Animajor Preview: the tryhard dilemma

Marci, from Dota: Dragon’s Blood, looking through a telescope

Before the Singapore Major I wrote a preview which turned out to provide a fairly accurate overview of power rankings going into the event. While I’m inclined to make another attempt for the Animajor, it feels significantly more difficult this time round. This is because many teams are already qualified for TI now, with a full 9 teams locked in if we set our threshold of interest to 99%+ of being qualified.

Why should qualification status affect power rankings? Well, because, the reality is that Dota teams have a strong tradition of not trying their hardest for anything but TI. Those are the stakes that matter to them. What’s more, the argument goes, if you do show your best game even though you’re already qualified for TI, you stand the risk of undermining your own chances, by teaching your opponents things about your game they may not have previously understood. Good examples of this effect from this season are iG and Secret who both looked like shadows of their former selves during league play, no doubt due to a deprioritisation of their matches.

At the same time, a fact that often goes understated is that official matches, and particularly official matches on LAN, are by far the best form of training any team has. Scrims play their role, as do pubs, but the only real reps you have to put yourself to the test under real pressure against serious opponents are officials. Thus, the decision to hold back in officials can be potentially counterproductive. This is what I am calling the tryhard dilemma. On the one hand, having already qualified for TI, there is an incentive to conceal strategies. On the other hand, this decision has a very real opportunity cost. You blunt your own training and reduce your momentum going into TI.

The tryhard dilemma

It is an unfortunate reality of the Dota ecosystem that TI dwarfs everything else. For now, it means that most decisions made by teams will be made with this singular goal in mind. The fact that Majors and leagues offer comparatively small prize pools, especially for top-earning teams, only exacerbates this effect. Thus it easy to see why a team that qualifies for TI early on might see little value in trying hard in the interim.

While this effect is difficult to measure, my own bias is that this analysis has been prematurely accepted as a norm throughout the industry, with teams exaggerating the pros of taking it easy once qualified, and vastly underestimating the cons.

Concealing strategies

Hiding your best strategies is one of the top reasons cited for holding back once already qualified. I think this is a valid argument, but it is not without its own limitations. For one thing, the Dota game and metagame both change tremendously quickly — meaning that if you qualified for TI 3-4 months ahead of time, the strategies you consider to be your best today might not even be viable by the time TI arrives. Another issue is that TI is an event whose sheer scale makes it transformative with respect to metagame. This means that even strategies that were good immediately before TI might fall by the wayside half way into the event. So while there is some sense in carefully selecting concepts to conceal where possible, a blanket policy of hiding things you’re good at feels like an exaggerated conclusion to reach.

Protecting against burnout

As an ardent mental health advocate, I am completely in favour of teams taking steps to ensure the health and wellbeing of their players. I think it would be entirely valid to step things down to some degree if already qualified for TI. However, in practice what we tend to see is teams dramatically reducing their Dota hours, playing far fewer pubs, and passing their time playing other games. This, again, feels like an exaggerated response, and the elimination of competitive routine can be just as harmful to one’s mental health as overdoing it can be.

The danger of absolutes

The strand of thought which ties the above two sections together is that the question of whether or not to try hard is too easily reduced to the extremes of give-it-your-all versus don’t-even-bother. I have sympathy for teams here because it is inherently difficult to conceptualise what it means to “try hard just a bit less” or “try kinda hard”. Competitors train themselves to do everything they can to win, and once they make certain concessions it’s hard not to let others in. This is why deciding to hold back is such a fraught decision, because inevitably you end up holding back much more than is useful, and jeopardising your own development in the process.

What does this mean for the Animajor?

Regardless of how you evaluate the decision to hold back, what we do know is we can expect some teams to hold back to varying degrees at the Major. This makes it very difficult to try predict levels of play based on historical data, because we have a strong reason to expect performances not to neatly follow the historical data.

If we were to bracket that concern for a moment, my primary analysis coming into this Major would be the same as for the last one. We should still expect China to be the strongest region for all the same reasons I argued last time. Interestingly, there is one Chinese team attending the Major that still has significant work to do to qualify for TI: Vici Gaming. Thus, even though VG will start in the Wildcard section of the tournament, my top prediction would be a deep run from them this time round.

Southeast Asian teams might surprise you

A more contentious call I will make is that, contrary to popular concerns that SEA might only field one team at TI this year, I expect them to hit two or maybe even three. T1 were abysmal at the last Major, but they competed without their captain and key player Kuku, who will be in attendance this time. His impact in the team is nothing short of transformative. They also theoretically only need to win one series to lock a spot for TI.

Meanwhile, TNC are a team with a long history of rising to the occasion at LANs. More importantly, they have taken positive steps to address key problems in recent months. Having spent years switching between all Filipino lineups and importing foreign leaders, they may finally have found a player who is both Filipino and a solid leadership candidate in Boombacs. Although Boombacs is dealing with the classic SEA problem of being a pos 4 player transitioning to pos 5 out of necessity, in his case he’s already half way there having already captained from pos 4 for many years. Meanwhile the re-introduction of Paulo Sy as a performance coach should also give a significant boost, considering the integral role he played in solidifying the team’s identity and culture over the years.

European Renaissance

Having been paraded as the strongest region in Dota for a few years now, Europe significantly under-performed as a region at the previous Major, with only Secret reaching the top 8. Going into the Animajor this pressure will be particularly felt by Liquid and Nigma, who both require very solid runs in order to qualify for TI at this tournament. More than anyone I expect Nigma to be on the warpath, after a genuinely embarrassing showing in Singapore. ILTW looks to have slotted in fairly quickly, and Miracle is showing hints of his best form again, making me feel confident that Nigma will be the team emerging from the wildcards alongside VG. They are also a squad who have a long history of growing through an event, and in that sense starting all the way at the bottom might suit them if they can get a good run going.

Liquid on the other hand are something of a mystery to me. Taiga and Insania have been the standout support duo in Europe for some time now, and the top end of this team looks like TI-winning stuff. Somehow, in spite of this, there is also another face to Liquid which can capitulate too easily under the right kind of pressure. For them the challenge is consistency, finding a way to bring their A game every game. The presence of standin Sumail might seal the deal in either direction here. Will his championship level experience embolden the team to punch higher, or will the presence of a standin allow for easier hemorrhaging if things take a turn for the worse?

Conclusion

It’s frustrating to analyse a field in which only half the competing teams are guaranteed to bring their best. I expect deep runs from VG, Nigma and TNC, and believe T1 have enough in their tank to just about get there. I’m not qualified enough to go into detail about Liquid right now except insofar as I can see their level of play has varied too much.

Other teams in attendance who are still very much fighting for TI spots are Execration, Gambit, Spirit and NoPing. I do not expect any of these teams to be a walkover, and any one of them are capable of a deep run. I just think none of them have the pedigree of teams like VG, Nigma or TNC to suggest such a run is likely going into the event.

Lastly, there are some teams who, despite already qualifying for TI, I sort of expect might make a big push at winning the Major anyway. Those are Beastcoast — who I judge to be criminally underrated, and who will likely give it their all after missing the previous event, EG — who will always have a chip on their shoulder about not winning things until they…win more things, VP — who I felt underperformed in Singapore, needing to get more LAN experience under their belts, and will be desperate to show what they’re really made of and Aster — who didn’t get a proper showing last event having to use a stand-in, and who are quite probably objectively the number one team in the world right now.

Anthony is a former Dota 2 coach and commentator. He is currently studying towards his Masters in Public Health.