This week, theScore esports' Dota team takes a look at each of the four teams that qualified for The Manila Major through the regional preliminaries. In part 1, we focus on the new lineup for Team Empire, featuring RAMZES666 and Afterlife.
Despite plenty of doomsaying about the CIS region, The Manila Major will feature two CIS squads, both of whom struggled to find their footing throughout 2015 and the beginning of 2016. With Na`Vi’s direct invite and Team Empire’s qualification at the EU Regional Qualifier, the region is looking sharp once again ahead of the second Valve Major of the year.
Last year was rough for Team Empire, and the opening months of 2016 didn't show much promise either. They missed a shot at qualifying for The Shanghai Major, falling 0-2 to Team Spirit in their qualifying match. After star mid lane/carry Resolut1on left for America in February, it looked like the team would suffer death by a thousand cuts, as rival CIS teams picked their roster clean. They cycled through a handful of subs looking for a good fit, but on March 22 the team decided to release their remaining players — ALOHADANCE and NoFear — and start from scratch.
Fresh blood turned out to be the right choice. It seems the organization has finally found a winning formula with their new lineup of RAMZES666, Scandal, Afterlife, miposhka and KingR, and after a dominating run through the EU Main Qualifier, Empire promise to be a contender at The Manila Major.
The new players come from a few different teams around the CIS, but this specific mix of five players have not all played together at once before, which makes it all the more impressive that they’ve meshed so quickly. That's not to say none of the players have worked together before — the CIS region is a big place, but not so much for the Dota 2 professional scene.
RAMZES666 and AfterLife are a dynamic duo, having stuck together since joining CIS Rejects in September 2015, then later on Team Spirit at The Shanghai Major, and now on Empire. Before CIS Rejects, AfterLife was on aSpera for a few months, where he played with KingR — who spent time with Scandal on both Fantastic Five 2015 and Power Rangers. Miposhka is sort of the odd one out, but even he was a part of Yellow Submarine alongside Scandal for a short time in late 2015.
Things looked shaky for new Empire at the start. At the first significant event the roster played together, the StarLadder i-League Invitational European qualifier, they lost to Kaipi in the first round. Less than a week later they again lost in the first round of BTS Europe #3, this time to Team Spirit. They fared decently against fellow European teams at ProDotA Cup Europe #5 and DreamLeague Season 5 League, but certainly didn’t stand out from the crowd.
The first chance they really had to prove themselves was at ESL One Manila. But there was one small problem: Empire had qualified for the tournament with five completely different players on their roster. After some hemming and hawing, ESL decided to allow the team to compete, but the incident prompted a rule change meant to keep such a thing from happening in the future. Empire skated by as the last team who will ever play an ESL Dota event with fewer than three of the players they qualified with; the next team to try it will forfeit their spot.
The decision was a fortunate one for Empire, who put on a phenomenal performance in Manila. Somehow, a team with only middling to outright bad finishes against mid-tier European teams ended up taking down Shanghai Major champions Team Secret — twice. They fell short of the Grand Finals, losing to a strong-looking Team Liquid in the semis, but the finish officially put them back on everyone's radar.
The Team Empire hype train slowed down a bit (but definitely didn’t derail) at the WePlay Dota 2 League LAN. Their losses in a pair of single games to Elite Wolves and Na`Vi looked rough, but they managed to overcome their CIS rivals when they met a second time in the playoff round. Against Evil Geniuses in the Loser's Bracket, they won the first game, but lost the match 2-1, finishing the tournament with a modest 6-5 game record.
While none of these results were enough to warrant a direct invite to The Manila Major, Team Empire were given a place in the closed qualifier, where they would have a chance to prove they were just as deserving of a spot at the Major as their invited CIS rival, Na`Vi. But Empire faced strong competition at the qualifier from the likes of No Diggity, Ad Finem and Vega Squadron, with only a single qualifying spot on the line this time around.
Though they didn't outright dominate the group stage, Empire got stronger as the tournament wore on. They came second in their group, losing 2-0 to No Diggity and drawing 1-1 against Kaipi. In the playoff round, they were knocked to the Lower Bracket by Ad Finem, but got the runback after fighting their way through Vega and No Diggity. Ad Finem put up one hell of a fight in the Grand Final, but Team Empire persevered through the lengthy five game-series (for a total of eight games that day), securing themselves the qualifier slot.
When it comes to standout players on Team Empire, it’s easy to be distracted by the flashy plays from core players like RAMZES or Scandal. But just because everyone in DotaTV votes for the carry in the MVP poll doesn’t mean they're the reason the team took the win. KingR and Miposhka both deserve recognition for their massive teamfight impact.
The two supports' crowning achievement is without a doubt the execution of two teamfights in Game 2 of Team Empire vs. Team Secret in the ESL One Manila Group B decider's match. Ahead of the first fight, KingR's Rubick stole Black Hole from Puppey's Enigma, and Scandal baited Secret into clumping up — leading to a huge Vacuum/Wall of Replica/Black Hole combination, with Miposhka’s Enchantress dishing out damage from a safe distance.
Minutes later, Empire pulled off an even better combo, which will go down in Dota 2 history as one of the greats. Team Secret were smoked, trying to bring down RAMZES’ Spectre, but as soon as Puppey committed the Black Hole, KingR blinked in, stole it and caught all five members of Secret. Miposhka wasn’t close enough to help out initially, but with Aghanim’s, Dragon Lance, Moon Shard and a Demon Edge on his “support” Enchantress, he arrived just in time to help Ramzes clean up.
Empire went on to win the 72-minute nail-biter of a game, and followed it up with a win in Game 3 to clinch the series and eliminate the Shanghai Major champions.
Both fights are great examples of how the new Empire work as a unit. Stuns and ultimates are well-timed, rarely stacked and beautifully executed, and team communication looks strong. According to theScore esports' earlier interview with Ramzes, the team had been bootcamping before ESL Manila and returned to that bootcamp for The Manila Major qualifiers, and it would be foolish to believe that this didn’t have an impact on their play. Great team coordination starts with great communication and Team Empire certainly seem to have found that synergy.
With the qualifiers behind them, Empire have some time off to prepare for the Major. They sat out of EPICENTER: Moscow, since their qualification was rescinded after the roster overhaul, and they're not participating in the ProDotA Cup Europe #6. In addition to more potential bootcamp time, it was no doubt valuable for them to sit back and watch EPICENTER, where eight of the sixteen Major teams further developed the 6.87 meta. What remains to be seen is whether Team Empire can continue to be a giant-killer and take down the likes of Liquid and Secret at the Major, or whether they'll be stuck with another first-round finish and head back to the drawing board.
Annabelle "Abelle" Fischer is a writer for theScore esports with a love for Dota 2, birds and cheese. You can follow her on Twitter.