For Virtus Pro, the World's Best 'Dota 2' Team, Merely Winning Isn't Enough

For Virtus Pro, the World's Best 'Dota 2' Team, Merely Winning Isn't Enough

Virtus Pro achieved an unheard of feat at a tournament this weekend: they took first place almost without repeating any heroes Beyond the Summit

At The Summit 7 tournament this weekend, Virtus Pro defied conventional wisdom (and the ironclad metagame) with a stunning series of victories

At The Summit 7 tournament this weekend, Virtus Pro defied conventional wisdom (and the ironclad metagame) with a stunning series of victories

In Frank Deford's 1981 Sports Illustrated profile of Indiana's pugnacious basketball coach Bobby Knight, the two men have a lengthy exchange about the meaning of winning and success. As Knight concludes, "If you're going to play the game, you're going to get more out of it winning... At West Point, winning was the hub of everything I was doing... But somewhere I decided I was wrong. You could win and still not succeed, not achieve what you should. And you can lose without really failing at all.

It's an extraordinary statement from one of college basketball's winningest coaches, asking readers to see winning and success as something other than synonymous. Knight's observation flies in the face of everything we're taught about competitiveness, that winning matters more than anything. But perhaps it's not that simple, and it takes someone like Knight, for whom winning had long since settled into habit, to point out how winning isn't always enough. Sometimes, to succeed, you must do more.

Competitive personalities thrive on challenge, which usually comes in the form of an opponent. But for someone (or a team) for whom winning feels familiar, it's up to them to erect some new barrier to overcome, to find new sources of motivation. When Lebron James returned to Cleveland after his sojourn in Miami, it wasn't just to win another championship (that was a given). It was to bring a championship to a city that had been starved for it. Or, to point to an older example, Babe Ruth's called shot – so confident was Ruth that his next hit would be a home run that he pointed directly at the center-field bleachers, where, seconds later, the Babe's 15th home run of the 1932 postseason landed. Moments like these turn mere champions into legends.

There was something of that in the air at The Summit 7 this weekend, one of the summer's largest Dota 2 tournaments. Modeled after StarCraft II's HomeStory Cup, The Summit gathers top teams from around the world to Southern California to take part in a cross between a LAN and a house party. The tournament is bereft of ceremony or pomp – commentators cast from a couch, and players frequently wander into frame to make obscene suggestions – and each iteration of the tournament spawns a new generation of memes. But the most memorable had little to do with out-of-game antics, and everything to do with Russian team Virtus Pro's choice to play the entire tournament (almost) without repeating any heroes, a singular event in the history of Dota 2.

Some background: currently, Virtus Pro is the unquestioned best Dota 2 team in the Commonwealth of Independent States (a region encompassing Russia and former Soviet republics), which easily makes them one of the best teams in the world. Still, despite their consistent record of excellence in 2017, Virtus Pro has come under fire from Dota 2 personalities in the CIS region for the team's perceived reliance on a limited number of heroes, sticking with their "safe" favorites. It's a petty criticism, to be sure – as long as Virtus Pro are winning, why should it matter what heroes they pick? – but the team's players are nothing if not impetuous. And so, the team imposed an arbitrary restriction upon themselves for The Summit 7, refusing to play any heroes more than once.

It's the nature of Dota 2's metagame that, at any given moment, certain heroes from the game's pool of 112 are in vogue. Each patch tends to concentrate on a core of 20-40 heroes, backed by a larger field of situational picks. Usually, there's also a handful of heroes that languish almost completely unpicked and unbanned because they're deemed too weak for competitive play. Picking from this impoverished section of the hero pool is usually an act of desperation, resignation, or outright trolling. But by limiting themselves to a one-hero max across multiple series, Virtus Pro effectively destroyed this hierarchy, picking out-of-meta heroes for the sole purpose of proving a point to their naysayers. That Virtus Pro overcame this serious strategic disadvantage makes the entire episode not simply a remarkable display of hubris (though it's definitely also that), but an unmatched display of skill in Dota 2.

In the end, Virtus Pro played 81 heroes over 17 games, including a 16 game streak without any repeated picks. That number would probably be higher had Team Secret (no slouches themselves) not banned several unplayed heroes during the grand finals – a tactic that, in retrospect and in defeat, feels both petty and presages their loss. Only in the ace match of the grand finals did Virtus Pro blink, forgoing the last dregs of the hero pool in favor of a more traditional lineup ("You have to realize when you need to stop memeing," said Virtus Pro captain Ilya "LiL" Ilyuk in a post-game interview). Still, their 81 heroes over 17 games more than doubled Team Secret's 35. If there was any doubt that Virtus Pro is not one of the most talented and flexible teams in the world, their performance this weekend put it emphatically to rest.

Just so there's no confusion: Virtus Pro won The Summit 7 for the simple reason that they played better than any other team there. But their victory – already passing into Dota 2 mythology – will be remembered not because it's a mere victory, but because it's a success, in the most improbable and spectacular of ways.