In the beginning there was TI
When Valve held the first International back in 2011 in Cologne, competing teams had only had access to the game for several weeks. Dota 2 had been under wraps, and the $1.6 million event was more of a flashy showcase of the game than a fiercely competitive tournament. The entire tournament was best-of-one until only four teams remained, making it unforgiving for those ill prepared for the pressure.
16 teams made the trip to Germany, and it’s easy to forget, but South East Asia was actually heavily represented at the first TI. Mineski, Mith.Trust, Scythe and MUFC all fielded full South East Asia rosters, and all placed in the top 12. Team Scythe, a Singaporean stack that housed Benedict “HyHy” Lim and Daryl “IceIceice” Pei Xiang, was the most prolific, securing a third place finish. Unfortunately, it would not be until three years later that Valve would highlight their achievement in the TI1 documentary Free to Play.
China arrives, SEA watches on
The first TI was somewhat of a novelty for attending teams, but by TI2 the following summer was serious business. SEA’s invite number dropped from four to two, and although both Chai “Mushi” Yee Fung’s Orange Esports and iceiceice’s Team Zenith finished top eight, it was an underwhelming showing. The rest of the world was growing in strength. At TI2, Malaysian Wong “Chuan” Hock Chuan did become the first SEA player to win the coveted title, but only as part of a Chinese team – Invictus Gaming.
As a result of IG’s victory, China began seeing more players transition from Dota 1 to Dota 2. Despite the release of Dota 2, Dota 1 had remained a powerful force in China, due to its accessibility and low PC requirements – perfect for dorm rooms where the game thrived. With an influx of players and new organisations, China’s infrastructure grew and SEA could only watch on. Chinese events such as G-League did extend invites, but typically only one slot was reserved for an SEA team, as Chinese organizers far more interested in pitting China’s greatest against the best Europe had to offer.
Things come to a head at TI3
Regardless of a changing landscape, Mushi and Iceiceice returned to TI as captains of Orange Esports and Team Zenith with strengthened SEA rosters in 2013. TI3 was a standout event for the pair and a great calling card for the potential of their region. At the event Iceiceice was crowned the winner of the first TI 1v1 Mid tournament, defeating Alliance’s S4 and Invictus Gaming’s Ferrari_430, before going on to win the final showdown with Mushi. Meanwhile Mushi led Orange Esports to third place, eliminating China’s highly regarded Team DK in the process.
Orange Esports’ achievement would be overshadowed by the iconic Grand Final battle between Alliance and Na’Vi, but Mushi and iceiceice’s individual performances did not go unnoticed. Post-TI3 both were extended invitations to move to China to play for Team DK. While both went on to great success with Team DK, just as Chuan had done with Invictus Gaming, it left SEA high and dry, and the region entered its darkest time.
The Dark Ages
Post-TI3, SEA was left without leaders and without a recognizable face. Iceiceice, who had been the voice of the region, was now far more tight-lipped as part of Team DK in China. Meanwhile Mushi, who had always been a man of few words publicly, remained that way. SEA did not have its own Loda, Dendi or Burning. It was without a star.
“There were too few personalities from SEA for fans to bond with,” established Singaporean Dota 2 caster Sean “Hades” Goh told Hotspawn. “There was also the language barrier that makes most SEA players insecure about doing interviews. I remember players afraid of being looked down upon for not having a western accent.”
2014 was SEA’s worst year in the top flight as a region, with its strongest representative Titan (kYxY, Yamateh, Ohaiyo, Net & Xtinct) still nowhere near up to the standard set by the rest of the world. Titan finished 9th-10th at TI4, while the only other SEA representative, Arrow Gaming, finishing 15-16th. Things got severely worse for the image of the region in October 2014, after Arrow Gaming’s Malaysian roster were found guilty of match-fixing in the Synergy League. The organisation would eventually end the contracts of all five players, and Valve later declared that the players were banned from all Valve tournaments – a ban which still exists to this day.
For SEA it looked like its time was officially over. China was fearsome, Europe was still a threat and North American Evil Geniuses were becoming world class under the leadership of Peter “PPD” Dager. SEA’s best players were competing in China, and after the Arrow Gaming fiasco, the region was unfortunately sneered at. The region appeared destined to play a supporting role. However, in 2015 the Dark Ages would come to an end, and SEA would begin its rise and start rebuilding its reputation. Ironically with a team called MVP Phoenix.
For Dota fans, The International 2014 had been anticlimactic, due to what became known as the “deathball strat”. Typically each TI, a meta will develop throughout the tournament, and at TI4 it was the strategy of picking a push-heavy draft and going all in on trying to snowball to victory, nicknamed “deathball”. Unfortunately this led to teams either cruising to victory or failing miserably, much to the disappointment of fans. Western fans also felt somewhat disconnected from the Grand Finals, with Evil Geniuses the only non-Chinese team to make it into the top four. By the time TI5 rolled around, fans were ready to get behind innovation and flair and, more importantly, an underdog story.
MVP Phoenix (Kpii, QO, March, Febby & NutZ) qualified for TI5’s main event through the Wild Card stage, a pre-event playoffs where teams who came close to qualifying, were given one last chance. The team seized the opportunity but little was expected of them beyond that. None of the players were particularly well known, but TI5 is where they forged a lasting impression. SEA had fielded skilled rosters before, but MVP Phoenix’ line-up had character, and a YOLO mentality that fans worldwide got behind.
Their elimination of reigning champions Newbee received nods of approval, but it was their round two lower-bracket match with Team Empire that got them the true laudits. Team Empire were the favorites heading in based on their very convincing year heading into TI5, but the CIS team were outplayed pure and simple.
Game 1, MVP’s Kim “QO” Sun Yeob ran circles around them on Templar Assassin, while in game 2 Damien “Kpii” Chok hung them out to dry going 19-2 on Phantom Lancer. Fans worldwide were buzzing, and analyst SyndereN called the team’s performance “absolutely phenomenal” on the official stream. In the post-match interview captain March would let out a scream, a roar in fact. SEA was back in business.
Aside from MVP’s top eight finish at TI5, there was another SEA player who would start a revolution, Syed “Sumail” Hassan. Originally from Pakistan, Sumail’s family moved to the United States in 2012, where he began playing in North American in-house leagues. When NA giants Evil Geniuses were suddenly struck by the unexpected departure of Artour “Arteezy” Babaev at the end of 2014, captain PPD recruited the 15-year old Sumail to take his place. Sumail had no previous experience playing at the pro level, but decimated veteran opposition at the Dota Asia Championships in February 2015, before going on to win TI5 with Evil Geniuses six months later.
The impact of SEA representatives at TI5 was immense, and kickstarted the region back into action. The dark cloud that had descended over the region was lifted. The event had shown the world a glimpse of what could be, and within a year the landscape changed drastically.
SEA threats grows in numbers
Between TI5 and TI6, the number of competitive SEA teams grew, as did the number of tier one events held in the region. Valve and PGL’s Manila Major held in the Philippines in June 2016, ended up the perfect stage to show just how far the region had come. In front of a roaring home crowd, both Fnatic and MVP Phoenix placed top six. For TI6, Valve changed their invitation policy, directly inviting only six teams instead of 10, MVP was one of the six. It was a decision that sparked controversy, with a portion of the community believing Fnatic were more deserving. It was a debate nobody would have conceived having one year prior, proof of SEA’s remarkable progress.
MVP did not let their invite go to waste and managed a top six finish with a pure Korean roster. However, it was Fnatic who led the charge for SEA, reaching top four, an incredible achievement given the strength of opposition. Fnatic were led by Mushi, who as part of his goal to create the ultimate Malaysian roster, recruited Yeik “MidOne” Nai Zheng, a promising young mid player who had won a local amateur tournament with his friends. MidOne’s TI debut was explosive, yet another warning shot to the world of the mechanical skill of SEA’s players.
MidOne was not the only young player from the region to cause a riot. NA team Complexity were on the receiving end of an embarrassing defeat in the Wild Card stage against Execration, after they let 15-year old Filipino Azel “Abed” Yusop get his favorite hero. Complexity failed to ban Meepo, a hero the young teenager had a 73% pub win rate across 414 matches. As a consequence, Abed went 18-0-9, crushing Complexity and eliminating them from the competition. Days later Filipinos TNC Predator, led by American Jimmy “Demon” Ho, knocked out quadruple Major champions and favorites OG in the biggest upset of the main event. The result secured a top eight finish for TNC, a milestone victory for Filipino Dota.
“SEA definitely had recognition back in the day with the old gang (Iceiceice and Mushi), but the newcomers like Midone and Abed made it on the international stage. Their performances at TI6 plus TNC’s crazy top 8 run definitely helped shine the spotlight our way,” Singaporean Dota 2 caster Lysander told Hotspawn.
TI6 was a glorious event for South East Asian Dota. It was a masterclass in the individual brilliance of the SEA region’s players, and there were many of them. At TI5 there were only nine SEA representatives. By TI6 that number had grown to 22. The world was about to come calling.
Home and away
The success of SEA teams and players at TI5 and TI6, opened doors for SEA players to play abroad. Post-TI6, European giants Team Secret enlisted the services of Fnatic’s MidOne, while Execration’s Abed joined MVP’s Dubu and Forev at Team Onyx (later Digital Chaos) in North America. Elsewhere China’s LGD.FY swooped in to recruit Malaysian support player Tue “Ah fu” Chuan from WG.Unity. All of the moves proved successful, adding credibility to the region’s playerbase. In addition, according to Adam “343” bin Akhtar, who was part of Fnatic’s TI6 team, it was the start of a global trend of teams looking further afield for new blood.
“I think once a young Sumail won TI with EG, people felt like it was more okay to look elsewhere,” Adam “343” bin Akhtar Hussein told Hotspawn. “During that time period a lot of teams never looked at getting players from other regions, but it reached a point where a lot of teams went full circle with trying players from their own region. (…) This led to many players looking for opportunities overseas, and also being more open to expand their own horizons.”
The departure of high profile SEA talent between TI6 and TI7, opened up spaces for new talent to emerge. New regional events such as WESG, ROG Masters and WCA Arena, also gave the blossoming SEA teams a platform to build their confidence on LAN. Although no SEA team was a major player in TI7, the year had been well spent building a new generation of talent, so when it came to Valve launching the first Dota Pro Circuit in the fall of 2017, SEA had a solid base of teams rearing to go.
The DPC, foreign interest and leadership
Valve’s first Dota Pro Circuit season was a marathon. While previous competitive seasons had featured two or three Majors, the inaugural season of the DPC featured 11 Majors and 11 Minors. Each of the 22 events came with a Regional Qualifier, meaning a guaranteed place for at least one South East Asian team. While this was a blessing for South East Asia Dota, it was also a curse. Organizations were uncertain of the intentions of foreign players suddenly interested in moving to the region.
“The narrative at the time was that SEA had very good mechanical players, but not enough good leaders/strategists or even experienced captain figures that knew what it took to win tournaments. Demon coming in and taking TNC from Open to TI and handing that loss to OG cemented the idea there was a lot to learn,” Pao Bago, Fnatic’s former analyst and current Chief Gaming Officer at Tier One Entertainment told Hotspawn. “In a lot of ways TNC perfected that style. The next year they brought in 1437, who further developed the team. He was the one who arguably brought up Armel to his status now, before leaving the team.”
However, while TNC’s recruitment of foreign players helped improve the team, others were not as successful.
“If you look at Mineski, who was for the longest time synonymous with PH Dota, they started bringing in foreign players. However, their losses and the fact they eventually moved away from having a majority Filipino team to an almost exclusively foreign team at some point, lost them their prestige and a good chunk of their fanbase,” added Pao Bago.
Over the last three years, SEA has managed to find the right balance between promoting homegrown talent and recruiting foreign talent, but it’s been a treacherous road. The arrival of the DPC and guaranteed South East Asia slots at Major events, has seen many foreign players make the move.
“For some players, their regions might have been too competitive for them to handle, so they thought coming to SEA to compete they had a higher chance of qualifying,” said Sean “Hades” Goh. “TI7-TI8 was the year that saw players like Pielielie, Universe and EternalEnvy in SEA, and I think it probably made EU/NA players aware that moving to SEA was actually a viable option.”
While some foreign players have notably crashed and burned, others have used it as a jumpboard for a fresh start or as an opportunity to break into the tier one scene. For example Bulgarian Nikobaby, who was one of the breakout stars of the 2019-2020 DPC season with Alliance, earned his stripes competing in South East Asia for Clutch Gamers, WG.Unity and Mineski. SEA is also appealing for its low living costs, perfect for a player starting to earn his trade.
Overall SEA has found confidence in itself that it no longer looks abroad to lead its teams, with new faces like Indonesian Alfi “Khezcute” Nelphyana of Boom Esports and Thai Anucha “Jabz” Jirawong of Fnatic driving the region forward. The age old saying that South East Asia could only produce mechanical skilled players and not leaders, no longer applies. South East Asian Dota is stronger than it’s ever been, but it had to go through hell and back to get to this point.