left to experiment; they needed rosters capable of winning.
Ironically enough, it was one of the rosters that didn’t change in the weeks following Shanghai that would go on to the most immediate success. Wings would soon take gold at a multitude of tournaments, peaking with their victory at The International. Much has since been made of the team and their tenacity in sticking together through the ups-and-downs that characterized their eventual ascent to elite status. Their success in the period was important to bringing Chinese Dota back into the limelight.
Fast forward half a year to the Dota 2 Asia Championships 2017. As a de facto Chinese Major in importance if not in name, this iteration of DAC held special importance to the home teams. The spectre of Shanghai loomed over the arena; many in the scene were again looking to the West as the stronger region, despite the numbers advantage China held. The hopes of the East were pinned on Newbee to continue to improve, or perhaps on Wings to find form again; once the dust settled, however, it was an unexpected contender that redeemed Chinese Dota on its own turf.
Call on any longtime fan of Dota to name you a legendary Chinese player, and one of the odds-on favorites to come out of their mouths is carry player Xu “BurNIng” Zhilei. His career is one of the foundational blocks of modern Chinese Dota, having played in and led multiple world-class teams that influenced the playstyle of the scene at the time and inspired ambitious, young players to follow in their footsteps. After a period of time away from the spotlight, DAC 2017 serves as BurNIng’s return to the top.
Only the most ardent fans of Zhilei would have picked his iG squad to top the field in Shanghai. Despite their dominating qualifier run, the team was viewed as one that still needed some work to compete at an elite level. After the initial stage that saw the team beat Newbee, Liquid, and EG 2-0 en route to topping the group, the world took notice to Invictus Gaming. They were a team on fire, riding a wave of momentum that didn’t appear to be ending any time soon.
The team faltered only slightly in the upper bracket, losing a close match to an OG team that looked equally dominant in groups. The loss did not deter them, however, as they made quick work of Newbee yet again to set up the rematch. Using the blueprint from the earlier series, iG made the necessary adjustments to their play and crushed OG in the Grand Finals, completing an impressive tournament performance and establishing a firm grasp on the metagame at a pivotal time in the season.
This win wasn’t just a redemption for China, it was also a redemption for BurNIng. Like so many aging stars in the scene, fans and experts doubted his ability to play on the world stage after such a prolonged absence from the podium. In leading the team of young guns, together with captain Fu “Q” Bin of CDEC fame, to a prestigious title, he has proven that he still has the capability to keep up with the hyper-efficient, mechanically-gifted core players in the modern era.
The Iterating iG
The roots of this Invictus Gaming roster date back to the Shanghai Shuffle. The organization as a whole, and specifically this main squad, underwent massive changes after the Major in 2016, including losing their years-long veteran mid player in Luo “Ferrari_430” Feichi. Importantly, the new iG roster that came out of the shuffle contained both Lin “Xxs” Jing and Ye “BoBoKa” Zhibiao, forming the beginnings of what was to be.
That version of the roster was not particularly successful or notable, as it was largely a group of still-developing players. They were eclipsed by sister team iG.Vitality, which had more seasoned leadership to mold the younger stars of the team. The main roster missed the Manila Major and failed to qualify for The International, leading to the shuffle that brought all of its current players at last.
After TI, BurNIng joined, along with Q and 2-position player Ou “Op” Peng, rounding out what was an inexperienced roster with potential into a more stable, strategically sound side. Since that time, the roster has slowly but surely improved; the big jump in placements, however, didn’t begin until the first officials of 2017 finally got underway. The slew of qualifiers saw iG standing firmly atop the Chinese scene, besting its intraregional rivals and setting its sights on international competition.
The team’s success at DAC may yet be a jumping-off-point, as iG is in prime position to continue its current streak of dominance over Dota, with Kiev approaching at the end of the month and the Manila Masters coming later on in May. If iG prove to be more than just a flash in the pan, the team has a real opportunity to establish itself as a frontrunner for The International.
One of the reasons put forth for China’s failure at the Shanghai Major was that they were too set on clinging to past glory, and that the scene lacked up-and-coming talent that could match the superstars the West was producing. What quickly became apparent after Shanghai is that this supposedly missing talent was hiding in plain sight; Wings soon rose to prominence with a largely unknown squad, and Newbee were right on their heels, featuring captain and former-pubstar Hu “Kaka” Liangzhi.
The Chinese teams at DAC are the perfect examples of the current teambuilding philosophy of the scene. The young, talented players of the region are tempered with the experience of the veterans and legends of Chinese Dota. Invictus Gaming has Op and BoBoKa, two players on par with any mid-support duo from the likes of OG or EG, and smartly molds them by including BurNIng and Q.
Likewise, Newbee harnesses the championship-winning pedigree of a player like Zeng “Faith” Hongda to help Kaka lead the less-tested cores in Damien “Kpii” Chok and Song “Sccc” Chun. Both of the two stars have garnered international praise for their play, either one a talent worth building a team around, but their flashy play masks the true engine of Newbee’s success.
To a greater or lesser degree, all the other Chinese teams display this same quality, a departure from the former philosophy of creating “superteams” in the mold of TI4-era Team DK. In adopting this new structure, the Chinese scene has at once diversified its competitive field, enriched its young talent, and set the building blocks for future success. Soon, the rising stars of today will be making names for themselves across the world, joining the pantheon of their veteran teammates as legends of Chinese Dota.