How Team Spirit Won The International 2021

How Team Spirit Won The International 2021
All images courtesy of Valve

Written by 

Sebastian Romero


22nd Oct 2021 15:46

It still feels as though there are no words to express the feeling behind Team Spirit’s win at the International 2021. How are you even supposed to feel about it? Well, obviously there should be elation at the rise of new and fresh champions. For the first time since 2016, the Aegis has been claimed by a new organisation that has never fielded a TI-appearing roster before, with a majority of players who haven’t even been to TI.

Besides captain Yaroslav "Miposhka" Naidenov, who attended TI7, none of the players on Team Spirit have ever qualified for an International, and those four players; Miroslaw "Mira" Kolpakov, Magomed "Collapse" Khalilov, Alexander "TORONTOTOKYO" Khertek, and Illya "Yatoro" Mulyarchuk, have only been playing professional Dota 2 since after OG were victorious at TI9. This TI was won by a team, whose players have only been playing professionally, since as early as late 2019! That is completely mind-blowing!

Maybe the reason it’s so hard to pinpoint the feelings surrounding Team Spirit winning TI10, is because it’s so unbelievable you have no clue what to feel. Think about it, The International for the past few years, have been dominated by the stories of the game’s most popular players and teams. Multi-time major winners Team Liquid in 2017, claimed the Aegis with their captain Kuro "KuroKy" Salehi Takhasomi, who had been chasing the trophy since the first International. OG, winners of TI8 and TI9, had been veterans of Dota at that point, and the organisation itself had already claimed several major championships before their historic Cinderella run.

This year at TI10, the focus was all on those select few players vying for a second or third Aegis. OG, PSG.LGD and Team Secret were the top dogs that fielded former TI winners, all looking for the opportunity to cement new legacies in Dota 2. Yet with all that star power and weight behind the prevailing narratives of this TI, it was Team Spirit, honest-to-Gaben nobodies, who eliminated every single power player in the International to take the Aegis for themselves.   

How on Earth did they do it?

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The Formula To Win TI

The International is very obviously an incredibly difficult tournament to not only win, but to even attend. In ten tournaments there is only one player who has attended every International as a player, Team Secret’s Clement "Puppey" Ivanov, and no organisation has ever made an appearance at every iteration. Because of this, the barrier for entry is incredibly tight, you either make the tournament by doing well in the Dota Pro Circuit regular season or by obtaining a regional spot in the open qualifiers. Neither option is easy, and the road to TI will always be long and arduous. However, if a team does land a spot, they’ve just landed a one in a million shot at making history and a shot at a very hefty payday.

Another interesting point/fact about the International is that no team has ever won TI after starting in the Loser’s bracket. That’s right, after the group stage, the top four teams in each group are placed in the upper bracket, the bottom team from each group is eliminated from the tournament all together, and the remaining teams must start in the Lower Bracket and fight for their lives in best of 1’s for the first round. So, yeah, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that a successful group stage, is a crucial element behind winning TI. In fact, in ten TI’s, with 20 finalists, only one of them has ever even made it to the finals after starting in the Lower bracket, Team Liquid at TI9. It can not be understated, doing well in the group stage is essential to winning the International, and Team Spirit, although quiet, were mighty, and did everything they needed to do to ensure a locked spot with the top dogs.

Knowing this, we can see the strengths of Team Spirit start to form in this group stage. Keep in mind that Team Spirit were in a group with three of the top six teams at the International. They had to face PSG.LGD, Team Secret, and Vici Gaming back-to-back-to-back and didn’t win a single game against any one of them, only taking a 2-0 series against Elephant on Day 2. Down 2-6 at the start of the third day, any lesser team might have just flamed out right there. Chalked, boomed, dumpstered, whatever you want to call it, if you’re a casual viewer and you were watching that Day 3 of the group stage, you might have been thinking Team Spirit had no shot of making it out of this group stage intact. But like the beloved underdogs before them, OG at TI8, they managed to come back from a disappointing first two days to deliver a groups stage smackdown for the ages.

In their next four matches, Team Spirit didn’t drop a single game, a 2-0 in every match onward, and it was in these final two days of the group stage that we began to see the identity behind this team start to form. They began to prioritse and first phase the Tidehunter and other tempo-controlling offlaners for Collapse, Yatoro began to showcase that incredibly deep hero pool by playing seven different carry heroes in eight matches, including an incredibly cheeky carry Shadow Fiend against SG Esports. It was here in the group stage, Team Spirit found the formula that worked for them. A team fight heavy line up starring a tempo-controlling offlaner, with supports that featured a lot of cheap control and/or save, an active and aggressive midlaner, and a buffet of carry pickings for Yatoro to choose from.

Here in this group stage is where TI champions Team Spirit formed, and it was this bedrock playstyle that not only secured a spot in the upper bracket but would also be the foundation to their success at TI.

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Traversing The Bracket

Team Spirit, as good and solid as their Dota playstyle was, hit an expected snag with Invictus Gaming in the first round of the upper bracket. Many would’ve predicted that Team Spirit loses this matchup, IG were huge favourites to do well in the tournament, and again Team Spirit at this point were nobodies to a lot of viewers during the first day of the main event. They also show every team is fallible, as they don't particularly play to their best strengths in games 2 and 3.

We hype up Collapse a lot because of the Magnus play we saw later on into the tournament, but even beyond the Magnus, getting this guy on a hero with a teamfight ultimate and the ability to just take control of the fight, is a crucial part of what makes Team Spirit work. In these two games, they put him on Legion Commander and Tiny, two heroes that many would agree do not match that famed playstyle. The drafts in these two games were just too out there for Spirt, whereas IG drafted incredibly standard and effective lineups that reflected the overall meta, Team Spirit just didn’t have the easier time executing their draft.

But that’s why placing into the upper bracket is so important, you get that second chance in the tournament after a series loss. There’s no stain on a record for falling into the lower bracket, that’s the luxury that a successful group stage provides you. So, Team Spirit makes an albeit expected entrance into the lower bracket, and it was here in these next four matches, that true, undeniable icons were formed.

This first match against OG is what essentially turned Team Spirit from relative nobodies, into legends. The match against OG wasn’t just a dominant 2-0 win, it was a spanking. Team Spirit, these nobodies who had barely done anything noteworthy in their Dota careers, logged into the server and absolutely embarrassed the two-time TI champions, and their newest additions. From TORONTOTOKYO’s infamous “ez game” in game one, to Collapse’s Skewer into Fountain on Syed Sumail "SumaiL" Hassan’s Tiny, it was unbelievable to witness how hard OG were being beaten at their own carefree-game in this match.

Now, OG certainly weren’t the favourites to win again, but they were still the only TI winners to successfully defend their hold on the Aegis of Champions, so even in the Lower Bracket, you have to be careful when approaching OG, they’re not a threat to be taken lightly... Right? Well, like the pubstars they are, Team Spirit absolutely clowned on OG. To quote caster Gabriel "Lyrical" Cruz, "Usually when OG is in the Fountain it's good but not this time!!"

When it comes to dark horses, they’re at their scariest when two things happen. When they have nothing else to lose, and when they’ve already gotten a taste for winning. Their next match against Virtus.Pro, was a slobber knocker of the two best Easter European teams, fighting for the highest placement at TI for their region, since TI3. Keep in mind again, that this iteration of Team Spirit has never ever, taken a match off of VP. Every other time, VP had bested them, for many, VP was easily the superior Eastern European team, and would be the ones to make it the farthest in the tournament. But again, Team Spirt, their resolve, their ability to stay focused and maintain their composure, showed that they had what it took to outlast anyone. Trading blow for blow, Team Spirit played the game that they were best at, heavy teamfight, and a wide selection of carry heroes for Yotaro. In three games they outlasted their CIS brothers to make top four at TI.

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At this point in the tournament, it sort of started to feel like Team Spirit were going to make the Grand Final of TI10. Quite simply, it felt like a lot of the competition at this International, “choked” quite often during their matches. There were a lot of mistakes being made at this TI, a lot of mistaken strategies being used, and overall, besides PSG.LGD, it felt like every team just cracked under the pressure one too many times. Yet, Team Spirit were the ones to always rally back. Bad lanes? No worries we’ll play the map so perfectly you’ll have no choice but to take a fight under our terms, and if we do win our lanes, well good luck trying to recover! It was PSG.LGD and Team Spirit who truly felt like they were a step above their opponents.

PSG.LGD were this crisp and perfect execution of Dota, they were the gold standard. Team Spirit, were more of this scrappy, savvy, and almost unique way of playing where they almost always knew the best time to take fights and just how strong their heroes are. Game 2 in their rematch against IG really showcased that beauty and juxtaposition. Both carries on each team lost their lanes pretty handily, and as the game progressed, it looked like IG’s Jin "flyfly" Zhiyi was cracking under the pressure. Severely underfarmed, whiffing Chronospheres, flyfly was looking absolutely miserable. Meanwhile, Yotaro, lost his lane, and simply just did what he needed to do. He dodged almost every gank, farmed his items, shows up to a Roshan fight, grabs the Aegis of the Immortal, and in the next team fight he casually gets a rampage on Drow Ranger. Like he was doing laundry, Yotaro walked around the map minding his own business, and casually showed up to rip the top 3 check away from IG. At this point, it looked like there were not a lot of options left in stopping this incredible Team Spirit run. 

Team Secret tried their best. Specifically, they had a very cool strategy in game one, where they banned Team Spirit’s most favoured support heroes, Bane and Winter Wyvern. This removed a lot of that control Team Spirit desperately relied on in their fights. This made the approaches to the team fight a lot easier, since there were no stuns or BKB-piercing abilities, that Secret would have to worry about. Thus, Spirit had to approach the game with a pretty bargain-bin support lineup, and were unable to really secure lanes to the level that they wanted to.

However, Spirit, wise to this adaptation from Secret, adjusted their drafts accordingly so that they could get those crucial heroes early, the heavy-control support paired with the first phase offlaner, and Spirit’s plans would fall into place. With a 2-1 win against Secret, Team Spirit had finished their legendary lower bracket run, and geared up for their final opponent, PSG.LGD.

The Final

It’s important to note here, that PSG.LGD were, by and large, the #1 favourites to win. Even more so than at TI8 where they were probably the front-runner but the field was a lot closer. Here, they dropped only two games the entire tournament. By the grand final, they were 21-2. No one had figured out how to takedown PSG.LGD, no one had any clue what to do against some of their more disgusting combos like the Tiny paired with Lycan's Aghanhnim’s Scepter. They were just too versatile, too good a team fighting, and seemingly mentally unbreakable. Well… Can anyone remember the last time PSG.LGD faced up against a dark horse in the grand finals of a TI?

What’s so shocking about this final, is that Team Spirit pretty handily clapped unbeatable juggernauts LGD in the first two games. Spirit had completely outdrafted LGD in the first two games, just free games on all of their supports and cores, and basically were allowed to execute whatever game plan they wanted against LGD. The key there is really Yotaro, because this TI showcased that he is a player you simply cannot draft against. He will play whatever, he wants and whatever the team needs, and it’s up to you to find a way to force the rest of Spirit into uncomfortable positions.

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Which is exactly what PSG.LGD managed to do by games 3 and 4. Here, the series completely turned on its head. LGD drafted monster lineups. Wang "Ame" Chunyu’s Spectre and Cheng "NothingToSay" Jin Xiang’s Tinker, were an absolute delight to watch, and these two picks absolutely destroyed Spirit in game 3. Zhao "XinQ" Zixing’s Rubick and Zhang "y`" Yiping’s Undying proved to be the perfect counter to Spirit’s playstyle. The Rubick was able to completely handle the seemingly broken Magnus of Collapse, and in-game 4, y`’s Undying was juking Spirit with just how often he was not dying in the frontline. It was so bad Team Spirit ggeded out of that fourth game at only 24 minutes and 40 seconds.

So, it’s a final with a game 5, the third in TI history. PSG.LGD are on the verge of completing the first reverse sweep in TI history, and Team Spirit are on the back foot. The draft starts, which might just be one of the most ingenious drafts in TI history, begins here.

Team Spirit ban the Monkey King, and the Undying, no more having to deal with the tankiest position 5 in the game and denying a signature pick for either XinQ or Ame. PSG.LGD elect not to ban Magnus or Bane, knowingly handing over two of Team Spirit's best heroes. In response, PSG instantaneously grab the Tiny and Lycan for themselves. This combo has proven to be the most broken in the whole tournament, this is their trump card, their ace in the hole, they are banking their final game at TI with these two first phase cores. This is a key moment in the draft where it begins to all fall apart for PSG.LGD. For the next three bans, LGD take out Naga Siren, Ursa, and Luna, all Yatoro centered bans. Except, we know Yatoro can play anything other the sun, so this is a lot of focus fire for a player who we have come to learn, is hard to defeat in a draft.

Spirit’s next bans were ingenous, they ban the Rubick, Tinker, and Snapfire, two very strong team fighting supports and one that has been proven to be a direct counter to Magnus earlier in the series. Tinker who’s playstyle and abilities will just completely run over anything Spirit could have to offer, also gets taken out particularly early. No one would want to have to play against that again. 

Following this, LGD make a crucial mistake in their drafting. Whether it's just cockiness or too rushed in judgement, they first phase three cores after grabbing Kunkka for NothingToSay, and follow up with a Skywrath Mage. Skywrath is an incredible squishy hero that does not provide a lot of stun or control. It’s a very glass cannon hero, it is only going to do one thing, and that is, throw a lot of magic burst at heroes, and potentially silence the Magnus. However, unlike Rubick, those spells are a bit unreliable, but if what LGD believes will work then it has to be the key. 

Finally, in what is a game winning move in the draft, Team Spirit last ban Oracle and Ogre Magi, two supports that PSG.LGD desperately needed to empower the Tiny. Now, PSG.LGD have nothing that helps them fight into Team Spirit. There are Oracle dispells or saves, no stuns or Bloodlust or Tiny and Lycan wolves, and it puts LGD in a position where they have to last pick their position 5 hero, with hardly any good options left on the table. They finish the draft with an Enchantress, and hope that it can dominate the lane enough to give Ame a strong head start. This is the final game, Team Spirit's best heroes and PSG.LGD going all in on this Tiny/Lycan Agh’s combo, that nobody has been able to beat before… Until now.

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In the final match, the final game, to say that Team Spirit played perfectly is an understatement. Everyone made sure that no other player was able to win their lanes, effectively the lanes were equalized, which is a huge issue for LGD, who needs to get ahead in order to suffocate Spirit out of the tournament. To compensate, they begin to look for pickoffs, particularly onto Yotaro’s Terrorblade. But Team Spirit loves taking fights, they love duking it out, that’s their playstyle.  If they can’t take the fight they’ll simply walk away to another area of the map. The juking and diving from Spirit in this last game was masterclass, they got away with almost everything and gave LGD nothing for granted. Even if the early game went decently in the way of LGD, that didn’t matter, they needed to run at Spirit’s heroes and blow them up before they got too strong to do so. LGD would 100% lose the game if it went on too long. If Yotaro got to the point where he could start taking barracks with an Aegis, the game would be lost for LGD, their draft simply didn't do enough to handle Team Spirit at their full power.

Eventually, this is exactly what the game devolved into. Team Spirit were completely outplaying LGD for long enough, that nobody was capable of dealing with Yotaro’s Terroblade. Blink/Horn Toss/Skewers, sniper's nest-distanced Fiend's Grips, and facing an Ember Spirit with two forms of catch, there was nothing LGD could do. By 30 minutes, even though they tried their best to the very end, PSG.LGD could not stop the onslaught and fell at 36:44 minutes to become the second two-time runner ups in TI history. They could only leave the booth in shame as Team Spirit bested them and became the champions of TI10.

Sebastian is an avid esports fanatic, a freelance journalist for GGRecon, and holds a huge passion for the Overwatch and Dota 2 scenes.

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