After several days of qualifiers, Team Secret and Team Onyx are among the eight teams who have secured one of the final spots at The Kiev Major.
While the format for each regional qualifier was the same as past Valve events, the number of spots available for each region changed. With the creation of the CIS and South American Regional Qualifiers, only China and SEA had two spots up for grabs, with the remaining four regions having only one spot.
The European qualifiers, arguably the most stacked region, saw Secret return to the forefront of Dota after missing out on The Boston Major with a spectacular run where they only lost one game. Virtus.pro were on a similar path in the CIS qualifier, going undefeated in the group stage, but would lose a game to Natus Vincere and Team Empire in the playoffs before qualifying.
Both Invictus Gaming teams narrowly secured the Chinese spots, as both teams faced off in the Winners' Finals for the first spot, which iG Vitality won. The SEA qualifiers were very competitive, as Team Faceless and TNC Pro Team secured their spots with 2-1 victories over Mineski.
In North America, Onyx upset both Team NP and compLexity Gaming, both of whom competed at The Boston Major, to qualify for their first Major. Lastly, the South American qualifier saw SG e-sports exact revenge on Not Today in the Grand Finals to qualify for Kiev, as they had previously lost to Not Today in the Winners' Finals
Including the invited teams, the full list of teams competing at The Kiev Major is as follows:
TNC Pro Team
The Kiev Major Main Event is set to run from April 27-30, and will feature a $3 million USD prize pool.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Virtus.pro went undefeated in the CIS qualifier. In fact, their undefeated streak was only in the group stage. theScore esports regrets the error.
StarLadder i-League StarSeries Season 3 is the first premier tournament since Dota Pit League Season 5 in January and the final LAN before The Kiev Major Qualifiers begin in March.
This will be the last chance for the eight teams competing to show what they're made of before they begin to focus on preparation for the first Major of the year.
With that in mind, here are a few key storylines to keep an eye on at SL i-League StarSeries Season 3.
It's all about the Major invite
Winning SL i-League is important for the teams competing, and not just because of its $300,000 prize pool.
There have only been five premier tournaments prior to SL i-League, leaving few opportunities for teams to get strong results before the Kiev qualifiers. It's likely that whichever team wins SL i-League will receive one of a handful of invites to the upcoming Major.
Valve's reasoning behind which teams get invites to Majors is still unknown. The company has not shared what criteria they use to decide which teams skip the qualifiers. The publisher behind Dota 2 generally invites eight teams to a Major or TI, leaving eight spots available for qualification.
In practice, Valve has used LAN wins as the biggest deciding factor for whether a team will receive an invite. With five premier LANs since Boston, which four teams have won, there's a minimum of four remaining invites to the Major.
While it's possible some of the teams competing at the tournament will receive an invite regardless, such as OG, who are the reigning Major champions, the winner is all but guaranteed one of the few invites to Kiev.
The Return of Liquid and Secret
In the aftermath of the post-TI6 roster shuffle, Team Liquid and Team Secret were poised to be two of the strongest teams in not only Europe, but in the world. Both had made high profile signings during the shuffle, with Liquid acquiring Miracle, arguably the best mid in the world, and Secret picking up talented SEA players like MP, MidOne and Forev. The rosters were talented, and expectations were high for heading into the fall season.
Yet as tournaments and qualifiers began and ended, neither team accomplished much of anything. Apart from missing the qualifiers for several tournaments, Liquid and Secret notably failed to qualify for The Boston Major, the premier event of the fall. Even though the two would win some tournaments in the fall, not qualifying for the Major was as big of a signal as any that the two needed to change to get back to the top.
And change they did. Following The Boston Major qualifiers, Liquid swapped out BuLba for GH in DreamLeague Season 6, which they would go on to win. Since GH's debut in January, Liquid have displayed much of the skills and strategies that many thought they would exhibit in the fall, with the team qualifying for both SL i-League and the Dota 2 Asia Championships 2017.
In Secret's case, the team replaced star Korean offlaner Forev with former Escape Gaming member KheZu in November, who would go on to help the team win ROG MASTERS one week later. Despite the victory, Secret have only managed to qualify for SL i-League in the new year, placing 5th-6th at Dota Pit League Season 5.
Fighting for more than just Major invites, Liquid and Secret are under pressure to cement their status as a top tier Dota team. Neither wants a repeat of what happened in the fall, and they need all the wins they can get if either hopes to head to Kiev in April.
The Chinese teams
If there's one running theme behind the Chinese Dota since TI6, it's chaos.
Compared to other regions, Chinese teams have had to fight to remain prominent over other regions. Outside tournaments in their home country, Chinese teams have not made much of an impact in LANs. At SL i-League, Wings Gaming, Team VG.J and iG Vitality hope to change that.
Wings has had an interesting set of months since their victory at TI. They won the infamous Nanyang Dota 2 Championships Cruise Cup #1 in October and Northern Arena BEAT Invitational in November, but fell out of the Boston Major in the first round of the playoffs. In Chinese tournaments, Wings have struggled to stand out, placing last in the Dota2 Professional League Season 2 - Top, behind the likes of Vici Gaming, DTD club C and EHOME. Champions or not, Wings have had to fight to remain relevant despite their championship status.
Things look brighter for VG.J, who have greatly improved with the addition of legendary supports fy and Freeze, qualifying for SL i-League and DAC 2017.
With Agressif, rOtK and Fenrir, VG.J has all the makings of a championship team on paper. They also have the advantage of playing without the heavy expectations that Wings face as TI champions.
Vitality is more of a mixed bag, as they have made multiple appearances at LANs, but have not had much to show for it. The exception is World Cyber Arena 2016, which they won, and a second place finish at DPL Season 2 - Top. But these were both primarily tournaments filled with Chinese teams, casting doubt as to their ability to stand up against international competition.
What unites all three teams is a lack of matches over the past month. None have played a professional match since January.
Wings did play at ESL One Genting at the start of the year, so they have some recent international experience, but nearly two months have passed since then.
While these three Chinese teams would undoubtedly love to win SL i-League, the team that advances furthest will likely be the candidate for a Chinese invite to Kiev. And with the current state of Chinese Dota in mind, any of these teams can take it.
"On Monday, we were the target of a DDoS attack that was also preventable," said Virtus.pro's General Manager Roman Dvoryankin in their press release on Tuesday. "As head of the organization, I bear the responsibility for this, and would like to apologize to the team’s fans and shareholders."
"We have also decided that our Dota 2 roster manager, Andrey Kvasnevsky, will be leaving the team," Dvoryankin continued. "I’d like to wish Andrey all the best of luck in the future. It wasn’t an easy decision to make."
On any given Sunday, Blake Martinez can be found tackling ball carriers at the frozen tundra known as Lambeau Field. But in his spare time, the Stanford alumnus turned Green Bay Packers linebacker likes to kick back and relax by streaming Dota 2 matches for charity.
But Martinez's Dota fandom far exceeds loading into a couple of solo queue games a night. In fact, the young linebacker actively follows the competitive scene and, considering that he named the original No Diggity squad as his favorite professional team coupled with the fact that he participated in and helped cast MoonDuckTV's Kiev Major Qualifier Hub, he's far from a casual.
So naturally, when asked which four NFL players he would draft to his Dota 2 team, it came as no surprise that he picked the reigning Superbowl MVP, one of NFL's most fearsome defensive linemen and two of his Green Bay teammates to play alongside him.
"I would pick Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Mason Crosby, and Ndamukong Suh," he told theScore esports.
"Aaron would be our mid laner and shot caller of the game because of his smarts and skill! Also, he would pick up on Dota quickly. Tom would be the support (Position 4) because his vision is so good we would never get caught out and could make plays as Earth Spirit. Mason would be our position 5 support because he would be able to have a ton of time to strategize since all he does is kick at practice. And Suh would be our beefy offlaner/frontliner like Centaur and Axe that no one could get passed. EZ TI win."
Sure, Dota 2 and football are two very different games, but Martinez does think there are some similarities and even goes as far as to credit Dota with some of his growth as a leader.
"I think the ability to communicate and process a lot of information quickly is the two traits/skills that are extremely similar in both Dota and Football! I think Dota has helped me tremendously in just being a better leader for our defense," he said.
Touching on his rookie season, Martinez said he was encouraged by the way his year turned out — he notched 69 combined tackles to go along with one sack, one interception and four pass deflections — and looks to build on last season as he heads into his sophomore year.
"I think it went really well! It sucked to get injured near the end of the season but excited to grow from my rookie year! The way I want to grow is just seeing formations and plays quicker, stay healthy, get stronger and faster, and improve on the mistakes I made as a rookie and just grow from my experiences."
Conrad Janzen, former Cloud9 player manager and current Twitch partnerships team member, has a few ideas.
Appearing on theScore esports Podcast Monday, Janzen spoke on everything from why he thinks The International’s prize pool will break its own record (again) this year, to how Valve can improve the Major system.
When asked about whether the prize pool for TI7 would exceed TI6’s massive $20.7 million purse, Janzen said the company behind Dota 2 would find a way to make it happen.
“If I had to bet on Valve, it’s always going to be more and they’re going to figure out some way to do it,” he said.
“Valve is going to figure out ways to steal money from my wallet every year in the best way possible,” he said. “They do a really good job of providing value and that’s the one thing I think Dota does a really good job compared to a lot of other free to play games as well as just games in general."
It's all about making the existing player base happy, he said.
“They provide a lot of value to their hardcore users, to their regular users and there’s always going to be somebody who’s willing to spend even more than I think I do.”
Janzen also commented on the Major system, saying that although it was overall beneficial to the Dota 2 scene, is isn’t not without its shortcomings.
“It is bad in some ways, I think it does hurt third parties,” he said.
“Obviously last year we saw Boston Major take precedence over DreamHack, and that was a very unfortunate case.” One solution, he said, would be to model things more closely on Counter-Strike’s tournament structure.
“Things I would like to see is maybe make the qualifiers more valuable, make them a LAN event very similar to CS:GO, right? Where you have all these teams coming in so it’s truly international,” he told theScore esports Podcast.
“What Valve is going to have to do in this case is take a step forward and be like, ‘This is an important part, we want to grow Dota as a whole.' So, very similar to the CS:GO system where they have a regional qualifier that mostly takes place online, and then they bring all those teams together to a major qualifying tournament,” he said.
Improving the Major structure would help showcase rising Dota talent that, at least right now, is getting lost in the shadows beyond the Majors' spotlight.
“I would just love to see more tier 2 support,” he said. “I think that’s the big thing we’re missing, is these up-and-coming stars are not getting as revealed as they used to be. In-house leagues, these sort of concepts, have disappeared," he said.
“To have a healthy, growing esport, you’re going to have to support those tier 2 players as well with smaller Cups, smaller tournaments.”