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Johan “N0tail” Sundstein stood at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, waiting for his flight back home to Copenhagen, Denmark. His early exit at The International 2015, with his Dota team Cloud9, cemented what he said were the worst six months of his life.

For N0tail, this was a devastating repeat of his loss with Fnatic at the same tournament the year prior. N0tail joined Cloud9 in January of 2015, and they had moderate success for a few months. Then, at The International 2015, his team had a 15,000 gold lead and a lane of barracks in their match against Vici Gaming. But, Xu “fy” Linsen’s Rubick stole ultimate ability after ultimate ability from Cloud9, using their powers for his own. After a Phoenix Supernova in one fight and Shadow Fiend’s Requiem of Souls in another, N0tail was out after the first round of The International for the second year in a row.

N0tail has come a long way since this 2015 loss — he’s a two-time winner of The International (2018 and 2019), four-time major champion and a co-owner of OG Esports — but he had to refine his leadership style in order to get to where he is today. Some captains choose to lead through an iron fist, telling each player where to go and making the final calls on decisions. In this way, players act as extensions of the captain’s thoughts. But with N0tail focuses on putting players first and allowing different ideas to flow, and this methodology has made OG Esports one of the most successful teams in Dota.

How N0tail’s Dota journey began

N0tail got his start in esports through Heroes of Newerth, a competitive MOBA that was released as a spiritual successor to Dota. He formed his team with his best friend Tal “Fly” Aizik, and it was sponsored by Fnatic. They won first place at every tournament for the first six months of 2011, as well as the Heroes of Newerth World 2010.

Despite the team’s enormous success in Heroes of Newerth, N0tail said that the game was slowly becoming more about the skins than about the balance of the game. Overpowered heroes would stay overpowered for too long, and the developers didn’t have a good way of communicating with the top players. N0tail stated that this was why he and Fly made the difficult decision to transition to Dota 2 in March of 2012. They and the rest of Fnatic were ready to chase their dreams, no matter the cost.

Fnatic's Heroes of Newerth team at Dreamhack
N0tail was part of one of the most successful Heroes of Newerth teams of all time. | Screenshot provided by YouTube via honcast

“We barely lost anything and we felt like we were so superior to the other teams,” N0tail said. “I think the excitement was pulling towards Dota because we were so good and we all felt so good about ourselves. Nothing was going to stop me. I was gonna go to this game and I was going to show the world that I’m the best.”

N0tail and Fnatic never raised the Aegis of Champions, but they made their mark on the Dota scene with small wins in tournaments such as the Eizo Cup and the DotaHut Invitational. And, although losing to Orange Esports in the end, their peak performance was in making top eight at The International 2013.

“Outside of the game, we were very good at bonding,” N0tail said. “We were good at sharing thoughts about our competitive journey. We were good friends who bonded over the game and talked a lot about what we wanted to achieve.”

Fnatic had always been fan-favorites for being happy-go-lucky, fun-loving and never scared to be in front of the camera. Most importantly, they benefitted as a team from the friendship of N0tail and Fly. The two friends had competed together since their competitive start and knew they could rely on one another, describing their partnership as that of brothers. It also helped that, while most Dota teams were fairly private, Fnatic members would constantly stream together, connected by the antics that attracted viewers. They weren’t scared to let their personality show in official games either. Even in large tournament series, they were willing to draft uncommon picks like Pudge mid and Meepo support; heroes that most fans wouldn’t see in a competitive setting otherwise.

However, the 2014 season brought some bumps along the road for Fnatic. Their carry player, Adrian “Era” Kryeziu, was in and out of the roster due to frequent anxiety attacks. The team even had to play the inaugural iteration of The Summit with Steve “Xcalibur” Ye as a stand-in.

Despite the difficulties, Fnatic continued to push forward with N0tail as the emotional lifeblood of the team and Fly serving as the strategic mastermind, drafting and captaining Fnatic to all their victories. N0tail would often give up his own farm on heroes like Chen, in order to secure a better mid lane, and he’d frequently spend his first few minutes of the game as the lowest level Hero on the map.

After the team’s first win at The Summit, his cheering and final embrace with Kalle “Trixi” Saarinen truly showed the energy and compassion that N0tail brought to the team.

Team Secret – the short-lived history of Dota’s first superteam

After a disappointing last place exit at The International 2014, N0tail and Fly left Fnatic. They made the decision to join up with other Dota greats in order to create Team Secret, a fully player-owned organization that would be funded by their tournament winnings.

While the success of the team was financially dependent on them winning tournaments, it was hard to believe that they would lose with the roster they had. N0tail, Fly, Gustav “s4” Magnusson, Clement “Puppey” Ivanov and Kuro “KuroKy” Salehi Takhasomi made up one of the greatest collections of talent that Dota had ever seen. The team had a total of two International winners at the time, three International grand finalists, and every single one of these players continues to compete at the highest level today.

The team won tournaments such as Dota Pit League Season 2 and XMG Captain’s Draft 2.0. However, the cracks soon began to show. Each member of Team Secret was a captain in their own right. In a game where all five players have to coordinate, the rest of the members act as extensions of how the captain views the game. Team Secret had four previous captains in their roster, and it came to a point where someone had to take a step back. In the case of Team Secret, it was Fly, the person N0tail had spent more than five years playing with.

“Right after Tal got kicked, I was saying ‘I regret things happening the way they did,’” N0tail said. “Maybe he needed to play another role, maybe he needed to not be on the roster in order for Puppey to have his role [as captain]. I think we forced that team.”

N0tail said he believed that Team Secret needed to be more clear-headed. Being able to strike a balance between emotional attachment and the objectivity every team needs was something that Team Secret couldn’t achieve before N0tail and Fly departed the original iteration.

“It’s a project where you commit to each other and have to commit, heart and soul,” N0tail said. “Like in a marriage, you have to commit yourself. But we’re bonding not over something in each other; we’re bonding more of a joint vision and joint project. And in Team Secret, we just ended up getting married almost. There was too much emotional attachment.”

Cloud9: the dividing path that led N0tail to OG

The next season was the first time, since the beginning of their careers, that Fly and N0tail would not be on the same team. Fly joined the North American team Complexity Gaming while N0tail joined Cloud9. This move led to one of N0tail’s lowest placements ever at The International.

Cloud9 Dota 2015
While Cloud9 placed well in small Dota Pit tournaments and The Summit 3, they fell apart after an early exit at The International 2015. | Screenshot provided by YouTube via dota2

The loss at the International 2015 was the last straw for N0tail and, by the end of his stint with Cloud9, he had tried and failed with three different teams. Now, at the airport and in the midst of his lowest moment, he saw two paths. One direction would lead to retirement, along with the evidence that he’d tried so many times and failed. The other possible path led to fully embracing his potential.

“I could sit there and tell myself like ‘oh my god, I bought the wrong items. Oh my god, I messed up,’” N0tail said. “But I can also paint another picture. I could believe in my potential. I did it in [Team] Secret, I did it in Fnatic, I did it in Heroes of Newerth. I’ve owned these kids mid-lane, I’ve taught so many people to play the game and I knew that I could bring this game to another level.”

In departing Cloud9, N0tail realized that he had the chance to finally execute the vision of his own team. He said his goal was to create an environment where players were committed to being professionals. According to him, a common issue was that players were not properly talking things out or dealing with pent-up frustration. Whether the team was winning in practice or screaming in frustration, they were there to do a job. N0tail envisioned each member of his team supporting one another through it all, and that’s when he began OG.

N0tail’s vision for OG Esports

“Ever since the switch to Dota, I had always been bending,” N0tail said. “I’ve been bending so much for other people. Never taking full control. Never having the full veto. Never having the full ability to force my vision. In OG, I had the space to force my vision for something that I wanted to do and for something that I wanted to create. It was me and Fly’s project and we were going to do it our way.”

OG Esports, which N0tail started up in 2015, would become one of the most successful teams in Dota history. Despite Fly leaving a few years later, the team was able to accumulate four major championships and two back-to-back International finals; a feat that has yet to be surpassed by another Dota team. And three years after forming OG, N0tail got his first championship.

N0tail retired from professional play in early 2022 and is now focuses on being co-owner of OG Esports. He’s transferred the energy that he’d put into those winning teams to developing players in esports outside of Dota, like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and VALORANT. Most recently, OG’s Counter-Strike team placed first to third in the BLAST Premier: Spring Groups 2022 with the likes of FaZe Clan and Team Vitality.

“He’s always been this beacon of light. And purity, you know?” OG’s CEO JMR Luna said of N0tail. “He’s always been kind and always loving. Before he was just like this free soul, and now he’s more like a contained leader, very approachable. He has learned how to craft and shape that light that he gives. It feels more purposeful and more intentional. But, at the same time, it is still completely authentic. He’s super, super authentic every single second.”

OG N0tail at The International 9
N0tail walks out of the tunnel in Rogers Arena, Vancouver with OG co-owner Sébastien “Ceb” Debs. | Screenshot provided by YouTube via dota2

“You want the Dota to work; you also want to take care of your employees,” N0tail said. “You want to do everything, fair, nice and right. It’s not easy, it’s very tricky. People’s lives depend on our success and I’m quite content with what we have been able to achieve so far.”

And these values of player care and providing a nurturing environment inspire everyone around him.

“He has been able to inspire a level of loyalty in me that no other person has,” Luna said. “I got an offer to leave this company to make films again. It didn’t even cross my mind. I was like, ‘What? No, this is not about esports. This has nothing to do with work. This f**king kid has let me into his heart and into his life. I will take a bullet for this kid.’”

OG N0tail looks at tomato he made in his gaarden
N0tail doesn’t just nurture talent. He shows off the first tomato he ever grew in his garden. | Screenshot provided by YouTube via Red Bull Gaming

Since OG Esport’s formation in 2015, N0tail has transformed the company from a small Dota team to a full-fledged organization. OG now runs out of N0tail’s house in the Portuguese countryside. While there are several rooms dedicated to practice and gaming, it is contrasted by luscious greenery on the outside, a pool that is free to use for all players and his own garden. N0tail said he also plans to eventually add a rock climbing wall to the house.

No other team in Dota history has completely revamped their roster from scratch in order to properly develop talent as N0tail has with OG Esports. His lethal combination of vision and business savvy has made the team stand out like a beacon in the realm of esports.

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