Ready to Rock: Team OG
© F. Scott Schafer
Team OG, esports legends and two-time Dota 2 champions, are geared up for an encore after a year of unexpected challenges.
Published on The Red Bulletin
It’s a rainy night in Los Angeles and the city is darker than usual. It is a Thursday in early March, a moment in the United States in which COVID-19 is poised to morph from a theoretical concern to an outbreak. The world is about to change.
The ESL One Los Angeles Major—an important event on the circuit for professional squads that play the immensely popular multiplayer battle arena game Dota 2—has just been postponed, leaving more than a dozen top teams without a tournament to compete in. This news has hit Team OG’s captain, Johan “N0tail” Sundstein, hard, and he is trying to absorb the impact as he sits on a couch inside a posh mansion in Pasadena that the team rented for a team-building boot camp. None of this—the hard rain, the virus, the canceled tournament, a looming pandemic—is how he had imagined the narrative of their spring start.
Just a month earlier, OG had competed in the open qualifiers for ESL One Los Angeles, with Sundstein leading a new roster into battle as the team played together for the first time in an actual event. Despite three new players and a distinct lack of experience playing together, OG managed to qualify for the Major with only one loss. It was a dominant performance worthy of the two-time champions. The team already has won more than $33 million in tournament prize money and was gearing up for more—more Major titles, more loot, more glory, more fun.
A lot changed in one month. Now, slumped on the couch, Sundstein is feeling empty after hearing that he and his team would be denied a chance to test their skills against the best teams in the world. Each player on OG’s roster has competed on some of the biggest stages in Dota history, but they feel like the chance to show how their skills didn’t atrophy in the previous nine months, while each of them spent time away from the Dota Pro Circuit, has been stolen from them.
“It’s definitely a huge bummer, man. There is no easy way to say it,” Sundstein says. “We were so excited, so mentally prepared. It’s a huge blow.”
OG arrived in Pasadena a week prior to the scheduled March 15 start of ESL One Los Angeles, participating in an intense boot camp to sharpen their skills for the battles ahead. But with the event being pushed back and eventually canceled, the team was suddenly left with nothing in the immediate future to aspire to after putting in all of that work.
Adapting is something that OG is used to doing at every level of competition
As a group, we spend much of their final day in the United States sprawled out in the living room of the mansion, watching their since-released sister team, OG.Seed, compete at Dota Summit 12 and bursting into unrestrained joy when they upset North American superpower Evil Geniuses in the lower-bracket finals. That is how passionate OG is about the game, always looking forward and rolling with whatever comes their way. They don’t quite know it yet on this March afternoon, but they will make similar improvisations with all of the trials they will soon face as COVID-19 essentially shuts down the competitive Dota circuit.
Instead of talking with a team looking to win the third Major of the 2020 Dota Pro Circuit, I am left to hang out for a day with a group of individuals who are being forced to make their first adaptations to what will become the new normal in the upcoming months. But adapting is something OG is used to doing at every level of competition.
The team rallies to participate in a spirited photo shoot that captures their camaraderie amid the semicomical décor of their rented mansion. They gather around the grand piano and theatrically break keyboards and crack jokes as they fling pancakes in the kitchen. Then, minutes after the photographer calls it a wrap, they jump in cars and head to LAX—in a rush to get back to Europe and face a completely uncertain future.
The original OG roster, formed in 2015, was made up of a group of experienced gamers who had been playing as an independent squad called (monkey)Business. And instead of working to be signed by another organization by playing well, Sundstein and longtime teammate Tal “Fly” Aizik decided to form their own organization following a dominant run through the Frankfurt Major qualifiers. (Competition in the Dota Pro Circuit has historically been divided into a distinct number of Major and Minor tournaments played before huge crowds in various world cities.)
Over the next year, the team went on to win the Frankfurt Major and the Manila Major, eventually qualifying for the sport’s premier tournament—The International—in June 2016, making their TI debut in their first season together. Though the team performed well in the group stage, The International 2016 ended with OG being upset twice and eliminated in ninth place.
These early tournaments offered strong signs that OG was going to be something special. Nonetheless, the team wound up having to go through several iterations before finally striking gold at The International. In 2017, for instance, the team underwent a massive shift, as only Sundstein and Aizik remained from the previous lineup. To fill out the roster, the mix of veterans and promising talent was recast, bringing in Jesse “JerAx” Vainikka, Gustav “s4” Magnusson and Anathan “ana” Pham.
This roster would get off to a strong start, becoming the first team in history to win back-to-back Majors—at the Boston Major 2016 and the Kiev Major 2017. And, though the team was considered one of the favorites to win it all at The International 2017, they were again upset in the lower bracket, this time being eliminated by PSG.LGD, watching as their former teammate Amer “Miracle-” Al-Barkawi and Team Liquid hoisted the Aegis of Champions.
Soon thereafter, Pham announced a hiatus from competitive Dota, leaving Aizik and Sundstein to switch things up again as they headed into the inception of the modern Pro Circuit. The team struggled to establish itself, so they subbed in their coach, Sébastien “7ckngMad” (now Ceb) Debs, to stand in for the remainder of the season as they fought for a spot at The International 2018.
The struggles came to a head after the team was eliminated in the first round of the ESL One Birmingham playoffs, as Aizik and Magnusson departed the organization to join Evil Geniuses. The transfer nearly broke OG apart, forcing Debs, Sundstein and Vainikka to pull out of the final Major and try to salvage their season.
Knowing they had very little time before they’d have to compete in the European qualifiers for TI, the members convinced Pham to rejoin the team early while also filling their fifth spot in an unorthodox way. Instead of trying to complete their roster with a proven player who might not quickly fit their system, the team brought in Topias “Topson” Taavitsainen, a player with little competitive experience who had been dominating public games in the European servers. And while it looked like an odd pick, OG went on to crush the European qualifiers, finishing 7-0 to make it into The International 2018—setting up what would be one of the greatest underdog stories in esports history.
The team squeaked into the playoffs of The International and then put together a legendary run to win it all. Along the way they destroyed Aizik’s EG squad, leading to one of the most iconic moments to ever grace Dota, as the former teammates clasped hands while the OG captain gave Aizik a scathing look that even the crowd could feel. OG ended the event by beating PSG.LGD, the team that eliminated them in 2017, to finally lift the Aegis—and take home $11 million.
It was a shocking, dominant and enormously lucrative win—and Team OG charted an unlikely path to repeat that script the following year. Sundstein and his team didn’t win a single Major in 2019 but still managed to directly qualify for The International 2019 before finishing at the top of their group and crushing almost every team in their path. Throughout the entire tournament, OG lost only five games and never dropped a series, defeating Liquid to become the first team to win a second International.
And just like that, they had won two championships and more than $26 million in prize money.
From the start, 2020 was going to be a year full of challenges, defined by rebuilding. This was true before the virus was a factor.
After raising the Aegis of Champions a second time in August 2019, the players on OG took some time away from the game and made their own plans for 2020. Vainikka announced his retirement from competitive Dota; Pham decided to take another extended break from the game; and Debs stepped away from the active roster to take a more organizational role. That forced Sundstein to lead a rebuild once again.
“There’s a lot of memories there,” says Sundstein. “Winning TI twice—it was ridiculously crazy."
On an afternoon eight months after that rainy day in Pasadena, Sundstein is in Lisbon, Portugal, musing about the past and the future. In the time in between our conversations, OG has made a few moves, releasing one of the players it signed at the beginning of the year—Syed “SumaiL” Hassan—and adding Debs back to the roster. Yeik “MidOne” Nai Zheng and Martin “Saksa” Sazdov remain on the team.
During the pandemic, OG has competed in 11 different tournaments, all of them online competitions instead of the large, IRL so-called LAN events they were used to. The team placed second in the online version of ESL One Los Angeles, but their results were all over the map. The team struggled to deal with travel issues and time-zone challenges caused by COVID-19 and ultimately made their roster changes to simplify and stabilize things.
“It has been a pain in the ass that I never thought I would have to deal with because Dota, ever since I started, was about showing your best performance at LAN events,” Sundstein says on a video call from Lisbon. “We had three different time zones to deal with and were playing with stand-ins. It was hell for someone like me who hates losing and having an excuse to blame it on.”
At last, as of November, OG finally has all five of its main roster situated in the same time zone in Europe, where they can compete and play together regularly, giving them a small sense of normality while the world is still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sundstein feels that this version of Dota competition is hard on OG, which has been a dominant LAN team. He says the team is still suffering through a “learning process” to adapt to the conditions of online tournaments, and that this form of play demands a lot more personal responsibility from each player on the team.
Just as millions of people have struggled to adjust to working from home during the pandemic, competitive esports teams have had to adapt their approach to competing online. Sundstein specifically points to the loss of centralization that LAN events provide, which he says makes it harder to focus completely on the games. “When we play from home, I think there’s way more room for error, way more room for technical issues, and it can take away from the best mindsets for both teams,” he says. “Therefore, the games might just be slightly less competitive, slightly worse in quality.”
While the team is prepared to grind out online events, Sundstein is optimistic about the future
Still, Sundstein understands that complaints are hollow and unproductive. “If you want to be a good competitor, a good samurai, a good warrior, excuses aren’t going to do anything for you,” he says. “If I lose, I die, and it is very tricky right now. I felt much more in control when LAN events were the real test and the real challenge. Now it’s different.”
And while the team is prepared to keep grinding out online events as the pandemic continues, Sundstein is also optimistic about the future. “Well, it kind of brings me a lot of nice, warm feelings when I think about the future because every day we have here is a day to prepare as a team and to get better,” he says. “I know how good we are already and I know how good we have been getting over the past couple of months, so when TI does come back, my vision and my dream is to play the best that we ever have.”
He of course wants to win The International again, but he’s perhaps even more excited about the possibility of competing at the highest level in front of a crowd again. “I want to have the best run that we could possibly have,” Sundstein says. “And if somebody is there to match it with us, we’re going to have the best games ever, and that’s what I’m just excited for.”
We always want to limit excuses, no excuses. Honestly, there are a lot of things I still really don’t like
With that said, not everything is perfect, as COVID-19 and other circumstances have popped up to give the team more hurdles to clear. They have to play tournaments remotely and deal with the mental health challenges of pandemic life and the evolving world around them. Having everyone in the same time zone helps, but each player still has their own lives to live.
Taavitsainen, for instance, recently became a father, and all of the players—including Nai Zheng, who is from Malaysia—are unable to visit family as often as they might like due to travel restrictions and quarantines. And they all must constantly compete in all of the online tournaments as well.
“We don’t have that much time to take breaks because we still have to be a part of the online circuit,” Sundstein says. “We don’t want to do the stand-in thing anymore because we always want to limit excuses, no excuses. Honestly, there are a lot of things I still really don’t like.”
But even with everything still hitting the team hard, Sundstein is grateful that he can continue competing at all thanks to the general infrastructure provided by Dota, the tournament organizers and the teams. “Of course I’m happy that esports continues to be there and continues to be a form of entertainment through these hard times,” he says. “We get to keep our job, which is amazing. But I think once you have tasted how nice it can be, how good the LAN tournaments can be and how hype it is, it doesn’t feel the same to play online.”
This is tough for Sundstein, who now has not played in a LAN event since August 2019. As a top gamer who has competed in Dota for more than a decade, traveling to events and battling it out with the best teams in the world, he is suffering from some serious withdrawal. “If I had to really speak my mind, I am still struggling with not having these fierce competitions happen,” he admits. “Online is a nice substitute, but it just doesn’t feel the same. It is like having a banana split without the chocolate. You still appreciate the banana, but I wouldn’t really call it a full banana split."