Artour "Arteezy" Babaev – age 21 and one of the best Dota 2 players in the world today – has a tradition at major tournaments. For hours each day, for several days in a row, until he’s either been crowned champion or eliminated, he listens to a single song. He listens until even the most elaborate compositions are pummeled into a background drone. No one would mistake his choices for "good" music – lately, there’s been a lot of German rap – but quality isn't part of his equation. It doesn't matter what Arteezy is listening to as long as he's listening to something. And when he wins, that something becomes one of a growing number of testaments to glories past. If he loses, he’ll never listen to it again.
The mind of a professional gamer is a curious thing. Arteezy has every bit of the competitive drive that motivates athletes to build their lives around their sport, but also belongs to the slice of humanity that feels most at home inside video games. The results, so far, have been spectacular. You could lose a week watching highlight reels of Arteezy's best plays, which don’t simply prompt commentators to exclaim that was amazing, but how is that even possible!?
Arteezy earned a reputation as the enfant terrible of North American Dota 2
His celebrity in Dota 2 is singular. He is the rare figure who has not only changed how the game is played, but defined much of its culture. Amateurs emulate his style of play, listen to his signature songs, and copy his profane in-game banter. And though Dota 2 has made Arteezy rich – he's earned north of $1 million since 2014 not counting salary, endorsements, and streaming revenue – being rich was never the point. The joy of competition and self-mastery is, and there, Arteezy, winner of 19 major Dota 2 tournaments, has nothing left to prove.
Four years in, Arteezy still hasn't won the only tournament in Dota 2 that matters: The International, Dota 2's annual championship hosted in Seattle each August.
It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the International for professional Dota 2 players. Some of it is money. TI (as fans call it) has always had the largest prize pools in esports history; right now, it's $22,000,000 and counting. But mostly, it's a matter of prestige. TI is sacrosanct, and to win it is to be beatified. Every serious Dota 2 player competes with the sole intention of winning TI. Everything else is merely a stop along the way. When teams fail to qualify for TI, they disband. No matter how successful a single player is in Dota 2, failing to win in Seattle will haunt their legacy. Like Charles Barkley pining for a ring that never came, Arteezy is (for now) a king without a crown, and until he wins TI, his reputation will be as hollow as it is large. He knows it, and everyone in Dota 2 knows it too.
"I don't care what people think of me," Arteezy says. "I want to win a TI. That's all I'm thinking about."
To date, Arteezy has had three chances at TI, and three times he’s fallen short. This year, he will get a fourth opportunity. But if Arteezy really is so good (and make no mistake, he is), why does he keep stumbling when it matters most?
The first time that Artour and I speak, he's in Vancouver visiting his parents, who immigrated to Canada from Uzbekistan when he was two years old.
"The point was for me to go to school and make something of myself," Artour says. "Of course, that didn't go as planned, but it ended up pretty nicely regardless. I'm doing what I love."
By his own admission, Artour has no other aspirations beyond Dota 2: "It's the only thing I look forward to." Right now, he plays for Evil Geniuses (EG), one of the richest and most prestigious Dota 2 organizations in the world. Because EG is so well-funded, it has the luxury of choosing what tournaments it wants to compete in. Where other teams are more-or-less forced to compete in every tournament they can, EG can select whichever are most convenient for them. As a result, Artour lives in a surprisingly stable cycle: He trains with his teammates in San Francisco, does a two or three tournament tour across the globe, and he returns to Vancouver for a period of convalescence.
Ostensibly, the trips to Vancouver are meant to reaffirm the life Artour has outside of professional gaming. In practice, though, they often end up having the opposite effect.
"When I get home from a long boot camp, I have to stop myself from playing Dota 2 because I don't want to burn out," he says. "I don't really know what to do with all this time I have at home. At first, I enjoy it. I wake up whenever I want, and I have nothing to do. But then it becomes boring. I wish I had some kind of hobby."
In conversation, Artour doesn't come across as someone who spends a lot of time on self-examination. This is not to say that he isn't smart. He absolutely is, and his intelligence is crucial to understanding him as a Dota 2 player. In high school, he was an exceptional student (at least until he began traveling for Dota 2) and showed a particular affinity for the sciences. In fact, Artour says the only other thing that has ever captured his mind the way Dota 2 does is biology, which he brings up frequently in interviews without prompt.
"I enjoy memorizing things," Artour explains when I ask if his two passions have anything in common. "It feels really good to me. I try to understand why something works so I can apply it on an exam. That carries on to Dota 2. It's a nice feeling to understand concepts and apply them."
That answer, of course, could probably apply to a professional in any field. And all serious Dota 2 players spend an inordinate amount of time trying to understand their game. Some report they often dream they're inside it, the same way that multilingual people can dream in several languages. But no other player in Dota 2 besides Arteezy would compare it to acing a biology test, nor does any other player seem to take the same quality of joy simply from learning concepts. For Arteezy, the concepts are not simply means to an end. Part of what draws him to Dota 2 is discovering new and better ways to play the game, buried somewhere in its monstrously deep ruleset – ways that have been there all along but needed the right set of eyes to unveil them. That these rules change slightly every few weeks only adds to their appeal.
"You really just have to play a lot of pubs."
"Every patch, there's always something that's hidden that's really strong,” he says when asked what keeps him playing. "Whenever I have growth as a player, I feel motivated."
An analogy might help here: there's an old cliché that many elite chess players see their game less as a competition, and more as a problem in need of a solution; it just happens to be that the reward for solving is victory. Artour would have made a great chess player, but instead he became Arteezy. He sees Dota 2 as a contest between opposing teams and also a puzzle, always ready, waiting for him to apply himself and devise a solution.
"I want to feel like I have something to learn," Arteezy says when pressed about what keeps him playing. "Every game, I want there to be a new concept I can learn, or a new system I can try."
Still, it wouldn't be quite right to say that this kind of innovation comes as the result of meticulous study. Dota 2 is no more its rules than a menu is its meals, and Arteezy sees his concepts not as the result of inductive reasoning, but of experience.
"Most of what I've learned about the game is strictly from playing it. Only rarely have I looked at the mechanical changes in a patch until I figured something out," he says. "You don't just sit in your chair and look at the change log and try to find a diamond. You really just have to play a lot of pubs."
"Pubs," meaning public games of Dota 2, as opposed to scheduled scrimmages between elite teams or tournament games. The pub plays occupies a curious space in esports. It's a place where pros and amateurs alike compete against each other; imagine visiting the nearest public basketball court, only to find Steph Curry drilling threes. All Dota 2 pros play pubs every day to stay in competitive shape, but the reverence Arteezy holds for pubs is singular. Even when he's travelling the world for Dota 2, he rarely goes exploring with his teammates. "I'd much prefer to be close to a PC so I can walk a couple of seconds and start playing pubs," he says.
The countless hours Arteezy has spent playing pubs are devoted to taming an impossibly complex game, ensuring that no in-game situation ever feels genuinely unfamiliar (perhaps not unlike listening to a single song until it's flattened into sonic goo). The more familiar something is, the easier it is to tell when something’s different, and that, for Arteezy, is when discovery begins.
"Back in 2014 and 2015, most of my ideas were individually ironed out in pubs," he remembers. "I did pubs all day and figured out what I thought was the best. Maybe if I'd included my team in the process it would have been even better."
This process and mentality has made Arteezy one of Dota 2's most consistent innovators. "I learned concepts people didn't know, and then I'd do them in games," he says. "When they worked, I felt like I couldn't be beat." Early on, he developed techniques like the "Arteezy block" and new ways to manipulate the game's AI, tiny tactical advantages that slowly grew into new strategies like the 'farming mid," which revolutionized how Dota 2 was played. These days, there is very little in the game that hasn't felt Arteezy's influence in one way or another.
There's a problem, though. It's not hard to see how Arteezy's approach to Dota 2 has put him on the bleeding edge of the metagame for years. But his process is an insular one, and Dota 2, of course, is a team game (and it's worth noting that Arteezy almost never joins a party to play pubs). It is one thing to discover something for yourself, but quite another to align those discoveries with four other people to defeat an opposing team of five.
Early in his career, Arteezy earned a reputation as the enfant terrible of North American Dota 2: a brilliant player weighed down by his self-centeredness, in game and out of it. This assessment contains a grain of truth. In a famous dustup in 2013, a more established Dota 2 pro suggested that it was too early to tell if Arteezy would become an elite player. It wasn't exactly an insult, but Arteezy publicly told him to fuck himself anyway, earning him rebukes from many of the game's veterans.
Arteezy concedes that, for much of his career, his ego outpaced his results. "When we'd start losing," he says, "I'd lose faith in my team."
For most of his career, Arteezy has been haunted by what he calls the "1v5 mentality," a creeping outlook that isolates himself from his teammates, turning a 5v5 game into Arteezy vs. the world. Arteezy stresses that the "1v5 mentality" doesn't mean he's ever seen his teammates as useless, but that victory or defeat is ultimately his own responsibility. "It sounds pretty cancerous, this whole concept of 1v5," he admits. "But that's what I would think of: the ability of me to carry the whole game if I play well."
In some ways, Arteezy's greatest assets as a player, his intelligence and strategic insight, can also work against him; when you have great ideas (as Arteezy very often does), it's natural to want them to be taken seriously, especially when you're not winning. And if Arteezy feels like his voice isn't being heard, he's liable simply to quit his team. He is, after all, Arteezy. Any team would be lucky to have him, and it's telling that Arteezy has never once been kicked from a team. He's only left them on his own accord.
At first glance, the ability to suppress the "1v5 mentality" seems like the defining challenge of Arteezy's career. It is a problem familiar to elite competitors in team sports, and overcoming it is part of what separates the great from the legendary. In Arteezy's case, the issue has never been believing in himself, but being willing to believe in others, especially after they lose together. And few things illustrate that in Arteezy's case than his relationship with his team, Evil Geniuses. Twice he has left and twice he has returned, like a couple that breaks up with solstitial regularity.
The saga goes something like this: in January 2014, Arteezy signed with EG. The team was an instant success on the back of Arteezy's farming-mid strategy, winning several major tournaments in the first half of 2014 culminating in a respectable third place finish at the International 4. That lineup stuck together through uneven results through December 2014, when Arteezy, along with his teammate Ludwig "Zai" Wåhlberg, jumped ship for European rivals Team Secret. It was the Dota 2 equivalent of Lebron abandoning Cleveland for the Heat. Team Secret, unlike that homegrown iteration of EG, was a bonafide international supergroup, built from five of the absolute best individual players in Dota 2. The team utterly crushed its competition in the spring and summer of 2015. Rumors abounded that Secret wouldn't scrimmage with other teams because they saw themselves as so far ahead of the competition that merely practicing with opponents would be a net loss. Yet the team stumbled when it mattered most, taking a disappointing eighth place at the International 2015. EG, meanwhile, took the top prize, winning over $5 million. Afterwards, EG offered Arteezy his spot back, and the team picked up where it left off, once again winning the majority of the tournaments it entered. That lasted for about eight months until Arteezy left for Team Secret again, citing interpersonal issues on EG. This time, though, was a fiasco. Team Secret collapsed at the International, taking last place and disbanding immediately, while EG took third. Amazingly, EG yet again offered Arteezy a spot on the team, which he accepted. He has been on the team ever since, and (arguably) has posted the most consistently excellent results of his career. Next week, he will compete at the International in an Evil Geniuses jersey for the first time since 2014.
Arteezy is philosophical about each stop on the trajectory of his career. In memory, there are never good times or bad times, only telling ones – as he once Tweeted, "I don't lose; I win or I learn." Each permutation of Evil Geniuses and Team Secret (even that second one) has taught him something about playing Dota 2, but, more importantly, it has also taught him something about himself. It all comes back to the "1v5 mentality" pitting his faith in himself against his faith in the teammates he needs to win.
"The first time I left EG, I learned how to play carry with different people and how to play around different people's strengths," he remembers of the 2015 iteration of Team Secret. "I don't really regret that move at all. I learned that if you have five good players on one team, people have to be willing to sacrifice their ideas for the sake of winning."
That team's Icarian downfall at the International 5 was a turning point for Arteezy. "I became a new person; I learned to play more around the team." At least at first. Back on Evil Geniuses, familiar struggles re-emerged when the team failed to win consistently in the spring of 2016. "I didn't feel like I was being fully utilized fully," Arteezy remembers, "So I reverted to my pre-TI5 character, where I felt like I had to 1v5. It fucked me."
Leaving Evil Geniuses for Team Secret a second time contained obvious echoes of the previous year, only this time the team did even worse. "It was a big mistake," he says. "And I was too spontaneous about it." If for Team Secret, TI5 was tragedy, then TI6 was farce. "I was ashamed of myself," Arteezy says of their last place finish. "I've deleted that from my memory. It was sad for everyone involved and it's hard for me to think about it."
"I was ashamed of myself."
It’s a testament to the respect professional Dota 2 players have for Arteezy that he has twice been invited back to a team he abandoned under acrimonious circumstances. "I basically screwed up two teams for no reason other than myself," he says. "It was selfish of me. To be on a team again, and to be accepted back… it was eye-opening."
This time, though, the harsh lessons of losing at the International (again) fell on a chastened mind. "After TI6, I finally felt like I fully understood myself and what makes being on a team work for me," Arteezy says of his fall 2016 return to Evil Geniuses. "The way I view losses is less self-centric. Before, I would look at myself and say, 'I should have been able to '1v5.' But now I try to find a balance. I could have played with this person better. We could have done this move, or I could have helped this guy accelerate his game. I look for ways that I could have played better that could help someone else play better."
In his first tournament appearance with Evil Geniuses' new lineup, the team won the Mars Dota 2 League in Xiamen, China. Since then, they've entered 12 tournaments, won six of them, and placed outside the top three only twice.
It’s not hard to see how Arteezy's version of each chapter of his story culminates in a resplendent now, the way most of us use our autobiographies to explain and justify our present. Normally, it's best to be suspicious of such tidy resolutions because life rarely follows straight lines. But to hear Arteezy talk about his team today is to listen to someone whose mentality has been changed by experience, and not simply common sense. When he talks about Evil Geniuses today, he gushes about his teammates, and says "we" much more than "I." Just listen how he explains when I ask why the team hasn't altered its roster since TI6.
"The best part of having a team is that you can share with them too," he says. "Every person has their own perspective on things. So when I offer what I think is a good idea to Zai, he'll tell me from his perspective as a support player how it is. Or I'll give it to Universe [Sahil Arora, EG's offlaner], because he can be like, 'What would it be like to lane against this hero?' It's a team-building exercise in some ways because everyone is growing an idea and evolving it."
To be sure, Arteezy's "1v5 mentality" is still there—to some degree, it always will be – but it appears in different and better guises. "I think I'm more utilized when my voice is pretty high – like, my voice is important too," he says. "It was hard for that to happen when I was playing with Puppey [Team Secret's captain, Clement Ivanov] and PPD [Peter Dager, then EG's captain and now its CEO] because they followed their voice as the most important one. It's not a bad thing, it's just not how I function. I didn't see it as healthy."
In that sense, maybe the challenge for Arteezy has never been to totally suppress the 1v5 mentality, but harness it and direct it to more productive ends. To wit: when I ask Arteezy how he sees himself these days, he likens himself to a ghost.
"I enjoy the idea of being a ghost. You train, and no one notices."
You're one of the most visible players in the world. Does it ever actually work like that?
"I don't know. When I picture myself, I want to be the person who silently grinds in his corner of the room and, after a 12 hour session, comes out and says what I've learned to my team."
A helpful ghost, then. The truth is that you probably can't change who you are, but you can change how you are who you are. Has Artour done that? It's hard to say. But perhaps the fact that the best results of his career have aligned with his longest stint on a single team is not entirely coincidence.
When Arteezy and I speak for a second time, he's back in Vancouver. In the intervening month, he has travelled to a bootcamp in San Francisco and tournaments in the Philippines and Russia. The tour was a great success, with Evil Geniuses winning the Manila Masters and taking second place at Epicenter LAN in Moscow. The day after that, Evil Geniuses received its invitation to compete at the International 7.
Though second place at a major LAN is always respectable, Arteezy can't help but bemoan the loss in Moscow, an unexpected defeat at the hands of longtime rivals Team Liquid, especially hard. "It was one of those losses where you didn't get to show how good you are," he says, punctuating it with a sigh.
Still, he's optimistic about the future. The team has hired a coach who has been helping EG play around each other's strengths even more. "With him, we all know what we're doing, so it's way easier to go with the flow," Artour says. "We don't have to overthink how we're playing."
For now at least, Arteezy thinks he's on the best team in the world. "We can still improve. We haven't peaked, I think."
In a few days, Evil Geniuses will be heading to Wuhan, China, for the Mars Dota 2 League, the team's last stop before the International. Though it is a major tournament, the team is taking a holistic view of MDL. "We might do some clowny shit," he suggests. "If we lost MDL, I feel like it would actually be more beneficial than winning. If we do lose, it would probably be to a cool idea or concept that we can learn from." (In fact, this is exactly what happens).
When EG returns from China, they will begin team preparations for the International, starting with a multi-week boot camp in San Francisco. Arteezy sounds genuinely excited about the prospect. "It used to be that I hated scrims and I loved pubs," he says. "But now I enjoy playing scrims and matches more than I enjoy playing pubs."
"I quit Counter-Strike yesterday after played against the second-highest rank of teams and got destroyed. I said, 'OK, I'm never going to be good at this game. I'm never going to play it again.' Now I'm giving my full attention to Dota 2."
For years, Arteezy read How to be Like Mike: Life Lessons about Basketball's Best almost every day. The book is a motivational, mass-market paperback loosely constructed as a biography of Michael Jordan with, as far as I can tell, no actual input from His Airness. In it, Jordan's various trials – his pettiness, self-centeredness, and tendency to bemoan losses more than he celebrates wins – on his path from Chapel Hill to Chicago and beyond are converted into tidy aphorisms, each containing a little koan of wisdom.
"If you think and achieve as a team, the individual accolades will take care of themselves," Jordan (maybe?) says. "Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships."
The context for that quote is a chapter on the first eight years of Jordan's career, during which he won virtually every individual award the NBA had to offer, but never managed to convert that into a championship. It wasn't until 1991 that Jordan, along with his new(ish) teammates Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant – the "Bermuda triangle of defense" as Jack Mccallum once called them – got his ring.
"I used to read How to be Like Mike every day," Arteezy remembers. "After a loss, I'd blame myself. So I'd look at the book and move forward. I did that before MLG Columbus, and I did it after Columbus. Eventually, it was in my head. Every time I lose, I still ask myself, 'Why do you want to play? Why do you want to win?'"
Maybe now, Arteezy is one step closer to winning forever. But Dota 2 is as fickle as any mistress, and the best you can do is play until it's flattened into a familiar drone in which you might isolate what makes you lose, and hope that fortune smiles upon the results. I can't tell you if Arteezy will write an epilogue to this piece by winning the International. But if he does, now more than ever, he won't do it alone.