Kaka vs Kaka, a mental challenge
Despite a multitude of first and second place finishes for Newbee this season, the team has come under fire for their performances at Majors, placing in the bottom half in Boston and Kiev. Western analysts have pointed out that Kaka’s performances have been unstable. In the current patch where a roamer’s impact on a game plays a defining role, this can be extremely costly to their team.
In China, criticisms run deeper, offering a potential explanation for this problem. Kaka, it is said, has become arrogant. And this is not a new criticism of the player. The argument goes that back in HGT Kaka was still a breakout talent, thriving in his newfound spotlight and yet humble in the face of praise. But humility is a difficult quality to maintain when you continuously succeed.
The Kaka of EHOME and Newbee is said to have grown an ego, his awareness of his own talent sometimes creating a kind of entitlement which undermines his own success. Amongst other things, a player in this position might not train as hard as they should and is prone to underestimating their opponents. Where his individual performances has suffered, this has become a common explanation offered by Chinese critics and fans alike.
Less frequently discussed is how Kaka’s dips in form can impact the team outside of potentially unsuccessful roaming. This is a much bigger problem. Spend any time watching Newbee at a LAN and you will quickly discover that Kaka is much more than just the team’s 4 position. He is the leader and, despite appearances, the de facto drafter. Yes, Faith is the one clicking on heroes during the draft, but without exception he will defer to Kaka’s judgment. Similarly, while several players call shots during the game, it is Kaka who calls most often and most assertively.
But Newbee have been doing really well lately, you say. They’ve won two smaller LANs and gotten 2nd and 3rd at a two much bigger ones. Surely the timing of this critique is all wrong?
That would be true were it not the International itself approaching. The biggest event of the year brings with it the greatest pressures of the year. This is the ultimate test of mental fortitude for every team. And in addition to the uncertain state of Kaka’s mind, Newbee carry some institutional baggage with them. While still in its infancy, Dota 2 as an esport has reached a point of institutional continuity such that some organisations do indeed carry significant history and context which influences the identity and expectations of their players.
Nothing like the ‘winning mentality’ that people attribute to Manchester United or Real Madrid, but we do see the beginnings of similar traditions. OG, the team expected to win every Major. EG, the team expected to top 4 anything they attend. Empire, no matter their strength, expected to struggle at TI. C9, always the bridesmaid never the bride.
Some general traditions exist with respect to TI champions. No champion has ever repeated their success. Indeed, no champion has even won a Major. And every TI champion has, a few months after their victory, fallen into a slump. We see that winning TI is usually followed by a kind of burnout, particularly in motivation. But, more to the point, any team that has previously won a TI comes with expectations from their fans — that they might win again, or at least be great again.
The downfall of teams like Na’Vi and Alliance can at least partly be traced back to this kind of thinking. When you’re a top 32 team the logical thing to do is aim for top 16. If you’re top 16, aim for top 8. But if you’re top 32 and aiming for 1st, that’s going to get into your head. You’re going to treat small failures as big failures. In fact, you might even treat small successes as failures. Being a player who has won before in an organisation that has won before will compound this effect but, make no mistake, the effect is there regardless of whether you were part of the team that won.
Having won TI4, Newbee fall into this category. From the fans, the organisation, and the players alike, there has got to be a little voice in the back of their minds telling them that they should be able to come first. Hell, almost every team at TI will believe nothing but first is good enough. This is obviously absurd as only one team comes first every year and for weaker teams simply making top 8 or top 4 should be a clear cause for celebration. Confidence is important, and believing you can or even will win can actually improve your chances of winning. But a greater, more realistic, perspective is also required to inform the underlying expectations of a team.
For past TI winners, there can be no doubt that a comparison, conscious or not, is being made. And while much of 2014 Newbee’s success is attributed to xiao8’s leadership, Kaka is the player currently occupying that position. He has the trust of his teammates, he has the larger-than-life presence. He has the ability to lead and the talent to control the early game. But whether he is able to conquer his own mind will be his, and Newbee’s, biggest challenge.