The Myth of Conformity in Chinese Dota: Four teams headed to TI6 that couldn't be more different

by theScore Staff Jul 19 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Starladder

The West seems to only pay attention to Chinese Dota 2 squads when they strip European and American teams of their thrones. If you scan betting sites for community-generated odds, Chinese teams are routinely undervalued by the largely Western fanbase — just one indicator of the massive blind spot that the region has fallen into.

From a distance, some believe the Chinese Dota scene lacks diversity, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The region's metagame is arguably more diverse than that of either Europe or NA at the moment. Even though TI begins in a few short weeks, many Western fans still don’t have a working distinction between China’s four guaranteed representatives — LGD, Newbee, Wings Gaming, and Vici Gaming Reborn — even though there’s a good chance of seeing any or all of them in the Top 8, with both Wings and Newbee potential favorites for the top 4.

There are a lot of baselines for this misconception. Linguistic, cultural and accessibility barriers prevent fans from engaging with Chinese social media and interviews to get a better sense of each team’s identity and mindset; time-zone restraints make Chinese tournaments such as the upcoming PGL or the recent Nanyang Championships difficult to watch; and the lag from Perfect World servers makes watching streams of Chinese matches seem Sisyphean.

But China is an important region, and learning the differences between these teams is key to understanding the narratives, odds and results that Western fans’ favorite teams are facing at TI6. Before 2014, China had a reputation for extreme farming (modeled after players such as Xu "BurNIng" Zhilei) and late-game four-protect-one strategies. That style began to falter as Alliance-style split-pushes rose up to punish their weaknesses, and it eventually broke down completely. Around the same time, Newbee developed the deathball strategy that took them to the peak of The International 2014.

Even back then, some Chinese teams experimented with alternative strategies, including heavy emphasis on aggressive trilanes. With the migration of singular talents, other strategies were infused into the ethos as well, such as Daryl Koh "iceiceice" Pei Xiang's no-ban strategy used by Singapore's Team Zenith (the captain would let reserve time run out and simply not pick any banned heroes).

iceiceice with Vici Gaming at the first Nanyang Championships

Today, Chinese teams vary from Wings Gaming — whose preferred strategy involves a fast transition out of the laning phase and includes a great deal of emphasis on group ganks including both cores and supports — to Newbee’s more moderate thirty-minute surges.

They pick different heroes. They prefer different timing windows. They engage in different strategies. In many ways, China’s top teams have less in common with one another than do Europe’s squads. Two of OG’s and Liquid's top three most-picked heroes over the last few months have been the same, and all three of OG's top heroes appear in Liquid's top eight. Compare that to Newbee and Wings, the Final 2 teams at Nanyang, who only share one hero across their eight most played on 6.88.

If you line up the top eight heroes of this patch from all four of China's International squads side by side, only seven heroes appear more than once. Only one hero, Faceless Void, is among the most-played of all four teams.

Duplicate Heroes in Top 8 Most-Picked

Newbee Wings LGD VG.R
Faceless Void Elder Titan Slark Vengeful Spirit
Lion Drow Ranger Elder Titan Disruptor
Terrorblade Mirana Kunkka Elder Titan
Slardar Faceless Void Crystal Maiden Faceless Void
Timbersaw Beastmaster Storm Spirit Slark
Lifestealer Io Faceless Void Batrider
Disruptor Dazzle Mirana Io
Winter Wyvern Shadow Demon Oracle Lion

These draft differences are implicit to the radically different strategic approaches these teams have. LGD and VG.R are most similar, sharing three of their top ten heroes (Faceless Void, Elder Titan and Slark) and roughly the same average win-time of 33 minutes. However, there’s much less variation in the length of LGD’s games; they tend to do especially poorly as games are drawn out. VG.R put more emphasis on pushing, which spreads out their opportunities for power spikes, and gives them less predictable timings.

A typical VG.R draft focuses much more on protecting and creating space for Yang "End" Pu, setting up a powerful mid-game push and aiding End's transition into a mid-to-late-game engine of destruction. Among the Chinese powerhouses, VG.R have the least equitable distribution of kill participation, since End’s average KDA nearly doubles that of every one of his teammates.

LGD Gaming at the StarLadder i-League Invitational

LGD, on the other hand, have the most equitable distribution of kill participation out of the four. That’s in part because of how quickly they involve Sun "Agressif" Zheng and how much more they emphasize fighting and ganking. LGD’s compositions focus on decisive aggression, with heroes like Lu "Maybe" Yao's signature Storm Spirit and Xue "September" Zhichuan's Kunkka, and they use the momentary advantage gained from successful ganks and skirmishes to convert objectives, rather than trying to smash them head-on with the enemy team at full strength. This is why September's Riki is the most honor-banned hero in the entire region.

Newbee and Wings have the deepest hero pools, but in many ways hold to the extreme ends of the Chinese spectrum. Newbee has an average win-time above 40 minutes, but an average loss-time around 36 minutes; for Wings, those numbers are reversed, and even more extreme, with a 34 minute win-time and a 45 minute loss-time on average.

Wings are brutally aggressive while Newbee tend to play more conservatively. A preference for smothering offense has made Wings the only team in China to win more often than lose against Newbee since March. They were close to surpassing Newbee in the Grand Finals of NYC earlier this month, but the downside of their approach is a weakness in best-of-five series — Wings rely on the element of surprise and tend to fare poorly if forced to run similar drafts one game after another. Had the NYC finals been a best-of-three, Wings would have won 2-1, which is their average rate of success against China's most noteworthy team.

Wings Gaming take the stage at The Manila Major

Few Western teams are able to transition into aggression as fast as Wings Gaming, meaning few have been able to punish Newbee with the same level of success. Even OG and Liquid tend to make their first major surge closer to 15-20 minutes into a game, using prodding aggression to set the pace, but not necessarily to seize a clear advantage through the early game.

As for Newbee, their success relies on Wong "ChuaN" Hock Chuan’s energetic involvement to divert attention away from Chen "Hao" Zhihao. Zhang "Mu" Pan's high-aggression playstyle also helps create layered advantage windows for smooth transitions into the mid and late game. This well-rounded strategy emphasizes Mu’s Timbersaw, Death Prophet and Dragon Knight, and he boasts the highest average GPM of the region. That GPM is padded in part by his frequent use of Alchemist, though he typically plays the hero as a fighting machine rather than a split-pushing farmer.

The International could mean a return to glory for LGD's Aggressif, who narrowly missed an unprecedented underdog victory with CDEC at The International 2015. For VG.R, it would be proof of Xu "fy" Linsen’s god status in the wake of his disappointing run with Vici Gaming at The Shanghai Major and subsequent demotion to their (at the time) secondary squad. Wings are the only team in China without a player to have placed in the Top 4 at an International; in fact, China's three other representatives have at least two each.

Mu fighting for Newbee at The Manila Major

Newbee, of course, are easily considered one of the world's top three teams heading into the event. If they win, they'll be the first organization to take home two TI victories, and Hao, ChuaN and Mu will be the only three repeat-winning players to date.

The stakes are high, but these teams will approach their runs with wildly different priorities. Only one can be the top of China, and maybe one will be the top of the world. But if one of them does win, it won’t be an anomaly — at least not if you know what to expect from the East.

Ryan "Gorgon the Wonder Cow" Jurado writes about Dota 2 and freelances for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.