Connecting campuses, students, and players, the Collegiate Starleague offers a place to grow as a team and as an individual. Because rosters are limited to players that all attend the same post-secondary institution, it is common for players to be unfamiliar with one another and for large disparities in ability to exist on teams. Teams that are fast to adapt to the unique circumstances of the CSL are often the teams that are fast to rise and succeed. Learning to draft a lineup that favours comfort heroes over meta heroes, and heroes that can synergize easily rather than heroes that demand finesse is a staple of the CSL, especially prior to the playoffs. The New York University Tadpoles got together with the CSL to shed light on how they grew from an abysmal start to achieve greatness as a team. However, playing in the CSL offers more challenges than just learning how to work as a team.
In the Fall season, every school was split into a division based on its location. EAST 3 included the Rochester Institute of Technology, the State University of New York - Stony Brook, the University of Maryland, College Park, the University of Connecticut, Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, and lastly the New York University Tadpoles. Six of the listed teams achieved top seed in their Spring conference and every listed school made it to this year’s playoffs. EAST 3 became synonymous with “the group of death.”
The only upsetting element of watching masterful teams compete in the Playoffs is the elimination of a talented team after each match, that is the nature of Dota and of competition. There must always be a winner and there must always be a loser. The same rules apply to EAST 3. At the bottom of the group, the New York Tadpoles ended the Fall season with a 0 and 7 record, unable to take a single series, and only achieving two victories before the Winter break.
Talented and driven, but needing change, the Tadpoles did not lollygag during the Winter break. They used this time to grow as a team and use the tools they had at their disposal, one of which is uncommon in collegiate Dota, but common in the professional scene.
Akshay “TheDragon7638” Sonti is a NYU student who was trying to set up a division 2 team to compete in the CSL prior to the season starting. His success forming a team was equivalent to the Tadpoles success in the Fall, there were simply not enough players who wanted to compete in division 2. Sonti offered to write reports for the division 1 team. After a few submissions to the team, they were happy with Sonti’s work and brought him on as a member of the team. With the analysis of Sonti behind the formation of the team. Jeremy "Yiran" Yang, player and coordinator for the team thought that “we can do this!” Now, they only needed a name.
Yiran shared that the reason that New York University settled on The Tadpoles as their name “is because Icefrog (both the player on the team and the balancer behind Dota) is so pro, and if we all want to be like Icefrog, we should all be tadpoles so we can grow into Icefrog.” Tadpoles may not be the most dangerous creature in the wild, but the Tadpoles quickly became one of the most dangerous teams to face in the CSL.
Sonti’s role on the team is to “look up the opponents, see which heroes they like to play” and deliver that information to the team, along with more detailed statistics. In the fall, he focused on what the opponents win rates were with each hero, what they played in pubs and what they played in competitive matches, “heroes that are being played more are valued higher because they are more likely to pick those heroes. If there is something that is exceptionally high, like 1500 matches played on a hero makes it important to ban it out.”
Yiran and the rest of the team found Sonti’s reports to be extremely valuable to their success in the Spring. The reports would allow for a look at each player’s playstyle. Yiran is adamant that information about playstyle is important to understanding your opposition:
"Playstyle is very important. There are very distinct roles within a role. For example, playing Dark Seer in the offlane is different from playing Batrider, which is different from playing Enchantress, which is different from playing Bristleback. If we see a player pick a certain subset of heroes we can get an idea of how they play and we can counter their playstyle rather than their heroes."
Due to how the Collegiate Starleague connects players from the same campus, it is uncommon for every player on the team to be at the same skill level. Sonti incorporated that knowledge into the reports he created for the team and Yiran agreed with and elaborated on his work:
"The MMR aspect is very important, you definitely should target some players more than others, it may sound disrespectful, but from a purely trying-to-win perspective, it is definitely viable to target-gank or target-ban certain players. Because it’s college level dota, you should target some players more than other players."
During their time off after a disappointing Fall season, the Tadpoles would return unscathed. The Winter break does not just offer students a break from school, it allows serious competitors time to recuperate, reevaluate and refresh, return to a new start in the Spring. The Tadpoles were again placed into an dangerously challenging bracket, Conference #8, which housed the University of Washington, McGill University and perhaps the scariest of them all, a new iteration of the Tadpoles. Entering the Spring, Yiran knew the team could not be compared to what it was in the fall, they “were not as strong" back then:
The Tadpoles were a different team after the break. For five weeks straight, they won every series without losing a single match. Not even McGill University could scratch the Tadpoles. Their triumphant return was described simply by Haoqing “Icefr09” Jiang, “winning feels good, but we are still trying to be better.” The majority of the Tadpoles’ success, according to the team, is from an improvement in drafting before the game and making better decisions during the game. Adjusting how they play Dota became more fruitful than how much they played. Their success did have a downside. Although Yiran agrees that winning is wonderful, the season “got a lot more stressful:”
"McGill was a stressful match because they had a better score than the other teams we had played, but we still managed to 2 - 0 them. On the flipside, when we lost to Washington Esports it felt pretty bad because we 2 - 0’d McGill (McGill beat Washington 2 - 1, prior to playing the Tadpoles).The expectations are a lot higher and it becomes more stressful. When you expect to win mistakes feel much worse."
The Spring season concluded with the Tadpoles tying for first place in Conference #8 and achieving fourth place on the pre-playoff Power Rankings. The Tadpoles would move on to the playoffs. When the Playoff Bracket was released, once again, the Tadpoles did not get a break with placement. Winning their first match would almost undoubtedly place them into the round of 16 against the defending champions, the University of British Columbia. The Tadpoles did not even get a chance to play their first match, their first round opponent forfeit, granting them a bye and moving them directly into the round of 16, waiting for the spotlight to follow UBC into the Tadpoles’ bracket.
CSL: How did it feel getting a bye in the first round of the playoffs?
Yiran: It feels cheap, but with all due respect, it would have been an easy 2 - 0. The round of 32 is very distinct from the 16. It’s not positive or negative, it’s just distinct. We got sent into prizepool territory. It is good and bad. Our strategies do not get revealed whereas we watched UBC versus Carleton We did not get to experience the atmosphere of playing an elimination match, because every match is an elimination match from here on. An elimination match is probably going to be much more stressful
In some their previous matches, the Tadpoles did not care if they lost because they were still going to make it to playoffs, regardless. The team was able to talk about the loss and figure out what went wrong.
Would the Tadpoles have had their playoff experience another way? They are not entirely sure:
"It’s questionable. UBC, while they are the reigning champions, they have quite a new roster and they did not do that well in the group stage. I don’t think it was UBC specific. It depends on our goal. If it is to win, or to make it to LAN. We are going to face RIT or Cornell in the Round of 4. If our goal is to take every step as one step, an easier team would have been prefered, but in our case, our goal is to make it to the end and win. Having UBC as a first round challenge helps a lot in that sense. We are confident, not trying to dismiss UBC, but we have an advantages in the sense that we did not have a broadcasted match. We have been able to scout them. We have some secret plans [for UBC]."
Heading into the match against the defending champions, the Tadpoles held their heads high. Their recovery from the Fall and success in the Spring have lead them to an opportunity to prove their worth against one of the most deadly teams this season. Different from the Fall and Spring, the playoffs only contain the best teams and each series ends in elimination. High stakes and difficult opponents require competitors to adapt quickly if they want to remain a player instead of a spectator. Yiran and the Tadpoles are aware of the difficulties of dealing with the stressful situations the playoffs have created, but are also aware of how to use the playoffs to their advantage:
"Against the strong team, we definitely have to execute our draft and our strategies very well. To be completely honest, a lot of our 2 - 0s were due to just picking comfort heroes and running over our opponents faces. I am sure it will not work as well against a team like UBC. We can’t just run over them with comfort heroes. I feel confident against teams we have not played before because of our team’s adaptability to situations is stronger than average."
Confident in their ability to quickly adapt their play and execute complex strategies, the NYU Tadpoles faced off against the University of British Columbia, attempting to bring an end to a legacy.
Managing to take a game off of the behemoths, but unable to finish UBC, the Tadpoles were eliminated in the round of 16. Entering the match, Yiran and the Tadpoles had the foresight to predict where they would fall short:
"Our opponents are not strong enough to force us to have serious coordination and chemistry, like in the pro scene. Comboing spells like pros. We are playing our own game and unfortunately it is working for us. What we are doing works in our current matches, but will not likely work going forwards, facing better teams, maybe Cornell, RIT or UBC."
Eliminated but not forgotten, the New York University Tadpoles embody what it takes to become successful in the Collegiate Starleague. Adaptability of not just a team’s play, but the ability to work together with unfamiliar players while prioritizing familiar heroes. The Tadpoles faced hardship in the Fall and overcame it with inspiring success in the Spring. I do not expect this to be the last we hear of NYU’s best.
Anyone who is looking to attempt to run the gauntlet the CSL offers each year should heed the advice of the Tadpoles, a team which has weathered the storm and made it into the playoffs. The NYU crew emphasized comprehension that “pub games are a lot different than organized games.” Jiang, NYU’s distributor of ownage and proverbs alike continued on, explaining that success is earned through “playing the game with your brain, rather than with two hands.” In pub games, the weakest link on a team often receives blame, but in competitive play the weakest link should receive support. Jiang added that the team should find who is the weakest link and the team should figure out why they are having problems. Teams should not be using players as a scapegoat when problems become overwhelming.