Singapore Major preview: China will reign supreme

Disclaimer: In 2021 I do not consider myself a Dota 2 expert. I have reduced the amount of time I spend playing, watching and analysing the game, and I have not cast any games or coached any players or teams in over a year.

Because of this, my analysis will primarily be of the zoomed out sort. An advantage of this may be that it is easier for more people to engage with. However a disadvantage is that the devil is often in the details, and there may be broad claims that I make which just aren’t true in specific cases because of details I’m simply ignorant about and unqualified to discuss.

Power Rankings

When I first set out to do a Major preview, my initial idea was to write a piece about power rankings. While I no longer think this is the best way to structure my ideas, I figured since some readers might want a quick summary, I’d include my original power rankings all the same. (Note: these rankings were done before any news regarding teams or players dropping out, but discussion below will take that into account.)

  1. Secret
  2. iG
  3. Aster
  4. PSG.LGD
  5. VG
  6. Beastcoast
  7. VP
  8. EG

Bonus: 9-10. Alliance/Fnatic

The most striking thing about my rankings is probably the placement of all four Chinese teams near the top of the pack. This will be the primary topic of discussion in this article. But before we get to that, I will briefly explain why I’ve put the other four listed teams in the positions they are in.

Secret

I consider Secret to be the best team in the world. I’d be surprised if this was controversial at this point. You’d have to really not respect empirical evidence to not start with this assumption. Aside from the old VP roster, no team has seriously challenged Secret’s dominance outside of TI for a very long time.

To my mind they owe an enormous amount of their success to captain Puppey, who I consider to be the greatest Dota player of all time (perhaps this one is slightly more controversial, but this is not the right article to go into detail on this). While Puppey’s leadership style is a major source of strength for Secret outside of TI, I would argue that it is also a significant weakness at TI. Simply put, a tournament which shakes foundations is particularly dangerous for a team that builds itself on only one foundation.

That said, the Singapore Major is not TI, and the evidence to support Secret outside of TI is just too compelling to ignore. It’s also worth noting here that even though I will later motivate for why I expect China to be a stronger region than EU right now, I think Secret are still ahead of the pack because they are just that good.

Beastcoast

Although Beastcoast have since withdrawn from the Major, I decided to keep them in my rankings precisely because I think they routinely go unrecognised amongst the best teams, even though they tick just about every box.

Beastcoast are one of the teams who have most been impacted by the past year of COVID-19, both because they have faced more restrictive circumstances associated with the pandemic, and because their region is still catching up to the rest of the world in strength. This means they’ve had less opportunity to function normally as a team, and also less opportunity to practice against strong opponents.

However, if you take a moment to actually look at them, they are more or less the dream setup. Very experienced supports guiding ultra talented young cores brimming with confidence. Amazing team cohesion. Creativity. Identity. While Beastcoast will miss out on the Major, I would expect to see them winning big in the not so distant future.

VP

Under the leadership of Save- (who looks primed to be the next generation’s Puppey) the current iteration of VP are starting to look more and more suited to the reputation their predecessors earned for the organisation.

The only reason I haven’t got them higher up in the rankings is because they are still a relatively young roster, both in terms of player experience and in terms of experience as a team. I believe this roster could potentially climb to the same heights as the 2017–2019 VP but they will need a few LANs under their belt before they can get there.

Of course if they are unable to play with Nightfall (or even if they are, but couldn’t train with him), this will be a further constraint on their ability to perform at this event.

EG

While a lot of people appear to consider EG’s big weakness to be their predictability, I’m of the opinion that their systematic approach to drafting also represents a strength. In an age where “flex picks” have become all but fetishized, there is something to be said for constructing systems that work for your team and competing within them. I believe Bulba deserves a lot of the credit (or blame) for this approach.

My concern about EG is not that they are predictable, but that they are predictably doing the wrong thing. Specifically, I disagree with their decision to prioritise Arteezy over Abed. While Abed is able to play stable mid heroes that just have to do their job, I think he excels a lot more as a win condition. Conversely, while Arteezy is able to be a win condition, I think his major strength is his ability to find farm regardless of the situation.

Thus, my view is that protecting Arteezy’s farm is inefficient, and so is showing Abed’s hero early in the draft. I believe EG could ascend further in the ranks if they reversed this situation. As things stand, I expect their ceiling to be a bit lower.

So why China?

I expect a lot of people will be surprised to see all four Chinese teams ranked from 2–5. The first thing I want to say is that their internal ordering is fairly arbitrary, with all four having looked like they might be the big boss on their day. I have ordered them roughly according to the finishes in the qualifiers, to respect that achievement, and because they will be seeded accordingly.

In reality things might end up differently. Aster in particular, having lost one half of their crucial playmaking duo — affectionately known as the Sakura Bros — are likely to perform below expectations. Even so, I believe there are a number of very good reasons to expect that the Chinese region as a whole will outperform the other regions at this event.

To understand this, it is helpful to look back in time. Long ago, before international LANs were a regular commonplace thing, China was the undisputed leading Dota region. You usually had 1–2 Western teams challenging the big Chinese teams when the occasional LAN did happen (think Na’Vi, Alliance) but if you looked at the bigger picture it was China that dominated.

What changed? Well, one of the main things that changed was precisely the increased regularity of international LANs. My primary contention today is that this benefited Western teams (and in particular EU) the most, and benefited China the least. Why? Because historically (and indeed, to this day) Chinese teams have been more preoccupied with perfecting and refining strategies than they are with exploring new ones. This is not to say that Chinese teams lack creativity, but rather that they usually don’t prioritise it as much.

For Chinese teams, the primary objective of training is to arrive at the best version of the best strategy. Meanwhile, in EU, there is much more emphasis on diversity, with training used a lot more for experimentation. The immediate upshot of this is that we should expect Chinese teams to dominate when their version of the best strategy actually is the best strategy. Unfortunately, Dota is a game that moves very quickly, and the weakness of investing all your time into perfecting one style of play is that dominant styles of play change all the time.

I believe that EU overtook China because of a greater aptitude for adaptation and improvisation. And I believe this advantage to be at an all time low in terms of relevance when considering the Singapore Major. This is because for the past year we have essentially gone back to the time before regular international LANs. Without opportunities for EU teams to engage with and compete against Chinese teams, there is less room for them to adapt to, mimic, and learn to beat Chinese strategies.

If TI8 grand finals was a bo3, LGD would have won 2–1. Longer series, regular LANs, greater interregional mixing: these things all favour EU teams because they are allowed more time to adjust, adapt, mimic, and overcome. My contention today is that the current climate does not look like that. The current climate has seen teams missing not just international LANs, but being isolated pretty much with in their own singular region.

Supporting arguments

China is also the region that is least damaged by a lack of interregional mixing because the depth of quality inside the region is the greatest. There are so many strong competitive teams that even if one or two teams won’t scrim with you you’re still going to find partners to engage with and learn from. Even though EU is a very strong region, if you can’t scrim against, say, Secret, that’s a really big deal. Admittedly EU is probably has the second greatest depth of quality, so the gap between the two on these grounds is not so pronounced. But certainly this is in an area in which Chinese teams have an advantage over teams like EG or Fnatic.

Meanwhile, while the broader context favours China, the immediate context does too. Ordinarily teams arrive well in advance of a big LAN to allow for time to scrim at the location prior to an event. This is not the case for the Singapore Major. Teams are arriving mere days before competing. This is yet another form of restricted interregional preparation. But it’s also an advantage in terms of mental and physical preparedness. Travelling from China to Singapore is a short distance with no change in time zone. Chinese teams could train until just before the event, and won’t have to manage jet lag. The same is not true for teams travelling from EU or the Americas.

Conclusion

Ultimately, there are number of fairly compelling reasons to expect a Chinese resurgence at the Singapore Major. Dota 2 is a complex esport with various factors contributing to success. Right now it looks like the factors that usually disadvantage Chinese teams are the least apparent they have been in many years. It remains to be seen if this context will be enough for Chinese teams to overcome the final boss though — Team Secret.

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