Why The Yankees of Esports Can No Longer Buy Their Way to the Top

Esports powerhouse Team Secret has been collecting superstar gamers, but they need to think as a team to win

Back in March, Team Secret's director Kemal Sadikoglu announced that Artour “Arteezy" Babaev and Saahil “Universe" Arora were joining the pro gaming outfit’s Dota 2 lineup. Days before a roster lock deadline, Secret had headhunted both players from rival team Evil Geniuses, who scrambled to pick up players from Digital Chaos, who in turn picked up the players that Secret left behind. It was The Great Dota Shuffle of 2016.

It hasn’t worked out for Secret. Since they revealed their new lineup, they’ve placed 5th at ESL One Manila in April, 7th at Russia’s Epicenter in May, and went 0-2 during the group stages of last weekend’s Manila Major. They wound up being eliminated after losing a best-of-one series against European vets Team Empire. All told, they won just a single round throughout the entire tournament.

Ask your average Dota 2 fan and they’ll say their floundering performance is comeuppance. Secret is a heel in the Dota 2 scene – when they formed in 2014, some of their players were still under contract with other teams, and they’ve continued poaching players like they're the Yankees of Southeast Europe ever since. (Secret is based in Turkey.) It doesn’t make it any better that this is Babaev’s second time defecting to Secret from Evil Geniuses. Chatting with a few other panelists during the Manila Major livestream before Secret’s first match, ex-Evil Geniuses team manager Charlie Yang mentioned that he saw Babaev’s unwillingness to work through internal spats as a chronic issue. “He does have a tendency to run away from his problems," Yang said.

It’s fitting that Babaev joined Secret, then, since the team’s problem has long been an assumption that the best team is simply made up of the best players. From that perspective, it makes sense to pick up the likes of Babaev and Arora, who’ve been considered best-in-class at their respective roles for years. It made sense too for Team Secret to arrive at their first match at The International last year decked out in sunglasses and shit-eating grins. Why not? At the time, their lineup was viewed as the strongest in the world.

After they crashed and burned to a 7th place finish, they disbanded their current lineup and built a new one. Secret is so fixated on individual skill that when they lose, they assume they just need better players. They’re willing to throw away months of practice and team cohesion in service of that assumption.

That’s simply not the kind of game Dota 2 is anymore.

“The way that you’re supposed to play Dota is more organized," said Kevin “Purge" Godec, during the pre-match livestream. Teams coordinate ambushes all throughout the game, and players in the “carry" role – who have historically sat out fights in favor of killing non-player monsters to amass gold and experience until later in the game – get their hands dirty earlier than ever.

Worse yet for Secret, it’s harder to rely on superior players crushing weaker ones through individual skill alone. “The skill gap in actual talent and mechanical ability has shrunk so much from the very beginning of Dota to now," said Yang during the livestream. "What’s more important now is chemistry. It’s about picks and how you play together."

Yet at the Manila Major, Secret remained insistent on winning as five separate players. They never seemed to have a contingency for falling behind. Even when they started losing, they played like they were ahead. How else do you explain Jacky “Eternalenvy" Mao futilely hunting for kills in the enemy jungle areas, instead of killing creeps to win back his gold advantage? How else do you explain character drafts like this one, which looks like three players chose the “random" button?

What’s frustrating about the way they draft and play is that they’re more than capable of high-level coordination – just look at their win in the group stages of the Manila Major, against Wings Gaming. They drafted a lineup built to fight early, together, and often. Secret cooled their jets, coordinated early for kills, and pushed objectives after winning fights with a team that could do just that. In the next round, they picked another aggressive teamfight lineup, but lost after what we’ll call some “ambitious" over-extensions into Wings’ mid-game Drow Ranger team. Arrogance just got the better of them.

That’s the thing with Team Secret. More than winning, they want to rub their mechanical superiority in their opponents' faces. That’s why so many Dota 2 fans rejoice when they lose. When they pick around individual skill and get punished for it, it proves teamwork trumps raw talent. Look at Team Liquid, the favorites for Manila – they weren’t a top team when they formed as 5Jungz back in August, but after practicing as one for months, they’ve emerged as the unanimous frontrunners and living proof that you can’t buy teamwork on a short lease.

Secret are going to have a rough road ahead of them, watching other teams from the sidelines. If they hope to stand a chance at The International in August, they need to kill their egos and start thinking like a team. They need to identify and address their coordination issues instead of dropping their lineup and trying to find better players, because it’s clear that’s not working out. As for Babaev, he might want to get comfortable at Secret – now that teamwork matters more than ever, he can’t afford to keep running.