One week before ESL One, Na’Vi arrived in Cologne to start bootcamping for their upcoming tournaments – ESL One, the tournament in a World Cup Stadium, and TI4, the $10 million spectacle in Seattle. We took the opportunity to sit down with Dendi and talk about the challenges that lie ahead.
ESL: We are here on the eve of two massive tournaments for you – ESL One, held in a historic and prestigious arena, and TI4, which is rapidly eclipsing anything ever seen before in eSports prize pools. Right now, we are already at nearly four times the previous $2,600,000 prize pool. Does the massive increase in prize money have an impact you and how you approach the tournaments?
Dendi: In some way yes, since if you start looking at the numbers, you can suddenly start winning one million dollars per person, which is pretty crazy and has never happened before, I guess, in eSports. But, at the end of the day, it’s still the same tournament and you want to win it no matter what. Money is motivation, but it’s only bonus motivation.
ESL: So it’s more about taking home the crown than the actual money for you?
Dendi: Yeah, you could say that – it’s really about being the best at something.
ESL: Would you go so far as to say that to a degree the huge amounts of money on the line could even be seen as adding additional pressure?
Dendi: No, I wouldn’t say so, at least I don’t feel it at the moment. You don’t really think about money when you are in the middle of playing. Maybe at some point you do, so for example at TI1 Artstyle, my team captain, at some point said “Hey guys, you just won $40,000 – next game you win $80,000!” and stuff like that, but in reality for me I don’t feel pressure for money. I feel pressure because of amount of people watching or really hard opponents and things like that.
ESL: Hard opponents is a good topic, since one could say you guys have struggled recently. You were 5th-6th at Starladder, 4th at The Summit, narrowly missed DreamHack Summer and teams from all over the world are performing extremely strong. Evil Geniuses, Fnatic, Vici, Cloud 9, Alliance are all showing that they’re capable of beating anyone on a good day. How does the fact that there are a lot of other favourites out there impact you going into ESL One and TI4?
Dendi: When it comes to not qualifying for DreamHack, I would even say that we were quite fine with it, because it would have been very hard on us to travel so much. I mean, I love Dota and I would play every tournament I can, but it’s very possible to burn out when you are travelling so much and playing so many events. So the break from The Summit to ESL is actually quite good, you could say.
About our current form: yes, we are having some problems, and I believe and hope that we can fix them. We still have a full week to prepare for ESL and then several more days in the USA, and I hope that will be enough time to fix the problems we have been having and hopefully win at both events!
ESL: Are there any particular strategies you’re using to address the current issues or ways you go about bootcamping?
Dendi: I guess one of the most important ones is that we are just spending more time in real life with each other and talking about the problems more and more openly. This and playing a lot of games as a team.
ESL: You guys recently picked up a US Na’Vi team. Do you guys plan on scrimming together, preparing strategies? What role will they play in your organization?
Dendi: We actually played a couple of practice games with them yesterday but initially I actually had no idea we were picking up a US team. That said, I’m quite fine with expanding and growing, although it’s a bit hard to practice from Europe to US because of the ping. In the future, we might go over to the US for some time to practice or they might come to Europe, but we will see how it goes.
Right now, we haven’t really shared strategies and are opponents for TI4, but I like the idea of helping improve the two teams by working together.
ESL: You guys as a team – and you as a player – are probably the most experienced in the scene when it comes to dealing with high pressure situations, having played in three TI finals. Heading into ESL One with a massive crowd and TI4 with the insane prize money, do you think this gives you an edge?
Dendi: Ya, I think it gives us more bonuses than other teams because I really feel confident and comfortable when playing in front of huge crowds. I think dancing when I was young helped a bit, since I used to dance in front of big groups and audiences which helped me overcome that stress feeling of performing in public. So, when I came to TI1, I was already fine and didn’t care about the crowd – and nowadays actually the pressure and energy of the big crowd helps us play better since when you feel the pressure more, you don’t make silly mistakes or cocky moves and play more ‘safe’.
We’re already a very aggressive team and I guess with pressure and the crowd we get on this ‘edge’ where you almost feed but don’t feed since you are playing super concentrated. We will see how it goes for the next two tournaments, though.
Normally, people always cheer for us, and it really helps a lot and I think it’s had a big impact on our performance as a team, so I hope we also see that in the future.
ESL: So you as a person, having been in three TI finals and in Free to Play, you are one of the most famous and recognizable Dota 2 players in the scene. Has that changed your life in any way? Do you get recognized on the street?
Dendi: Um, it didn’t change my life in any way, really. Usually people think you can get star fever or similar, but I treat people like I treat myself, and nothing has really changed in that way. But yes, in my city a lot of especially young students play Dota, and I get recognized on the street a lot of times (laughs).
ESL: Are there any particularly crazy fan stories where people went out of their way to meet you?
Dendi: Hmm, no, not really a lot… but sometimes stuff happens, like just now after The Summit we went to a bar where there was a Barcraft and we had a short meeting with some fans there. Some of them would come to sign something or do photos and then they would start crying, which at some point is a bit crazy and overwhelming. I guess it’s mainly these kind of things that happen, which is quite crazy.
ESL: So going to back to gameplay: there have been a few big patches recently which seem to have brought with them an increasing variety of picks in matches and more and more viable strategies. Do you also see this? If so, what do you think of this development?
Dendi: It is definitely happening like this and I really like it, even if it’s not really working that well for our team at this point. I do hope that this will change in the future, though. In the past, teams would just find really strong stuff that would work every time and after a while other teams would just copy it and everyone would play these strategies over and over again and that’s it. But I think IceFrog and Valve are working to fix that and making it so that, in balancing more and more, strategies become possible and work. So now we see more and more strategies that actually work, so it’s all about the creativity of players and teams around the world and coming up with really crazy things instead of the old world in where you simply picked the same strong stuff over and over again.
ESL: Have you watched any matches recently where you saw something and simply thought “Wow, I hadn’t thought of that” or “Didn’t imagine that could work so well”?
Dendi: Hmm, yes, well not anything super crazy, but yeah you see things where you might have imagined it could work but didn’t think about it in the moment. You might have known about it or seen it before but then in the moment it doesn’t come to you. But yeah, it happens a lot of times in games where I see things and think “Wow, I need to try that!”
ESL: Any specific examples?
Dendi: Recently at Summit, for example, Vici Gaming would pick Elder Titan against Morphling a lot. The idea behind it was that Morphling gets a lot of armor when he goes into agility items and/or morphs into agility but Elder Titan can reduce armor to zero with Natural Order, which allows you to get the Spirit on Morphling and instantly blow him up with some physical damage. So you could see a Phantom Assassin simply killing Morphling with one hit because he was full agility but had no armor.
So ya, everyone played Elder Titan before, then some small changes happened and no one picked him anymore, but in reality he is the same hero and still super viable. Then suddenly, in a situation like this, he is suddenly picked up again and everyone realizes how strong he is. Like Newbee currently picking Void nearly every game while in the past nearly no one ever picked Void, but perhaps in the Chinese clan wars he suddenly came up as a super viable carry – and now teams will come up with things that work well against Void and it’s awesome to see this cycle.
ESL: What heroes do you enjoy playing when not playing competitively?
Dendi: I really enjoy playing Tinker right now, but I’ll drop it off soon I also need to practice others. But with Tinker I feel I can do anything in the game – I can push, I can defend, I can gank, I can win mid game, late game almost by myself. It’s perfect for pubs since people don’t play as much as a team. But generally I like playing different heroes that are ‘active’ where you always need to press stuff and watch stuff.
ESL: So the fans would probably love to see you play Pudge at TI4 or ESL One?
Dendi: We don’t really have any ideas at the moment involving Pudge and don’t really practice him right now so I don’t think it will happen, although I really hope so because I really love to play this hero. I enjoy it especially in competitive as I think it’s easier for me to hook competitive players than pub players since I can better think about what they will do and predict where they are going. Pub players, on the other hand, always end up just doing some #YOLO move and I’m like “WHERE ARE YOU GOING? WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
ESL: Do you play any of the new Dota modes like Ability Draft?
Dendi: I played a few maps of Ability Draft (laughs) but that’s it, I guess – I would really like to play more but I always feel a pressure that I need to practice something. I always have this pressure, so I always want to play more real matches and practice more. Even if I play a couple of games, after they are over I feel like it’s not enough, but then I realize I don’t actually have enough time to play more since I need to do this or that… so at the end of the day, I don’t even feel I have enough time to practice as much as I want to.
ESL: So you kind of feel like you’re wasting time when you’re not playing serious games?
Dendi: Yeah, totally. Sometimes I even feel like I’m getting sick of playing pubs – well not sometimes, all the time, but a lot of the time I don’t have any real alternatives so I do what I can.
ESL: So I guess you also don’t play many games that aren’t actually Dota?
Dendi: That happens very rarely, usually only when friends visit my house and install some game on my PC and say “YOU HAVE TO PLAY THIS” and then I can’t refuse. But generally I will only play it for an hour or a few hours and then stop, not because I don’t want to play it – maybe I really like playing it and even want to play it A LOT and to just chill and relax – but then this pressure comes and I go back to practicing.
ESL: So now you’re playing in a stadium, what are your feelings going into ESL One – what does it mean for you to play in a World Cup stadium?
Dendi: I was actually pretty sad when I first heard about ESL One, mainly due to the timing so close to TI4 and I guess many teams were sceptical about not being able to play full power at ESL One due to TI4, and I know I was also kind of worried. On the other hand, now that I am actually here I am very happy that we are actually part of it since it’s a big step forward for Dota and the Dota community. It’s great that it is happening in a huge stadium and I hope it’s going to be very full and I hope it’s going to be huge and a huge step for eSports. I’m looking forward to the atmosphere and think I will be able to draw a lot of energy from the huge amount of people there.
Thanks so much for your time, Dendi, and best of luck in your matches! The first game will be Na’Vi versus Evil Geniuses, who have looked close to unstoppable recently. Make sure to tune in tomorrow!
Also be sure to check out our other interviews and team spotlights here at ESLGaming.com: