The International 2014: everything you need to know before the main event

Chris Thursten

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After an eventful group stage, the International begins in earnest tomorrow. Of the nineteen teams in contention for the Aegis of Champions on the 8th of July, eight remain. Over four days at Seattle's KeyArena, those eight teams will fight to secure the lion's share of the largest prize pool in competitive gaming history. The winner will take away just shy of $5m. But this extraordinary reward, most players will tell you, isn't the point. The International is Dota 2's alpha and omega: it is where reputations are made, where teams are proven. Many of the matchups you watch this weekend will never come about in the same way again; the stress of falling short at The International is enough to tear lineups apart and force teams to start over. This is the end of the biggest year in the game's life and the beginning of the next.

You should be watching the International because it marks a milestone in the growth of e-sports, and because there's rarely been so much talent—and so much emotion—bound up in a single gaming event. Furthermore, the International plays an ambassadorial role for competitive Dota 2. It turns passers-by into spectators, spectators into fans, and fans into players. If you don't play Dota, there's a good chance that this year's tournament could change that. Over the next few pages I'll be providing an overview of the tournament so far, a look at the remaining teams, and recommending essential matches to watch. If you missed the playoffs or are new to Dota, hopefully you'll find everything you need to enjoy the International below.

Update your bookmarks

First, some housekeeping—and some shameless plugs.

You can watch all of the International games on Twitch either on the main stream or newcomer's stream . The latter has improved tremendously over the course of the playoffs and is recommended if you're unfamiliar with the game. I also wrote a guide to watching Dota 2 as a newcomer as part of my Three Lane Highway column that may be useful. Broadcasts begin every day at 9am PDT/12pm EDT/4pm GMT.

You can also watch matches in-game using the DotaTV spectator tools: click 'Watch' at the top of the main menu followed by 'The International 2014', which is found under the 'Premium' section of the 'Tournaments' tab. For a comprehensive list of timings, video links, results and other information, the Dota 2 subreddit has an excellent survival guide as well as daily discussion threads.

Finally, I'll be at the International on behalf of PC Gamer and you can find all of our ongoing coverage on this tag page . Expect a report at the end of each day as well as interviews with players and personalities.

Update : You can also watch The International on ESPN3 , as well as on ESPN streaming services.

What the hell happened in the playoffs?

The International's remaining eight teams aren't quite what anybody expected them to be at the beginning of the event. The Swedish returning champions, Alliance, didn't make it. Nor did fan-favourite Fnatic, Mousesports, or the Russian giants Empire. The hopes of North American Dota are now pinned squarely on Evil Geniuses, with both Na'Vi.US and a resurgent Team Liquid falling short. Arrow and Titan are gone too, with Southeast Asian Dota now represented entirely by players playing for Chinese teams.

There's a lot to be said about these results, and questions to be asked about the approach of particular teams as well as the tournament format itself. The group stages were arranged as a round-robin of best-of-one games, and conventional wisdom holds that Dota is best played in a best-of-two or best-of-three format. This is due to the metagame aspect of competitive play, particularly drafting, where a 'dialogue' between teams can only form if multiple games are played. There's also the fact that the map is asymmetrical, with certain teams favouring Dire or Radiant—an imbalance that can skew certain best-of-one matchups.

Nonetheless, the playoffs demonstrated just how close the scene is at the moment. No team went undefeated, and there were upsets at every end of the scale—from the sudden ascendancy of Vici Gaming to the rise and fall of Team Liquid. Last year, Alliance stormed the group stages in a 14-0 sweep. This year they went 6-9, unable to find traction in a metagame that seemed to have moved beyond them. This is important because it demonstrates how Dota 2 in 2014 lacks a single clear leader: if it's a race, it's an incredibly close-run one.

The teams that stood out in the group stages are the ones who were able to execute their strategies with skill and efficiency over long days in an extremely high-pressure environment—particularly Vici Gaming, Evil Geniuses, and DK. This tournament format is a test of endurance and leadership as well as talent, and the final bracket placements reflect which teams were able to find wins when it really counted. There are still wildcards in play, however, and teams in the lower bracket who will fight tooth and nail to hold on to what hope is left to them.

Another fact to bear in mind is that the metagame for best-of-ones is different to the metagame for best-of-threes. There's a good chance that the strategies that carried teams this far will fail—or be discarded—at the main event. Even though the International has already run its course for many teams, it is about to enter an entirely new and very different phase.

The main event brackets, and how they work

This image provides an at-a-glance overview of the brackets at the beginning of the main event. On the left hand side is the upper bracket: the four teams that placed highest at the end of the playoffs. These teams are each two best-of-threes away from a place in the grand final. If they lose they drop down to the lower bracket—on the right hand side—and have a chance to play their way in the long way.

Teams in the lower bracket play best-of-three single-elimination games to progress, facing upper bracket teams as they drop down. For example: if Newbee beat VG and the winner of EG vs. DK, they're in the final. For Na'Vi to reach the final from the lower bracket, however, they need to win four consecutive matches without dropping a single one.

Before I forget: don't miss the All-Star Match

In addition to the regular matches on Saturday there'll also be an All-Star Match. This is a friendly between one-off teams whose composition has been decided by a community vote. Last year it was hilarious—a chance for players to relax, for former teammates to duke it out in front of an audience. This year it means a little more because it's the only chance certain players are going to get to appear on the stage at KeyArena. Disappointed Alliance and Fnatic fans shouldn't miss this chance to see BigDaddy, Loda, and s4 play.

On the next two pages: everything you need to know about the eight remaining teams.

Vici Gaming

I'm not sure anybody expected to Vici Gaming to do quite as well as they did in the group stages. The Chinese team was eliminated from ESL One Frankfurt by Fnatic, but only dropped three games at the International—to Na'Vi, EG, and Cloud 9, all teams that went on to qualify for the main event. They excel at building a 'death ball', a composition of five heroes that are good at pushing down towers and taking teamfights early in the game.

This is demonstrated by the fact that they had the highest overall gold-per-minute during the group stages but the fewest average last hits: when your team is bowling over tower after tower, you don't have time to click on creeps. You should expect to see a lot of Shadow Shaman from them, as well as Tidehunter , and the now-ubiquitous Razor —all heroes that can sustain a push for a long time.

They will face Newbee on day one, and it'll be a tough battle. Newbee know how to build a death ball of their own, and they have—broadly—demonstrated a greater capacity to outdraft their opponent. If anybody is going to put a dent in Vici's well-engineered machine, it'll be Newbee. The Chinese teams know each other well, they're fairly evenly matched, and there's a lot at stake. Given both teams' affection for early aggression, expect this to be an exciting game.

Newbee

Despite facing elimination when play began on Monday morning, Newbee had an extraordinary day. They not only eliminated Titan but they destroyed Na'Vi, ending their second game at the twenty minute mark. They went on to beat IG, securing a top-four placement for themselves and sending two world-class teams to the lower bracket. It might have taken a few days for Newbee to find their rhythm, but when they did—holy hell. Old-fashioned Dota thinking expects the Chinese teams to be conservative and passive compared to their aggressive western counterparts, and Newbee demonstrated just how outdated that is. Nobody could watch Hao's omnipresent Weaver and argue that Newbee didn't know how to get the most out of the early game.

They're a relatively new team comprised of veterans, and their captain, xiao8, is known for pulling together robust, inventive strategies on the fly. This was demonstrated on Monday when they grudgingly ceded a lengthy second game to Titan, only to come back in the third game with a risky level one Roshan strategy that snowballed into a dominant—and fast—victory. This was in a match that would determine which of the two teams played at KeyArena: Newbee put everything on the line, and it paid off spectacularly.

Their endurance is equally impressive. They can maintain their energy and focus for a long time, and if a plan isn't working, they'll change it. I'd certainly consider them a contender for the grand finals if not the title, but it's all on the assumption that they can maintain that incredible momentum going into the main event.

Also: if any other player can top Mu's incredible snipe from their match against Titan, I'll be very surprised.

Evil Geniuses

EG established themselves as the best team in the western scene at the playoffs. North American with the exception of Swedish support player Zai, this lineup was drawn together by Fear—a veteran of the North American Dota scene, and one of the focal points of Valve's Dota 2 documentary, Free To Play. Injured earlier in the year, he's since stepped into a coaching role. His replacement, Mason, has only been part of the pro scene for a few months despite having famously gone on record saying that he wasn't interested in becoming a pro player. His story is representative of the team as a whole: young, talented, confident, but maybe a little fractious.

EG like to build up their advantage and win the game late. They're creative when it comes to making sure their heroes maintain a strong gold advantage—in particular, they make excellent use of the midlane—and much of their early play is designed to ensure that their carries have the space they need to farm. Strong leadership is needed to make sure that happens, and they find that in ppd. In Universe, they've got one of the best offlaners in the world—he can play a carry if it comes to it, but he shines on utility heroes like Dark Seer . Their midlane player, Arteezy, has a significant following having pioneered the farm-heavy style that has come to define EG's strategy as a whole.

On day one they play DK, one of the few teams to have bested them in the group stages. It should be a brutal rematch, and one that will test EG's ability to outmaneuvre their inventive opponents. They've got the talent and hunger to pull it off, but they could be badly demoralised by a loss. The home crowd will desperately want to see them reach the grand final, and they're expected to do so, but I wouldn't surprised if they ended up making the journey via the lower bracket.

Another matchup worth looking out for—if it happens—is EG vs. iG. iG beat EG in the final of ESL One Frankfurt and again in the group stages for the International. A grudge match on day two/three is possible, and would definitely be one of the stories of the tournament as a whole.

Team DK

Longtime favourites DK didn't have the flawless run through the playoffs that some expected, but they're inarguably one of the strongest teams in the world at the moment. After a disappointing showing at The International 2013, the DK organisation pulled together a new roster around legendary carry player BurNIng—a lineup that included, notably, former Orange midlaner Mushi.

One of the best players to ever come out of South East Asia, Mushi was my MVP for The International 2013. He played a wider variety of heroes than anybody else, often impeccably, and Orange's third-place finished belied their formidable fighting spirit. His teammate iceiceice has likewise fallen short of the International title on multiple occasions, and will be hungry to make this DK's year.

DK draft creatively and execute near-perfectly, with some of the best teamfight coordination you're likely to see at the tournament. It's very hard to get the drop on a team that is as in-sync with each other as they are. DK are a good foil for EG because they share some of the same strengths—great farming across multiple core heroes, reinforced by top-tier support play—but I expect DK to have the edge in the drafting phase. They can collectively play more heroes than almost anybody else, although Newbee might give them a fight for that title.

Another interesting—but possibly unlikely—matchup is DK vs. Cloud 9. It was DK that sent Cloud 9 to the lower bracket, defeating them in the tournament's shortest game—an eleven minute stomp. Cloud 9 will want revenge should circumstances conspire to give them a shot at it.

One the next page: the next four teams.

Cloud 9

Cloud 9 are an international team made up of a mixture of North American and European players. They're also as close as you're going to get to an underdog in the final eight, having overcome a year of management problems to finally earn recognition as a top-tier squad. This is a roster made up of popular veterans of the scene—SingSing and EternalEnvy in particular—who are now getting the best shot they've ever had at the title that really matters. SingSing has said that he'll only settle for winning, and you should believe it—even if they're currently only a single best-of-three from elimination.

They are a creative and versatile team and it's a safe bet that they'll pull out at least one surprise hero pick at the main event. They can come across as flamboyant, sometimes, but there's always purpose behind it—Aui_2000 and pieliedie are a formidable support duo, and although their ideas might be unorthodox (pieliedie's courier-assassinating Bounty Hunter being a good example) they also have a tendency to deliver results.

They are, however, a team that struggles to seal the deal: they don't win every game that they should, and their confidence can be used as a weapon against them. Don't count them out, but don't underestimate the endurance or consistency of their opponents either. This is one of the reasons why their first match, against Na'Vi, is an essential watch: not only are these both extremely popular teams, but they're struggling with some of the same issues. Na'Vi vs. C9 will determine which team has been capable of learning the most from the group stages—and which is capable of putting that theory into practice without losing the flair that makes them special.

Na'Vi

Na'Vi are without a doubt the most popular Dota 2 team in the world. Their victory at the first International—and top billing in the Free To Play documentary—turned them into heroes. Their lineup is one of the most stable in competitive Dota, and over time those players—Dendi, Puppey, XBOCT, Funn1k, Kuroky—have become characters that fans are very, very attached to. They came second at the International in both 2012 and 2013, in both cases taking a convoluted route to the final via the loser's bracket. They've done a lot to earn their romantic reputation: they're mavericks, scrappily confident, and individually highly skilled.

They're also not quite on form, as Monday's severe loss to Newbee demonstrated. Like a few of the other European teams, the current metagame hasn't allowed them to spin losses into victories like they used to. You look to Na'Vi for midgame plays that turn around impossible disadvantages, something that is becoming less viable now that towers and barracks are being destroyed earlier and earlier. You also look to Na'Vi for experimental strategies and wild drafts, something they gestured at on Monday when they ran a Fnatic-style dual mid with Io. But, at the end of the day, it didn't work—perhaps because it wasn't their strat to begin with, and Na'Vi have always been iconoclasts.

I think it's fair to say that Na'Vi are either going to pull something extraordinary out of the bag or simply fade away: this is a team that has never really gone for compromise. It may well be that they've had their now-traditional wakeup call, and that beginning the main event in the lower bracket will give them the drive they need to aggressively climb the ranks. That's certainly what their army of fans is hoping for. But their ascendency is less of a done deal than it has been at prior Internationals: the competition is simply too good.

Expect their match against Cloud 9 to be highly emotionally charged for the players and audience alike. These are popular teams that nobody is going to want to say goodbye to, fighting for survival at the bottom rung of an unforgiving ladder. There's no calling it: whoever wins, it'll be an upset.

Invictus Gaming

The champions of the second International have been on a roll since their win at ESL One Frankfurt, despite dropping a set to Newbee on Monday. Their support duo, ChuaN and Faith, are unmatched in the role and iG are currently setting the high bar for what aggressive support play means in the early game. They reach beyond traditional hero picks when figuring out a lineup that works, often drafting carries or semi-carries for ChuaN—Kunkka, Alchemist, Mirana—that become monsters in the lategame. The great thing about iG is how they transition between phases of the game: there's not really a single time period where they're weak as long as the game is going according to plan.

Don't expect Ferrrari_430's Ember Spirit to make it through the ban phase—it's simply that good. But he's still one of the best midlaners in the world, and vital when it comes to building a win out of ChuaN and Faith's early victories. When iG lose, they tend to lose very late—the exception being their first game against Newbee on Monday. They've got a good shot at the title despite starting in the lower bracket, but it'll depend on their ability to dictate the pace of games from the beginning.

They face LGD in their first match, and I think they've got the advantage—they beat them handily in their last encounter. IG's real test will come when they start to face teams coming down from the upper bracket.

LGD

LGD have been playing steadily better since a rough start to the group stage, eventually beating Liquid to secure a place in the top eight. For the most part, however, those victories were all against teams that didn't make the final cut—the exception being Cloud 9, who they beat once before losing a best-of-three at the end of the second phase of the playoffs.

Lin and Rabbit are both impressive players whose flexibility has been used to good effect in LGD's better games. They're capable of impressive experimentation when it comes to it but they're also, on the whole, the least favoured of the five Chinese teams in the final eight. Similar to Na'Vi, they've got one foot in the general metagame—particularly when they're running Razor, Viper, or Enigma, who they favour—and one squarely within their own territory. Expect to see a Slark, a Centaur Warrunner, a Visage—something to take that skill and versatility and run with it.

As I said above, iG are going to be a tough matchup for them. But if LGD were ever going to pull a pocket strategy out of nowhere, this is the match where we'll see it. Everything is on the line, and LGD have worked very, very hard to get this far. The odds are against them, but their star has only been rising since the beginning of the tournament. It may well be that it's got further to go yet.

Phew! That concludes this look at the competitive Dota scene on the eve of The International 2014. For more of our coverage, bookmark the tag page .

PC Gamer's coverage of The International 2014 is brought to you by SteelSeries . From July 18th through July 21st, all Dota 2 and team gear is 25% off. While supplies last.

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