Dota is the Ayn Rand of esports. Compared to CS:GO or League of Legends, it can be brutally Darwinistic; in other titles, teams that fall short of a top international finish can survive on sticker sales or salaries while they improve, but in Dota, every player’s survival depends exclusively on their team's performance, with little room for error.
The first-or-last mentality this promotes puts immense pressure on players to find every advantage. For some it can be a source of motivation, but there’s no question it also puts a strain on relationships between teammates. When push comes to shove, a player’s own survival comes before that of their team. As Arteezy said on stream in January of last year, "You have to be selfish in what you do to be successful. If that means breaking friendships, or potentially breaking friendships or f***ing up people to get what you want, it's worth it. It's a depressing reality, but you got to do what you got to do." That stream was later deleted.
Since the very beginning, The International has been a the creator and the destroyer, suturing players together on the inhale and blowing apart the global competitive scene on the exhale. After The International 2011, esports’ first million-dollar event, all but two teams had major roster changes, and that pattern has continued in every year since.
That said, the nature of shuffles changed drastically this 2016 season. TI’s ever-growing prize pool and Valve's roster locks weigh heavily on teams, and there's good reason to believe that many of them will fracture in the coming weeks.
Shuffles of the Past
Back in 2011, the post-TI roster shuffle was spread out over the fall season, but as the years have progressed, the period of breakup and reformation has become shorter and more immediate. Valve made this trend an official policy last year when they introduced the Major roster lock system, which gave teams approximately one month after TI to figure things out before they had to sign up for the next Major.
Early on, teams tended to disband completely after mixed results at The International. Seven rosters disbanded after TI1, and the same number disbanded the next year. In 2013, both The International and third-party tournament earnings spiked thanks to the introduction of crowdfunding. At that year's TI, half the rosters attending broke up in the aftermath. In spite of how popular disbanding was, players still tended to cling to past teammates; by early 2014, NewBee had risen from the ashes of TongFu, Titan from the ashes of Orange, and many other players from disbanding teams were joining squads with one or two players they'd played alongside in the past.
Today, by contrast, organizations have become much more stable, and drafting players has become increasingly important. Rather than disband altogether, teams have tended to swap out the majority of their players and build new rosters around one or two defining stars. Meanwhile, players on major teams have had more incentive to stay until they get a better offer, and the growing prevalence of long-term contracts has made transfers more difficult.Saahil "Universe" Arora was a focus of the spring 2016 shuffle
The International 2014 was the first year where nearly every roster at The International had players change, at least two per team by Spring of the following year. Although this was the first year of true worldwide roster instability, it was also the year with the fewest fully disbanded teams — especially considering four of the six disbanding teams were qualified rather than invited, and three of those had only been sponsored because they had qualified.
In 2015, the trend continued. Evil Geniuses became the first team to kick a player after winning The International — the first team to kick a player after winning any major Dota 2 tournament, in fact. That paved the way for Team Secret to swap out two of their players after convincingly winning The Shanghai Major. Now, after TI6, it’s not clear that anyone is safe; Fnatic, who finished a comfortable Top 4, have already lost one of their players, and all eyes are on second-place finisher Digital Chaos, a small-time NA team suddenly full of desirable star players.
Perspectives on Change
There are two competing priorities in professional Dota: stability and adaptation. Different philosophies have developed around each. According to the latter, it's important for players to be exposed to fresh perspectives and different approaches to the game, and this is most often accomplished by bringing in new team members.
The trepidation is that a team that stays together too long will get stale and fall behind an ever-shifting metagame; that the players will get comfortable and even lazy without the need to constantly prove themselves. This perspective finds evidence in teams like Alliance, who stagnated after winning TI3 but returned to increased success after its players split up for a season and came back with fresh insight on the game.
Yet, from the viewpoint of stability, constantly changing a squad gives the players no time to become comfortable with each other's play habits, and robs them of the chance to develop synergy and improve over time. And this season at least, stability seems to have paid out much larger dividends than adaptation. Wings Gaming have been the most stable team in China over the course of their ascent to become TI’s champions this year. OG and Liquid have had the most stable rosters in Europe since TI5, and although those teams didn't fare particularly well at TI6, OG won two Majors and Liquid placed in the Top 2 at Shanghai and Manila.Wings Gaming at The Manila Major
The introduction of coaches, substitutes and data analysts is one way these teams have been able to infuse fresh perspectives without changing rosters — for example, OG hired Sébastien "7ckingMad" Debs to help them reinvigorate their game after a downturn last winter. Meanwhile, teams that tried to solve their problems by shaking up their rosters, like Team Secret or Vici Gaming, have often struggled to find success.
At The International, I discussed the issue of stability with as many players and coaches as would discuss it, and no two had the same perspective. Escape Gaming coach Benjamin "Notahax" Läärä told me that if a roster can't commit to playing together for at least six months, there's no point in playing together at all. OG's captain Tal "Fly" Aizik said, "If people are not going to be motivated, they're not going to set a new goal for themselves, you're going to get worse. It's just how it is.” He later added, "It's very important to look at a goal and have that in mind."
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Though there are only two Majors expected in the 2016-17 season, it is not known when and how long rosters will be locked next year. Given the instability that shook up the scene in the middle of the six-month lock that bridged The Manila Major and TI6 this year, it’s no longer clear that Valve will be able to enforce its roster locks as The International 2017 approaches.
Kurtis "Aui_2000" Ling told the Defense of the Patience podcast that after his experiences with Digital Chaos, he thinks teams are better off risking the open qualifiers than committing to a roster of uncertain quality too fast. From the perspective of Evil Geniuses — who despite breaking the Manila roster lock finished third at TI and went home with $2.2 million — it’s hard to argue that shuffling their roster and facing the open qualifiers was a bad choice. If this year showed us anything, it’s that roster locks that are too long or too rigid can end up increasing instability in the scene rather than ensuring it.
The Pending Shuffle
That lands us in the here and now. With Valve’s new roster lock policy, which breaks up the fall registration deadline into two separate “drop” and “add” dates, teams have more freedom to make necessary changes ahead of the Major. The new rules should play more into teams’ natural roster patterns.Jacky "EternalEnvy" Mao was one of the first casualties of the post-TI6 shuffle
Between 2012 and 2015, several seasonal shuffles have developed on their own as teams have followed the rhythm of tournament trial and error. There’s a fall shuffle after The International, followed by a minor shuffle for underperforming teams between November and December. A second major shuffle usually occurs worldwide in January and February, with another fine-tuning shuffle between March and April. Teams have tended to stop tuning their rosters in the late Spring, when TI invites go out.
The roster lock system tried to shove all of that into a few frenzied weeks a few times a year, making squads commit before playing events with each other. The new two-Major system may still do this, but at least two Majors instead of three will align Valve’s roster locks more closely with the natural “off-season” periods in the fall and new year. It may decrease the likelihood of a messy post-lock Spring shuffle like we saw this year.
Rumors of the post-TI6 shuffle were already flying before the event ended. We knew contracts would expire for MVP Phoenix. We’ve seen key players like Secret’s EternalEnvy, Fnatic’s DJ and LGD’s Aggressif dropped from rosters on the new version of Valve’s registration page, though there's only speculation as to where they’re going. Many of SEA’s top teams, including TI Top 6 finisher TNC Gaming, have already dissolved. We’ve heard speculation that Alliance, OG and Liquid will all be joining the shuffle, and that China will see a repeat of the post-Shanghai shakeup as major players take the opportunity to retire.
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The pressure on teams hasn't yet hit full-tilt. Though TI6 is fading in the distance, Valve has only just announced its new registration rules, and we don’t yet know when the fall Major or qualifiers will be. When teams started making swaps after Manila, they already knew what was or wasn't working, and they had tournaments to prepare for; they also had no incentive to take their time because by changing rosters, they would already be breaking lock rules. None of those factors hold true here, so the current shuffle will likely continue for weeks.
One thing is clear: if history is any guide, it'd be surprising if the world's notable teams went unchanged.
Ryan "Gorgon the Wonder Cow" Jurado writes about Dota 2 and freelances for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.