Fly And PPD: A Tale Of Two Leaders In The Shadow Of The International
Another TI has come and another one has gone. It has been three years since Tal "Fly" Aizik joined Evil Geniuses. Since that time he has led EG into three different TIs: 2018, 2019, and TI 10. Each time EG went into TI as one of the favourites to win the event, but each time, they have failed to come walking away with the aegis.
At TI 10, EG put up their worst performance under Fly's leadership with a 9-12th finish. Leading Evil Geniuses is no easy feat as its popularity in the Dota 2 scene comes with an immense amount of pressure. As EG slumped off into the darkness, I couldn't help but compare Fly to the other all-time great leader of EG's past, Peter "ppd" Dager.
Consider the context
The International is the the alpha and omega of Dota 2's tournament circuit. There have been many great teams and players that have never won TI, and while we still try to honor those teams and players, the first thing we look at is whether or not someone won a TI. It isn't just the fans, but the players as well. Winning Majors or big tournamnets, breaking records, going on dominant win streaks, all of that is great. However they all pale in comparison to lifting up the aegis.
The money, the stakes, the pressure, the fans, everything leads up to that moment. Each time the teasers, trailers, and interviews come around, we hear the players talk about how TI is everything, we see them play as if it is everying, we feel them break under the loss, and celebrate in their exultation of victory.
As that is the case, we will compare Fly and ppd in the shadow of TI. As if it was all that mattered in the world. In some ways, a comparison will always be difficult to do. Their styles, teams, and metas they've played are all diferent. As TI is everything though, this comparison is worth doing as it illuminates what TI favours the most.
How the comparison will work:
I will take a look at the teams both Fly and PPD played with. I will note down their results, the all-stars they played with, and give a brief prompt on their runs in each year. All-star is a largely subjective term as there aren't any official rewards for that in Dota 2. For the purposes of this article, all-star is a player who will go down in history as either one of the best player in their role or as one of the great players overall (as players often role-swap).
I will also grade their overall performance. It's hard to rate a leader as we don't have any of the inner workings, so instead I'm rating on the overall performance of the team as it is a reflection of the leader's ability to unite the team into a single unit.
S is the team broke the scale of what was conceivable (only applicable to the OG/Wings victories)
A is best possible
B is above average/an overperformance
C is par or average
D is a underwhelming
F is fail
Comparing Fly and PPD at TI
There is nothing to compare here as PPD hadn't started competing in Dota 2. Overall Fnatic hit par here. They were a good team going into the event, but lost to better teams in Tongfu and Orange. While the Fnatic team was good, the only all-star players are Fly and n0tail.
Fly's Fnatic went into event as a consistent team with a potentially high ceiling. They had a bunch of top four finishes with two “premier” tournament victories. Overall, it was an underperformance, even considering the health issues of Era and the strange Steve "Xcalibur" Ye stand-in situation.
At TI 2014, the Chinese teams were the big favorites: Newbee, DK, and VG. EG was right there with them, but Fear's health put a question mark on exactly how far they could go. Overall EG got third. They got second in the group stage, beat DK 2-0 and then lost to the two finalists of that year: VG and Newbee. All things considered, this was an overperformance in my book considering the stand-in issues.
coL were an underdog team that year, so don't be fooled by the placing. On paper this looks like one of Fly's weaker performances at TI, but this was an overperformance considering the strength of his team going into the event and the players he had.
While Fly did great with coL, PPD got the best result possible as he and EG won the entire thing. I won't go too deep into the granular details here, but it's worth noting that CDEC set the meta for that TI. CDEC were on course to win that tournament, but PPD's drafting was one of the key reasons why EG beat CDEC in the grand finals rematch. PPD often states that it is easy to draft with the great players he had for teammates. Fair play to him, though it does make me wonder what's happening when a leader does have all of the great players, but can't find an answer in the draft.
Worth noting that I didn't put zfrek, moonmeander, or AUI_2000 as all-stars though they are all borderline. Certinaly Aui's hero pool and style of play was an important element in EG's victory here. Zfreek never had the results, but his overall skills pass the eye test. Moon meander went on to be part of one of the great OG lineups, but hasn't replicated it after leaving OG.
OG were the big favourite going into the event and were expected to win. They completely blitzed the group stages and topped their group. They then had one of the worst car crashes in TI history as they lost to MVP.P and TNC.
As for PPD, this was PPD's last ride with EG. The team came together at the very last minute after zai's return to competitive play. While it was short notice, it's worth noting that these were all players that PPD knew, so he wasn't going into the event half-blind (like OG did in 2018). Considering the circumstances, I think EG overperformed, though PPD himself thinks that they should have beaten every team here except for Wings, who were Wings.
OG were a fairly dominant team through most of the 2016-2017 season. However right before TI7 started, other teams had caught up or were surpassing them. By the time TI 2017 started, they felt like a solid top 8 team with potential to make a finals run if everything went right for them. In the end, you can either argue that they hit par or underperformed. OG placed about where they should have in the groups, beat the teams that were worse than them and then lost to a better team in LGD (who were worse overall in that year, but were in better form at that TI).
On the other hand, you can say they underperformed when you consider how good the team was through the entire year and the amount of talent they had. Ana, n0tail, and jerAx are three of the five pieces that eventually won TI twice in a row.
TI 2018 was the infamous betrayal by Fly and s4 to make the EG super team. In the end the super team went really far for their third outing together at a LAN tournament. They were great in the group stages, but got upset by a revelatory OG squad. They then went on two beat two favourites (Liquid and VP) before falling to PSG.LGD. It was a great run, the best TI run of Fly's career. EG went deep, took out some big teams, and so I rated it a B.
As for ppd, he went to this TI with OpTic. The only two all-stars on the team were himself and zai. Both 33 and Pajkatt are on the edge of that, however neither of them has put up the resume across their entire careers for me to give them that status. Overall OpTic overperformed given their roster going into the event, so I gave them a B as well.
TI 2019 was bad for both Fly and PPD. In Fly's case, EG got 5-6, but they underperformed for a superteam. They beat Secret, but couldn't do it against either OG or Liquid. As for ppd's NiP, they had struggled for that entire season and couldn't make anything happen.
Worth noting that Saksa and Fata are both borderline all-stars, but Fata's prime was years before this TI. Saksa hasn't quite had the career for me to comfortably put his name next to other role four greats.
This TI is Fly's worst TI outing under EG. It is probably his second or third worst outing (depending on how you grade OG's 2017). EG underperformed in the group stages and then had two close losses against Virtus.Pro and Vici Gaming. It's not a good run considering EG were one of the favorites going into the event with 2nd place finishes at WePlay AniMajor and ONE Esports Singapore Major.
The Overall Tally
Overall, Fly has attended eight Internationals, PPD 5. Broadly speaking, Fly's teams have either hit par or underperformed. He had one overperformance with coL and two failures with OG and EG. As for PPD, he overperformed in four of his five outings. His worst TI was his last one with NiP, but it's hard to say it was a truly bad outing, as that NiP squad never had it going as a team to begin with.
In the eyes of The International, PPD is the more successful leader despite Fly's increased attendance rate and the amount of title contenders he has brought into the tournament.
A Tale of Two Leaders
If we were going to make a list of the absolute greatest Dota 2 leaders, both Fly and ppd are going to make the shortlist. They are both great Dota 2 minds, great drafters, and both have shown the ability to create strong, consistent teams.
The big differential between them is that outside of the OG breakup, Fly's teams often have little to no internal drama (or at least any that we see spill into the public space). The OG lineups he led are the strongest lineups of any squad in this list.
In contrast to that, PPD's must successful time was on EG. It was a bit more turbulent (from what we could see in the public sphere and to be fair, it's NA Dota), but largely successful. While EG were never dominant, they were always in the conversation of title contenders. They also became famous for pulling out lower bracket runs so often that it became their trademark path to the finals.
If The International didn't exist, I'd favour Fly as having the better overall career as a leader. However it does exist. Under the biggest lights, the biggest pressure, and the biggest stage, ppd has almost always had his teams overperform and make deeper runs than expected.
It's hard to pinpoint why the results are so varied. While their teams are markedly different, they aren't so different that it could end up with such different results. PPD's drafting is certainly condusive to the TI format, but Fly has had numerous lower bracket runs himself and can adjust the draft through a tournament.
Perhaps it comes down to the ability to stay calm under pressure. To be able to ignore everything and execute. To have your hand completely still when you or be able to laugh in the face of potential soul-crushing loss. Whatever it is, Fly still doesn't have it.
Where to now for EG?
The broad context might paint a negative picture, but if we zoom in to Fly's tenure at EG, everything seems okay. EG have hit par to their expectations in 2018 and 2019. If a few more things go their way (better player performances or the right draft or read at the right time), we could be looking at a different story here.
The only real negative spot was TI 10. Even then, you can rationalise it away a bit. Sometimes group stages go badly. EG then got a hard draw against VG and even in the VG series, it was a close blood bath.
In the second game of that series, either EG or VG could have won that game. The draft of the game was fairly even. VG had better pick potential and late game scaling with Monkey King, while EG had good vision, objective play, strong mid-game timings, and a strong plan. Both teams largely executed their plans to a high degree of success.
The final play that clinched it was VG catching RTZ out in the jungle. While it may be easy to blame one player, if we examine that particular moment we realize how many contingent actions led up to RTZ being in the jungle. The reason RTZ was out there was because ten minutes prior, VG were able to get a winning team fight in the bottom lane where they caught Abed. That kill let them break open the bottom lane. This in turn let them pressure the mid lanein the next five minutes, which gave them control of the dire jungle. This led to a deep ward that EG didn't know about. Five minutes later, VG used the ward to catch sight of RTZ.
If EG's draft had a bit more leeway, if they got a really great player performance, if they catch the ward, or have a different rotation, EG could still be in the tournament.
If, If, If...
All failed TI runs are filled with so many ifs. So here are some certainties. Fly is one of the greatest leaders in Dota 2 history, he will lead you to TI, he will make a title contender, he may even make an all-time great team. If EG let him go, they may never have this level of top-tier consistency. If they keep him, they may never have get that “it” factor that has let other teams win TI. This is the question that the EG players will have to answer in this upcoming off season.