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The road to The International 8 for Team Liquid, last year’s champions

Team Liquid continues to make their mark well after lifting the Aegis of Champions last year. Will they do it again?

Team Liquid at The International 8
Valve via flickr

Team Liquid is a storied name in esports. It’s one of the few brands still standing from the early days of competitive gaming, with a mix of community efforts and high-level teams across a number of sports. Founded in 2000, Liquid pre-dates even the oldest versions of Defense of the Ancients, and when games such as Starcraft and DotA became competitive, the forums became a central hub for fans.

Most importantly to Dota 2 fans, Team Liquid is an Aegis-winning squad. Their efforts in Dota 2 began in 2012, and five years later, their 2017 iteration of the squad took The International 7 in dramatic fashion.

Now, they’re in the running again, and Dota 2 fans and Team Liquid fans are now patiently waiting for the answer to the big question: Will they win the biggest event in Dota 2 again?

The short answer to what sometimes ends up being a long-winded issue is that Team Liquid will be at The International once again and, just as importantly, are as much of a threat as they were last year. Whether that threat level is Aegis-winning again depends on, for one, superstition — but it’s especially whether you think they’ve held up in the last year.

Before victory

Most of the pieces for this team have been in place since after The International 5, so Lasse “MATUMBAMAN” Urpalainen, Ivan “MinD_ContRoL” Ivanov and Kuro “KuroKy” Salehi Takhasomi got plenty of time to work out team chemistry. The final two were swapped into the squad after a disappointing finish at The International 6: Amer “Miracle-” Al-Barkawi came in right after the annual event, and Maroun “GH” Merhej was locked in a few months later, in January 2017.

This squad is a mix of veterans and rising stars. Captain “KuroKy” Salehi has been recognized since the Warcraft 3 days, bringing his legacy to a mix of squads. Finally, his squad 5Jungz with “Mind_Control” Ivanov and “Matumbaman” Urpalainen found success and was signed to Liquid. “Miracle” Barkawi had mixed luck for a while as a former member of OG Dota, until he was picked up after OG’s unsuccessful TI6 run.

“GH” Merhej was a leap of faith for the squad, but not an unwarranted risk. According to the Liquid documentary Champions, he was recommended by their former coach William “Blitz” Lee after Lee lost definitively in a public match against the offlaner. Merhej had done some professional play before, but he was most known for reaching 9000 MMR, a feat few had achieved until then. He substituted for another player at an event before being fully integrated into the team.

Team Liquid at EPICENTER 2017

Team Liquid slowly but surely improved. They didn’t do as well as they likely hoped at earlier major events — they fell early in the Kiev Major and Dota 2 Asia Championships — but starting with a victory at EPICENTER 2017, their power amped up. Their final hint at their destiny came when they took the DreamLeague Season 7 finals in Atlanta.

It was clear from there that Liquid’s momentum couldn’t be stunted.

The International 7

Team Liquid was expected to do well at The International, but there were other worthy contenders. Virtus Pro had just come out of a major victory at The Summit, using unique heroes for every match until the finals. Their Summit Grand Finals opponent was Team Secret, who was also seen as a mixed bag. Meanwhile, OG Dota was still winning the Dota 2 Majors, even if their International performances faltered in the past. But the past is the past, and Team Liquid kept their eyes on The International.

In Seattle, they did well in the group stage, earning their keep in first place and moving into the upper bracket. But after a tough match against Invictus Gaming in the first round, it became a fight for their lives. Fortunately for Liquid, something clicked, and they pushed their way through from there.

They became the European hope: while they were forced by bracket to eliminate the European and CIS teams, the end of that path led to facing three straight Eastern teams. This included underdog LGD.Forever Young, which had almost steamrolled their way through every stage of the event before being knocked down by fellow Chinese team Newbee. Liquid found a way in a tense 2-1 win.

Team Liquid at The International 7.
Valve via flickr

The Grand Finals ended with a definitive 3-0 win against Newbee, never done before in The International history.

Team Liquid’s victory was so overwhelming that the effects were felt immediately after the event ended. In the weeks after the tournament, Valve went right into nerfing the team’s primary strength: their multitude of effective lineups.

Liquid’s drafting was the open secret that nobody could combat. If a team took away the Keeper of the Light, they get Earthshaker. Take away Earthshaker, they get Broodmother. No matter what, teams had to have to face at least one of Liquid’s key strategies, and nobody had figured out how to stop the steamroller.

Possibly as a direct result, one more ban was added to the opening phase of the draft. This meant opponents had the opportunity to at least nip these types of drafting techniques in the bud — or so they likely hoped.

Post-Aegis, Pro-Circuit

As the first-ever Dota Pro Circuit started up this past year, the anti-champ fix didn’t do the trick. Or, at least, it wasn’t enough to stop Team Liquid from showing up from the start of the season. The team started off strong with a Minor win, but it was only going to get tougher from there.

Whether through analysis, training or a combination of both, other teams were catching up to Liquid — especially the former Western TI7 threats, Virtus Pro and Team Secret.

In the case of ESL One Hamburg, the first Major of the season, the teams gave respective one-two punches to eliminate Liquid in the semifinals of the event. First, Virtus Pro gave them their first defeat in literally months, followed up by Liquid’s tournament elimination by Secret.

Team Liquid at ESL One Birmingham
ESL | Adela Sznajder

This didn’t discourage the team, as Liquid kept pressing on, taking mostly first to fourth place throughout much of the season. What mattered to Liquid was that they were going at it, one tournament after another, racking up Pro Circuit points (and experience, of course).

When April hit, after a series of semifinal eliminations in March, it became more of a roller coaster for the team and its fans. They fell early to 5th/6th in the Dota 2 Asia Championships, the harshest finish in a year. But with their next event, a second-place in EPICENTER XL, they earned enough Pro Circuit Qualifying Points for a guaranteed spot at The International.

The Pro Circuit wasn’t over yet, though, and teams were still gunning for points and, if not points, money. Weeks later, Liquid was eliminated in group stages of ESL One Birmingham. Then, at the final event of the year, the China Supermajor, Liquid showed they weren’t backing down with a close 3-2 victory against Virtus Pro.

What’s next?

The story leading up to The International 8 is looking very similar to their successful run at TI7. Much like last year, they ended an intense end-of-season run with a persuasive victory. They once again earned an invite to The International, and they have plenty of time to polish themselves in the weeks before the massive Vancouver event.

But like the rest of the year, the competition will be tough. For one, Virtus Pro and Team Secret are still shaping up to be tough contenders, even more than years past. Meanwhile, PSG.LGD also had a strong run at the end of the Pro Circuit season too — taking down Liquid at EPICENTER XL — and are looking to fulfill the “East-West” legacy of The International.

Along those same lines, we still haven’t seen any team take The Aegis of Champions twice: no player nor organization, even with an entirely unique squad. If you’re one to believe these sorts of matters, a fresh Chinese squad will find a way to dominate.

But if any organization has the tenacity, and any squad has the skill, to make history, it’s Team Liquid, a name steeped in esports history, and a squad of names living the esports dream.