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Igniting the Fire: T1’s Triumphant Venture to Dota 2

28 June 2021Wilson Wongso

Three-time Worlds champion and StarCraft II legend, can T1's Dota 2 roster follow the success path of their predecessors?

When we hear of the esports giant organization T1, we oftentimes correlate the name with how legendary their League of Legends and StarCraft teams are. Indeed, the South Korean giant has proven themselves to be of the strongest contenders in seemingly all games they set their foot upon. Their Dota 2 roster has recently proven themselves worthy to be wearing the T1 uniform but their story is far from smooth-sailing from the start.

Their first debut roster must have received the greatest burden filling the premier Dota 2 roster of T1. How can they not? Their StarCraft roster lasted all the way since the Brood War Era, transitioned to StarCraft II, and won multiple, back-to-back Proleague tournaments.

T1 League of Legends wins Worlds 2016. Source: Forbes.

Similarly, their world-renown League of Legends division won three World Championships, being the first and only team to do so in the history of competitive League of Legends. Heck, T1 is all-too synonymous for being the face of League during their prime time. Just imagine how huge of a deal their Dota 2 roster meant for the organization.

 

Esports in South Korea

Before we dive into the history of their Dota 2 division, let’s take a step back and see why T1’s entry to Dota 2 meant a lot for the South Korean professional Dota 2 scene. You see, although gaming and esports are already popular in the Land of the morning calm, a significant percentage of their youth prefers League of Legends over other esports titles.

League of Legends is almost, if not already, a part of the youth culture in South Korea. Gamers spend hours in LAN cafes, known locally as PC Bang, playing League all day long. It’s almost as equivalent as how Southeast Asian youths spend their time playing mobile games — it’s essentially the same.

Because of that, the Dota 2 market is so small in South Korea. In fact, there is no longer a South Korean server for the region anymore. It’s a long and twisted history between Valve, Nexon, and the community.

First, Valve teamed up with Nexon, a local publisher, to set up a Korean Dota 2 server back in June 2013. This was already scary given that they are up against the mammoth of League of Legends, who’s already making waves in the youth’s culture. The server came and replaced the need for South Korean players to connect to distant servers, which meant less laggy and high-ping games.

However, due to Nexon’s policy, only non-Korean citizens were allowed to sign up for Nexon accounts. Hence, if you were a South Korean-based player, but weren’t a South Korean citizen, then too bad; you have to play in distant North American servers once again. Since then, the Dota 2 community in Reddit pressured both Valve and Nexon to resolve the issue; problem solved.

The situation proceeded as intended, with the South Korean server up and running to facilitate players in the region. But there’s a catch: League is too huge to take down. People are too comfortable with League, nor are they familiar with the original Defense of the Ancients title. Dota 2 came to a region where they are strangers, unknowns who tried to barge into the comfort zone.

Nexon tried their best to maintain the market, by providing South Korea-exclusive programs like their own Compendium system. Yet, their efforts are not enough to battle the Goliath. Eventually, Nexon announced in December 2015 that they are shutting down the server altogether, meaning players are forced to play elsewhere.

With no dedicated server, it’s unsurprisingly tough to continue playing casually, let alone playing Dota 2 competitively. Only the organization MVP managed to make it through these toughest times, but their prime era is now long and gone.

 

Chapter 0: FoREv the Trailblazer

Enter T1, one of the strongest and oldest South Korean esports organizations today. After their successes in StarCraft II and League of Legends, they started to venture to other, more modern esports titles like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Valve’s Artifact. And on August 22, 2019, they set foot on the Dota 2 realm by signing former MVP player, Lee “FoREv” Sang-don.

In fact, T1 is the second of the old Korean Esports Association (KespA) organizations to finally have a Dota 2 team by signing FoREv; the first being MVP. Many were reasonably excited about this announcement. It gave a new hope for the South Korean competitive scene to finally see life — some even expected the return of the South Korean server.

T1 FoREv. Source: Twitter @T1.

Since FoREv is the only fixed player to be playing under T1’s debut roster, the remaining four slots were still vacant. Though not officially announced by T1, there were at least three trial rosters in 2019. In the tournament Battle of Dawn, the T1 roster consisted of former MVP and Team SecretMP, Australian player XemistrY, two South Korean players snOw and Grace, and lastly FoREv. This roster didn’t achieve much as they were eliminated during the Group Stage.

Then, in Hainan Master Cup that trailed thereafter, T1 made a slight change. They replaced Grace with a Singaporean veteran player, xFreedom. If you are new to the scene, xFreedom used to play under legendary rosters of Team Zenith, LGD.International, Scythe Gaming, Team Zephyr, and still many others. This change didn’t really make the cut as T1 was eliminated in the first round of the event.

Again, T1 made a roster change for DreamLeague Season 13 SEA Open Qualifier, only a more drastic one this time. MP, snOw, and xFreedom were replaced by Filipino player Skadilicious, former MVP Febby, and former Team Secret pieliedie, respectively. However, MP’s and xFreedom’s time in T1 wouldn’t end just yet.

The team looked relatively more experienced on paper this time around, but it still wasn’t enough. They lost in the Semifinals 0-2 against Alpha x Hashtag, thus failing to qualify to the closed qualifier that followed. Three renditions and three failures, there was a lot to work on for T1.

 

Chapter 1: First Official and International Roster

Entering 2020, T1 knew they had to revamp the entire roster. So on March 3, 2020, they announced a shocking first official, international roster, coupled with a ton of assisting staffs and coaches. The lineup consisted of former BOOM ID duo inYourdreaM and Jhocam, veteran player Black^, North American player xuan, and of course, FoREv.

T1’s First Official Roster. Source: Twitter @T1.

As hinted, neither MP nor xFreedom have completely left the team. Both of them were assigned as coaches for the debut roster. They too employed Xyun as a tactical analyst, who’s had experiences in Team Griffin and Newbee.

T1 went as far as hiring cCarter, formerly known as L.i.E.S, to be their Dota 2 head coach and was T1’s League of Legends head coach from 2012 to 2017. Bringing cCarter to the Dota 2 scene meant serious business, as the coach is greatly respected in both the League of Legends and PUBG scene. T1 is surely looking to become a powerhouse in 2020.

T1 cCarter. Source: Twitter @T1.

The seemingly powerful and well-facilitated T1 debut roster played in three different Southeast Asian open qualifiers: ESL One Los Angeles 2020, ESL SEA Championship 2020 OQ #1, and OQ #2. Their results turned out to be lackluster as they only managed to secure 3rd-4th place in all three. ONE Esports Dota 2 Invitation Jakarta: Indonesia Qualifier became this roster’s final event together, which, similarly, ended on a bitter note.

13 days since the announcement, T1 secured zero tournaments and decided to make even more changes. With the pandemic also coming in hot, the team eventually parted ways with Black^ and xuan on March 16, 2020.

 

Chapter 2: T1, Round 2

All hope is not lost, nor is T1 willing to give up an already huge investment. The two empty slots meant stand-ins for the time being, to which they called upon the assistance of Singaporean duo Meracle and Poloson to play in BTS Pro Series: Southeast Asia in April 2020. Although they ended up finishing 7th-8th in the event, this roster was still worth a shot for T1.

They continued to play with this duo as stand-ins in two events that followed: Asia Spring Invitational and ESL One Birmingham 2020 – Online SEA Open Qualifiers. Like their previous result, these ones were equally underwhelming. Nevertheless, T1 ultimately signed the two on May 13 into their official roster.

T1’s Second Dota 2 Roster. Source: Twitter @T1.

Despite their results, T1 seemed to be comfortable with their current roster, so do their players. They stuck around for about three months that followed. And although they didn’t manage to play in top-dog tournaments, they still managed to win Hephaestus Cup and SEA Dota Invitational 2020, both of which are categorized as Tier 3 tournaments.

When it comes to the real deal, T1 was still somehow performing poorly. They placed 7th-8th in BTS Pro Series Season 2: Southeast Asia and a slightly better 4th place in ONE Esports Dota 2 SEA League where they lost a tight 1-2 against Geek Fam. But again, this is still far from what’s hoped from the team, especially when they are playing under the T1 banner.

 

Chapter 3: A Call for Change

On July 29, a piece of shocking yet expected news came in; FoREv is leaving the team. After almost a year of building the team virtually from scratch, the trailblazer ultimately parted ways. This marked a huge change especially considering that FoREv is the only South Korean member of the team. Now that he has left, the South Korean team has no representations from their own region.

FoREv Departs from T1. Source: Twitter @T1.

T1 had not much time to scramble around doing nothing, as another tournament was around the corner. They have been invited to participate in ESL One Thailand 2020: Asia, which was to be commenced on August 20. Only a day before it kicked off, they signed Filipino player, Sam_H to fill the vacancy.

Given that there’s limited time to adapt to the changes, T1’s hope didn’t look too bright. But it still remains a fact that Sam_H hosts a ton of experience playing under teams like TNC Pro Team and Neon Esports previously. T1 proceeded to survive the Group Stage, even took down Motivate.Trust Gaming in the Lower Bracket Playoffs, but lost to Neon Esports thereafter. For Sam_H, his stint with T1 was nothing but short.

Sam_H’s arrival was only a start to an even bigger change. Meracle and coach xFreedom left the team in September, followed by the departure of Head Coach cCarter in October. With no satisfying results, things looked very grim for the future of T1. What many had thought to be South Korea’s only hope, had proved so little compared to their League and StarCraft counterparts.

Throughout October and November of 2020, T1 did not really participate in any event. Instead, they opted to revamp almost the entirety of their roster, both players and staff alike. Joining xFreedom and cCarter, MP left the coaching position. Likewise, inYourdreaM and Jhocam followed Meracle, forming a new team, HOYO, for Dota Pro Circuit 2021 Season 1. Only Sam_H and Poloson remained.

 

Chapter 4: Geek1 or TFam?

Still continuing the already major change, T1 turned to yet another former MVP player, March. Since March’s national service ended, the veteran has looked for various opportunities to return to professional gaming. His return to T1 as a coach seems fitting given his experience and a perfect representation as a South Korean player.

They also recruited Filipino player Karl just a few days after March’s announcement. It is then followed by the arrival of two other Southeast Asian players JaCkky and Xepher. JaCkky had shown prominent results during his time with Motivate.Trust Gaming. While on the other hand, Xepher was Karl’s former teammate in Geek Fam.

Although T1 has secured five different players under their belt, they are revealed to not be the penultimate roster coming into the end of 2020. Instead, they recruited two stand-ins: Kuku and Whitemon. If you’ve been following the modern Southeast Asian scene, you should be familiar with this lineup and perhaps recall another team who’s had a similar roster, Geek Fam.

Indeed, four out of five T1 players were part of the Geek Fam roster which qualified for ESL One Los Angeles Major 2020 but had their hopes crushed due to lockdown measures. Thus, it’s unsurprising for them to pick this specific set of players, given their previous experience playing and succeeding together.

T1’s Roster for BTS Pro Series Season 4. Source: Twitter @T1.

And as many predicted, this roster gave astonishing results despite their age. In BTS Pro Series Season 4 where Kuku and Whitemon stood in, they placed second in the Group Stage and ended up placing third overall, beating the likes of Execration and Fnatic. Compared to their previous rosters, this result was a significant achievement.

With an already promising lineup and one that is tightly bonded, T1 naturally signed both Kuku and Whitemon officially into their roster on January 18, 2021 — thus translating to the departure of Sam_H and Poloson. With Dota Pro Circuit 2021 Season 1 commencing soon and T1 receiving a Direct Invite to the Upper Division, this roster has the potential to overthrow other Southeast Asian contenders.

In the event that lasted about a month, T1 showed outstanding results since the beginning and ended up finishing third. Their results overtop that of TNC Predator, BOOM Esports, and Execration. Together with the third-place finish meant that they secured a Wild Card slot to 2021’s first Major event, ONE Esports Singapore Major 2021. However, there is one questionable decision that T1 took before it kicked off.

 

Chapter 5: Reinforcements from Thailand’s Superstar

Just as they concluded DPC 2021 Season 1 with a clutch Wild Card slot to the Major, T1, for some reason, decided to replace JaCkky just four days after the event came to a close. Many fans questioned this decision, for obvious reasons. Namely, JaCkky was part of the reason why T1 qualified for the Major, not to mention his consistent performance.

In the end, T1 decided to recruit Thailand’s rising pubstar, 23savage. This slightly explained why T1 risked changing their roster, given that 23savage was a superstar up for grab for pretty much any team wanting to become a dominant powerhouse. T1 had only one chance to not only secure this soon-to-be prodigy, but also become Southeast Asia’s leading team.

Yet, their result in the ONE Esports Singapore Major was as expected given how abruptly the team was formed. Moreover, their cornerstone captain Kuku didn’t manage to attend the event due to health reasons, further contributing to the team’s poor performance. T1 failed to seize their Wild Card opportunity as the team got eliminated early on.

Regardless, the team progressed into DPC 2021 Season 2 more confidently. Now with everyone on board and more time to develop, T1 quickly climbed the league’s leaderboard. In the end, they topped the charts and dropped only two series in total, hence securing a Playoffs slot at 2021’s second Major event, WePlay AniMajor.

The event served to be a crucial moment for T1, as they were inching closer to being able to qualify for The International 10. All they need to do is not get eliminated in the first round, such that they will acquire enough points for TI10. There is a problem approaching them though, since their first contender is DPC China’s strongest team, Team Aster.

Despite the weight on their shoulders, T1 pushed through the adversity. They flawlessly took down the Chinese giant 2-0, thereby advancing to Upper Bracket Round 2 and, more importantly, securing their ticket to The International 10.


With the excitement, T1 continued their Major journey taking down teams like Quincy Crew, and almost defeating PSG.LGD in the process. Unfortunately, their run came to an end as they lost to Evil Geniuses in the Lower Bracket. Even so, T1 finished third — a huge improvement since their first Major run.


T1 had another shot in proving that their Major result wasn’t a fluke due to sheer luck. They continued to play in ESL One Summer 2021, this time facing up against even stronger teams like Virtus.pro and Alliance. Under the leadership of Kuku, 23savage and co. won a 3-2 comeback in the Grand Finals against Virtus.pro. With such a result, the world is convinced that T1 will deliver a blow in their premiere TI10 stint.

 

Chapter 6: Road to The International

Now that the excitement and intensity have settled, T1 and the rest of the teams have more than enough time to prepare for The International 10. In a span of less than a year, T1 snowballed from a Tier 2 Southeast Asian team to one that is capable of taking down giants. Southeast Asia has found their hope once again.

More importantly, T1’s Dota 2 roster has come a long way since their first advent. Although their roster is far from emulating their League of Legends counterpart’s three-time World Championship attainment, T1’s road to prominence has just started. Though their penultimate outcome at TI10 remains a wild guess, T1’s Dota 2 presence has truly ignited.

Featured Image by Twitter @T1.

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