ESL One Frankfurt: day one in review

Chris Thursten

Images courtesy of the ESL Twitter account.

What an incredible day for DIGITAL SPORTS. You get used to the idea that these events are always going to get bigger; that the next step up is always going to mean a larger stadium and more impressive production values. But there's something pretty startling about seeing games played at the highest level in an environment like the Commerzbank Arena. It's more than you get from attending other kinds of large gaming convention: it's not just about having something in common with thousands of other people. It's about the catalysing impact of sport, the way a hobby can grow and grow and grow until it becomes a spectacle.

Today I became freshly aware of the effect that sport has on a crowd. Even as a handful of people crept away from the games to watch the World Cup, the energy in the arena was astonishing. I figured I'd seen the biggest crowd response I was going to see when S4 landed that million-dollar coil at the end of The International 2013, but ESL One came close to topping that with its first kill. It's the best soundtrack you could hope for, like watching Dota in the company of a thunderstorm. A thunderstorm that really likes it when wizards die.

If you missed any of the matches, VODs are available here . Otherwise, lets talk about the games. Needless to say, I'm going to spoil the results.

Mousesports vs. Invictus Gaming

The home crowd was on Mousesports' side before they drafted Brewmaster and Axe in their first picks in game one, which is saying something. The new Mouz, formerly Team Dog, are slicker and more aggressive than the previous lineup to carry that name. Aggression is more or less their identity, and that first game draft, which also included Bounty Hunter, Leshrac and Shadow Demon was designed to win the game fast and hard. It almost worked.

The tournament got off to the most exciting possible start when Pajkatt's midlane Axe, who had been handily outlaning Ferrari_430's Lycan, got jumped by IG's support pair of Earthshaker and Shadow Shaman. What should have been a routine gank mid turned into a disaster for the Chinese team when it turned out they couldn't actually bring the Axe down before his Counter-Helix spins wrecked them; three spins and two dunks later and that three man gank had become a first blood double kill for Mouz.

But momentum easily won is easily lost, and over time it became clear that IG had drafted specifically to control the tempo of the game. ChuaN's Earthshaker was the bouncer at the entrance of every engagement Mouz wanted to take in the midgame, slamming the door shut with on-point Fissures every time Mouz tried to press the attack. IG efficiently secured farm, towers and Rosh kills while Mouz's gank lineup fished for kills, taking advantage of the long cooldown on Primal Split to minimise the impact of the Brewmaster. With Pugna and Shadow Shaman ensuring that IG could take towers whenever they liked, Mouz desperately needed counter-initiation that they just couldn't reliably get from a Bounty Hunter or Leshrac.

It was a very different story in game two. Mouz picked up the Bane-Mirana combo, securing themselves a dominant start and lumbering IG with the most unhappy Razor and Faceless Void you're likely to see. MiSeRy was the clear MVP for his Bane play, creating space everywhere with max-range Nightmares, Fiends' Grips from nowhere, each setting up a Sacred Arrow or Ancient Apparition ult. IG doubled down on protecting Luo's Razor, which bought them some time, but all the while FATA built up a Viper that the Chinese team just couldn't deal with. It was a phenomenal performance from Mouz, ending after 36 minutes with 40 kills to 7.

Then, after picking up a head of steam, Mouz returned to their game one plan for game three. Denied the Mirana, they went for Brewmaster with Tidehunter, Lich, Ember Spirit, and Ancient Apparition. IG played what they knew, picking up Earthshaker, Lycan, Storm Spirit, Pugna and Rubick. Despite being close on kills and towers for the bulk of the game, Mouz struggled to unseat their opponents in teamfights and couldn't ultimately overcome the fact that they'd been outdrafted. IG's relentless pushing power forced Mouz into a reactive rather than active posture: as much a the western teams love Brewmaster at the moment, he acts as a fairly good barometer for when things are going badly wrong. If Primal Split is being used to clear out a Pugna ward, you've probably already lost. The crowd didn't want to see Mouz go, but go they did. They proved that IG are beatable, but IG proved that clutch plays mean nothing if you don't have a plan to end the game.

Fnatic vs. Vici Gaming

For all the drama that currently surrounds Fnatic's ability to play at TI4, their first game against Vici felt like a powerful statement of intent. The original four members of the team - Hann1, N0tail (alright, BigDaddy, whatever), Trixi and Fly - totally controlled the pace of the game while their standin Excalibur farmed happily away in the corner of the map. Vici respect-banned Excalibur's Tinker and Meepo in every game, leaving BigDaddy (uh) free to pick up Io. He and Hann1 are the Riggs and Murtagh of professional Dota: their Io/Tiny midlane combo held Vici to the fire relentlessly at every stage of the game. Despite a few familiar pace-controlling supports coming out for Vici - Shadow Shaman, Earthshaker - it was BigDaddy's Relocate timer that set the rhythm of play. If they couldn't get kills, Fnatic would take towers, and despite a few dodgy trades late in the game the win came to them comfortably.

Vici let almost the same Fnatic draft through again in game two but countered with Lycan, Ember Spirit, Shadow Demon and Tidehunter while taking the Mirana for themselves. Excalibur adopted a more active role on Slark as a consequence, which effectively removed Fnatic's safety net: there was no comforting bed of money to fall back on when things went south. A fair few misplays in the first half of the game - errant Pounces, Sacred Arrows coming in slightly too early - suggested at nerves all round, but overall Vici were much more effective at slowing Fnatic down long enough for Lycan to farm. Hann1's Tiny was a concern throughout the game, again, but on-point Disruptions from Fenrir helped Vici turn teamfights in their favour. Like Mouz before them Fnatic struggled to control Roshan, and eventually there was no choice but to relent before Vici's relentless Lycan push.

Fnatic stuck with Tiny/Io in game three but swapped out the rest of the lineup for Brewmaster, Venomancer, and Lich. Vici took the now-standard Pugna, Shadow Shaman, Earthshaker trio again alongside Doom and Bristleback. The strength of Fnatic's draft was its flexibility: even when Vici seemed to have the upper hand, there'd be a Poison Nova or Chain Frost to ensure that Fnatic got a decent trade out of any encounter. This created a stalemate in the midgame but Fnatic were ultimately in the lead: they got better at securing objectives and took advantages wherever they could find it. Fly's kill-securing Lich broke the record for the most kills in 25 minutes on that hero, ending the game with 14 kills to a single death. Despite an intelligent and coordinated defence effort, Vici's defences eventually gave way to Fnatic's endless siege.

Alliance vs. Cloud 9

This was the most extraordinary match of the day, and the one you should go and watch right now if you've got two hours to spare. Despite a relatively unusual Skywrath Mage pick, Alliance drafted a very comfortable lineup in game one: Chaos Knight/Io with Storm Spirit mid and Clockwerk on the offlane. Cloud 9 drafted Tinker with Brewmaster, Jakiro, Lion and Nyx Assassin, but the supreme mobility of Alliance's draft made it very difficult for them to find the space they needed to play effectively.

EternalEnvy's Tinker struggled to find any farm in the early game as Loda's Chaos Knight picked up a killing spree as part of Alliance's now-standard aggressive trilane. Later, if Relocate ganks couldn't pick him off then Storm Spirit or Clockwerk would - AdmiralBulldog in particular deserves credit for a Clockwerk performance that demonstrates that all that work expanding his hero pool has been worth it. The tipping point came when Bulldog began a great teamfight behind Cloud 9's tier two towers with a max-range hook, creating space that Alliance used to immediately secure Roshan. Ending after 33 minutes, the match felt like one of Alliance's more confident victories over Cloud 9 in the DreamLeague finals.

Game two was the opposite. Cloud 9 built a lineup with phenomenal built-in redundancy, playing to each of their talents to ensure that they always had a way to shut Alliance down. Enigma's Black Hole; Bane's Fiends' Grip, Faceless Void's Chronosphere; Ember Spirit's mobility, lockdown, and AoE damage; Mirana's Moonlight Shadow and Sacred Arrows. Despite Alliance getting off to a good start with heroes they excel at - Bulldog's Nature's Prophet, S4's Puck, EGM's Io - they just couldn't secure the advantage over Cloud 9's superlative play. Loda's Wraith King gave them some space to lose a battle but win the counter-attack, but Cloud 9 always had a way to back off or secure an additional kill. Pieliedie deserves a lot of credit for his Bane performance, which - like MiSeRy's earlier in the day - makes a strong case banning the hero outright. He enabled kills on Bulldog and S4 that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.

Eventually, however, despite a 20,000XP deficit, Alliance started to pull it back. They played the very specific kind of Dota that Alliance excel at: western-style clutch plays with eastern efficiency. They picked up an Orchid on Bulldog followed by Scythes of Vyse on Bulldog and S4, which gave them the disables they needed to survive Cloud 9's ults. Then came the Necronomicon, the Refresher Puck, and what followed was the longest and most exciting game of Dota I may have ever seen. It ran to eighty minutes and ended on two of the most extraordinary exchanges. The first was a long teamfight that ran from the river on bottom lane up through the Dire's secret shop to mid, with Chronosphere and Black Hole both being used to slow Alliance's assault. Incredible plays from both sides trading back and forth until the camera panned north to reveal Cloud 9's middle barracks gone, and AdmiralBulldog making off like a bandit. The second encounter began as Cloud 9 went all-in on Alliance's tier 4 towers, leading to a heart-in-mouth teamfight around the Swedes' exposed ancient and ending with a turnaround that we'll be talking about for the rest of the year.

The final quarterfinal match between EG and Na'Vi will be played tomorrow morning due to a late start today. Check back tomorrow night for a full report from the final day.

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