No one knows exactly what makes a team work. Some say it’s the best players money can buy; others will tell you a team with less talent can beat a superstar team any day of the week, if they play well enough together. Others still insist that the key is to have Steph Curry scoring 3-pointers all game.
How is it that OG, now champions of two Valve Majors and the undisputed dominant force in Dota today, got to be where they are? It’s certainly not that they have the deepest pockets and the biggest superstars; that honor falls to Team Secret, who placed last at Manila and came apart before the tournament was even over.
Was it the “power of friendship” then, the bond of long-time colleagues who have stayed together so long they’ve developed near-telepathic coordination in the game? In fact it was Team Liquid that showed the most consistent team synergy at Manila, with their unofficial motto of “one for all, all for one.” Yet, while they got much further than Secret, Liquid just as surely fell to OG in a very clean 3-1 series at the Manila Grand Finals.
Neither star talent nor close teamwork are enough to replicate OG’s success. Rather, it seems that they’ve found the perfect blend of both, with a foundation of superstar talents who work seamlessly and selflessly together to achieve victory. And lest we overlook how big of an accomplishment that is, it’s worth taking a look at the road OG took to get to Manila.
Roster swaps — who needs 'em?
Comparing OG’s and Liquid’s performance at Manila to Secret’s and EG’s, it’s hard not to conclude roster stability played a big role. But not everyone remembers the tough calls and sacrifices that OG made to keep its roster stable between Frankfurt and Manila. It meant taking some tough losses, and trusting that keep the gang together was the right move in the long run even when things looked pretty bleak.
OG initially formed in the August madness that comes every year post-TI. EG and CDEC had both proved that younger talent could succeed given the right team to support them. Former TI5 compLexity players MoonMeander and Fly decided to make a team with another ex-HoN player, and Fly’s former teammate, n0tail. They then joined forces with cr1t-, before picking up their infamous pubstar. Miracle- had only played on one Dota 2 team before Monkey Business, a 3-month stint with Balkan Bears Corleone, but similar to Suma1L, his great talent would prove to be a fantastic fit for the team.
That fall, they shocked the Dota 2 world by winning Frankfurt with a Lower Bracket run that will go down in history. Still many observers weren’t convinced, calling it a fluke by a “one-patch team,” somewhat like CDEC’s run at TI5. Riding high, OG went on to win DreamLeague Season 4 just a week after Frankfurt, but at the StarLadder EU qualifiers they started to slip, getting eliminated in the group stage. From there, it looked like their critics could well be vindicated. OG managed to get back a little steam with a second place at The Defense Season 5, losing out to Liquid, but with a fourth-place finish at The Summit 4 after being 2-0’d by VP, and a third-place finish at MDL Winter 2015, the epilogue to OG’s Frankfurt story wasn’t anywhere as “happily ever after” as fans had hoped.
It looked like the competition had found the solution to OG, and the standard response would be to make a roster swap to freshen up the team’s talent and strategy. Yet faced with the option to change their roster ahead of Shanghai, OG stuck with their founding members. They managed to earn a respectable 7th-8th after dropping 2-1 to Fnatic, but it was a far cry from their previous Major finish. Again, it looked like a good time to shake things up and try to take a fresh run at Manila, but again, OG didn’t kick a single member — not even as 11 of the 16 teams at Shanghai made swaps, including three teams who placed higher than them (Secret, EG and Fnatic).
For Liquid, keeping the roster that made the Shanghai Grand Finals seemed like the obvious choice. The path was a lot less clear for OG. Even as their struggles continued after Shanghai, with a 5th-8th finish at Dota Pit, they vowed to stay together and fix the problems they had without singling out a team member to replace. The TI6 roster lock came and went, and OG soldiered on, confident in their lineup even as they started to quietly slip out of analysts’ predictions at premier events.
It wasn’t until two weeks ahead of Manila that their investment paid off, but it paid off in a very big way. They took a deep run at EPICENTER, and though they fell short of the Grand Finals, they were the first team to take a game off of unstoppable juggernaut Newbee — the undisputed winner of the Chinese roster shuffle, who came into the EPICENTER bracket on a record-shattering 29-game win streak. OG not only managed to end their streak, they took an entire series over Newbee to knock them down to the Loser’s Bracket, and pushed them to three games when they rematched in the Loser’s Bracket Finals.
OG went on to win Dreamleague Season 5, bringing any doubts about their roster to an end. They were once again predicted to finish well at Manila, but as the tournament began, OG made it clear they would not be satisfied with just Top 8. They took second in their group, (widely considered the group of death), only dropping one series, to Newbee. Unlike Frankfurt, this gave them a start in the Upper Bracket, where they went on to shred the competition, taking down Na`Vi and MVP Phoenix in one-sided 2-0 series. Their rematch against Newbee in the Upper Bracket Finals was easily the series of the tournament, and they managed to pull out a 2-1 victory with some inspired drafting and pocket strats. After that, the 3-1 over Liquid felt like a cakewalk.
Friendship and faith
When you queue for a game of Dota 2, you hope for a few things. You hope, first of all, that your teammates will speak your language; you hope that they will be cooperative; and you hope that at least one of them will pick a support. In other words, you hope that there will be some kind of coordination between you and the other players on the team, and that you can communicate with your teammates and rely on them.
As with everything, the need for this kind of cooperation is massively amplified at the pro level. The very best teams in any sport have complete and utter faith in the other members of the team — they function as a unit, a single entity. In order to build the kind of trust that takes, teammates not only need to have chemistry, they have to spend a lot of time together. Of the 16 teams at The Manila Major, only three have spent more than nine months together without a single roster change — Team Liquid (originally known as 5Jungz), OG (initially named Monkey Business), and Wings Gaming, all formed on Aug. 28, 2015, after The International 5 ended. It’s no coincidence that at least one of those teams has been in the Grand Finals at every Major since.
Arguably, having quality talent is much more common for Dota 2 teams. It’s hard to point to a team at Manila that doesn’t have a Dendi, an s4 or a Chuan. OG is no exception — one could go on for ages about Fly’s drafting, cr1t’s support play, or Miracle’s 9 0 0 0 M A T C H M A K I N G P O I N T S. But where OG excel is the level of cohesion they’ve developed, through trust, shared experience and chemistry. That kind of connection doesn’t develop overnight.
After their win at Frankfurt, n0tail was asked how important the team’s friendship was to their victory, and his response was enlightening. “The most important thing about Dota is outside the game,” he said. “In order for five individuals to be as close as one unit, you need trust. No matter how good you are at the game, you won’t be able to place Top 3. If you look at Miracle-, he’s so talented at the game, but if it wasn’t for his genuineness, his talent wouldn’t be a good fit in this team, and we never would have achieved what we did today.”
Unfortunately there’s no formula for a team that bonds well outside of the game. Watching videos of Miracle-’s teammates huddled around him at EPICENTER as he powers through the last stretch to break 9k MMR, and the celebration afterwards, you can tell every member of the team is where they want to be. MoonMeander’s snapchat likewise shows how clowny and comfortable together they can be. It’s hard to make a team run like a well-oiled machine without that complete trust in each other.
The perfect storm
After Secret and EG were knocked out of Manila in 13th-16th place, it sparked quite the discussion. Charlie Yang said that the skill gap in dota is closing, and as a result, having a star player like Suma1L or Arteezy doesn’t mean as much as it did a year ago. Instead, team cohesion, like that demonstrated Liquid or OG, is becoming the key to success. In a recent Q&A on YouTube, PPD also said he believes that while roster swaps are an important way to balance out a team, for teams like Liquid and OG staying together is incredibly beneficial, and the longer a team can stay together, the better.
OG’s big test will come in just a few months at their first International. By then, their opponents will once again have had time to study their play and try to come up with solutions, and their static roster could well prove a vulnerability. But if OG have made it this far without stability turning into staleness, we can no doubt expect more surprises from them at this International, and perhaps more Internationals to come.
Corey "CartDota" Hospes is a freelance writer, Dota 2 addict, lover of numbers and techies picker. You can follow him on Twitter.