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Knowing the Unknown, Part 2: Growing Pains

As you know by now, Unknown beat Newbee, starting what was ultimately less of a Cinderella story than an NCAA tournament run, the kind where a small school somewhere takes down a goliath before being exposed and extinguished in the next round. For awhile the TI4 champs seemed to handle the Peruvian upstarts like it was business as usual; they brought Hao’s Gyrocopter together with them on ganks, sacked towers, disrupted stacks and drew the curtains on Unknown’s map vision while planting their own wards all over the Radiant side.

Then, slowly but surely, it happened. Ever susceptible to unusual hero picks and item choices, the complacent once-giant of the Chinese scene didn’t seem prepared for the safelane battle Alchemist. Ember responded too slowly to an Unstable Concoction gank and got chopped down in seconds. Gyrocopter couldn’t stand his ground against Winter’s Curse and the withering strikes of Atun’s Templar Assassin. Sitting with the Unknown managers on the Messe floor, you could feel the tension building with each kill and rotation. I always wondered whether people watching eSports in person could ever embrace it and feel the intensity the same way you do watching ‘regular’ athletes move and play. Watching this game answered that question. I hadn’t been more excited for a game of DotA since Game 5 of Navi/Alliance during TI3, and I had never wanted a team to win a game more than Unknown that night.

Unknown poses for a quick picture outside their practice room after winning the “game of their lives” (for now) vs Newbee in the Lower Bracket of the Frankfurt Major.

Weeks ago, it would have been impossible to imagine rooting for Peruvian DotA, when most of my interaction with it tends to be having my games thrown by the niños ratas (“rat kids”) of the cabina gaming culture. I only had to say “los pollos” and put my hands up in mock despair for Unknown to know exactly what I was talking about. The reason this young Peruvian team is so easy to get along with and cheer for is the same reason people don’t like them. They are, in a word, unsophisticated. When things are going well, this makes them down to earth and approachable, filled with simple joy for the game and happy to be accepted and praised, blessed with the purity of youth. It can also make them difficult and impetuous when things are going poorly. This lack of polish is not lost on their coach, Huester Valenzuela: “We don’t have that kind of professionalism yet,” he said (again through Alex, the Spanish interpreter).

Where Chinese teams once looked up to the MYMs and Virtus Pro of the mid 2000s, this Peruvian squad looks up to the EHOME squads around the turn of the decade, including the one famous for tearing up ESWC and rampaging through 2010. With several members of that legendary team still in the scene and in Frankfurt, Valenzuela made sure to get them for pictures, while trying to pick their brains on how to improve his team. (Some of them signed his t-shirt in Chinese). He wanted to absorb as much as he could, even with Chinese DotA apparently at a relative nadir. He wanted to know how the players trained, how they studied games and evaluated battles, how they lived  and communicated. “We see team EG in the morning at the hotel, all gathered together and dressed and ready to go,” Valenzuela said. “And you can see, these are professionals! We need to become more disciplined.”

Unknown’s coach poses with EHOME.357/QQQ (VG Coach) and EHOME.AAA (VG.Burning).

Coaches have idols, too.

 

In many local or regional South American tournaments, the coach is permitted to stand behind his players and issue orders during the game. Team Unknown had grown accustomed to this, Huester said. That’s obviously not currently allowed in major international DotA tournaments, so the players were suddenly left with a leadership vacuum during games. During the group stages, this adjustment was costly beyond simple match results; players apparently began questioning Ztok’s ability to make all the calls and direct them. Eventually, they realized that they didn’t stand a chance against elite global competition without trying to come together, and accepted Ztok’s role. It will obviously take plenty more time, trust, and struggle before the team is fully able to play this way, but the TI5 Open Qualifier winners obviously plan to keep expanding their global relevance. Part of the increased coverage and attention they got from beating Newbee includes possible new sponsorships – which would be both godsend and validation for a team which is currently being kept afloat at tremendous personal cost and investment by the managers.

The team did seem to fare better against LGD than they did in the group stage. Valenzuela says they tried playing LGD’s way the first game, then tried more of a pocket/surprise strategy in keeping with their own preferences when they trotted out the tri-core lineup in Game 2. He also believes they threw a bit, pushing into the teeth of the Chinese high ground defense with merely an aegis’ worth of advantage. Emphasizing again that the players felt humbled, he insists that they remain more motivated than ever to break through. It’s hard to question the potential of this team given that their oldest member, support player accel, is only 20 and is more or less “still learning his role from his teammates”. Greedy, their offlaner and occasional core player, has only been playing DotA (or any game of its type) for 2 years, and doesn’t even seem to know that it’s possible to make a living as a professional player. He had only planned to play DotA another year or two to save up enough money to pay for a formal college education, which only requires an entrance examination in Peru; he began hanging as a cabinero (cabina-goer) to escape from depression after his parents divorced, and his mom struck a deal with a cabina owner to let him play at half price for just $0.15 US an hour.

Contrast that with some of the Chinese professionals, and maybe it’s the Chinese coaches who should wish that their players played with the same hunger. Several Chinese commentators told me that many players and teams feel much less motivated to perform well at some of these huge tournaments when the income is paltry in comparison to their lucrative streaming contracts, and when conditions are often stacked against them. Additionally, teams have a hard time both promoting and empowering young talent who have potential as captains (“shuaicai”) when it’s incredibly hard to get older veterans (some well past their primes) to listen to and defer to them. A culture deeply ingrained with respect for elders, reputation, and past achievements must find a way to slash and burn so that new talent can get a chance to struggle, grow, and shine, not merely as good players (“jiangcai”), but as confident leaders and innovators.

Valenzuela expects the team to be capable of finishing Top 4 the next time they attend an international event. That seems like a stretch, but so did finishing anywhere but last place in Frankfurt, and each of the past three TI champions (Alliance/Newbee/EG) formed and gelled quickly, too. In DotA, you just never know.


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