There’s a running joke in both sports and esports commentary around the idea that winning teams often have more belief than their opponents. Most analysts don’t take the concept very seriously and yet, these kinds of cliches almost always contain a kernel of truth. In this case, that truth is that belief is required for confidence and confidence plays a crucial role in success. Far from a sufficient condition, confidence is the most critical necessary condition for success.
TNC, in all likelihood, are the team attending TI7 with the most belief. That belief, however, is about more than just themselves. TNC are a religious team, all of them observant Catholics, and this has several benefits for them as a Dota 2 team.
For one, the players all pray before every match. Whatever your metaphysical views, there are practical benefits of this kind of ritual. It’s a shared activity, an opportunity to bond, and a commitment to something bigger than yourself. That kind of shared feeling of being part of something bigger is difficult to come upon. It is, incidentally, the same kind of feeling that makes fans feel a genuine commitment to teams they support over a long time.
This season it’s been fairly uncontroversial that TNC have been the strongest SEA team. In fact, Febby (of Fnatic, their closest contenders during the TI qualifier) went as far as saying that TNC were the only tier 1 team in the region with every other team falling into the tier 2 category. With Fnatic’s recent form it’s difficult to agree with this statement but its significance doesn’t depend on whether or not it’s true; it’s an insight into the perspective of competitors.
Following this kind of status, it will not surprise you that most other SEA teams have considered TNC’s primary weakness to be their tendency to be overconfident or cocky at times. It’s a habit that can seriously undermine a team’s success. In this case, however, the team’s faith acts as a kind of constraint on their egos. Yes, some amount of cockiness is unavoidable when you’re very successful, and the accompanying confidence is actually a valuable asset. But a player like Kuku, for example, could easily be undone by his own arrogance.
Kuku is widely considered to be the best mid laner in SEA with many expecting him to go toe to toe with the top international mid players in Seattle. Star player of Mineski in 2016, Kuku parted ways with the organisation due to a contractual dispute. It didn’t take long for him to join up with TNC, replacing the young WinterGSmallSon who himself was judged to be too immature for the position. This is important because what it means is that Kuku joined the team to play outside of his usual mid position, the one which he’d shone so brightly in. This willingness already demonstrates a kind of cap on his ego.
As luck would have it, Teehee ended up stepping down as the mid player for personal reasons, Kuku got to play mid, the team top 8'd TI6 (knocking out OG in the process) and the rest is history. Well, except for the fact that this degree of success again threatened to get into the players’ heads. Add to that a dominant run for the latter half of this season, and it’s no wonder opponents talk about the team as having a problem with overconfidence.
Paulo Sy, the unsung hero of TNC
It is criminal that so little is publicly known about TNC’s manager, Paulo Sy. Those who paid close attention to the team will have noticed his impact. You might recall that for a very long time TNC looked to be the strongest team in SEA but consistently lost out against Mineski in the finals of qualifiers. The primary change that preceded them finally overcoming Mineski had nothing to do with Dota and everything to do with the hiring of a new manager. Prior to Paulo, the team had only had a very unofficial and part-time manager. With Paulo came a new sense of order and professionalism.
But more importantly, discipline. Paulo, like his players, is a very religious man. And he has managed to utilise this connection to the team’s benefit. Because of their shared faith, Paulo was able to quickly assume the role of ‘life coach’ in addition to being the manager. He has, since then, effortlessly juggled both responsibilities and managed to excel at the fine art of keeping your players happy while also keeping them in line. TNC are the only Filipino team in this position. The region is fraught with teams full of young, undisciplined talents and this is probably why importing foreigner leaders is becoming more and more popular.
In Dota 2, the impact of a good manager is horribly underrated. Speaking as a coach, I can unequivocally say that for most teams a good manager is more important than a good coach. While people tend to consider managers to be glorified babysitters — and in many respects they can be — the truth is that their organisational skills have a very direct effect on the results of their teams. Esports is still in its infancy. In the current climate, when you get to the point where all you have to worry about is your actual job playing Dota, you’re already ahead of 99% of the field.
It cannot be overemphasized just how vital Paulo’s role in TNC is to this day.
Sam_H, the sacrificial lamb
While it would be reaching a bit to assume a causal connection, there is one more important religious comparison which feels appropriate here. Sam_H is the only player in the current TNC team to have been there since the start in 2015. He has been in every single version of the team, and in fact it’s the only professional team he’s ever been in. Despite being headhunted by other teams, particularly during periods of poor results, Sam has always remained loyal to his organisation.
Early on TNC was all about Eyyou and Teehee. They carried their other three teammates in almost every game. A paragon of humility, and said to have always brought a positive atmosphere to the team, Sam did well to learn all he could and quickly joined the ranks of his seniors, shifting the carrying load into a trio rather than a duo. These days he is considered to be one of the best offlaners in the world. All while maintaining a neutral and humble attitude, never the cause of internal conflicts — a very rare quality in a Dota player.
But in the current TNC Sam has, more often than not, become the sacrificial lamb. This is significant because there is a tradition of top SEA teams having offlaners who, we joke, are actually playing the carry role. This was true of Ohaiyo until very recently. It’s always been true of Iceiceice. Bimbo is now excelling as Execration’s offlaner. Velo played the same role in Geek Fam. Anyone could see that Yaj’s role in Happyfeet involved a lot of farm. And the same is even true for how Mag played in his recent stint on Mineski. Something about how the local meta works seems to drive carry-minded players into the offlane role in SEA.
But not Sam_H. Despite repeatedly proving his ability to play that exact role, these days Sam is almost always sacked by his team. In the vast majority of games he gets zero attention from his supports. The team is unofficially known as ‘the Kuku show’, a reference to how plan A involves Kuku carrying the game. Plan B is Raven. Sam_H is the guy who fills in the gaps. And no matter how little help he’s given, no matter how difficult a lane he has to face, he always finds a way to contribute to the game. His faith in his teammates empowers him to be the ultimate team player, a true example of a person who lives in service of something greater than himself.