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What We All Play For

Sep 8 2017
Photo by
1UP Studios
Photo by
1UP Studios
Sep 8 2017

I t’s difficult to describe The International to someone who doesn’t follow esports.

The simplest comparison is to the Super Bowl, but the Super Bowl is only one game. At The International, it’s like you’re playing in the Super Bowl over and over. The competition never lets up and you have thousands watching your every move in a packed arena and millions more streaming the action around the globe.

I’ve been captain of my squad, Team Liquid, since 2015. In that time, I helped recruit the players who now make up our roster. Some of them were relatively unknown when we first signed them.

That’s not really the case anymore.

Ivan Borislavov (MinD_ContRoL) Ivanov is a world-class offlaner. Lasse (MATUMBAMAN) Urpalainen is a fantastic carry who lights up the room with his enthusiasm and occasional shit-talk. In 2016, we signed Amer (Miracle-) Al-Barkawi, a 20-year-old Jordanian who was the first Dota 2 player ever to hit a 9,000 MMR, and this year we brought in Maroun (GH) Merhej, a wonderful support who makes our drafts so much more flexible.

In the days before the tournament, I was feeling very confident. We had a 13-3 record in the group stages, and entered the knockout round as one of the favorites to win the whole thing. I knew that if we went out there and played our game, nobody could beat us. All we had to do was execute.

I thought, almost certainly, this was our year.

And then, in the very first match of the bracket, we lost.

Yep, we dropped two games to Invictus Gaming. It wasn’t a complete blow-out, but it was enough to send us tumbling to the losers bracket. While we weren’t fully eliminated, it did mean that we now had to run the table and win six matches in a row to capture first place. The International is a double-elimination tournament, which means each team is afforded one free loss. Unfortunately, we burned it on Day 1.

I don’t want to take anything away from Invictus. They’re a great team. They beat us because they played fearlessly, while we played conservatively. They presented an exotic battle plan that caught us off guard. I respect that. But I have to admit, our nerves got to us. The International is what we all play for. Every Dota 2 player, no matter where they are in their career, dreams of winning this tournament. It’s something that takes up headspace constantly, and that fixation can sometimes be too much to bear when you finally get here.

On the morning of the first match, when I looked at my team I knew that something was amiss. We just weren’t as loose as usual. In the tournaments we’ve won, I’ve never sensed that we were playing with fear or anxiety.

For some reason, on that morning against Invictus, the lights were too bright and the pressure took us away from our game. I remember looking at GH, who was playing in his very first International, and I could just tell that he was struggling to keep his cool. We simply weren’t ready to compete, and we paid for it.

That’s totally normal. Teams shit the bed all the time at The International. It’s kind of a tradition. But as the captain, it’s my job to get my team out of their own head. When I do interviews, I’m pretty soft-spoken. It’s what people know me for. But after that loss, I knew I had to show a side of myself that the public rarely sees, and muster up some intensity to get us out of that funk.

Backstage, I had a really long talk with my players. And by “talk” what I really mean is “speech.” I can’t raise my voice naturally. Often it feels like I have to “force” myself to yell, but when I do, it certainly gets my team’s attention.

They’re like “Whoa, if Kuro is yelling, then it’s on.”

And yeah, I was yelling. A lot.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of my Dota 2 career, it’s that there’s nothing more important than good teamwork.

Yeah, obviously your players need to be talented and disciplined, but if you’re playing in The International, that’s a given. Everyone here knows what they’re doing. You don’t need a ton of extra motivation when you’re competing with the 17 other best teams in the world for a prize pool worth $24 million.

Because everyone at this level has tremendous skill, that’s ultimately a relatively small part of the equation when it comes to success. What really separates the winners and losers isn’t about how you handle yourself personally, but rather how you coexist with your teammates.

Leadership, cooperation and chemistry — those are ultimately what define a champion. Do your team members trust each other? Are they going to be at each other’s throats after a bad loss? Will you be able to pick each other up when someone misses a gank or gets caught out of position? When you inevitably do fall behind, can you remain optimistic, or will your team fold from negativity? Of course all of this might sound cliché, but anyone who has competed at this level will understand the truth behind it. You can have the highest MMR in the world, but if you can’t play as a unit, you’re doomed.

So when we were backstage, reeling from our loss to Invictus, I told my guys that everything that caused us to lose was mental, and that they had no reason to doubt their ability. You can’t be intimidated by The International. I mean, obviously it is super intimidating, but it’s suicide to focus on the stage and the stakes. In that sense, you kinda have to trick yourself into believing something that isn’t true — that this is just another tournament. It might sound crazy, but the one thing I kept saying was “Don’t think about winning! Just focus on performing well.” Because if you can do that, everything else will fall into place naturally.

Of course, I’m not immune to nerves. I’ve played in seven Internationals. I placed second in 2013, and finished in the top eight in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Winning the Aegis has been a lifelong goal of mine, and as a leader, I think that gave me perspective and let me sympathize with some of my younger teammates who might not be used to the heat. When I looked into GH’s eyes, I saw the same anxieties and stresses that I felt in my first International. So when I spoke to my team after the loss, I was as open with them as I could be. I told them, “Guys, listen, I’ve lost in this tournament six times. I’m not afraid to lose again, so you shouldn’t be either. We’ve played in so many tournaments together, and this is just another.”

Like I said, comparing The International to another tournament is misleading, but there was purpose behind me impressing that on the team.

When you’re panicking about an elimination, you’re going to fall flat on your face — just like we did against Invictus. But on the other side of that, here’s something I know for certain: When we’re having fun, Team Liquid is the best Dota 2 team in the world.

The next day we matched up against Team Secret, a squad we’d played well against in the past. Unfortunately we got absolutely destroyed in the first game. Everyone performed poorly; it was just really, really ugly. That loss put us on the brink of elimination, and I gathered everyone in a bathroom backstage and started screaming once again. When I say “screaming,” I don’t mean angry, mean-spirited screaming — that doesn’t help anyone. In fact, it’s purely selfish because you’re just lashing out to vent frustration. Instead, I was screaming in order to get our energy levels back up, so we could play with the freedom and fluidity we usually have. After all, it’s not like we had a choice. If we couldn’t play how we usually play, we’d be on an early flight back home.

It worked.

We ripped off two straight games, and punched our ticket to the next round of the tournament. From that point on, we began playing with poise in every set. We beat Team Empire, Virtus.pro, and then took back-to-back sets against LGD and LGD.ForeverYoung, two of the best Chinese teams in the world. Those victories punched our ticket to the Grand Finals against Newbee.

I remember talking to my teammates after beating LGD.ForeveverYoung and feeling such an incredible sense of relief. Getting sent to the losers bracket and fighting our way all the way back to the Grand Finals was such an emotional journey. Obviously we hadn’t captured our ultimate goal yet, but we were feeling like ourselves again.

I think what propelled us into the Grand Finals was positive energy and we carried that into the biggest match of our careers. We have a good record against Newbee, but I kept reminding everyone to not get complacent. It doesn’t matter that we’ve beaten them in the past, this is the Grand Finals of The International and they made it that far for a reason.

In the end, we beat them three games to none, which is the first time The International has ended in a sweep. The most gratifying part of it all was making it to that stage where we belonged and collectively playing some of the best Dota of our lives. When we started rolling, I noticed my teammates hyping up the crowd. After the first game MATUMBAMAN did a throat-slash motion to the audience.

That’s how you know you’re playing with confidence.

That’s when I knew we were having some fun.

I shed some tears after we won.

I’m not much of a crier, but I couldn’t help myself. It was so surreal being on that stage. At long last, we were International champions, and, of course, $10 million richer. Someone told me that that made me the highest-earning esports athlete of all time. That’s nice, and I’m happy that I get to do this for a living, but that’s never been why I play the game. The distinction of being the best at the thing I love — there’s no amount of money that surpasses that feeling of satisfaction.

After those initial emotions started to settle, I began to feel something strange. I have spent seven years trying to win The International. It’s been my sole pursuit for my entire adult life. Every day has been spent trying to get better at Dota 2. Reviewing tape, scrimming other teams, going over strategies, theorycraft builds — every day. Now, I was finally here, and, shockingly, I felt a little bit empty. Almost depressed. There was a vague sense of darkness inside of me, like something familiar had gone missing.

I was confused by that feeling.

It was like there was something wrong with me. It’s not that I wasn’t happy, or proud of how we won. Truly, I was. It was the greatest achievement of all of our careers. But I guess that’s also the reason I felt strange. Winning The International took away my one motivating factor. It was what got me out of bed in the morning and what I thought about before falling asleep. Now, with our names freshly inscribed on the Aegis, I didn’t know what to do next. The world hadn’t changed. Life would go on. You work so hard for one thing, and then afterwards, it’s just over. Yes I finally got what we wanted, but I never thought about what happens after that. I suppose now I need to learn how to live after scaling the mountain.

My teammates had similar feelings. We all admitted that we were feeling a little adrift. We didn’t even party too much after the championship. Instead we just went to a very classy local restaurant called McDonald’s. Then some of us went to the after-party, and the rest of us called it an early night.

In the days afterwards, I sat at home, trying to figure out what’s next. Eventually I turned my obsession towards another goal: Winning the next International.

I know that’s hard to believe — there’s an entire calendar and many other Dota 2 tournaments before then — but it’s all I can think about. I’ve been trying to teach myself to live in the moment because I know that obsession isn’t healthy, but it’s what’s gotten me this far.

The one thing that does give me some peace is knowing that I’m not going at it alone. I’m blessed with the most hardworking, generous team on the planet. Team Liquid is a truly special group of people, and through every victory and defeat, they’ve responded with vigor, discipline and compassion. It’s been an honor to be their captain, and we’ll be ready for whatever comes next.

Winning The International was incredible. I knew it would be incredible. But winning it with these guys — that’s what made it truly special.