In mid-January of this year, Swedish Dota 2 team Alliance took top honors at the Starladder i-League Star Series tournament, which featured several of the current top Dota 2 teams, such as last year’s International winners Evil Geniuses, as well as powerhouses like LGD and Team Secret.
I’ll catch professional Dota 2 tournaments on most weekends, but watching Alliance take the whole thing made me happier than I’d been watching the game in a long time. Not because of the prize money (which was quite large but far from the scene’s highest), but because the team’s triumphant return to form shows that Dota 2 stands on a more rock-solid foundation than many give it credit for.
To understand why that is, you’ll need some context. Dota 2, like many other team-based sports, features several roster changes and player signings in the post-season (typically after The International). When a team is doing poorly, they kick and add players depending on who or what is in fashion. When they’re doing well, lineups tend to stick. Some teams will keep players on for years (Danil 'Dendi' Ishutin has been with Na’Vi for over five years), but it’s not unusual to see teams disband and reform within the span of a month. Na’Vi did this exact thing last year, but kept Ishutin.
Even world champions like Evil Geniuses have dropped and added players immediately after winning major tournaments. In fact, there’s a special kind of flux reserved for winners of The International. After winning the biggest tournament in Dota 2, champion teams tend to fall off considerably. Few teams who win the International maintain their Tier 1 status years after winning the big one. Alliance, who won The International in 2013, fell off within six months of winning the title. Alliance’s captain, Jonathan 'Loda' Berg, admitted in an interview with PC Gamer that the team’s drop had a lot to do with a lack of motivation.
“Six months felt like a waste of time after TI because we didn't have the same focus, we didn't have the same drive to win smaller tournaments. Even if you try to get that focus it's hard to really be hungry to win these tournaments. For sure, every tournament now has good prize money, but it's just not really the same thing [...] I kind of predicted it—I was talking to my team about it—but it can be hard to keep the team motivated, even myself, sometimes.”
The fluctuations in team standings is normal and healthy for most sports as it denotes a lack of staleness. But taken in the context of the eSports world, chaos brings with it a degree of anxiety. When many consider eSports a fickle market that will latch on only to the next big thing, seeing tepid post-season matches as teams find their footing invites the idea that maybe this wonderful game doesn’t have the legs we thought it did. When the highest player earnings in eSports still pale in comparison to physical sports earnings, some might be tempted into thinking all these roster changes are organizations flailing to get a good team together and win some money before the bubble bursts.
Alliance has fought against that chaos much harder than most teams. They managed to stick together about a year after their International victory, but still splintered after their disastrous run at the 2014 International. Gustav 'S4' Magnusson left to form Team Secret and Jerry 'EGM' Lundkvist left to join Team Tinker. In their absence, Alliance cycled through four other support and mid-lane players, including on Johan 'Mynuts' Andersson on two separate occasions. Their remaining players (Berg, Joakim 'Akke' Akterhall, and Henrik 'AdmiralBulldog' Ahnberg) stuck together, but failed to find much success outside of small-scale tournaments. You’d get a few hints of brilliance, but most of the time, the phrase “Alliance is back!” was spouted on forums and Twitch chats sarcastically.
It’s only in the most recent patch that they’ve returned as a top-tier team, winning both the i-League and last year’s World Cyber Arena tournament after cutting a swath through several other prominent teams. A few fortunate changes contribute to the team’s resurgence. One is that Dota 2’s 6.86 balance patch seems to be in their favor, with many of their trademark heroes like Lone Druid making a return. Another is that in a competitive atmosphere that favors aggression and chasing kills over taking base structures in the early game, they’ve found success by playing their classic “Rat Dota,” tactic, which uses a combination of strong defense and mobile heroes to whittle away at the enemy base unnoticed.
Regardless of the hows and whys of the team’s return, it’s also nice to see a classic lineup doing so well. Alliance’s championship roster struck a chord with fans long before they were champions. There was a chemistry and unity to their initial lineup that made you want to root for them, even when they were favorites (Alliance’s victory at the 2013 International was a riveting, but not surprising one). The lineup was so popular that a limited-edition keychain commemorating the roster after they’d disbanded sold out almost immediately. More than so many rosters, this particular squad of players occupied a more prominent spot on Dota fan’s minds. Even after Magnusson and Lundkvist left, their narratives as players still revolved around their once and future team. They were Alliance players who just happened to play for someone else.
I wasn’t their most devoted fan, falling off them as their performance floundered. But I occasionally wished for something like this to happen. Not just because I like the players, but because their return suggests there’s more to team-based games like Dota 2. That professional play here is about more hot young upstarts, adding a few veterans, and making waves for as long as you can. It suggests what players and viewers have long suspected, but was hard to prove with kill-death ratios and charts; that a powerful synergy between players will always outdo a squad of high-skill players mashed together. In a scene where the next rising star is usually months away, a team getting back together to recapture their old glory isn’t supposed to work.
More importantly, though, Alliance’s return suggests that Dota 2’s professional scene isn’t as chaotic as its regular roster changes and rapidly-shifting playstyles might make it seem. That consistency and dedication can pay off more than once.
The real test of whether Alliance has truly returned will occur in the coming months. First, they’ll have to prove themselves in March during the Valve-sanctioned Shanghai Major [here's our account of the qualifier highlights], which offers a prize pool close to what Alliance snagged back at the 2013 International. Down the road, they’ll have to contend with the 6.87 patch, which could gimp their favorite playstyles while favoring other teams. Hopefully, Alliance will adapt and continue their hot streak, because I’m hoping they’re back for good.