Photo: By Valve
Chinese Dota has been in decline in the last few years. Once a region that boasted the most championship contender teams, now they are a shell of their former glory. If you looked at DreamLeague 11 and power ranked the four best teams in the world right now, the large consensus would be: Secret, Virtus.Pro, EG, and Liquid. The only saving grace is PSG.LGD and even they are currently having problems as Lu “Maybe” Yao is taking a leave of absence and Guo “Xm” Hongcheng is standing-in for him. For the 2018-2019 DPC, the story of Chinese Dota is no longer about winning championships, it is about whether they can reach that level again.
A Few Years Too Late on the Generational Shift
There are multiple reasons as to why Chinese Dota2 has been on the decline within the last few years. From 2014-2015, China made the mistake of sticking to veteran star players for too long. That was the era when all of the best Chinese teams were largely composed of veteran Chinese players that had played for years. That was the moment when western teams started to bring in the next generation of players.
This change in generation was best expressed by two teams during this time: Cloud9 and Evil Geniuses. Cloud9 was led by Jacky “EternaLEnVy” Mao. He entered the scene as a complete rookie, the first time anyone heard of him was on the Team Liquid forums where he announced his intent to become a pro. The first years of his career have him finding and creating fantastic teams that was based on new talent. In No TideHunter he recruited Henrik “AdmiralBulldog” Ahnberg. AdmiralBulldog became the carry player for [A]lliance’s run from 2013-2014. In the Cloud9 era, EternaLEnVy brought obscure players like Pittner “bOne7” Armand and Johan “pieliedie” Astrom to the fore. EternaLEnVy forced a shift of perspective in the Western scene. His ability to found new players convinced many other top teams to follow his approach.
While EternaLEnVy may have created that formula, Peter “ppd” Dager arguably mastered it. PPD was the famous in-game leader of Evil Geniuses. At the time, ppd saw that many of the NA teams at the time were just shuffling the same old names between each other. He decided to take a different approach where he combined the experience and knowledge of veteran players with the hunger and skill of the younger players. This created a potent combination that made EG world champions. PPD’s first lineup where he did this was SADBOYS where he teamed up with experienced players like Clinton “Fear” Loomis and combined that with the raw talent of a polarizing star player in Artour “Arteezy” Babaev and later on Sumail “SumaiL” Hassan.
In contrast to that, almost all of China’s top teams going into The International 2014 or The International 2015 were composed of star veteran players (The only exception being LGD who had recruited Maybe). While that formula worked for them in the short term, they’d end up paying for it in the long term. The old star players fell off as they got worse, lost motivation, or went on to stream. Instead of cutting their losses, teams often just continued to shuffle the same names between them in hopes that they could reignite the glory days. That roster building style only gave diminishing returns and continued to hurt the growing Chinese scene.
Each time a veteran was picked up instead of an up-and-comer, an opportunity to gain experience for the next generation of Chinese players was lost. Eventually Chinese Dota2 teams caught on as more teams started to copy the PPD formula, but it was a year too late. Even so, China was still the best region overall during this time period. If that was the only reason that Chinese Dota2 fell behind, they likely would have continued to stay at the top of Dota2. Instead the West eventually caught up and surpassed from the 2015-2016 period.
The Language and Cultural Barrier
The second problem is one that cannot be solved. Namely the language and cultural barrier that surrounds China. Consider all of the regions in the world for a moment. We have: NA, EU, CIS, SEA, BR, and CN.
Now look at the teams from the first five regions. Outside of the CIS, every other region either currently has or had a mixed international squad. Secret has had players from NA, EU, and SEA. NiP is currently a largely EU mix led by PPD. EG is a western all-stars team composed of EU and NA players. Forward gaming has CIS star Roman “Resolut1on” Fominok. Last year’s Fnatic had EternaLEnVy, pieliedie, and Saahil “UNiVeRsE” Arora play with talented SEA players. This year’s coL has started to recruit SEA players to fill their ranks. The best team from South America is Chaos Esports, a team of Brazilians and EU players.
By doing these international lineups, teams gain two advantages. First they are working from a much larger talent pool from which they can draw from. Second, they get more information about Dota as a game, which in turn helps their preparation and gives them an edge in tournaments. The best way I can describe it is by looking at how scouting was done in the Team Liquid roster.
In an interview I did with, Lee “Heen” Seung Gon, he described the process as sending out six people to feel out the pubs. Each player grinded out ladder games to find out what were the strongest heroes. They then brought all of that information back and created a cohesive plan to bring to a tournament. This process is greatly accelerated when you have a variety of different players within a team or region.
For instance, Yiek “MidOne” Nai Zhen started in the SEA region before he joined Secret in EU. When he moved over, he brought along all of the understanding he acquired from the SEA region to his new team. In turn, the people he plays against in pubs also get the benefit of his knowledge by directly playing against him.
In the case of Chinese Dota, this is largely impossible. They are cut off from a majority of international lineups as they don’t speak English. One of the best episodes that explains this is Duncan “Thorin” Shields Reflections with Sebastien “7ckngMad” Debs. In that video, 7ckngMad talks with regret about how he can never know what Wings Gaming did as he the language and cultural barrier will never allow him to sit down and pick the brains of Zhang “y” Yiping. The language and cultural barrier between China and the rest of the world means that Dota2 information is largely cut off from each other.
In terms of imported players, this also means that China can only get players from the SEA region. Even then that is only with players that can speak the Chinese language, so realistically only Malaysian or Singaporean players like Jian Wei “xNova” Yap, Daryl Koh “iceiceice” Pei Xiang, or Tue “ah fu” Soon Chuan.
There is a natural limit to how much cross pollination Chinese teams and players can get from international Dota. That is an advantage the West currently has over China. Though if China was ever on top, then the reverse would be true as well as we saw in the early days of Dota.
The Loss of Xiao8
The final reason that I think Chinese Dota has fallen is the retirement of Zhang “xiao8” Ning. While he is just one man, he represents the role that China needs the most, the great in-game leader. Look throughout all of Dota2 competitive history and all of the most successful lineups that have come and gone since its inception. The biggest commonality among all of them is the in-game leader. Almost all of the best line-ups have one of the all-time great leaders at the center: PPD, Clement “Puppey” Ivanov, Kuro “KuroKy” Salehi Takhasomi, Zhang “xiao8” Ning, Tal “Fly” Aizik, and Alexei “Solo” Berezin.
If you chart the players with the highest levels of success at The Internationals, the four players with the most success regardless of lineup are: PPD, KuroKy, Puppey, and xiao8. There are multiple reasons as to why that’s the case, but the biggest for me is that all-time great in-game leaders provide large benefits that the most talented players cannot match. They have the highest amount of information in regards to Dota2 knowledge, they can process that information and create a coherent strategy through their drafts and style of play, and they can get their teammates to buy into their system and create a team culture.
Dota2 is a game that loves it’s leaders and right now the international teams have far better leaders than their Chinese counterparts. The best international teams in recent years have been: Liquid, Secret, OG, and Virtus.Pro. Each is led by one of the all-time great leaders. If you look at the OpTic and NiP lineups, neither squad was filled with all-stars, but both overperformed under PPD’s guidance.
When Xiao8 retired, that left a gaping hole in leadership that has never been filled. Zeng “Faith” Hongda did a good job with Newbee, but as a leader he was limited. Once that Newbee lineup ran its course, Faith disappeared from the world stage as an international contender. As for PSG.LGD, use a democratic system that required all five players to have extreme levels of skill and have naturally synergistic playstyles.
A New Hope
While Chinese Dota2 has slowly been in the decline, there have been multiple teams and players that have been leading the path in trying to bring Chinese Dota back to prominence. The biggest is PSG.LGD. As an organization, they were the first Chinese team to identify the generational shift that was happening in 2014-2015. Since then, they have consistently brought on up-and-coming talent and recruited SEA players like xNova.
The most interesting aspect of their current team is the use of democratic leadership. Outside of China, many had assumed that Xy “fy” Linsen had taken on leadership duties once again, but had somehow cracked the code in being able to shotcall and play as a superstar. At The International 8, we found out that the team was just on the same page. They had a similar world view on Dota and have been able to work seamlessly as a unit.
While that is a near impossible system to replicate, it does sidestep the problem of lacking leadership in the Chinese region. Outside of PSG.LGD, the three teams that seem to be carrying the Chinese flag are: ViCi Gaming, EHOME, and Keen. Both ViCi and EHOME are teams composed of young and inexperienced players. In order to bring veteran presence and leadership to the teams, both squads have inducted coaches. In the case of ViCi they have Bai “rOtk” Fan. In the case of EHOME they have Xiao8.
As for Keen Gaming, they are a squad with a mix of veteran star players and young up-and-coming talent. What makes them interesting is that their two rookies players: Zhai “Yi” Jingkai and Song “dark” Runxi. Yi has the potential to be a star player while dark is a new captain to the Dota2 scene.
For the Chinese teams, the story of the 2018-2019 DPC will be about growth. After all, China has all of the talent necessary to compete against the best teams in the world. For China, it is about figuring out how to make all of the pieces fit together and creating a system that works. Should they find those solutions, then China may once again become the strongest region in the world.
*Disclaimer: VPEsports is a Washington State based esports news media company funded by VPGame.