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Player Spotlight: N0tail – A Testament to Never Giving Up

Michael Hassall  | 
N0tail

N0tail's 10+ year career shows that perseverance is one of the greatest qualities a champion can have.

In Dota 2, there are few more successful players than Johan “N0tail” Sundstein. Not only is he a two-time TI Champion, one of just five to hold that title, but as of writing, he’s also the highest overall tournament earner in all of esports. As if those two facts alone weren’t enough to have him listed as one of the greatest players of all time, he’s also a World Champion in Heroes of Newerth.

Yet N0Tail’s story is also one that’s far more familiar to Dota fans than most. Thanks to his numerous TI appearances, we’ve had unprecedented access to Sunderstein, and have been privy to multiple incredible interviews with him. Across all of these a very clear picture of N0tail has emerged in most fans’ minds. His candid and honest answers help illuminate us about not just the player but the person behind the N0tail moniker.

But the story of N0tail isn’t just one of constant success. It’s a tale of professional hardship beyond championships. Of taking teams that seem on the brink of collapse, and finding a way to win. Time and time again, Johan Sundstein has had to adapt to remain on top. Even with a trophy case that anyone in any game would be envious of, and after over a decade in esports, he remains competitively driven and strives to be the best.

Early Greatness

Like many veteran Dota 2 pros, N0tail’s career began with Heroes of Newerth. The standalone re-imagining of the original Defense of the Ancients mod had a thriving competitive scene in the late 2000s and early 2010s. N0tail became one of the youngest pros in the game at just 15 years old. He mainly played solo-mid, a role better suited to winning pub games. As he explains in a 2013 interview with AFK Gaming, his career started by playing in random pubs on the HoN servers. After being matched with Jascha “NoVa” Markuse and Tal “Fly” Aizik in one such game, the trio decided to team up.

The group would catch the eye of then Fnatic manager Danijel “StreeT” Remus, who took them under his wing as an “unofficial side project.” Fnatic, then known as FnaticMSI, had broken into HoN in March of 2010, signing returning Warcraft 3 pro Kevin “RotterdaM” van der Kooi, now of StarCraft 2 casting fame, along with Antti “Rexi” Saarenpää, Aku “ducktR” Hyttinen, Kalle “Trixi” Juhanpoika Saarinen, and Lari “Steelrasp” Sihvo. But by October, mixed results, RotterdaM’s switch to SC2, and players having to complete their national service saw the team all but dissolve, giving N0tail and company an opportunity. The team of NoVa, Fly, and N0tail merged with remaining FnaticMSI.HoN members Trixi and Henrik “Freshpro” Hansen to form a new lineup.

This squad would go on to become one of the most successful teams in HoN, taking victories at DreamHack Winter 2010, SteelSeries HoN World Cup 2010, DreamHack Summer 2011, and DreamHack Winter 2011. Despite the considerable success, Fnatic would, like many HoN teams, switch to Dota 2 the following year. N0tail, like many HoN players, had already spent plenty of time in the Dota 2 Beta but by the end of March 2012 he was ready to make the move official. By the time N0tail entered Dota 2, he was already a World Champion in one game, and looked poised to gain that title in a second.

Birth of Big Daddy and the Secret Team

Entering a new game, N0tail also adopted a new role. For the first time he took up the mantle of support, alongside teammate Tal “Fly” Aizik. However, Fnatic’s entry to Dota 2 didn’t immediately come with the same success they’d experienced in Heroes of Newerth. The team struggled against Tier 1 competition, with their only major win in 2012 coming at the Thor Open against future Alliance roster, No Tidehunter.

The trend continued through 2013, although the squad was still afforded an invite to Valve’s The International 2013. During that event, invites were secured purely by personal invitation by Valve, rather than a seasonal qualifying process, and Fnatic’s brand and star power put them among names such as Team Liquid, and former champions Invictus Gaming and Natus Vincere. But after a promising showing in the group stages, the team was eliminated in the lower bracket by SEA squad Orange Esports.

Fnatic N0tail

The Fnatic Dota 2 roster in 2014. (Photo courtesy Valve)

The rest of 2013 fared little better, and by early 2014 it was time for a change. In June, N0tail officially changed his name to BigDaddy, adopting a nickname he’d sporadically be referred to for the rest of his career. The name wasn’t the only significant change that would face Sundstein that year. Unhappy with not winning any premier tournaments in the preceding two years, and losing again at TI4 with a stagnant roster, N0tail and Fly would leave behind Fnatic to join a brand new lineup.

Ahead of the qualifiers of StarLadder Star Series Season 10, there was an unusual entrant. Listed initially as the “Secret Team,” the players were listed as Kitteyn, Kudosy, SmallMommy, Walk, and F5. But following an opening qualifier loss to Alliance, the deception was revealed.

Team Secret N0tail

Secret Team roster list. (Photo courtesy GosuGamers)

The squad was unveiled as Team Secret, headed by Clement “Puppey” Ivanov, and Kuro “KuroKy” Salehi Takhasom, formerly of Na’Vi. They were joined by Fly, BigDaddy, and Gustav “s4” Magnusson, despite the former still being on Fnatic’s roster, and S4 still listed as a starter for Alliance. After their opening loss to Alliance, however, Team Secret would go on to top the table of the event, only falling in the Finals to Evil Geniuses. The lineup would go on to win several tournaments over the next year, clashing with rivals EG and Virtus.pro in multiple Finals.

But this success would be the end of the line for BigDaddy. On a team with multiple TI finalists and champions, the former HoN World Cup winner was the ripest for replacement. When an opportunity came for Team Secret to sign Candian Dota prodigy, Artour “Arteezy” Babaev, away from rivals EG, the squad jumped at it. A few months later, BigDaddy was dropped from the lineup to make way for the youthful carry player ahead of the Dota 2 Asia Championships 2015.

C9, (monkey) Business, and founding OG

BigDaddyN0tail wouldn’t remain teamless for long. Signed by Cloud9 just four days after his release, BigDaddy joined Rasmus “MISERY” Filipsen as the two newest members of a struggling squad. Heading to the Dota 2 Asia Championships 2015, N0tail would heartbreakingly lose out on revenge against his former team, with C9 being eliminated by Secret in the losers bracket. C9’s difficulties would continue, and in a year that included N0tails participation in the longest ever game of Dota 2, victories at tournaments were few and far between.

Ahead of TI5, we had one of our first of many in-depth behind-the-scene looks at N0tail in a series of interviews. They portrayed Johan Sundstein, the man behind the ID, as a calm, level-headed thinker who values honesty above all. It showed why this player over others had been able to adapt to whichever team he played for. But after an underwhelming performance at TI5 that saw C9 win no games in the playoffs, the entire squad, including BigDaddy, was released, and Sundstein found himself looking for a new team. The stack splintered, with some signed by a reformed Team Secret and others disappearing into tier-two obscurity. BigDaddy, however, started on a new path.

Two weeks after his departure from C9, “Big Daddy N0tail” was announced as the carry for (monkey) Business. In a roster reportedly built alongside old friend Fly, the pair recruited the #1 MMR ranked player in Europe at that time Amer “Miracle-” Al-Barkawi. Miracle- had previously played for the Balkan Bears team, a semi-legendary talent producing monster that was the professional start for Aliwi “w33” Omar, Yazied “YapzOr” Jaradat, and Nikolay “Nikobaby” Nikolov.

The trio were joined by N0tail’s fellow Dane, Andreas Franck “Cr1t-” Nielsen, now a veteran of the Dota 2 scene who’d been an adversary to Sundsteins former Fnatic and Team Secret lineups countless times. David “MoonMeander” Tan rounded out the roster, a HoN veteran, and former teammate of Fly on compLexity. N0tail would find almost instant success with this lineup, qualifying for the MLG World Finals in their first appearance, and the Frankfurt Major soon after.

But in November, the team debuted a new name, a new organization, and a new look. (monkey) Business was now OG, and at the Frankfurt Major, they’d make a statement. Led by carries Miracle- and N0tail, and captained by Fly, the team would make the dangerous run through the lower bracket to face Team Secret in the Finals. There, with the world watching, N0tail, having taken up his former moniker again, defeated Team Secret with his new OG lineup.

OG’s success and decline

The next year saw more success for OG. A victory at DreamLeague Season 4 and 5, and wins at the Manila Major 2016 and ESL One Frankfurt 2016 had set the team on a path that led only to success. But at TI6, victory would once again prove elusive. After topping the group with OG, N0tail again found no success in the playoffs, with the squad losing every game on their way to elimination. An Aegis, it seemed, was just one step too far for N0tail.

“I strongly believe that if f I woke up in the morning and I had the play the TI final, I would play the best Dota of my life, and that’s all that would matter to me, if I played my very best nothing else would matter” – Johan “N0tail” Sundstein in an interview at The Manila Major 2016, included in True Sight: The International 2018 Finals.

With MoonMeander, Cr1t- and Miracle- departing after the loss at TI, N0tail would be at the center of a team in need of a rebuild once more. S4, N0tail’s Team Secret teammate, would be the first to fill the gap, starting at offlane. Anathan “ana” Pham, a then little-known sub player for Invictus Gaming, would be the second signing, taking on the solo mid role. JerAx, a talented young Finnish player from Team Liquid would be the final piece of the puzzle, and headed into the 2016-2017 season, it looked like N0tail had a team he could win TI with.

Sure enough, over the next year OG would take victory at the Boston Major 2016, Kiev Major 2017, and the Finals of four Tier 1 events. Headed into TI7, as one of the first teams invited because of their incredible in-season record, the hype for OG was at an all time high. But disaster struck. After a painful group stage that saw OG fall immediately to the lower bracket, the stack would win just a single game in the playoffs before being eliminated by TNC Pro Team.

Following The International, OG’s standard of play began to decline. The team topped several Tier 2 tournaments, but by the time Tier 1 events began in January 2018, they looked lifeless. With heartbreaking losses at almost every Major, the biggest blow to N0tail, and indeed OG, would come at ESL One Birmingham. The day before the event, both Fly and S4 departed the team for Evil Geniuses, leaving them to rely on stand-ins in the final Major event before TI8.

To see Fly, a player who had teamed with N0tail on-and-off since their days on Fnatic’s HoN squad, leave in such a dramatic manner hours before a tournament must have been a severe blow. Not only was Fly the captain, and N0tails friend of eight years, he was a part-owner of OG. Beyond this, N0tail and Fly had over 1400 games played together, more than any other duo in the Dota 2 scene at the time. Yet N0tail faced this adversity as he had so many times before, with quiet dignity and honesty, explaining the situation when asked in interviews, and getting on with playing the game. With TI8 now just around the corner, just how well N0tail could face adversity would be tested to the max.

Redemption on the grandest stage

With Fly and S4 gone, OG would have to run the gauntlet in the open qualifiers. With the lineup augmented by the returning Ana, former coach Sébastien “Ceb” Debs, and pub game standout Topias Miikka “Topson” Taavitsainen, N0tail would once again attempt to clutch the Aegis. What happened next was like something from a movie. Against a pool of 474 entrants, OG topped their bracket. Then in the closed qualifiers, the team went undefeated, earning the number one qualifier spot for TI8.

N0tail and company were on the warpath. After securing an upper bracket spot in groups, the team blew past VGJ.Storm, and crushed Evil Geniuses to face PSG.LGD in the semis, defeating them 2-1. But after LGD defeated EG in the lower brackets, OG would once again have to prove their mettle in the Grand Finals.

Here, on the biggest stage in Dota 2, N0tail’s performance was overshadowed by his teammates. This is perhaps a great compliment to his support play, that when people think about OG’s TI8 win, it’s the CEEEEEEEEEB play or Ana’s Ember Spirit, rather than N0tail. In fact, during the entire tournament, N0tail had the most deaths per game of any player – another testament to his “never give up” attitude.

From that series, we were gifted one of the most enduring images of N0tail and OG. Of a player elated in victory, embracing his teammates, barely registering it as real. Finally, after six years of heartbreak, N0tail was the one to lift the Aegis for his team with it having eluded him for so long. For most players, this might be the end of the story, but for N0tail, this was just another accolade to hold onto.

N0tail TI8

(Photo courtesy Valve)

Into the history books

If securing one TI was difficult, then securing his second would be a feat near impossible for N0tail, especially back-to-back. November saw ana depart the team, citing burnout. Throughout the end of 2018, OG would see few successes and parted ways with Ana’s replacement, Per Anders Olsson “Pajkatt” Lille, at the start of 2019. The team fared no better with Igor “iLTW” Filatov, and by March, had failed to win a single DPC Major.

Luckily, their numerous fifth and sixth place finishes had garnered the team more than enough DPC points to warrant an invite to TI9. What’s more, the full TI8 winning squad was back together by March, with ana returning from his absence. But few seriously expected OG to be successful at TI9. Even with ana, their performance had been disappointing, and people questioned whether the team, including N0tail, had the motivation to put on a decent performance at TI.

It’s here that N0tail showed just why he’s been so successful. It’s one thing to win a TI. To become rich and a World Champion. But there’s very few who can do all that and remain motivated to still compete at the highest level, and beyond that, to motivate others to do the same. In an conversation during the team’s 2018 post-TI break, Ceb had idly wondered if the winning the Aegis would make them soft. N0tail was the first to dismiss this as false. There was so much more to prove.

TI9 was OG’s repeat championship, but it may as well have been N0tails victory lap. The squad topped the group stage, humbling home town talent Royal Never Give Up, rivals Evil Geniuses, and tournament favorites Virtus.pro in one fell swoop. In groups, they had similar success against Newbee, and once again extracted sweet revenge against Fly, S4, and their EG roster.

Against PSG.LGD in the semifinals the team made errors in their draft in game one. But this was where N0tail began to shine as a leader, shot caller, and a player in the game. Picking Chen in both games, he herded Ana’s Alchemist to two dominant performances, securing their ticket to the Grand Finals.

Here, once again it was N0tails time to shine. Like so often in his career, opponents were both friends and former teammates. Facing Kuroky and Miracle-, N0tail was resolute. In game three as Grimstroke and game four as Abaddon, he led his team to victory in emphatic fashion. Joining teammate Ceb in lifting the Aegis, N0tail had made history, becoming the first-ever two-time TI champion along with his teammates.

Going forward

With OG taking a break for the first two Majors of the 2019-2020 season, it’s been a quiet continuation of N0tails career. Following the debut of True Sight 2019, we learned that he would again take the field with a different lineup. Although backed by a new look OG, the advent of the coronavirus pandemic all be ended the DPC season in early 2020.

In the wake of this halt, OG has relied on many stand ins, but with N0tail always as a constant. He’s played support this year, but also mid and carry, as the challenges of online play forced his hand. A second place at ESL One Los Angeles and a third place at OGA Dota PIT 2020 are the peaks of an unremarkable year so far. The squad’s mixed performances seem eerily similar to those 2018 and 2019 seasons, and a familiar name looms over OG and N0tail, as Team Secret, still captained by Puppey, take home win after win. All this has combined to scupper the chance of a TI three-pete, at least for now.

But if there’s anything we’ve learned from N0tails 10+ year career, it’s that this is one player that doesn’t give up, and won’t let being one of just five two-time champions allow him to slow down. From taking struggling teams to championships, to facing massive hardships with objectivity, N0tails legacy is proof that champions are made, not born. That through hard work and endurance, you can reach heights never thought possible.

Michael Hassall
Michael Hassall
Michael is a Brit-based esports generalist and timezone traveler. He spends his free time polishing his collection of fighting game tournament participation trophies.