At the beginning 2017, the Vici Gaming essentially restarted their franchise. From 2012-2015 VG had built their team around the Prince of China, Xu “fy” Linsen. He along with Lu “Fenrir” Chao became one of the most iconic support duos in the entire game and together from 2014-2015. By the end of 2016 however a radical change was needed. The old combination was no longer working and VG tried to create an all-star lineup of proven Chinese talent, but it didn’t net them the titles they were looking for. So in 2017, Vici Gaming decided to build the team around a new generation of stars. The first player they got was got Zeng “Ori” Jiaoyang in Jan. 2017. They then later added on Zhang “Paparazi” Chengjun in September 2017. Now, nearly two years later, Vici Gaming look to be on the precipice of breaking through to the highest levels of competion in Dota2. They were able to get second place at ESL Hamburg, but the Kuala Lumpur Major will be the critical test to see how far these two players have come.
The stories of the rise of Ori and Paparazi are common ones found in China. Unlike the West, the chances of a rookie talent being recruit onto a Championship caliber team from the get go is rare. Even in the West, young rookie talent rarely make the jump from the bottom to the top. Players like Topias “Topson” Taavitsainen or Sumail “SumaiL” Hassan are not the rule, they are exceptions. For every Topson or Sumail, you have another dozen or more young players who were one or two levels below them. For every one of those players, there are another hundred that failed to get to that level.
The climb to the top is arduous and it was no less so for both Ori and Paparazi. When Ori joined Vici Gaming, the team consistently failed to make it out of the Chinese Qualifiers. As for Paparazi, he was initially a player on iG’s B-team, iG.Vitality. They consistently were able to make it out of the online qualifiers and every single time they went to LAN they underperformed or choked. However if you ignored the results on LAN and looked at the raw potential of the two players, you could see that both of them individually could be something one day. While they weren’t going to make the jump in one large step like the Western phenoms, they could one day reach that level if they grinded through every step of the way.
On September 2017, Vici Gaming combined the two talents onto one team and surrounded them with experienced veteran players: Ren “eLeVeN” Yangwei, Zhang “LaNm” Zhicheng, and Fenrir. ELeVeN was one of the most consistent offlaners in the Chinese region and that was critical as China always lacked world class offlane players. LaNm and Fenrir were legends. LaNm was most famous for being one of the support players in the most beloved Chinese Dota2 team of all-time, DK 2014. Fenrir was half of the glorious fy-Fenrir support combination. The early half of VG’s Dota2 history was built on the back of these two players. Now the modern era was to be built on the backs of the Ori and Paparazi combination.
The 2017-2018 DPC season started off well for the new squad. Their first LAN together was at the AMD Sapphire Dota Pit League where they were able to get second to Team Liquid. In that tournament they beat big name teams like Virtus.Pro and Newbee. They only barely lost the finals to Liquid 2-3. Perfect World Masters was a bit less successful as while they made second, they lost in a blowout to Newbee 0-3. Their next big even after that was ESL Katowice 2018, where they made another run to the finals as they beat OG, Liquid, Virtus.Pro, and Liquid in the rematch. In the end it wasn’t enough as Virtus.Pro beat them in the finals 3-1.
In three tournaments, they had gotten to the finals three times. That is an amazing feat in and of itself, but it spoke to a potential lack of experience in the big clutch moments. Not only that, but the team started to fall apart soon after as their form started to slip and other teams like PSG.LGD rose to the top. Vici Gaming bombed out of Bucharest. At Dota2 Asia Championships, they got a respectable 6th place, but that was off the back of barely surviving the group stages. They followed that up with another decent finish at the SuperMajor where they got top 6 again. Finally, at TI8 they had a miserable showing as they just eked out of the group stage, won one best-of-one against VGJ.Thunder and then lost to Secret.
In that one year span of time, Vici Gaming started off the season hot, but could not adapt and keep up with the other teams in the year. When they finally got to the high pressure tournaments of the year they were not able to exceed or meet expectations. They did decently at both DAC and the SuperMajor. They beat the teams they should have, but weren’t able to crack Secret. However, their showing at The International 8 was miserable.
If we consider the highs and lows of that year, there were likely three factors that caused the downfall of Vici Gaming. The first was a lack of experience. This was the first year that Ori and Paparazi had consistently played at top international level. While Paparazi had qualified for events before on iG.V, that team usually bombed out before it could get deep into tournaments. The second was a lack of clutch. There were times throughout the season where I didn’t think either Paparazi or Ori lived up to their potential. Finally, the team as a whole didn’t have the ability to create a strong team identity as the year went longer.
So when the post TI8 roster shuffle happened, these were the questions that needed to be answered. In the end, the team got rid of the veterans and replaced them with Zhou “Yang” Haiyang, Pan “Fade” Yi, and Ding “Dy” Cong. Yang is a role player which is fine for the current offlane meta. Fade was the support player for VGJ.Thunder and the second best player on that team after Liu “Sylar” Jiajun. Dy was a complete rookie to the international stage and someone who had played in one of Vici Gaming’s farm teams in the past.
This Vici lineup had a lot of potential as there were three clear players they looked to play around: Ori, Paparazi, and Fade. In terms of potential growth, it was better than the previous lineup as four out of the five of these players have growing upsides to them. However they lacked the experience, leadership, and someone that could forge it all together. So the final piece of the puzzle came in their new coach Bai “rOtk” Fan.
ROtk is a legendary Chinese captain famous for his stubborn style of leadership and drafting. When it comes to strategy, there are generally two approaches. You either have a wide playbook of differing strategies that you can pull out at any time, or you have a style of play that you try to adhere to throughout the tournament. ROtk is the latter and it has given him a large degree of success throughout his career. On top of that, rOtk is someone who consistently tried to raise up younger Chinese talent in the latter parts of his career. Finally, he is an incredibly loud personality and someone who has shown he can get the team to follow him even in the most dire of circumstances. For those three reasons, he may be the perfect fit for what Vici Gaming are looking to do with this young squad.
All of that potential came together at ESL Hamburg 2018. Vici Gaming generally stuck to rOtk’s defining strategy for this tournament. Dy and Fade are made to secure the lanes. Yang plays whatever role is needed to fill a particular draft. Ori plays the high tempo mid laner that can take control of the early-mid game. Paparazi secures the game with his hard carry hero. It was a tried and true strategy that people saw coming, but no one could stop until the finals. Even in the finals, Vici Gaming pushed Secret to their limits and just barely lost the finals 2-3.
What impressed me the most however was how consistently well both Paparazi and Ori played. As I’ve said before, the three biggest factors that keep Paparazi and Ori from getting to the top of the scene is their experience, lack of leadership, and composure. At this point, they have played at international events for an year. They’ve battled some of the best teams. They are now playing at peak level throughout an entire tournament. They have a leader in rOtk, someone who can set the identity, draft, and give them the veteran know-how. Now it comes down to their ability to play under pressure.
That is why the Kuala Lumpur Major will be the big test for both players. Unlike last year, the Majors have an increased prestige because there are only four of them in this season. Teams must perform well at these Majors if they wish to get to The International 9. The Majors in this season are more akin to the Majors of 2015-2016, high level events that all of the best are attending and preparing for. This will only increase the amount of pressure that is at this event and so it will be the perfect gauntlet to see how far both players have come. In their early days, they had to grind their way out of Chinese qualifiers on lesser teams. The then had to grind their way through the DPC season of last year. Now, they must take on this next test and should they pass this, they will have finally broken through to the highest echelons of competition after years of grinding at every stage of their careers.