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

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.

Chris is the editor of PC Gamer Pro. After many years spent turning beautiful trees into magazines, he now oversees our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports.