Gambit’s Bektiyar "fitch" Bahytov reacts to a question from Ben ‘SandMan’ Green onstage, just in front of the massive trophy his team ultimately won.
ROG Masters is all about helping anyone live their esports dream. The competition gives amateurs the opportunity to go up against tested pros, and the finals represented some of the best worldwide CS:GO and Dota 2 teams and players. A diverse mix of teams squared off for ultimate glory at in Kuala Lumpur in December, and an epic battle between underdogs and frontrunners emerged.
The clash was enough to raise anyone’s curiosity about what exactly it means to be an underdog or a frontrunner in the esports world. Can the favorites get away with practicing less? Do the dark horses feel extra pressure to prove themselves in the arena? We caught up with the players themselves to find out.
Living that frontrunner life
The level of multitasking during practice can be downright impressive. Bektiyar ‘fitch’ Bahytov watches an opponent’s match while also practicing in the media room before the semifinals.
Talk to anyone at the Grand Finals who follows esports and there were four team names on their lips: Empire, OpTiC, Gambit, and TyLoo. From the very start, these were the ones to watch for Dota 2 and CS:GO.
It’s no secret that these teams are good. Their rankings show it. Their fans know it. So you might expect that they could take it easy in the days before a competition. But, far from it, frontrunners feel just as much pressure to perform well as anyone else. They hold themselves to a high standard. Higher, perhaps, than anyone else might know or expect.
Take OpTiC, for example. Their devoted fans have taken to calling themselves “The Green Wall.” When you have a group of people who are that obsessed, it’s hard not to feel pressure that you might let them down. Top teams have a reputation on the line; true or not, one false move might cause fans to lose faith.
OpTiC’s dedicated fans call themselves “The Green Wall,” and the Dota 2 community has embraced this wholeheartedly.
If a team were to suddenly seem too comfortable, analysts might make early predictions that they had lost their direction. It’s especially brutal in an industry where roster shake-ups are common. The accusation that an individual player, or even a whole team, is getting rusty can tank morale, and even impact a team’s recruiting prospects.
OpTiC’s Zai described the balance between understanding you’re a good team without allowing it to impact the team dynamic or performance. “Ignoring it is usually the optimum way to go about it,” he said. “Sometimes it will work in your favor, but on a couple occasions it went the opposite way [...] just caused us to blow up internally.”
It’s a razor-thin edge between confidence and cockiness, something that takes a long time to get right. “You still have to regard yourself as a good team and you have to think that you're the best team here in order to compete,” he said. “[But] you can't let it get to your head.”
Zai has plenty of experience walking the fine line between achievement and overconfidence.
That means there's no slacking when it comes to preparing for tournaments. Empire’s Andrey ‘Ghostik’ Kadyk made it clear that it was business as usual for his team. Taking a break wasn’t an option, and the only thing that could possibly get in the way was too many other tournaments, not a lack of desire to practice.
“[It’s] just like usual tournament practicing mode [for us],” he emphasized. “It’s thinking about our enemy, what to beat, how to play against them [...] nothing special for us.” A nonchalant shrug punctuated this statement.
His teammate Ivan ‘VANSKOR’ Skorokhod echoed this sentiment. After they four-zeroed their group stage matches, practice was far from over. “We didn't celebrate because we didn't win the tournament yet,” VANKSOR said. “Our target here is during the tournament.” Put another way, he said life is eighty percent Dota 2, twenty percent sleep. They had a Grand Final win fixed in their sights, and a Grand Final win is what they ended up getting.
Indeed, for a frontrunner every tournament has to be “nothing special.” They have to take it one tournament, one opponent, and even one round at a time. That’s how they get to the top.
Fear of disappointing fans can be a huge motivator. Gambit’s fans were especially dedicated during the finals, waving a Kazakh flag and screaming any time their team scored a point.
Thinking like an underdog
5Power Club were eliminated early and viewed as underdogs who were simply in over their heads during this year’s Grand Finals.
On the other side of the coin, underdogs have something different to prove. They’re not trying to keep their hard-won place on the stage, but rightfully earn it. They want to show they have as much a right to be there as the rest of them. They’ll put in five, ten, or twenty times the effort of other teams if it means a chance to demonstrate their abilities.
So, while it was business as usual for frontrunners like OpTiC, Empire, and Gambit, for teams like Splyce there was a certain intensity and fever pitch, even in the earlier group stages. It was a frenetic energy you didn’t necessarily feel from established teams who anticipated easy early-stage wins. Splyce were playing for keeps right from the beginning. Even analysts picked up on their level of preparation and commented on it.
After losing both group matches on the first day, ex-Cloud9 player Kory ‘SEMPHIS’ Friesen put words to the energy everyone was noticing. “We won’t do anything fun until we win or are eliminated,” he said. For other teams there might be time for both practice and play, but, for Splyce, there was only competition.
Underdogs often put in massive effort during the group stages. They see the importance of proving themselves, even early on.
This mindset can definitely pay off. Analysts and fans alike noted how Splyce gave teams like Gambit serious pause during the first two days. And although an underdog might eventually be eliminated, they can gain respect, even through loss.
Splyce’s Taylor ‘Drone’ Johnson touched on this phenomenon, too. “Gambit was the one that was expected to wipe the floor with everyone [...] No competition for them,” he recalled. In theory, competing against his team was supposed to be a “free win, a free weekend” for them. An easy point on the board.
But, far from it, Splyce put up a huge fight, playing close games and even taking one point away from Gambit, going to a three-game tiebreaker. “That garners respect throughout the community for your team,” said Drone. “It’s [...] a stepping stone to becoming a more respected team. [...] It’s good for posture.” Even without a Grand Final win, that kind of posture results in more community respect and better opportunities. It creates better gameplay clips, which your team can show to sponsors, and it proves that even less experienced players can hold their own against top teams.
Even though they were eliminated in the quarterfinals, Team Splyce gained analysts’ attention for punching above their weight against teams like Gambit.
Gaining respect by losing is not something many teams, players, and even fans might immediately consider, but it makes sense. After all, if a team puts up a valiant fight, they’ll be far more respected within their community than a team who phones it in, whether they’re a frontrunner, underdog, or simply average. That effort definitely counts for something.
And whenever the two shall meet
WG.Unity’s Feeras ‘Feero’ Hroob and Galvin ‘Meracle’ Kang Jian Wen rejected the label of “underdog” for their team. “I wouldn't call ourselves the underdogs,” they said. “We’re just not [Team] Liquid.”
Even if experienced teams resolve not to slack off in practice, it doesn’t mean they won’t make mistakes. It’s not unheard of for favored-to-win teams to underestimate their opponent. Perhaps they watch some replays, learn their opponents’ strats, and think it'll be easy pickings. What they might not expect is that their challengers may have started working with a new coach, just gone to a bootcamp, or have a new roster that’s communicating better. Or perhaps the newer team is just coming in swinging, this time determined to prove themselves no matter the odds.
Whatever the reason, that miscalculation can be a deadly mistake. Empire’s Ghostik recalls his team thinking they could take it easy against so-called underdogs. They thought they could put their game on cruise control, even get a little lax and prepare a bit less. “But after some games like that, we [reflected on] our strategies,” he said. When they realized they were playing suboptimally against teams they should have been beating handily, they stepped up their game. “Now we’re playing against [them] like they’re normal.”
And while Drone says you would “never have someone scoff at you," he’s definitely experienced in-game underestimation as a player on a relatively-new team. Whether playing against Gambit or others, it’s possible to tell when your opponent doesn’t have their head totally in the game. It’s not that they aren’t warmed up, it’s that they’re sloppy. They play fast and loose. They slip up. They aren’t totally dialed in.
Drone explained it like this: “They underestimated what we could do. So they slipped up a little bit in places before they started tightening up. [...] You saw a different side of their team.”
Early on in the quarterfinals, Gambit may have underestimated Splyce, but they tightened up their act later on.
Interestingly, he doesn’t want the top teams to play sloppy. He views it as a matter of respect when they give it their all during a match. “You can see the difference when they start treating you as an equal instead of [an] underdog.” It’s fascinating to hear him describe it like this, because even though Gambit’s “fast and loose” style of play might have ultimately given Splyce a win, to hear him tell it, it might not have been a very satisfactory one. Like an unspoken warrior’s code, it’s better to lose against an enemy who’s treating you equally, and giving one hundred percent effort, than to win against someone who’s underestimating you and playing sloppily as a result.
These are some of the fascinating dynamics behind frontrunner and underdog mentalities. But whether they’re on top, scrabbling for purchase, or somewhere in the middle, every team at ROG Masters gave it their all, and it shows both on-screen and onstage. It’s in the big, intense moments, and the small, simple times between. It’s in the nail-biting anticipation and the wide grins, hugs, and fistbumps. It’s everything we’ve come to expect and love about these events.
Sometimes a winning mindset doesn’t always mean a trophy in-hand. Sometimes it’s simply the perspective that gains are made even through something less than ultimate victory. Read the play-by-play of the CS:GO finals and the Dota 2 finals to see how these teams fared.
By Kimberly Koenig