The origin of the VGJ brand is one rather unique to the Dota scene. Vici Gaming, looking to expand their reach, accepted an endorsement deal in 2016 with the professional NBA player Jeremy Lin to create a new team featuring his first initial in the name, and thus the new brand was born. Initially, the team was a promising group of Chinese players, many with veteran experience, that looked good on paper. Despite that promise, the team ultimately had mixed results, only making it to a single Major of the season and failing to qualify for The International 2017.
In the roster shuffle period following TI7, much of the team left for greener pastures once the dust settled. With only the midlaner Liu “Freeze” Chang remaining on the starting roster, the famous former offlaner Bai “rOtk” Fan moved to coach and the team picked up 4 players to fill the void: the legendary carry player Liu “Sylar” Jiajun, Zhou “Yang” Hiayang at 3, Pan “Fade” Yi at 4, and Fan “Ayo” Tianyou at 5.
This new roster was renamed VGJ.Thunder, an accommodation to welcome in a sister North American team under the VGJ brand, VGJ.Storm. Under the Thunder name, the team qualified to a few international tournaments, even winning Galaxy Battles II in late January, but Ayo’s spot was soon given to Leong “ddc” Fat-meng in February during the Chinese scene’s post Lunar New Year customary shuffle period. With this newly reinforced line-up, the team had perhaps their best run, coming second in the Bucharest Major, the zenith of their DPC strength and the foundation upon which they staked their claim to qualification to The International 2018.
In the period since, the team has cooled off significantly. A rash of middling showings and disappointing placements had the team barely edge OpTic Gaming out of the final DPC spot. Still, they secured their place in Vancouver, and they stand some chance at making a return to form. They have veteran leadership in rOtk, Sylar, and ddc, the latter of which has attended every single TI , albeit without a win. All three of them have gotten maddeningly close to the Aegis, and their legacies are some of the most deserving of the championship in the Dota scene.
Their hopes live in the youth of the squad. Freeze, Yang, and Fade are all Vici Gaming Potential alums. With this TI being each of their first, the tournament will be a test for the up-and-coming players to see what they have learned from the veterans. The stage of The International makes or breaks careers, and everyone on the VGJ.Thunder roster has something at stake in this performance.
At their peak at the Bucharest Major, Thunder were a team based around a very simple playstyle: draft Sylar a hard carry, and let him farm until he could click down every enemy hero and building in methodical succession. Whether it was a true farmer like Medusa or Terrorblade, or a midgame powerhouse like Gyro or Luna, Sylar was the cornerstone of all of the VGJ.T drafts. To facilitate this style, Freeze primarily played stable push heroes like Dragon Knight and Razor that are rarely the centerpiece of a draft but are always a reliable engine to accompany Sylar’s sieges.
Yang was the primary initiator, playing many games on Brewmaster, Tidehunter, and Tiny. His initiations were aided by some of Fade’s favorite picks in Nightstalker and Tusk that augmented the team’s inherent vision game and allowed Yang to pick the best spots to jump in and disrupt the enemy team. When Yang was on Omniknight, one of the strongest offlaners at the time, the crowd control deficit was made up for with picks like Fade’s Earth Spirit, or DDC’s Disruptor that could just as easily start the show with a well-timed spell.
The team’s playstyle was typically quite aggressive. Fade in particular played heroes that relied on getting successful rotations to be viable picks. Playing around the superior catch his heroes offered, the team generally looked for picks and translated hero kills into objectives spearheaded by Freeze’s heroes. When the draft was working, the team looked quite strong; their favorite picks snowballed the game quite easily, as Disruptor and Lycan create extra opportunities from won teamfights that further widen the gap.
Despite these strengths, the team finished second to Virtus Pro in the Bucharest Major, getting heavily outdrafted in the finals by the CIS squad. This is perhaps the Achilles’ Heel of the team: despite rOtk’s history as a successful team captain, his current form as the drafter for this team is inconsistent. At the time of the Bucharest Major, the team was much easier to draft for, with many strong picks for every role that fit together well to execute teamfights.
The team’s problems with the drafting are best shown at the team’s most recent performance at the Supermajor. Following several patches that nerfed some of the team’s favorite picks like Tusk, Nightstalker, Tiny, and Omniknight, the VGJ.T drafts looked quite different in Shanghai. They attempted to copy the successful style of PSG.LGD, the Chinese team that had risen to the top in their wake, but were unable to find any success.
Fade’s Naga Siren was a high-priority pick for them at the tournament, and they had perhaps the most success with that pick. It meshed well with ddc’s hero pool of Disruptor and Jakiro, and allowed the team to still play more methodically behind Sylar’s carries. Freeze even had a strong performance at the tournament, playing many more high skill heroes like Mirana and Ember Spirit while still managing to lane well.
The real struggle for the team was finding a hero for Yang to play. He tried Doom and Beastmaster, but was a non-factor in the games they lost to OpTiC and Newbee. They tried to give him Broodmother in one game because it countered the enemy draft well, but his play on the hero in mid lane was lackluster, unable to apply the appropriate amount of pressure early in the game, ultimately failing to splitpush effectively enough to stave off his team’s loss.
If the team is to have success at The International 2018, they need to rediscover the cohesive drafting style that served them well in Bucharest. Adaptation is perhaps the most important factor in how well a team does in the professional Dota 2 scene over a long period of time, and The International is a microcosm of that, with the metagame of the tournament evolving as teams respond to each other’s drafts in ways that rapidly shift the pick priority. Thunder and their coach need to be in front of these changes with their hero pools to have a chance against the best minds in the game that are drafting for the top teams.
Sylar is the heart of the VGJ Thunder team. As one of the veteran carries of the Chinese scene, he represents a generation of players that are slowly fading out of the limelight. He was even retired himself for a time, coming back to play for this very team. One imagines that his decision to return was not made lightly, that he was convinced that this roster had a chance at the kind of success that he was unable to find in the past.
His play defined what it meant to be a Chinese carry for a time, and he is still among the best in current form. He is aggressive, efficient, and calculated in equal parts - a balanced player capable of playing a multitude of styles to best fit the metagame. In the modern day, his Lycan is among the most feared, relentlessly running down heroes and creeps alike in a masterful display of micro. Likewise, his Terrorblade lives up to its name matching equal parts farm and fighting to strangle out the enemy team.
His favored heroes include mechanically demanding picks like Ember Spirit and Queen of Pain, but VGJ Thunder has historically played him on more stable, objective-based heroes like Dragon Knight and Death Prophet. They had a lot of success with these drafts, but he has recently shown his ability to keep up with the best players on the more glass cannon style he prefers. Perhaps the answer for Thunder to ascend up the ranks of the Dota world and achieve something memorable at The International 2018 is for Freeze to be unchained, given free reign to test himself against the elite.
Recently though, he’s struggled to find an identity. With the dual-lane metagame going away from the nerfed Tiny and Omniknight picks, he’s had a difficult time having the same impact in teamfights. Beastmaster and Doom require much more coordination with the team to have the same effectiveness as Tiny, and Yang has looked out of place. For their sake, Yang and the rest of Thunder need to learn to play around these new picks more effectively to bring their offlaner back into the fold.
To his credit, Fade has adapted well to metagame shifts in the recent patches that have forced Nightstalker out of the support role and taken Tusk down a notch or two. He has a reasonably strong Naga Siren, emulating Xu “fy” Linsen. He was also one of the few 4 players to stick to Elder Titan throughout the Supermajor, but had much less success with the hero in Shanghai than in the past.
For Fade, even reaching TI is an accomplishment, but this opportunity is one that he should not squander. It’s rare that any player be among teammates with as much skill as these. With the potential Fade possesses, he may have more chances at the Aegis, but how many will be as strong as this one?
Now on loan from LGD.FY, ddc is yet again seeking to make his mark on the Aegis. He’s suited well as a player to the current metagame, playing several supports that combine well with the Naga Siren that Chinese teams have been utilizing well of late. He has been a notable Jakiro player for years, and has a reputation for both Witch Doctor and Disruptor. He will undoubtedly be able to fill any role his team requires of him, able to glue together many drafts that may otherwise lack what he is able to provide.
Like his teammate Sylar, the question for ddc is just how many more years he is willing to try to beat this tournament and reach the peak of Dota 2. Approaching 30 years old and not lacking any other major accomplishments, time is surely of the essence for this veteran support.
Graphics: Valve, Julmust, Exitiums
Graphics: Valve, Julmust, Exitiums