The Korean way of Dota

Today I was watching the Dota Asian Championships match between MVP and Newbie, and I couldn’t quite believe my eyes as MVP first dominated Newbie and then defeated the TI4 world champions. Here was a team that didn’t make it into TI4 defeating the champions handily. So how did this come to happen?

It wasn’t long ago that people were wondering why Koreans don’t play Dota competitively, given their total dominance for the last few years in games such as Starcraft and League of Legends. When I returned to playing and following Dota since my undergrad years during The International 2013 (TI3), people rarely talked about the Koreans. That soon changed, when the Nexon league was announced. Still people didn’t take them seriously, almost brushing them away as Dota newbies. Nexon however didn’t give up as they continued to invite popular western teams for signature showdowns meant to improve the interest in Dota among the young Koreans. They also wanted to show Korea how much of a chasm in skill there was to match up to teams such as Alliance and Na’Vi. It worked.

As Na’Vi and Alliance fought over the lion’s share of TI3’s massive $2.9M prizepool, and as people basked in the glory of the “Dota’s El Classico” the Korean’s finally decided to enter the scene. They started by holding the Nexon League competition limited to only Korean teams. The reason was clear as people watched their matches, frankly they were not very good, making strings of mistakes and poor decisions. People now had even more reasons to underestimate the Koreans, so they started to invite top western teams for exhibition matches with Korean teams, understandably it didn’t go very well for the Korean teams, but yet they persevered. Then they tried something unique, inviting Zephyr to play in Nexon. A team made of popular Dota personalities Zephyr ensured immediate media attention. Still the Koreans were always the favorite to get eliminated first if they got invited at all, only managing a single win against a non-Korean team. People could see the promise but they were still not prepared to believe their eyes when MVP actually made it to the TI4’s wildcard stage, their performance in the qualifiers were such that they totally believed MVP could actually defeat the likes Virtus.Pro and Liquid. In the end they didn’t make it to the TI4 final stages but the Koreans had announced themselves. Even with the all the promise people were still surprised when they blanked out Na’Vi during the Starladder XI season.

I don’t think it’s down to pure skill, but rather the willingness to learn from defeats. I was highly impressed the way they kept on inviting western teams for the exhibition matches only to lose to them, the thing is that they must have gotten a lot more out of those defeats than many years fighting among themselves. As a former e-sports game player who tried playing seriously, I know firsthand that improving competitively is most difficult when you hit the skill ceiling in your immediate matchup group and have no one better than you to learn from. The Koreans sidestepped that problem through the exhibition matches and also by restricting Zephyr to not represent Korea even though they were exclusively playing out of Korea. That allowed actual Korean teams like MVP to go out and play with Western and Chinese teams. The result is for all to see. Even if MVP’s victory is nothing more than a fluke (I don’t think it is), it is a very far cry from the days of the first season of ESM when Startale first took down Team ONE and picked up the first victory for a Korean team outside of Korea.

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