In February 2016 the rest of the world laughed as Chinese Dota was humiliated at the Shanghai Major. China had been on top of Dota 2 since the advent of the game. People talk about TI winners alternating between China and ‘the West’ but in truth TI winners only tell a small part of the story. How well represented is each region at TI and how well do they do? How well does each region do during the other 355 days of the year?

By most metrics Chinese Dota was dominant for five years, right up until the Shanghai Major. And then the biggest Chinese LAN ever saw the home ground competitors thoroughly undone. Many commentators claimed that coming shortly after Chinese New Year meant the local teams were not well prepared. Some argued that Chinese teams only care about TI.

Swindlemelonzz, whose compLexity team had a breakout performance finishing 6th at the event, claimed it had been a long time coming; that Chinese teams had finally been punished for their laziness. Chuan, who attended the event with Newbee, suggested the problem was more related to a failure of youth development in the region.

After the Shanghai Major Swindlemelonzz openly called the Chinese scene out for being lazy.

The truth is that most of the Chinese teams attending the event had been in very good shape leading up to it. Indeed, by all accounts EHOME entered the Major as clear favourites. To this day, what actually transpired remains something of a mystery. Probably, some combination of the above factors were at play. But even so, we never quite got the full picture.

The facts now

Yes, Wings won TI6. But Wings were not representative of your average Chinese team in 2016. In fact, they were quite the opposite. Probably, their success, and CDEC’s before them, was part of what led to the return to Chinese dominance we are currently seeing. For now, lets look at some context.

Five Chinese teams participated in the Shanghai Major, with all five teams finishing in the bottom eight. This was far and away the worst China had done in any significant Dota event ever. For the sake of convenience, lets narrow our focus to Valve events. A clear narrative will quickly appear.

Across all six official Valve events prior to the Shanghai Major, 31 Chinese teams were in attendance with 23 top eight appearances, a whopping 74%. The worst attendance-to-top-eight rate achieved by China was at the first International (the one that occurred only two weeks after Chinese teams got access to Dota 2) with only two of four teams making the cut. 0% of Chinese teams attending the Shanghai Major reached the top eight.

But it didn’t end there. If you consider the five Valve events starting with the Shanghai Major, 25 Chinese teams attended the events with only eight finishing in the top half. That’s 32%. A lot less than 74. From this perspective it looks like the Shanghai Major was far from an isolated incident. Rather, it was the beginning of a significant slump in Chinese Dota, a departure from five years of dominance prior.

TI7

Almost two years later, China is taking Seattle by storm. Of the five Chinese teams at TI, four of them are in the top eight. That’s 80%, the highest conversion rate since TI4’s 100%. And it’s not just top eight. Newbee and LFY are already guaranteed top three while iG will at least finish in the final six. On top of this, by now it’s widely accepted that Chinese teams — in particular LFY — have set the metagame for the event.

Eight teams remain, half of them Chinese.

How do we explain the turnaround?

Perhaps the best place to start is by revisiting some of the explanations offered for China’s downfall at the time of the Shanghai Major.

Only TI matters

Long before the Major system existed it was widely believed that Chinese teams only cared about TI. For the first half of a season they’d not show promising results and then, around the time of the Chinese New Year, things would pick up and all of the top teams would start to rapidly improve. This attitude was not and is not limited to China, but has always been exaggerated within the region.

When the Majors were first announced, it was speculated as to whether this might lead to a change in the ‘TI or nothing’ attitude. Since most of the Valve events after Shanghai have been Majors and most of those before were TI’s, this is probably the beginning of a good explanation. But it cannot be a complete one because of China’s overall poor showing at TI6. Wings were far and away the best team in the tournament and EHOME had a breakout performance. But Newbee, LGD and VG.R did very poorly.

If the shift in results over the past two years was only about TI, we’d expect Chinese teams to have done significantly better at TI6. In any event, with the newly overhauled Major & Minor system, there will no longer be a dispute on this topic. Chinese teams will be forced to take Dota seriously all year round or very few of them will be qualifying for TI8.

Laziness

Back in Shanghai, Swindlezz was the most vocal in criticizing Chinese teams for being lazy. However, it was a widely shared sentiment that lucrative streaming deals had damaged the motivation of Chinese players and reduced their competitive focus.

This does seem to be something that has changed. Part of it is that the region-defining players are less and less the top earning streamers (although this is bound to change soon enough). But primary credit belongs to CDEC and Wings, whose performances at TI5 and TI6 seem to have inspired a new enthusiasm for Dota in the region as well as a new generation of aspiring pros.

Lack of youth

On that note, the issue of youth is actually a controversial one. While Chuan believed that youth development in China was far behind the West, the timing of his criticism was a bit off. It’s true that Western teams started identifying and recruiting new talents before China did. But by the time of the Shanghai Major Chinese Dota wasn’t just the old guard anymore. Players like Cty, Fy, Fenrir, Rabbit, Maybe, Zyf, Agressif, Garder, Q, Kaka, old chicken and old eleven were among those who had recently established themselves as fixtures in tier one teams.

Chuan considered Chinese teams to be neglecting youth development and falling behind.

And most of the top organisations in China had already established youth teams. What’s changed since the Shanghai Major is that this process has started to gradually accelerate. Teams are starting to form multiple youth teams instead of just one. Significantly, the number of matches being played by Chinese teams has increased substantially with the addition of league format, season-spanning events like DPL.

So even though there were problems with Chuan’s criticism, it does link to an area in which China has made improvements over the past two years. Boboka, XXS, Sccc, Paparazi, Ame, Victoria and Monet are certainly good examples. Despite all this, it still feels like the popular explanations for Shanghai didn’t capture the whole picture and, similarly, these accounts don’t explain the TI7 situation fully.

Further explanations

Absurd as it may sound, one significant reason for China’s rise is ‘the ah fu effect’. China is the only region that still rarely mixes with players from other nationalities. There are obvious reasons for this — like the language barrier — but the fact is that the increased globalisation of Dota 2 has resulted in stronger teams in every other region (one basic reason for this is the spreading of ideas, which often vary substantially across regions). Even so, there is precedent for Chinese speaking SEA players giving Chinese teams big boosts, most prominently Chuan, Mushi and Iceiceice.

“Ah fu god”, as he is commonly referred to nowadays

Ah fu looks to have added his name to that list of legends. After joining LFY the team’s results immediately started improving up until the point that just prior to TI7 they were suggested to be the strongest team in China. In 2016, Ah fu’s roaming (and leadership) were the primary reason for WG.Unity’s surprise qualification for the Boston Major. While it’s difficult to know if any of his leadership qualities are contributing to LFY, it’s obvious to anyone that his roaming has been central to the team’s development and success.

And what I’m calling ‘the ah fu effect’ is how improving his team leads to improving the other top teams. Most of the top Chinese teams entered TI7 with a greater sense of identity than their Western counterparts. This is likely to be related to the fact that they’d had greater access to LFY, the team that has been defining the metagame. So, it’s easy to imagine that an injection of a world class foreign player has been a big positive for the Chinese scene.

Finally, at some point it’s important to directly acknowledge that the Chinese teams at TI7 are just playing Dota really well. While the above factors do play a role, that role is necessarily interlinked with what is simply an increased level of execution. Chinese teams seem to be more in sync in their movements and playing the map better on balance. Individual players like Faith, Super and Inflame are also showing the best performances of their lives.

The Shanghai Major was the lowest point in history for Chinese Dota. But perhaps that kind of humiliation was just what the scene needed in the long run. As Alfred says, the reason we fall is so that we can learn to pick ourselves up.

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