We have had eight iterations of The International. After nine years, there have been no repeat winners. The search for a repeat TI victory has been an ongoing story from year to year to see who if anyone will ever pick up the aegis for a second time. This year, two people will be headlining that search: Kuro “KuroKy” Salehi Takhasomi and Clement “Puppey” Ivanov. Once teammates and now rival captains, the two of them are in search for their second International victory.
A partnership that worked
The KuroKy-Puppey duo is one of the all-time great support duos. Their aggression, map control, and vision became the core backbone of two legendary lineups. The first was Na`Vi 2013-2014. The lineup included: Puppey, KuroKy, Alexander “XBOCT” Deashkevich, Danil “Dendi” Ishutin, and Gleb “Funn1k” Lipatnikov. For an eight month span they were one of the top two teams in the world. They were the only team that could fight [A]lliance head-to-head and gave us one of the most epic finals at TI3.
The second legendary lineup the duo built was the Secret 2014 lineup. The lineup included: Artour “Arteezy” Babaev, Gustav “s4” Magnusson, and Ludwig “zai” Wahlberg. The project lasted for half a year. The team were dominant in the runup to TI5 as they won four tournaments in a row: Red Bull Battle Grounds, Summit 3, MDL 2015, and ESL Frankfurt 2015. However the team capitulated at TI5 as they bombed out in eighth place. At that point, Secret imploded with Puppey and KuroKy splitting ways. It has been over four years since the two have split paths. In that time, Puppey and KuroKy’s leadership qualities have become more distinct as we’ve seen them lead different squads. This in turn has given them different results. Both are great in their own way, and both have claims to being the greatest leader of Dota2 history.
The innovation of Puppey and Kuroky
Dota2 is a complex game. One that constantly shifts from patch to patch as mechanics, heroes, and items are introduced, changed, or altered. This constant change has made Dota2 knowledge and leadership the most important qualities in the game. It’s no surprise that if you look at players across the history of Dota2, the players correlated with the highest results are all captains. All of the greats share similar qualities: great knowledge, drafting, and social skills. What separates Puppey and KuroKy is what they prioritize.
For Puppey, innovation is the ultimate answer to Dota. He revealed this in a Cybersports interview where he says,
“Finding a new thing that is the best thing — and knowing it's the best — is a different thing. I think a lot of people are thinking how to win TI, but a lot of people don't know how to win TI. Crazy shit looks only crazy if it doesn't work, truth be told. If it works, it's going to be the norm and everybody will start doing it so it's not crazy anymore.”
Puppey is carved out of Dota experience. He has been playing Dota and Dota2 for over a decade. In that time, he’s watched hundreds of top Dota players come and go, and played in various iterations of the game. This experience has given him two skills. In-game, it has given him an unshakeable confidence in his drafting. When Puppey drafts, his first instinct isn’t to ban the enemy’s best heroes, it’s to see if he can break them. This is why memes like “MY NAME IS PUPPEY, I DONT BAN SNIPER CUZ IM COOL.” pop up around him, but also why Na`Vi took [A]lliance to the fifth game of TI3.
This experience also lets Puppey recognize other player’s potential and how to develop it. He understands the styles and tendencies of players and what role or lane best fits them. In the same interview, he reflected on how the initial Secret lineup of: Puppey, KuroKy, Tal “Fly” Aizik, Gustav “s4” Magnusson, and Johan “n0tail” Sundstein all ended up playing the roles he and KuroKy predicted
“All the players kind of ended up in the roles we predicted. Fly was playing offlane, even though we thought he would have to play support. We believed that n0tail was an amazing midlaner because from his HoN days he was a potential midlane player. And s4 really still wanted to play midlane and we wanted him to play offlane.”
There are many aspects to Kuroky’s leadership. He’s a fantastic drafter, has a great sense of role balance in his squads, and seems to specialize in aggressive playstyles. However among all of the aspects, the one aspect that stands out the most to me is his teamplay.
The first example of this was the post-TI4 Secret blowup. Arteezy scapegoated KuroKy for Secret’s loss at the tournament. Hatred for KuroKy was at an all-time high as the community turned against him. It could have been easy for KuroKy to lash back, but instead he gave a measured and empathetic response. In the forum post he says he understands what it was like to be young, emotional, and ambitious, and how it isn’t easy to be world famous, so he wanted people to have some empathy for what Arteezy was going through at the time.
This was the first inkling I had of what KuroKy was. KuroKy had a great understanding of the team dynamic and how critical it was for overall team success. Where Puppey’s answer to Dota was innovation, KuroKy’s was teamplay. He wrote about this in his Player’s Tribune article,
“What really separates the winners and losers isn’t about how you handle yourself personally, but rather how you coexist with your teammates. Leadership, cooperation and chemistry — those are ultimately what define a champion.”
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At TI8, I interviewed Lee “Heen” Seung Gon about his thoughts on KuroKy as a leader and teammate. He answered, “He[KuroKy] always said he didn’t want to be a leader. But, I think he leads by example and competency. He’s a wise guy. A literal wise guy. He knows the game, he loves the game.”
This matches perfectly with what KuroKy wrote in his Players Tribune article. When Liquid lost to Invictus, they played afraid. When KuroKy saw that fear, he drew on his past experiences to show his team the way, “So when I spoke to my team after the loss, I was as open with them as I could be. I told them, ‘Guys, listen, I’ve lost in this tournament six times. I’m not afraid to lose again, so you shouldn’t be either. We’ve played in so many tournaments together, and this is just another.’ ”
Dominance vs Consistency
The two ideologies of Puppey and KuroKy have given rise to two vastly different, but incredibly successful careers. In the case of Puppey, his focus on finding the new thing has led him to spurts of dominance. The Secret 2014 lineup won four tournaments in a row, but it only came together after the team chopped and swapped multiple players. In 2015, he created a lineup with Jacky “EternaLEnVy” Mao. The lineup didn’t last past six months, but during that period they had great results: 1st at the Shanghai Major, 1st at MLG, 2nd at Frankfurt Major, and 2nd at ESL One New York 2015.
The later iterations of Secret had less roster changes, but a similar theme. The post Ti6 Secret initially did well with: Yiek “MidOne” Nai Zheng, Pyo “MP” No-a, Lee “Forev” Sang-don, Johan “pieliedie” Astrom, and Puppey. However after their initial honeymoon phase, they fell into mediocrity. The same could be said of the 2017 lineup with MP, MidOne, Puppey, Maurice “KheZu” Gutmann, and Yazied “YapzOr” Jaradat. They were a top three team in late 2016, but fell below the elite three of OG, Liquid, and Virtus.Pro in 2017.
Secret’s current lineup bucks that trend. The lineup of: Puppey, Michal “Nisha” Jankowski, MidOne, zai, and YapzOr might be the greatest in history. They have dominated the 2018-2019 DPC with two Major victories at Chongqing and Paris, a second place at Kuala Lumpir, a top four at DreamLeague Season 11, and multiple 1st place victories at big lans like ESL Birmingham and Katowice. In terms of raw dominance, the only lineup that stands close is the current Virtus.Pro lineup.
In contrast to Puppey’s dominance, KuroKy’s career as a leader has been about consistency. KuroKy has only been a dedicated captain for the last four years (compared to Puppey’s ten), but in that time he has crafted two great lineups (and may potentially be on his third). The first lineup had: Lasse “MATUMBAMAN” Urpalainen, Adrian “Fata” Trinks, Ivan “MinD_ContRoL” Ivanov, Jesse “JerAx” Vainikka, and KuroKy. Outside of Fata, the entire team was filled with inexperienced players who had never played for a top team before. KuroKy took this squad in late 2015 and forged it to become one of the top three teams in 2016. They had two second place finishes at the Shanghai and Manila Majors, and one victory at EPICENTER.
KuroKy’s other lineup was: MATUMBAMAN, MinD_ContRoL, Amer “Miracle-” Al-Barkawi, Maroun “GH” Merheg, and KuroKy. This lineup lasted from January 2017 to June 2019. At two and a half year, it is the longest lived lineup in Dota2 history. In terms of longevity and consistency, no other Dota2 team comes close to what this lineup accomplished. In 2017, they grew in strength until they became one of the most dominant teams in mid 2017 with another EPICENTER victory. They then went on to win TI7.
What made this lineup so remarkable was how consistent they were from 2017-2018. Every other lineup post TI-victory fell apart. While this Liquid lineup wasn’t the best team in the world, they were a consistent top three team in the 2017-2018 DPC. This feat is especially remarkable given the context of how many tournaments were held that year and the amount of patches that came out.
The reason Liquid pulled it off was because of their otherworldly teamplay. They had the best teamplay of any five man lineup I’ve seen in Dota2. However that could only take them so far as everyone else figured out how they were playing. KuroKy described this in an interview with Ruhub,
“We are an ‘old’ team, that’s the main problem. Sometimes you either make a change and get some fresh blood, or you try to fix your problems. It’s like being in a relationship and it takes time, it can take a long time.”
Even though the team got to the finals of MDL Paris, it took everything they had. Liquid could pull out magical runs, but they were no longer the consistent force they once were. Liquid eventually had to pull the trigger on the roster as they removed MATUMGAMAN for Aliwi “w33” Omar. This move instantly revitalized the team as they got 2nd at the EPICENTER Major Finals in their first outing.
In search of the second
The International 9 could be a career defining moment for both Puppey and KuroKy. They are the only two players left who have attended all of the Internationals and both of them have won a TI before. Puppey won the first International with Na`Vi, KuroKy won TI7 with Liquid.
More than that though, both of them have accomplished everything else. The second TI victory is all they are missing. Puppey has one of the longest careers of any esports pro and he’s led multiple teams to the top of the world. While he’s never won a TI as a captain (the Na`Vi squad that won TI was led by Ivan “Artstyle” Antonov), he led Na`Vi to the finals of both TI2 and TI3. Puppey is also currently leading one of the greatest lineups in Dota2 history.
As for KuroKy, he’s done incredible things as a captain. He’d led a core of young players from tier 2 to the heights of the competitive world. He’s had two great lineups. The Liquid lineup from 2017-2019 is in the conversation for the greatest lineup we’ve ever seen as no other lineup comes close to either longevity or consistency.
While there are many stories circulating around TI9, one of the biggest will be the battle between KuroKy and Puppey. Both former teammates of the legendary Na`Vi and Secret lineups. Both two of the greatest captains we’ve ever had. Both are the last two remaining players to have attended every TI. Both wish to be the first to win another TI and cement their place as the greatest captain of Dota2’s history.