Let's cut to the chase: there is no winning Dota without a team. Any individual player can be the weak link that turns a championship run into 16th-place devastation. So what happens when a team that practices together for a year reaches the biggest tournament in esports history and finds out they'll be playing without one of their core components?
Both LGD Gaming and Vici Gaming Reborn have lost a player to rejected visas and will be forced to play through The International with their substitutes: Wang "Banana" Jiao (LGD) and Tong "mikasa" Junjie (VG.R). For some fans, that will be enough reason to count them out. But not so fast — these are players with lengthy competitive histories of their own. Here's an idea of what to expect from them in Seattle.
How we got here
Visas are a major source of conflict for pro gamers looking to play out of their home region. They're also a major source of confusion and controversy for fans.
A visa is required for most citizens of foreign nations to visit or conduct business in The United States (and most other nations). The idea is to keep track of foreign nationals entering borders, to ensure that they aren't trying to immigrate and — in the case of work or athletic visas — that the money they earned inside a nation is properly taxed.
The International hasn't been shaped by visa issues since 2012, when MUFC were unable to field a team and ended up ceding a last-minute seat to mousesports. mousesports were unable to secure a visa for Alexandru "ComeWithMe" Craciunescu and were forced to leave him at home, instead playing with soon-to-be-legendary Kuro "KuroKy" Salehi Takhasomi. Last year, Valve was able to smooth over issues with Na`Vi's Akbar "SoNNeikO" Butaev by working with members of the US government, but this year proved more difficult for a couple of teams.
That's in part because this year, esports teams have started applying for athletic visas in the aftermath of the Free Leffen campaign (the result of a Smash Bros competitor being denied access to compete in The United States). The new process has been a big part of the problem for first-time TI6 teams like TNC Gaming and Execration, who both initially applied for a business visa, but were told to reapply for an athletic visa instead.
Both teams have since successfully secured their visas and are in Seattle ready to play. Unfortunately, the same was not true for LGD's Xue "September" Zhichuan and VG.R's Zhou "Yang" Haiyang, who despite multiple attempts were unable to acquire the correct paperwork.
Banana steps in for September
September began his competitive career with LGD earlier this year, which may be playing a role in his difficulty securing a visa. In order to receive a P-1 athletic visa, a player must come up with an argument supporting his international merit and reputation as a competitor. September has never competed farther West than Kiev, at the StarLadder i-league Invitational. LGD's newest incarnation has been largely inactive except against Chinese teams for the bulk of the season.
There's no knowing exactly why September's visa was denied, but we do know he will be replaced by a former world champion.
Westerns fans may not remember Banana as the 2013 TongFu support, but most should recognize the name as one of 2014's International Champions. That TongFu roster would eventually be revived as Newbee, when Banana joined to replace Gong "ZSMJ" Jian alongside Zhang "Mu" Pan, Zhou "KingJ" Yang, Wang "SanSheng" Zhaohui, and Chen "Hao" Zhihao. They'd then find success when Zhang "xiao8" Ning soon joined in SanSheng's place.
Since 2014, though, Banana hasn't been much of a name to know, largely because Newbee failed to achieve any level of notoriety between 2014 and a few months ago. Newbee's evolution this past year has involved radical roster changes, including Banana's jump to LGD as a coach. In the last few months, he has not played a single ticketed match with LGD as a replacement for September. The two games he has played, he was a clear weak link.
A problem with substitutes is how they impact a team's hero pool and planned strategies. Either a squad has to change their strategies to meet the new hero pool, or players are asked to run heroes they have no affinity for. September is an aggressive support, playing forward-positioned heroes including Riki, Phoenix, Earth Spirit and Elder Titan. At least in his ticketed history, Banana has no significant playtime on any of these heroes (especially in the modern support role).
To make matters worse, LGD is most dependent on having September's heroes to execute their most frequent strategies. Earth Spirit and Phoenix are two of their five most-picked heroes, along with Lifestealer, who they typically pair with a mobile September support. Phoenix is by a fair margin the most-banned hero against LGD, with that signature support Riki taking fourth most-banned.
It will be interesting to see if LGD has had Banana practice a September-like style, or if they'll try to revitalize their odds by hitting the drawing board and bringing out his natural strength: micro. Chen, Rubick and Enchantress are by far Banana's best heroes, and all three could fit into a mid-game strategy, forcing opponents to respond to the unexpected shift in draft priority from LGD. If the rest of the draft can synergize, a pushing and teamfight priority would catch most opponents off-guard, especially since they're used to specific pattern-bans against LGD.
mikasa heads to offlane (or mid?)
You probably remember mikasa from when he subbed for Vici Gaming Reborn during their victory at Starladder i-League Invitational a few months ago. Since then, mikasa has become a frequent sixth man for VG.R and has played more than two-thirds as many games as their typical mid, Wang "NoNo" Xin. This time, however, he won't be replacing NoNo, but rather standing in for offlaner Yang.
Mikasa's Dota career is storied with behind-the-scenes success: he coached both CDEC and LGD for stretches leading into The International 2015, where the two teams both took a Top 3 seat. When he first stood in for Vici Gaming Reborn, they took first at SL i-League and were set onto a path of least resistance to reach the Majors and eventually The International.
Yang's career, by contrast, is still relatively new. He started with Vici Gaming's junior squad when it was VG Potential last April. That team was making slow progress in the Chinese ranks until veterans Xu "fy" Linsen and Leong "DDC" Fat-meng joined to rebrand the team as a combination platter of youth and experience. That vigor has without doubt been honed by mikasa's experience.
Although the team has had a great deal of success with mikasa as a stand-in, they have not had much experience with him as the offlaner. The world doesn't know what mikasa brings to the table in that position, but in pubs he's been spamming pretty typical options: Faceless Void, Batrider, Beastmaster and Axe. That makes sense, given that Batrider, Beastmaster and Faceless Void are VG.R's fourth to sixth most-played heroes of all time, and that they continue to depend heavily on Batrider and Void strategies.
Unfortunately, Batrider, Beastmaster and Faceless Void are also the most-banned heroes against VG.R, so extensively practicing those three options when shifting into a new position with limited time ahead of the biggest esports competition in history may not end up working out. It's too soon to tell, but there's a clue that if VG.R aren't able to secure confident picks for mikasa, they may mix their lanes up further.
When mikasa is unable to secure an offlane position in his practice, he's also taken mid Mirana, which is also one of his most-played heroes when he's been subbing for NoNo. Perhaps shifting mikasa mid and playing aggressive trilanes with NoNo, or allowing NoNo to run semi-jungle offlanes, are options VG.R has been exploring.
Regardless, it's clear that VG.R have their work cut out for them. They need to radically increase their level of execution with a stand-in. Fortunately, they've done it before.
Ryan "Gorgon the Wonder Cow" Jurado writes about Dota 2 and freelances for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.