International Adversaries, Part 1: OG and Liquid, Europe's twin titans

by theScore Staff Jul 25 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of theScore esports / ESL / StarLadder

Born in the chaotic power vacuum after The International 2015, Team Liquid and OG have traveled the same road from formation to powerhouse since they both locked in their rosters on Aug. 28 last year. But this story takes us farther back — and like many stories in Dota, it starts with Natus Vincere.

TI4: A fateful meeting

OG and Liquid really found their common origin with Na`Vi's underwhelming performance at The International 2014. It was Na`Vi's worst year to date. Kuro "KuroKy" Salehi Takhasomi had been playing with the team for over a year when they suddenly slid from Top 3 at nearly every event to coming in sixth or worst. Heading into TI4, they were regularly tying for last at LANs they attended.

When KuroKy and former Na`Vi captain Clement "Puppey" Ivanov left the team, KuroKy approached Johan "N0Tail" Sundstein about a partnership. He pulled the former HON pro away from Fnatic, taking with him Tal "Fly" Aizik (who, at the time, went as "Simbaaa," in an attempt to rebrand himself as he stepped deeper into Dota). This was the original Team Secret: two HON converts with experience only on Fnatic, two Na`Vi legends, and Gustav "s4" Magnusson of Alliance.

The Fnatic boys weren't close with their new teammates at first, but grew familiar over the following four months, as Secret consistently landed Top 3 at tournaments. But they never quite took first place, and in December, Fly and N0Tail were cut from the team. Not for the last time, Secret would make hasty and messy roster changes in order to sign higher-profile talent. Those changes did force their withdrawal from Starladder, but also sent KuroKy and his teammates on six months of nigh-unprecedented Dota success — while his friends and former teammates drifted in the wind.

"Johan is such a good guy, he took it very good," KuroKy told BTS at The Summit 3. "I still feel bad about it, but he is still my dear friend."

Eventually Fly found a home in compLexity, but when I spoke to him about the transition a year ago, he told me being kicked from Secret was especially hard to take. "I was pretty sad," he said. "I tried to make Meepwned with H4nni, my ex-teammate. I really didn't put my heart into it."

TI5: The elusive right fit

KuroKy with Team Secret at ESL One Frankfurt

Although KuroKy's Team Secret had immense success leading into TI5, their run there was likely the single worst underperformance in Dota history. It broke the team in several pieces, and Secret reaped what it had sown when it threw N0Tail and Fly to the wolves six months earlier.

Fly, meanwhile, had trouble meshing with compLexity. He and his American teammates didn't agree on the roles of leadership or aggression, and he butted heads with team captain Kyle "swindlemelonzz" Freedman over the team’s approach to the game, their lifestyle and the role of the team house. Swindlezz believed a permanent bootcamp was vital to improvement, while Fly was skeptical. In his time with coL, Fly really only really synced up with Canadian teammate David "MoonMeander" Tan in the ways that mattered most: leadership, game values, and philosophy.

Though Fly hoped to work things out, after compLexity's own poor finish at TI5 their disagreements became untenable. Fly took MoonMeander with him to reunite with N0Tail, who had landed with Cloud9 for his own period of middle-tier rankings. Two of N0Tail's Cloud9 teammates would join Secret and one, Adrian "FATA-" Trinks, would join the new squad KuroKy went on to form.

Cloud9’s dissolution left a power vacuum in Europe, as the spot they occupied at qualifiers and invitationals opened up for new takers. This set the stage for Liquid (at the time known as 5Jungz) and OG (then Monkey Business) to make their ascent. Both Fly and KuroKy announced their new teams on the same day, near the same time — and both grew to shape European Dota as we know it.

The two teams hit the ground running, each forced to work their way up from the bottom by winning qualifiers. They both realized there was only space enough for one rising squad on the EU scene, and neither captain could afford to let his friend and former teammate slip away with that advantage.

The Majors: Across the Rubicon

OG at the StarLadder i-League Invitational, between Shanghai and Manila

OG's first match of consequence was in the first round of the MLG World Finals European qualifier — against Liquid. Though Liquid had made an ill-fated attempt to qualify for ESL One New York, this would be their second major qualifier match, and their second last-place finish, after OG took the series 2-1. OG went on to represent the region at the main event, but Liquid returned the favor two weeks later, beating OG in the Nanyang Championship Qualifiers and winning their way to the main event.

No team in Europe's aspiring class could reliably contest either of the two new power players. OG consistently came out slightly ahead of Liquid, and eventually they topped Liquid in the first round of The Frankfurt Major Qualifier playoffs. Liquid dropped to the lower bracket shaken, and were eliminated by Alliance, in their only loss to the CIS squad that year.

That put OG in a position to claim the first-ever Major. The world dreamed green. But Liquid would not lose the rivalry quietly. In-game, they adjusted their strategy, shifting their execution priorities to a specific window near 15-20 minutes. They honed specialty heroes like Jesse "JerAx" Vainikka's Earth Spirit, Ivan "MinD_ContRoL" Borislavov's Nature's Prophet and Lasse "MATUMBAMAN" Urpalainen's Gyrocopter and Lycan.

For a time, the two teams ran parallel tracks, not meeting at a premiere event between November and May. The only ticketed matches between them during that period were at a regional EU event, The Defense 5. OG won a best-of-three over Liquid, but Liquid took the Grand Finals 3-1.

But even without much head-to-head action, it was clear the second chapter of their rivalry had shifted the balance of power. While Liquid began to rise up ranks, OG fell into a slump that would last months. Liquid took Top 3 finishes at both World Cyber Arena and the StarLadder i-League invitational, then Top 2 at Shanghai and ESL One Manila. OG failed to put up consistent results, reaching their nadir at The Shanghai Major with a 7th-8th finish.

Ahead of their next meeting at EPICENTER, KuroKy said the two teams had such similar skill levels and playstyles that it could go either way. Despite his hesitation, Liquid beat OG in the group stage, then again using MATUMBAMAN's Lycan for a 2-0 shutout in the Winner’s Finals. Liquid would knock OG to the Lower Bracket, then take first at the mini-major.

Going into The Manila Major, Liquid were the clear favorite. But OG chose that moment to break their slump, bulldozing their way through the Upper Bracket. Liquid avoided a rematch against OG all the way to their climactic Grand Finals showdown — where OG trounced them 3-1. A week later, ESL One Frankfurt looked much the same, though this time OG took Liquid out in the semifinals.

TI6: Best in the world

Fly with OG on the way to their Manila Major victory

This is a rivalry steeped in respect. To date, OG’s competitive match record against Liquid is 15-13. Fly regularly calls Liquid "the best team in the world." At The Summit 5 where OG beat Liquid 2-1 in the Loser’s Finals, KuroKy returned the compliment, saying, "OG is pretty clearly the best team in the world."

The teams have similar playstyles and game priorities, although Liquid's focus has shifted even more to transitioning through the game, quickly bouncing from core to core until Matumbaman is an unstoppable machine before 30 minutes. OG have a more even distribution of in-game resources, leading to a slightly faster average win potential.

Perhaps in another timeline, KuroKy and Fly could have worked together to form one dominant force to rule Dota in 2016. Instead, they were fated to battle one another for supremacy, meeting over and over in the playoffs at the world’s top tournaments. There’s little doubt they they will meet again at The International 6, potentially in the Grand Finals.

"Competition is just cruel," KuroKy told BTS in the spring of 2015, shortly after his decision to cut Fly and N0Tail from Team Secret. "Friendship and all is still there, but at the end of the day it's competition and career, so you have to make decisions."

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