Time flies when you’re playing Dota 2 with friends. So far this year, CSL players and fans have spent nearly a full season witnessing collegiate carnage together. After taking a look back at the memories we’ve made so far, it’s time for a round of applause for the teams who have earned a spot in the playoffs and a moment of silence for the teams that will be continuing the season as observers. The list of competing teams has shrunk dramatically from the original roster; only the top teams from each group remain. Every week, more teams will drop off until the best of the best are left to battle for the grand championship.
Many fan-favourite teams will not be competing in the playoffs, but every team that is competing has earned their spot through their success. We reached out to teams that have proven themselves throughout the round-robin stage of the tournament to ask about their progress and aspirations. After learning what these competitors underwent to achieve their success, you might find yourself cheering for a new team.
Former underdogs UIC have asserted their new role as top dogs by winning every match this season. After retaining four players and coach Michael “Gocolts12” Lederer from their roster that made it to the LAN finals last season, UIC successfully incorporated their newest player and have achieved victory in every match this season. This talented new personality on the team meshed well with the veteran players.
Lederer is ecstatic about UIC’s development as a team and the successful adaptation of their playstyle to emphasize the strengths of their new roster: “I think most of the growth revolved around integrating our new player, Prod1gy, into the fold since he was the only new player. It was a lot of fun trying to figure out our new team identity and playstyle with the new player, and I think we've really caught our stride as a team, and at the perfect time [too].”
The relationship that the team built during their successful experience last season has given them a head start in developing their team. Carry player Michael ‘PK’ Pekala’s experience as a top competitor in CSL has helped him “learn and grow as not just a Dota player, but as a person.” According to Pekala, Lederer’s hopefully-sarcastic demands that the team “practise nonstop on threat of being kicked” have also helped PK expedite his development.
Working together to develop a championship team has fueled UIC’s success for over a year. Offlaner Samir “SammY-” Al-ali is excited to test his team’s development in their coming matches: “We were still trying to figure out our strategies last year after [the team picked] me up in the spring. This year I believe we've come so far in terms of finding a style that fits our team play and chemistry.”
Al-ali was instrumental in UIC’s success last season and continues to expect “dedication and hard work” from his team this season. He has “a lot of faith in every single one of [his] teammates [because] they have never let [him] down.” Al-ali also has faith in Pekala earning a not-so-impressive achievement this season: “the highest death avg throughout the playoffs.” Yikes!
UIC’s return to the main stage appears to be a logical outcome to the season, as they are proven grand champion contenders and a top team. Their success has earned them an invitation to the playoffs, but they will have to maintain their hard work to earn a spot back on LAN.
SBU currently sits atop the power rankings, as they have for the majority of the season. If their win streak continues through the playoffs, this will be SBU’s third successive appearance at the LAN event. Early in the season, we talked to Nikita ‘Shoe’ Zagrebin about SBU’s success. Zagrebin does not expect their success to stop; instead, he expects that SBU will “make it to the finals.”
There’s no place like home: SBU can be found at the top of nearly every power ranking this season.
Last season, SBU shattered the record win streak of the current champions in the grand finals of the Winter Invitational. During the playoffs, SBU was knocked to the lower bracket and adapted to playing without room for error. Since then, they’ve capably demonstrated what they learned last season; their twelve-game win streak is proof of it.
Zagrebin’s experience and success in CSL have given him a thorough understanding of the importance of preparing for the playoffs: “All it takes is one team being underprepared for a match and [then] they can lose to almost anyone in the playoffs.”
No team has proven worthy enough to interrupt SBU’s path to the finals, but Zagrebin acknowledges the talent of their competition and that “there are a lot of better teams than [there were] last year.”
Their hopes are high, and so are their chances of returning to LAN. If SBU returns to the lower bracket of the playoffs, it will be their first loss of the season and an obstacle that they already know how to overcome.
Toronto’s coordinator, ‘Synphonics,’ expects to finish “top 3 in the playoffs” despite losing “top players” from last season’s playoff roster. The new roster has bonded quickly over victory and grew into a “team fresh with ideas”: “Within the first month, it seemed as if our seasoned veterans and rookies had been playing with one another for years.”
Looking back on the season so far in order to hone their playstyle, Toronto’s effective playoffs practice plan has made them the most likely contender for the championship: Synphonics claims that “our regular season matches have allowed our team to successfully perform new styles, strategies, and drafts that we hope to use in the upcoming playoffs.”
Toronto is very dedicated to their development, and they’re reaping the benefits of their growth both in the game and out. The effort they have put in has rewarded them with victories in Dota and in real life: “Playing Dota at a high level requires constant commitment and practise to the game, and the [Toronto] team practises as much as we can [in order] to maintain our high level of competitiveness against other teams around the league. Playing in CSL has had a positive effect on our members: it gives the team an outlet to play competitive Dota with fellow students around campus, and it leads to new camaraderie [being] formed along the way, especially [with] those in similar programs.”
The University of Toronto has established themselves as one-of-a-kind. The strategies and camaraderie they have developed have worked flawlessly. With their current momentum, it seems the only obstacle Toronto has to deal with is the attention they’ll receive when they enter the playoffs as the definitive top team in CSL.
Georgia Tech’s success was earned before the season event started. Their roster is made up of longtime friends with experience playing together prior to competing in CSL.
GT's only loss during the round-robin was a disheartening 0-2 in favor of former LAN attendees UIC. Player Bart "Bart13t" DeProspo stated that their defeat was only a temporary setback and the team ultimately grew from the experience. He said that GT “took a step back and assessed [themselves].” Learning from their defeat, they continued forward and earned a spot in the playoffs by “critically analyzing [their] gameplay” and teamwork. Teammate Khoa "Mr.Jake" Phan elaborated on GT’s growth from their defeat: “We all learned to lose. We learned that we aren't the greatest and [that] that's all right, and the best thing we can do together is to try our best, and if we win as a team, we lose as a team. We learned about regret, and how we will feel no regret because we would have worked and clawed our way to the best team we could've been. We learned to trust one another, as that is the only thing that puts us above higher-skilled teams.”
GT’s prowess in-game has developed alongside their relationships outside of Dota. This season, the success DeProspo achieved in-game has benefited him and his team in real life: “For me personally, it has let me interact and spend time with people that I might not have otherwise ever met. Some of my teammates and I are really close, and some of the team is closer with others than with me. I think at the end of the day it has just helped me take a more serious approach to everything: not just Dota, but my course work [and] study habits and everything in between. I know one of the players on our team [went to the gym] and now 3 of them go to the gym together fairly regularly. So for us it's been not just Dota but school and health and everything else.”
Phan values success and believes that it can be measured more accurately than through victories. He does not “have time to think about where [they] rank, [but] only time to think about how [they] can get better.” He also elaborated on DeProspo’s gratitude for their development out of the game: “The greatest thing about CSL isn't Dota. It's the treasured memories and friends you make along the way… I've learned that structure, routine, and dedication to one another is the only thing that keeps relationships going.”
GT plans to maintain their productive atmosphere as they move into the playoffs. DeProspo aspires for his team to play the best game they can play: “We just expect to always put our best effort forward and put up a good fight…as long as we give it our all and the games are competitive, our team would be happy.”
Regardless of the results of the grand championship, GT has already gained a valuable prize. Ironically, players who focus on team bonding and growth above winning seem to have no problem achieving victory. GT’s relationship and skills will be put to the test in the playoffs: if they only needed to lose once in order to learn how to win, they’ll be headed straight to the LAN final event.
UBC are former grand champions hailing from one of “the most professional collegiate esports associations in North America,” and they dominated the West group by learning and bonding as a team. ‘Panders,’ coordinator and player on the most successful iteration of UBC since they held the title of grand champions, is proud that “the team has grown a ton this year.”
Player relationships outside of the game can augment a team’s ability in-game. Specifically emphasizing UBC’s adeptness with “communication, fluidity, and comradery,” Panders has fond memories of how the team grew to attain their success: “UBC has bonded and synergized primarily through Dota, but [also] outside of the game as well. The team has competed together, scrimmed together, and travelled together, turning them from players on the same side to proper teammates and friends.”
UBC’s beneficial experiences and successes are the hard-fought rewards of their dedication throughout the season: they’re familiar with the struggle of competing with and against top players. Playing at UBC’s skill level requires more from a player than the ability to defend and destroy ancients, and Panders says the cost is worth the reward: “Playing in the CSL and competing in Dota as a whole is a taxing but very rewarding experience. Balancing higher education with the complications of life is difficult enough; adding in a competitive game makes time management a necessary skill. With that said, I can confidently speak for all the players on UBC that they do not regret joining the team and have grown from the experience as a whole.”
UBC defines victory differently than others do. Their achievements earned them a chance to demonstrate their teamwork in the playoffs, but Panders and the team value the victories the team has made with their development more than their score: “The team has focused more on the experience of CSL and Dota than results…UBC is a strong team with a better understanding of how to approach the game... I think CSL can keep [expectations high] for this team as they enter [the] playoffs.”
UBC asserted that they are the best team in the West thanks to their high skill and team bonding. As they move into the playoffs, their teamwork will be tested against top teams from across North America. Regardless of their success in CSL, UBC has already achieved victory in the relationships the players built this season.
UMCP has already proved themselves in the Group of Death, also known as the Northeast group. The Northeast houses the current grand champions the Rochester Institute of Technology (9 - 3 | 19 - 8) and their LAN competition, SBU. This iteration of UMCP has helped maintain the Group of Death’s reputation of being the most difficult group in the league.
UMCP developed strategies that focused on playing to their strengths. As they faced off against the top teams in the league, they quickly learned what worked for them and adapted their playstyle to match. Their adaptability and playstyle were highlighted in a draft analysis by top CSL players.
Player ‘Justin’ is pleased that the “throughout the year, [the players] more or less found [their] stride as a team and in how [they] wanted to play and what playstyle worked for [them]:” “Although we did improve individually, a lot of our success came from just playing together and understanding what we needed to do to win games. Focusing on what heroes we were good at and not just focusing on what heroes were good in the meta made us more consistent. Although not all of us are the most conventional players, it's important to emphasize what works mid-season instead of trying to overhaul the team.”
Staying confident with their development, Player ‘Slurm’ shared that he and the team “expect to win” the tournament. Like many other teams in the playoffs, UMCP bonded quickly over their successes. Their victories strengthened their bond, and their bond helped them achieve victory: “Because of CSL, Cygni, FOCUS, and I have been going to a cafe at least once a week for trivia night or board games just to enjoy our time, so CSL has enabled that. Without the team, that would not have happened.”
UMCP’s players have high expectations for their team and for each other. Honest about his expectations, player Cygni believes that the championship is in UMCP’s reach if they can continue focusing on their strengths and reflecting on their weaknesses: "I think if we buckle down and focus on each series one by one, we have a good chance at making it to LAN. We understand what we need to do to beat the top teams, [and now] we just need to execute it. Our only major concern right now is Stony Brook, as other teams have shown strength or we may have lost to them in the official series, but I believe that was mostly due to our own mentality and mistakes, not simply being outskilled.”
Cygni: A heavy team needs a strong carry!
As they emerge victorious from the Group of Death, UMCP’s teamwork and unique playstyle will require their opposition to deliver their best performances yet. By focusing on what works for them, they attained a deep understanding of how to defend their ancient. Their strategies have worked well enough to put them on a path to earn a spot in the LAN event.
The playoffs begin on February 29. Each match will result in the end of a team’s long and arduous run. Many teams shared that a strong relationship outside of Dota is an important aspect of their success in the game. The relationships and ability of every playoff participant will be tested as teams rise and fall.
Veterans of the playoffs acknowledge the possibility of an unknown team upsetting a rival school or even the entire bracket. Keep a close eye on the teams we featured, but don’t lose sight of the teams who are keeping to themselves during this elimination phase.
When the last two teams have presented themselves, the grand finals will take place at the HyperX Esports Arena in Las Vegas! We hope to see you there, but for those who cannot make it, you can keep up to date with CSL Dota on our Twitter and watch the playoffs and the grand finals on our Twitch channel. Good luck to everyone involved!