theWonderCow, December 29, 2016

Looking Ahead to Dota Esports in 2017

It’s tough to say what the future holds for Dota 2, given that we’ve just torn up and replaced the foundations while still living in the house. That can create a turbulent living experience, once that we’re sure to love, and at times hate, in the early parts of the year.

By the end of this year, we’ll have seen a couple of dozen notable professional games on 7.00, which have so far hit many of the benchmarks I predicted when first reading the patch: specifically, much higher kill focuses. Outside of the game, we’re looking at some important narratives that will begin to break down as the new year approaches.

Will China Finally Balance Power?

Last year, China’s elite teams imploded after a historically poor regional showing at the Shanghai Major, a failure with such extreme gravitational pull that almost a year later the region still struggles to escape it. As the region hit turbulence, Wings were a relatively unknown team with clear potential, but it was only their stability during the third-party qualifiers after the Shanghai Major that gave them an opportunity to compete at LANs, which rapidly accelerated their improvement.

That led to one Chinese team taking home the championship at The International in 2016, but the rest of the region is still struggling. China wildly underperformed at the Boston Major, due in part to multiple teams losing players to visa issues and an unfavorable single-elimination bracket for the region as a whole. Watch China carefully, even if you aren’t normally a fan of the region’s teams, because how they react will likely be one of the biggest ongoing stories of 2017.

Most teams in the region use contracts which revolve around the Chinese New Year, which is normally later in the winter but happens at the end of January this year. Valve’s roster locks will hit on January 9, ostensibly close enough to contract ends that teams may be able to drop or trade players if they so desire.

If they shuffle and can’t find stability, the next Major may yet go unfortunately for them. That would lead into another likely mass shuffle (the final allowed shuffle before The International) shortly before this year’s Dota 2 Asia Championships, the sequel event to Dota’s first-ever third-party million-dollar event.

Should China not shuffle heavily, either due to an inability to work around contracts or an unwillingness to make roster determinations from a skewed Major bracket, expect Newbee, Wings, EHOME and LGD to continue to lead the way for a regional recovery. There’s always room for upset, though, especially with some of the newer squads such as VCJ of LFY, both teams with individual experience on their side.

Any teams that escape 2017 without recovering from their Shanghai flops are likely to go the way of obscurity in the region (we’re talking former power houses Vici Gaming and CDEC especially). It wouldn’t be the first time a major organization became irrelevant in the region (remember Team DK?). 

Will Secret and Liquid Recover from the TI6 Shuffle?

Europe had a similar experience after The International 2017 as China had after the Shanghai Major, although not nearly as extreme. Dota is becoming increasingly more competitive, and teams that go into major events as obvious favorites actually play with a heavy disadvantage as all opponents have studied them ahead of events. “If we win this, we'll be one of the first who came in as the top dogs and actually won the whole thing,” Fly told me just before TI6’s main event. “Secret last year, they looked great, then failed miserably, these things happen. It's hard.”

He attributed that not just to the target effect, where teams are focused in research and preparation due to recent success, but also to a struggle in maintaining competitive drive and focus. Secret and Liquid both had spikes of success last year, but at the moment appear to be off the radar looking ahead at 2017. That vacuum has left room for teams such as Ad Finem to step into the spotlight, which is great for fans.

How Secret approaches this draft will be tremendously important to the region as a whole. Clement “Puppey” Ivanov is arguably Dota’s most successful captain of all time, with only OG’s Fly beginning to rival him with his unprecedented three Major wins. But his preferred strategies are all greedy, and his last two team compositions have picked up heavy farmers (EternalEnvy and Arteezy together) or extremely aggressive players (MP, Forev), neither of which were styles which fit into the Secret mindset well.

At the moment, Secret is playing with Khezu (formerly Escape) but watch them during this shuffle. Doi they hold onto MidOne and MP, working a truly international roster with significantly different strategic backgrounds? If they can’t pull something together, they’ll be unlikely to qualify for The International 2017 as fledgling squads pass them by (a very similar narrative to what we saw in China since the Shanghai Major).

Liquid also never recovered from their post TI-6 shuffle: although Miracle was often conjectured to be one of the world’s best mids, he was heavily reliant on the world’s best roaming support (former teammate Cr1t) who now captains EG. Despite significant competitive history, Bulba often struggles to find his place in any team he joins. Liquid may need to consider a roster change in the new year to recover their former peak.

Why are these things important? Remember Ad Finem, the Greeks of Boston? That team would never have made it to the LAN if Team Liquid and Team Secret were playing their peak game. Ad Finem eliminated both of them 0-2, and that was before they improved so drastically over the fall. When giants fall in rank, it opens space for new players and teams to make a name for themselves.

Watch CIS and South America

The next Major will have a qualifier for CIS and South America, which may impact the number of seats available for Europe and North America. That would really hit the regions hard, especially in North America where four teams of varying experience compete for what is usually only three seats. It’s possible the next Major will only see two of them to the main event, which is potentially bad news for Complexity and NP.

Virtus.pro has revitalized the CIS scene, and this shuffle will be important for the region: Na’Vi missed the CIS shuffle because they qualified for The International 2016 and no other teams from their region did. By the time that event was over, every other team had already made roster decisions, giving them no real option but to remain stable. This shuffle, they are with the region and as such may be the instigators in a mix-up that will set a new course for 2017. How Virtus.pro fares in 2017 and where the region goes will be one of the important narratives to watch in the coming months.

This couldn’t be more impactful given that the next Major will be the first to be hosted in the region.

As for South America, we’ve only seen one South American team reach a notable event, when Team Unknown competed at the Frankfurt Major. It’s possible that guaranteeing a South American team to the Major will give these teams more equal experience against the best of other regions, and that could improve the region as a whole (a process that has similarly buoyed Southeast Asia at times).

Already scheduled for the year: The Kiev Major, Starladder i-League Starseries Season 3, and the promised return of DAC. With DAC, it’s unlikely that we see the return of EPICENTER, but it’s not beyond possibility that there is an early-summer EPICENTER as well. And then The International 2017.

It’s going to be a good year.

theWonderCow

With years in esports publishing, broadcasting, and analysis, Gorgon's specialized focus on locking down trends in Dota has landed him as a featured writer for joinDOTA, the Score, Dotabuff, and more. You can reach him on twitter.com/theWonderCow.