Fans begin filling massive Kuala Lumpur Convention Center.
The ROG Masters wouldn't be complete without cutthroat MOBA battles. After months of regional qualifiers, the six best teams from EMEA, North America, and China entered their final gauntlet in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Pitting rising stars of varying experience levels against TI champs with different playing styles, these games would push players out of their comfort zones and test their limits in unprecedented new ways.
Group matches and quarter-, semi-, and grand finals would progressively cull more from this elite pack. But would budding local stars be able to take down frontrunners, like CIS/Russia’s team Empire and USA’s team OpTiC? Everyone had their own speculations, but only time would tell.
Grappling with the group stage
Special staff were inside the competition boxes to prevent cheating during the competitions.
After a morning of nail-biting CS:GO matches, fans at ROG Masters still had plenty to be excited about. On stage, Dota 2 players were preparing for their first round of competition. In group A, OpTiC, WarriorsGaming.Unity, and PENTA Sports were preparing to do battle. Meanwhile, Group B included Team Empire, Execration, and Team MAX.
In this best-of-two series, teams would face off first within their respective groups for a chance to advance to the next round. A win would mean a shortcut to the semi-finals, while teams in second or third would endure an extra day battle in the quarter-finals.
OpTiC might be new to Dota 2, but they’re no amateurs. Under captain Peter 'ppd' Dager’s tutelage, they previously placed first in the ROG Masters 2017 Americas qualifier and Midas Mode North America. Perhaps it’s no surprise, given ppd led Evil Geniuses to top placements at Valve's TI tournament over multiple years. As OpTiC’s captain, he personally interviewed player, taking a hands-on approach to shaping the team.
Audiences got to see the combined might of his carefully curated roster, even on day one. OpTiC’s melee dream team took down Rosh at 16 minutes and razed WG.Unity’s Ancient just 12 minutes later.
PENTA didn’t fare much better when they underestimated Per Anders 'Pajkatt' Olsson, whose late-game Morphling got outrageous double and triple one-shot kills. OpTiC made taking first place in Group A look easy. They defeated all opponents in a clean sweep.
Offstage in the private team booths, a different and far less decisive battle raged in Group B, at least initially. When Team MAX and Execration tied it all up, Team Empire was left to determine the top dog. But the fog of war soon cleared when Empire won 2-0 against both teams.
An ROG staff member watches a warm up in one of the esports stadium’s private rooms.
During game two, Miposhka, fn!, and Silent’s godlike kill streaks as Bane, Nature’s Prophet, and Sniper certainly didn’t hurt. And Silent’s performance in that game was simply astonishing: he closed out with a 20-0-19 kill/death/assist ratio. It was no wonder that Empire seeded first.
After a long first day, OpTiC and Empire had skillfully played their way into the semi-finals, earning a full day for relaxation—or more likely extra practice with their teammates under the watchful eye of their respective coaches. Time would tell whether OpTiC’s green wall could extend through the finals. As for the other teams, well, they’d be right back here tomorrow. And, this time, they’d be playing for keeps.
A draw in the quarters
Although matches scheduled for later in the day left plenty of time to hit snooze, from the sounds of it there wasn’t a single empty practice booth in this esports arena. Instead of sleeping in or sitting idle, teams warmed up, practicing for their matches that afternoon.
The previous day, PENTA placed last in their group and Execration placed second. Now it was time to see what happened when Germany challenged the Philippines. Game one remained close for a surprising 30 minutes. Eventually, PENTA was caught lingering too long on bottom, and only Lich got away alive. With the path to Rosh clear, Execration moved in. It was downhill from there for PENTA. With Execration’s late-game teamfight spells paying off splendidly, a high ground push did major damage. Rather than watching their base burn, PENTA called GG just past 38 minutes.
By game two, low-level heroes once again seemed equally-matched. But PENTA soon realized their 'tanky' lineup formed an unstoppable unit. Ogre, Doctor, Tidehunter, Viper, and Lycan barreled down top, then quickly razed mid’s tier two towers. Godlike performance stuck a huge bounty on Oliver’s Lycan, but Execration couldn’t touch him. A few more aggressive pushes turned most of Execration’s barracks to dust by 25:30.
With an even score, game three was open for the taking, and PENTA’s 30-second first blood set the tone for an aggressive meta. They were determined to secure a spot in the semis, so much so that Nine tried his mid-lane luck very early. He paid for it, but not before giving Queen of Pain a taste of her own medicine.
Venturing up to high ground at 23 minutes revealed Execration’s lineup couldn’t drop PENTA’s heroes quickly enough, especially not with Oliver’s heals and Aphotic Shields. It was GG at 25 minutes, and a crushing defeat for an almost-hometown team.
- Quarter-final teams who weren’t in private rooms played in these booths on gorgeous Swift PG248Q monitors.
- ROG Strix GD30 desktops, equipped with 7th Generation Intel Core i7-7700 CPUs, 32GB of DDR4 memory, and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 graphics, powered the tournament.
The day’s second match saw one of Malaysia’s own teams, WarriorsGaming.Unity, facing down China’s Team MAX. Unfortunately for fans from Malaysia, it ended up being a total slaughter. MAX drafted a winning combo of Clockwerk, Queen of Pain, SK, Sven, and Disruptor, and early clashes left WG.Unity at a net worth disadvantage. MAX played to each of their heroes’ strengths, but especially Dstones’ Akasha, who played a strong mid and mopped up 16-0-10.
Unfortunately for MAX, Feero got Queen of Pain the second map around, and there were comfortable picks for everyone else, too. WG.Unity wasn't taking any chances. Meracle’s Morphling was soon wreaking havoc everywhere, first on top and mid tier one towers, then bottom tier two. MAX’s laning couldn’t compete; they didn’t even hit WG’s tier one towers until 23 minutes. As the Dire crawled all over Radiant’s base, this day seemed destined for draws.
More safe drafts came for WG.Unity on map three in the form of Meracle on Juggernaut, his best hero. And, well, AfrOmoush got Spirit Breaker again—how was he not banned yet? MAX seemed confident with melee heroes and an off-lane Puck, but it was like game one deja vu. Velo took first blood at 48 seconds and Juggernaut was eating Radiant’s towers for breakfast. MAX wiped after 19 minutes, costing them second and third tier towers on mid. The Radiant Barracks quickly fell for a speedy sub-22 minute GG.
With twin 2-1 score lines, PENTA and WG.Unity both fought and won very intense quarter-finals. Now they were going to the semi-finals, where they’d face the victors from day one.
Safety in the semis
Looking down on the competition from the upper stands.
Day three brought us to the big stage at Kuala Lumpur Convention Center, but the teams weren’t on stage yet. Instead, they were hunkered down in the media room, walled off behind dark private curtains to watch opponents’ past matches, hawkishly looking for weaknesses.
The semi-finals saw Team Empire matched against WG.Unity. At last, Malaysia’s own Dota 2 team would challenge a European team on the big stage, not just in groups. ROG Masters offers a change of pace for teams like WG.Unity, who often get fewer chances to challenge upper tiers. “[Malaysia] is still kind of low-key compared to Europe,” Feras 'Feero' Hroob said. “You're not [usually] playing against important teams.”
The question now was whether WG.Unity would continue playing it safe. Empire had their favorites, but also a far more dynamic drafting overall. In contrast, WG.Unity had lost the one quarter-final game that strayed outside their safety net. Could they risk it?
Empire intensely focused during one of the competitions.
The answer was immediately apparent. WG.Unity weren’t taking any risks in the semis that they hadn't taken in the quarters the day before. Game one felt like a remixed day two, map two. WG.Unity drew a quick first blood, but Feero’s Queen of Pain couldn’t hold back deadly mid-laners fn! and VANSKOR as Mirana and Nyx. Empire downed the tier three towers at 38 minutes and WG.Unity GGed soon after.
By game two, Empire was focusing on a carry lineup and both teams jockeyed for a laning advantage. Empire pushed top. WG.Unity fought back on bottom and mid. Finally, a total team wipe near 23 minutes turned the Empire tide, leaving the path clear for a high ground push. Although familiar heroes weren’t enough for WG.Unity in the end, it wasn’t a total loss. Placing in fourth still yielded $21,350 in winnings
Quinn 'CCnC' Callahan grins as host Grant Harris introduces OpTiC.
Meanwhile, with a star roster and TI veterans like Pajkatt, zai, and Saksa, OpTiC were the favorites for the next match, but PENTA was determined to prove themselves. Right off the bat, OpTiC showed what it means to be a top team with CCnC’s Sniper draft. It was a last-minute, lightning quick choice, yet a perfect counter for Medusa and Underlord. With any luck, Doom might close the gap for PENTA.
As the game began, passive play revealed both teams were in it for the long haul, more keen on farming or retreating unscathed than hero kills. First blood didn’t ring out until the five-minute mark, when PENTA's Doom and Undying caught Brewmaster in the offlane.
By 23 minutes, the scoreboard still only read 7-5, but the economy and map told a different tale. The Dire were forced into a tiny base radius, while their opponents ruled the jungle. When he was feeling extra cheeky, Saksa’s Witch Doctor popped in, luring away creeps to cheers and laughter. “What he’s doing here doesn’t add up on the scoreboard, but it’s going to make a huge difference,” noted commentator Gabriel 'Lyrical' Cruz.
Gabriel 'Lyrical' Cruz’s energetic shoutcasting was a highlight of the matches.
But things got serious with Brewmaster’s Radiance in-hand. With tier two towers already gone, the raiding party just kept pushing high ground until the bitter end at the 31-minute mark.
The second game couldn’t have been more different. PENTA clearly wanted to avoid being sequestered again and succeeded at map control. However, gold and experience flipped from PENTA to OpTiC and back. The lanes were tied and OpTiC was paying through the nose just to buy back and win fights. Twenty minutes stretched to 30 and then 40.
Suddenly, an opening: a chaotic, breathless fight in the mid, Dire jungle. Even double damage on PENTA’s Lycan wasn’t enough. “Five dead!” Shouted David 'Luminous' Zhang and fellow commentator Lyrical in unison. “No buybacks!” zai, ppd, and Saksa made a mad rush to smash their opponent's base as PENTA looked on helplessly. It was a grueling game and devastating loss for the German team, but an incredible and unexpected show. Seeing how close they came to taking down OpTiC made it all the more thrilling.
The grueling Grand Finale
Banners with team crests adorn the walls like a castle keep.
The fourth day had finally arrived. Red lights filtered through smoke, casting everything in a Bloodlust-like glow. The stage was set and ready. The trophy awaited. Now all that was needed were teams to fill the boxes.
Before the match, OpTiC’s Ludwig 'zai' Wåhlberg was getting into the zone. “I've been on a few teams that [...] were seen as the top teams,” he said. “Sometimes [confidence] will work in your favor, but on a couple occasions it [...] caused us to blow up internally.”
For him, the key was avoiding overconfidence and cockiness and focusing on practice. He seemed calm and ready for whatever was in store. And he needed to be. This Grand Final would not only test these teams’ raw skills, but their endurance, too. Between the powerful lineups and the best-of-five format, it could easily be five or more hours before they emerged from the competition boxes.
The audience chanted along with the countdown until, with a roar, the games began. And they absolutely did not disappoint. What followed was one of the most touch-and-go games of the entire ROG Masters.
Fans wildly cheer and wave their noisemakers.
During game one, OpTiC had a melee-heavy draft with late-game in mind, although Empire seemed fairly set on preventing them from getting there. In spite of Empire’s “lane dominating” heroes, OpTiC’s early minutes looked good. Saksa’s surprising Naga Siren began making sense when his tanking and disable skills started carrying, and OpTiC was having no trouble farming and leveling their heroes.
OpTiC built a huge advantage by 40 minutes, and Empire was down to just one tower and two barracks. From here it should have been easy, but OpTiC played it too slow. By waiting six minutes for Rosh and buybacks, they handed Empire the game. A fight erupted just inside the Dire high ground. “Somebody save the carry!” shouted Lyrical, trying to keep the glee out of his voice as fn!’s Storm Spirit moved in with a double damage rune, landing 1400+ physical damage hits and wiping OpTiC from the map. “Four down for OpTiC… Empire are doing it!” Miposhka and company pushed through the mega creeps, killed Brewmaster within seconds of buyback, and razed the Ancient.
After that 65 minute game, the next two matches flew by. OpTiC was playing a long game with a better Rosh lineup, but Empire was owning from the start. “[OpTiC] are struggling to find an answer against this Outworld Devourer that is dominating the game,” said Cruz. fn!’s hero was a strong counter to ppd’s Ogre and Saksa’s Slardar. But, in a sudden upset, what seemed like an easy Empire victory became a nightmare. Beastmaster’s scouting helped divide and conquer Empire, and then they botched a base defense. OpTiC snatched GG.
OpTiC and Empire’s final battle was so evenly matched it put everyone on the edge of their seats.
Shockingly, map three had almost exactly the same outcome and pacing, right down to the last-minute OpTiC turnaround. Commentators noted that Empire was showing up way too late to defend their barracks. They also had to do something to step up their game and counter zai, the wildcard who could play almost any character, and Pajkatt, who was happily farming all over the map. These were costly mistakes to make in the Grand Final. The 2-1 scoreline now favored OpTiC, in spite of such strong initial Empire advantages. Was Empire was losing their ability to close out games?
Empire had to bring it back in map four or it would be game over for them. They charged in on bottom, where Saksa’s Keeper of the Light and zai’s Legion Commander’s only jobs seemed to be feeding the hungry Radiant Heroes. Empire’s fast-paced aggression actually seemed to be working, forcing OpTiC to rise up and meet them.
OpTiC fought fire with fire, pushing bottom and mid. Empire’s life was on the line, but OpTiC's plan backfired at 46 minutes. A well-timed ice blast from Miposhka’s Ancient Apparition turned the Dire’s mid-lane into a slaughter. They couldn’t buyback on ppd, CCnC, or Pajkatt. Knowing this, fn! and Miposhka made a mad mid-lane break for it. “fn!, he smells blood!” shouted Cruz. Puck and WK caught up and it was suddenly 5v3 in the Dire base. OpTiC called GG.
Empire’s VANSKOR during a more challenging Grand Finals moment.
Now, with a 2-2 scoreline, this crazy, back-and-forth Grand Final was going all the way to a fifth match tiebreaker. Beyond endurance, players needed to keep cool and avoid getting inside their own heads.
OpTiC seemed determined to turn Empire’s strategy back on them with a “kill, kill, kill” tactic and a strong Lina mid-lane, but Empire had the same idea when they picked Medusa and drafted for team fights. OpTiC was also taking a risk by drafting differently than usual and seemed out-matched by Empire’s Razor, Rubick, Undying, and Medusa.
It once again became clear how closely matched these two teams were. The first 15 minutes played out evenly and no one could decide how the game was going to go. At 12 minutes, the commentators thought OpTiC had no chance, but then changed their minds as Lina started picking off kills and the Radiant economy climbed to a 17K lead.
As the crowd cheers wildly, OpTic players are intensely focused on their ROG Swift monitors inside the booths.
The problem was the old-school, aggressive-when-you-need-’em OpTiC was nowhere to be found. They were hanging back in spite of already having taken out five towers. “I mean how scary is this? It’s a 17K net worth lead but it doesn’t feel like they’re willing to just walk up high ground,” said one commentator. OpTiC was psyching themselves out.
This hesitation came back to haunt them. The prolonged game gave Empire enough time to build up momentum. At 62 minutes, Ghostik’s Batrider managed to lasso and kill CCnC’s Lina. Then Sand King and Lifestealer dropped. It was a brutal loss, especially Lina.
With their heroes tuned exactly for this game phase, Empire was able to quickly dart out, drop Rosh, then head bottom for another raid like it was nothing. fn!’s Medusa was doing incredible damage even without any runes. OpTiC burned through their buybacks and Empire brought it home once and for all to wild cheers.
Trophy and larger-than-life $117,500 check in hand, the tired but joyful victors rose to go meet their adoring fans, closing out another incredible year of ROG Masters battles with exactly the kind of spectacular finish everyone was hoping for. Bring on 2018!
- Andrey “Ghostik” Kadyk takes a selfie with a fan.
- The winning team signed everything from shirts to keyboards immediately after their match ended.
By Kimberly Koenig