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Player Spotlight: PPD – The Essence of NA Dota

Lawrence Phillips  | 
PPD

Peter "PPD" Dager is synonymous with NA Dota. But his career as a pro player was anything but infamous.

Peter “PPD” Dager is one of Dota 2’s most celebrated players and when he announced his retirement in March 2020, it marked the end of a $3 million career spanning nine years. From fresh meat in Heroes of Newerth to top of the food chain in Dota 2, PPD’s career was an illustrious one, but his personal journey was even more impressive.

Humble beginnings, early betrayal

Peter “PPD” Dager started his professional esports career in Heroes of Newerth, S2’s Games’ MOBA released in 2010, one year before the arrival of Valve’s Dota 2. PeterPandam, as he was known at the time, got vouched into the newly-formed Fragment Inhouse League (FRAG). Despite the hostile and fiercely competitive environment teeming with high profile players, PeterPandam grinded his way to the top of the league’s fiercely competitive leaderboard. The achievement turned heads, especially given the college student’s non-existent track record in the professional scene. As a result, the 19 year-old PPD was invited to play for SGty, a new exclusively North American based team captained by Kyle “Swindlemelonzz” Freedman who, like his team-mate Mark “Tralf” Seidl, had seen potential in PPD.

SGty won NASL Season 2 in PPD’s first taste of success, winning $5,000 and attracting a team sponsorship moving forward, but things took a dark turn. Ahead of a trip to Dreamhon Winter in 2011, PPD and Sneyking were part of a surprise kick. It was PPD’s first taste of betrayal in esports, which teammate Tralf said “gave him [PPD] the drive he needed, because his skill dramatically increased months afterwards”.

Drive to success

Over the course of the next six to eight months, PPD experimented as captain and drafter of several teams. After finding his groove, he decided to take time off from college to pursue a full-time career as a professional gamer. In the summer of 2012 he moved in with teammate David “Moonmeander” Tan to the compLexity team house in Houston, Texas

With compLexity, PPD had a clean slate and began to build a little bit of a name for himself. At the 2012 End of Year awards presented by HonCast PPD was voted support player of the year, with his team-mate Rasmus “Chessie” Blomdin voted best Jungler. In terms of pure results, compLexity was impressive, but internal tensions were rising during times of struggle.

PPD’s knack for brutal honesty when it came to improving the team – a trait that would later become a trademark of his during an illustrious Dota 2 career – was causing friction within the team. Results were still coming the team’s way, but the mood in the team was “unbearable” according to hard carry Jeppe “Haxxeren” Jepsen who left in early 2013 stating he “simply couldn’t handle it”.

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PPD’s player card at Dreamhack 2013 (Source: Honcast YouTube)

PPD led compLexity to a second place finish at Dreamhack Summer 2013, but it would be their last stand. CompLexity closed their HoN division shortly after. PPD then created a makeshift team called Team USA. The goal of the team was not to excel in HoN, but to transition to Dota 2. By that point he had established himself as a fierce competitor, an individual quasi-obsessed with becoming the best at his trade, and willing to put the hours in to make it come to fruition.

In Team USA he had found teammates ready to match his work ethic to succeed in Dota 2, most notably Ludwig “Zai” Wahlberg, who was just 15 years old at the time. Having taken a year off to pursue HoN professionally, and unsure of whether he wished to go pro in Dota 2 immediately, PPD returned to college at Purdue University Fort Wayne for the Fall Semester of 2013. His spare time was spent playing Dota, with the goal of reaching a level where he could “hopefully” go full-time.

Dota 2 was already fiercely competitive, and the summer of 2013 had witnessed the iconic clash of Alliance versus Na’Vi in the finale of the $2.7 million The International 3. While Europeans took pride in knowing their region had fielded both Grand Finalist teams, NA was patting Team Liquid on the back for managing a miraculous top eight. North America was not a strong region, but PPD was about to change that.

S A D B O Y S

It wouldn’t take long for PPD to start rubbing shoulders with NA’s Dota 2 elite, thanks to the NA Dota Elite League in-house league (NEL), founded in November 2013. Perfect timing. Through the in-house league he made friends with two players who would play a major role in his career; the established Saahil “Universe” Arora and a young fiery Canadian making waves named Artour “Arteezy” Babaev. Arteezy had become an overnight sensation after he was called upon to be a last minute stand-in for Speed Gaming at MLG Columbus 2013 – an event the team went on to win defeating China’s iconic Team DK.

The success convinced Arteezy to go pro in Dota 2, and along with NA’s first generation star Clinton “Fear” Loomis, he decided to start building his own team. The duo held tryouts to decide who would join their team, and PPD tried out alongside Demon, Universe, FLuffnstuff and close friend Zai. Although fielding less game experience, PPD’s leadership qualities were undisputable, and he was not only invited to the team, but also made captain.

“Generally most captains play the support role because it’s much easier to direct the game,” he said in an interview later that year. “That’s what I bring to the team, it’s one of my main strengths. Individually I’m a pretty good player but I wouldn’t say I’m the best, My direction and leadership is what makes me a top tier player. I think that’s what they saw in me in the beginning.”

The team was established as S A D B O Y S, a term used by rapper Yung Lean to refer to his crew. The line came from his song Kyoto, a track on Arteezy’s playlist at the time. Despite the memey name, PPD was now captain of a team that boasted both experience in Universe and Fear, and the raw talents of Arteezy and Zai. After just three weeks, NA giants Evil Geniuses came calling, and in March 2014 they recruited S A D B O Y S to be their brand new Dota 2 team. After just six months from transitioning from HoN, PPD was now part of one of the biggest esports organizations in the world. However, in the world of Dota 2, Evil Geniuses were the supporting cast. Until now.

The rise of Evil Geniuses

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PPD, Universe, Arteezy and Zai at TI4. (Photo courtesy Valve)

With PPD at the helm, Evil Geniuses’ Dota 2 team became world class. The modest top eight finishes of previous rosters were a thing of the past. EG was now top tier. In the run-up to The International 4, PPD’s EG placed in the top three at nine of their 11 events, winning six of them. As a result of their meteoric rise, Valve extended them a direct invite to TI4, and they arrived as heavy favorites to win it all.

“I just think there’s a lack of players that really really want to win,” he said in a TI4 group stage interview. “Everyone wants to win, but they gotta take it to another level. They need to win. I need to win. When I lost to Liquid on day one, I was borderline physically sick. It was bad.”

EG bounced back from day one to place second in the group stage with 11 wins in 15 matches, before going on to make it all the way to a $1 million third place. It was a landmark result for EG and North American Dota 2, but for PPD it meant work needed to be done next year to take the title.

Post-TI4 the team went on a rampage, winning WEG in China, Starladder StarSeries 10 in Ukraine and DreamLeague Season 2 in Sweden, all in the space of 10 weeks. PPD’s skill at drafting to the strength of his players was formidable, but the honeymoon period was about to come to an end.

Mid-season reshuffle drama

After a modest, yet disappointing, fourth place at the Summit 2 in December 2014, turmoil within the team led to both Arteezy and Zai jumping ship to western rivals Team Secret. Their move was a cataclysmic bombshell that took the scene by complete surprise. “When you get half-way through the year and people just give up at the first sign of struggle, it’s very disappointing,” said PPD six months after their departure. “But those guys are really young, so I understand.”

While many expected EG to implode without Arteezy and Zai, PPD was on the hunt for solutions but they weren’t easily apparent. “During the ‘mid-season’ shuffle I lobbied around trying to find replacements and NOBODY was willing to give us a chance. They all viewed us as weak, the ‘losers’ in the shuffle, and wanted nothing to do with us,” he said.

Fortunately, he ended up recruiting 15-year old Syed “SumaiL” Hassan, a fresh face who, like PPD, had shown his ability in the NEL in-house league. Universe had pushed for SumaiL, but it was down to PPD to direct the young teenager, whose experience in the top flight at the time was non-existent. The other new addition was Kurtis “Aui_2000” Ling, a close friend and former teammate of Universe.

PPD’s response as a leader and captain to the departure of Arteezy and Zai right at the start of 2015 defined him. Arteezy was beloved by the public, and as a result PPD was seen as the villain of the tale, with many fans believing he had dropped the ball letting his star player leave. For PPD, however, it was time to crack the whip and make EG the best it could be with the brand new roster.

A title-winning rebuild

2015 was, without a doubt, PPD’s greatest year in competitive Dota 2 and by the end of it he was esports’ highest earning player of all time. It was during this time he also earned himself the nickname of the Salt Lord, due to his spicy and provocative tweets and video interviews. If PPD had been holding back before, he let go of all inhibitions in 2015, creating a whirlwind of drama and plenty of engaging storylines for fans to follow.

One of his most famous quotes came after EG won the Dota 2 Asia Championships just a month after Aui_2000 and SumaiL joined the team. On their way to victory, EG eliminated Team Secret from the tournament, Arteezy and Zai’s new home. Post-victory PPD simply tweeted the words: “One less ego, one more championship”.

DAC2015 was considered a Valve event, and EG walked away with a staggering $1.3 million, the biggest prize money outside of TI. From there, they did not slow down. PPD had a point to prove that year, not only because of the roster drama, but also because he felt responsible for EG finishing in third place at TI4.

“That’s part of my role as captain, is to accept blame and I don’t mind sheltering it all from my teammates,” said PPD during the official TI5 interview.  “And last year, I do think a lot of the blame does rest on me because I am the captain, and in the end I’m responsible for most of the decisions that happen.”

“I don’t want there to be any questions. Like ‘oh maybe these guys are the best’ or ‘these guys are the best.’ I want to be like, Evil Geniuses, PPD, the best. No questions. I want to silence all the doubt,” said PPD. And he delivered.

He captained EG to win The International 2015 in emphatic style, crowning them world champions and earning them $6.6 million in prize money. PPD was now indisputably a Dota 2 legend, and the fact he had steered the ship through rocky and murky waters to glory, made the TI win all the more impressive. That said, the TI5 win had been fueled by a strong thirst for redemption, and the key to success moving forward was fielding the strongest team possible. With Arteezy now keen to return to Evil Geniuses, on the condition Fear was not kicked, TI5 champion Aui_2000 was unceremoniously kicked from the team.

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Evil Geniuses win at TI5. (Photo courtesy: joinDOTA)

A winning mentality but at a cost

The removal of Aui_2000 in favor of the return of Arteezy, so soon after EG won Dota 2’s highest accolade is arguably PPD’s most ruthless move as captain in the eyes of the public. Evil Geniuses were crowned world champions on August 8th, with Aui_2000 kicked August 14th, just six days later. The kick blindsided both Aui_2000 and fans worldwide, and highlighted PPD’s mentality that the future success of the team was his prime directive.

PPD would later be forced to defend the decision following immense public backlash in a lengthy blog post, where he laid out the pros and cons of Aui_2000 as a team-mate. “This has gone past the point of meaningless drama and in my opinion seems to be defaming me and my teammates character/brand. So I’m going to set things straight with my incredibly biased opinion,” he stated in the post. “The International is by far the most stressful and most difficult tournament to win. It truly defines the kind of a player you are and it took me a TI to realize I no longer wanted to team with Aui. I know I’m an arrogant prick and I accept that. But let’s not pretend that I don’t have my teams best interest at the top of my priorities.”

Post-blog, the public still rallied behind Aui_2000, and PPD was labelled a villain, as were Evil Geniuses. The 2015-2016 season was a tough one. The scrutiny had increased and although Evil Geniuses kept winning, for the second year in a row, two teammates would leave in the run-up to TI. In March 2016, Arteezy would leave for Team Secret again, this time bringing Universe with him. Again, PPD was labeled the villain. However, at this point in his career success, not popularity, was driving him forward.

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PPD awarded a portrait made of salt. (Photo courtesy: ESL)

PPD began to rebuild once again, this time with former coach Bulba and surprisingly Aui_2000, who said his return was the hardest decision he ever had to make. “I don’t dislike PPD, I don’t blame him for what was essentially a team decision, and given his position I would have done the same thing,” said Aui_2000 in his own announcement video.

To get the duo to join EG was quite a play by PPD, given both Bulba and Aui_2000 were already on a team at the time – Digital Chaos. With the previous kick thankfully now water under the bridge, EG’s new roster went on to place top six at EPICENTER in Moscow, before flying to the $3 million Manila Major. However, both Team Secret and Evil Geniuses’ new rosters tanked at the tournament, placing 13-16th.

With TI6 around the corner, PPD quickly reassessed the strength of his team, and kicked Aui_2000 and Bulba just three months after he had enticed them to leave their own team to join EG. It was ruthless, but tactical. With two slots now open, he convinced Universe to return following poor results with Team Secret, and enticed former-mate Zai to once more represent EG. The changes were incredibly last minute and, as a result, EG were no longer eligible for a direct invite to TI. Regardless, PPD navigated them through the Open and Regional Qualifiers to secure their place at the $21 million TI6. Compared to the EG roster of TI4 and TI5, this EG was far less prepared, but PPD captained the organization to another third place finish worth $2.1 million.

Leading a team to top three at TI is often considered an impressive feat, but to do so three years in a row with three different rosters is the reason why PPD’s reign at EG is one of the greatest in Dota 2 history.

Throughout the majority of his time at EG, PPD had uploaded behind-the-scenes videos and vlogs from events, which became incredibly popular. At the time, such content was scarce and it cleverly built not just the brand of EG but also that of PPD.

CEO and starting over

Although the 2015-2016 season did end in a $2.1 million top three, PPD’s relationship with SumaiL had unfortunately deteriorated over the year to the point of no return. SumaiL was adamant he no longer wanted to play with PPD as captain, and in order for EG to keep their star player, he was forced out of the team. Instead he became Evil Geniuses’ CEO.

Although public perception is his move to management was an attempt to let him leave the Dota 2 team quietly, that was not the case. Throughout 2016 leading up to TI6 while also captaining, PPD was involved in the negotiations with EG’s owners Twitch over agreements of ownership and representation moving forward. The plan, which eventually did happen in December 2016, saw Twitch give ownership back to the players, a deal PPD was heavily involved with alongside EG COO Philip Aram.

By the time he was forced out of the Dota 2 team, he was already invested, and felt he wasn’t ready to walk away from EG just yet. Reluctantly, he took a year-long break from competitive Dota to act as CEO, and made it his mission to help the company find their feet. He took a hands-on approach to the business, hiring staff, establishing payrolls and new revenue streams as well as expanding EG to other titles such as Call of Duty and Overwatch.

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PPD showed off his in-game knowledge as an analyst at various DPC events. (Photo courtesy Valve)

During his time as CEO, PPD also began appearing as an analyst at DPC events, a role which allowed the public to truly appreciate his wealth of knowledge and his dry wit. However, after attending events, he was itching to return to competition. His relationship with the Dota 2 squad had remained frosty, and he grew tired of the bureaucracy that came with high-level management. So, after one year as CEO, PPD bit the bullet and made a big decision to leave the EG penthouse to start all over again on the ground floor with a new team.

Five years later, in March of this year, he reflected on his exit from EG on the Position 6 Podcast. “I was less concerned about what people thought. I didn’t really care if SumaiL didn’t like me, because I was trying to push him to be the best player he could be, so we could be the best team that we could be,” said PPD. “I was doing that in the way I thought was the best way to do it. I don’t regret it, it’s all I knew. I didn’t know better. Knowing what I know now, I could have been a different leader back then, but who knows. Perhaps it wouldn’t have pushed us to get the results that we did.”

PPD Reborn

When PPD left the active roster of EG he was considered one of the best captains in the world, and EG one of the biggest teams. During his year as a CEO however, the landscape changed and the likes of Virtus.pro, Newbee, Team Liquid and OG were now running the show.

While at TI7 as a talent, PPD began his search for players willing to join his new team, but the repercussions of his time at EG would play their part. “People looked at me getting kicked from EG, and SumaiL not wanting to play with me, and they think ‘oh Peter’s toxic, Peter’s an asshole, Peter’s a terrible person’. I think that has hurt my career when I went to talk to other players about playing with my team,” he said. PPD had changed but his public perception had not.

He ultimately built a team that was picked up by OpTic Gaming, an NA esports giant that, up until then, had never entered Dota 2. It’s fair to say expectations were low for OpTic’s motley crew, but PPD captained them to a ninth place finish in the Dota Pro Circuit, and a top eight at TI8.

“I think after I won TI, I think I chilled out a lot, and after I didn’t play for a year and then when I returned with OpTic, I chilled out even more,” said PPD on the Position6 podcast. OpTic Gaming was not the best. In fact, they were far from it, but they were still a decent team. The ruthless captain who had once said second place had made him feel physically sick, was now just happy to be competing again.

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ESL One Katowice 2018. (Photo courtesy Cybersport)

“I like competing and I don’t really have this kind of opportunity in other parts of my life. I’m just enjoying the ride for now,” he said in an interview ahead of the TI8 playoffs. “When I heard that Zai was a free agent and was joining my team, I realized my team was going to be a little more top tier than maybe what I expected to start out with. That was exciting, and to qualify for The International and make it top bracket has been pretty unbelievable.”

Despite hoping to continue with OpTic Gaming for another season, PPD would end up assembling a brand new roster for another reputable org; this time Ninjas in Pyjamas. Over the course of the year with OpTic Gaming, PPD’s public perception changed and his EG days were put behind him. As a result, Ninjas in Pyjamas attracted a whole host of high profile players including Ace, Fata, TI6 runner-up Saksa and former EG teammate and TI5 winner Universe.  Once again PPD captained his team to TI, this time through a direct invite, a reward for an eighth place finish in the Dota Pro Circuit 2018-2019.

Outside of competing for OpTic and NiP from 2017 to 2020, PPD also became heavily involved in the Dota 2 community. He launched a successful grass roots in-house league called the NADCL, and became a spokesperson for professional player standards. He drew attention to unfair practices by teams and tournament organizers, and sparked critical debates within the Dota 2 world. In fact, his influence was so strong, that fans began to joke that Valve only made changes if PPD tweeted it was necessary.

During his EG era, PPD had produced video content, but even by his own admittance, it had been primarily to build his own brand. Following his exit from EG, his approach to content became drastically different. He willingly volunteered to do content with press and feature in skits, and was more than happy to poke fun at himself for the good of the show. He would still stir the pot now and then on Twitter, but overall the community learned to appreciate what PPD brought to the table. Entertainment.

PPD would eventually retire in March 2020, and the news came as a blow to fans worldwide. “Today I find myself focused on personal growth rather than competition versus others and because of that I feel like I have lost the grit and ambition necessary for myself to be the competitor I’m comfortable being,” he said in his statement. “I don’t feel bad about it as I believe change is healthy and I am eager to do something amazing and new in my 30’s”

PPD’s days with EG earned him respect as a player and a captain, but it was what he did after he left EG that made him retire a Dota 2 legend. PPD made NA great, led the region to its first TI title, and gave us so many great storylines. His personal journey is just as impressive as his track record. 57 top three finishes, 25 titles and $3 million in prize money makes him the third most successful North American player in the history of esports. We leave you with a quote from the Salt Lord himself:

“The Dota scene has the best drama, that’s what makes it the greatest esports” – PPD, TI6.

Lawrence Phillips
Lawrence Phillips
Lawrence is an esports dinosaur that started back in 2004 and has been a full-time freelancer ever since. He has worked for the likes of SK Gaming, PGL, ESL, Razer, Monster Energy, GINXTV, Dexerto and Starladder as an editor, scriptwriter and content creator. He currently spends his days trying to own in Apex Legends and Fortnite, in a bid to make up for his lack of skills in his main game, Dota 2.