When I arrived at ESL One New York, I expected to meet a lot of players, some of whom knew me either through my writing, my casting, or conversations online. I didn't expect to ixmike to subsitute a handshake with a bear hug when I introduced myself. We had met each other online dozens of times when I've casted his games, but he never gave me the impression he remembered me, or cared to.
I spent a decent amount of time with him and Ush throughout the morning, discussing Dota and SNA with them while they were gracious enough to sit down with me.
Later, when I was watching the Sneaky Nyx Assassins play on the main stage for the first time (hours behind schedule), I couldn't help but wonder how the day had played out for them differently in their hopes.
"I think when we beat compLexity, we could have been more convincing in that game," Ush had admitted, "But I think we're gonna do really well here today." His voice was hopeful.
Game number one was, by most standards, a nightmare for any competitive team. Despite EternalEnvy's post-game assertions to the contrary, by the fifteen minute mark it didn't seem very likely that the Assassins could sneak a victory. Earlier in the week, ixmike had tweeted that Cloud9 would need to be happy with fifth place. Earlier that morning he had confidently told me he thinks they have a good chance. Just before the match (I was told by a third party) he had said, "We'll just go and beat them two nothing." When asked how he was going to do that, he had just responded, "Take their throne twice."
This was Ush's first LAN event, and the Sneaky Nyx Assassin's first major event as a squad.
It's hard not to hope for the fledgling neo-Liquid squad with a young carry whose eyes contained impossible-to-mask excitement underneath a calm, cool, and collected personality. "I live in Upstate New York," he said, "it's like really close to home so it's actually really good (for this to be my first LAN)." We are, of course, in Madison Square Gardens in New York City.
During the delays in the morning, we talked more casually as we sat in a few spare seats amongst the crowd. While ixmike is notorious, Ush is a new face and doesn't yet have any reason to expect to be recognized if he steps foot into the public sphere. To most of the people here, he's just another kid who loves eSports.
But in a few hours, he'd be on stage.
"I think I'll get nervous," he said, "But I don't think it'll make me play worse."
"Everybody does (get nervous)," ixmike reassured him. Like most Dota squads you see, they seemed to have a very strong friendship--everybody on SNA does.
ixmike: "I intend to stay aggressive"
"I'm just gonna pursue it for at least like the next year, and if I do school only part time. I want to pursue it for at least as long as I can so I can see if I can make it or not," Ush said. "Obviously, if I fail and fail and fail, I have to give up at some point and go to school. My parents kind of support me playing for now, so…"
He trailed off, shooting Mike another glance, wide-eyed and eyebrows raised, as though he had just heard the most surprising good news out of his own mouth.
The Sneaky Nyx Assassins have been doing well recently, but they are far from a tier 1 team. They are arguably the Americas second-best team at the moment, though, having recently taken victories over Evil Geniuses, North American Rejects, and regularly beating emerging new contenders. Just three days ago, they earned their seat to the upcoming Dreamhack Bucharest.
"We've played against Secret, and scrimmed, when they came to New York," Mike said nonchalantly, "We did really well against them. They didn't feel any different than any other team, except maybe the Russians are a lot more aggressive than everyone else. Cloud 9, Secret, Alliance… they're all pretty similar."
In-between his match, Ush tried to find a spot to sleep. Like many of the players and personalities at the event, he was drained. An hour later, he showed up backstage, stumbling in on a small group of us while we watched EG Vs Alliance and talked.
"How was your nap?" I asked him.
"Awful," he smirked, "Na'Vi lost and woke me up right away." He found a can of Redbull.
Then he came back and grabbed another.
"Careful, or you're not going to be able to play," I warned him. "Between the Redbull and the adrenaline, you're going to be chasing dragons instead of playing Dota."
As he ran out, Fogged added, "Plus that stuff will stunt your growth!" A bit of tongue-in-cheek humor between friendly rivals.
Between games. Ush: "We'll pick X because we know it's good; what does it do? What does it work against? You build it from the line up, where you've built a specific strategy for my hero."
Game two rolled around, and it looked good just before first blood. Strong positioning from SNA's defensive trilane had put them into a favorable position to pincer their opponent's Mirana. They had a double-stun lane. She dropped below a hundred. Below seventy. A hit away. There is no leap.
And ixmike's Centaur Warrunner died in the offlane, giving Cloud 9 first blood. Through 6.82b until now, he has a better than 75% winrate with the hero (against teams including Empire, Dream Destroyers, and Evil Geniuses). The audience gasped with shock, some confused. The casters missed it. Everybody did. But Mike has been positioned very far forward this series.
"I've tried around with more farming offlaners--like bulldog style--but at least for now it really depends on TC. TC likes to farm, so I have to play around that. Play around the fact that I won't be getting as much as our two cores because they like to farm. Which is fine, but it means I'll be playing the ganking heroes like Centaur, Clockwerk, Tide as opposed to Furion (e.g. Nature's Prophet) or Soul Keeper (e.g. Terrorblade)."
For those who remember Team Wild Witch Doctors, which eventually became SNA+4 (which later this year became Sneaky Nyx Assassins), there have been three constants: Mike, Ush, and aggressive play. It implies that Mike, the catalyzing force of this team, imbued it with high levels of aggression and coordination through the months of roster changes. "It's not really me," he said. "I don't encourage that (aggression) very much--when I build a team, I try to build it around players." You can tell he means it. He seems thoughtful about the composition of his team the way Fluffnstuff might compose a draft.
"Ush, he likes to farm. We tried to do a more passive thing, but I guess some comes from Fluff. He brings that aggression, along with Whitebeard, now. Also, I think last patch it was pretty warranted that you played like that, it was so rewarding and hard to deal with."
In game two, Mike continued to position aggressively, but the team as a whole couldn't back him up as much as he needed. He was three deaths deep before he was able to slow down the bleeding. Cloud 9 seemed to know where he sleeps, and did their best to catch him napping.
"I think we're gonna slow the game down for sure. I'm not sure how much yet, but it'll definitely be more around ganking than taking towers," he had said of their future plans. So far, this game showed that perhaps the thought was good but the execution was lacking.
Largely on the back of amazing plays by Whitebeard's support Sand King and strong coordination, SNA had earned a real shot at taking a lateral move, or even reclaiming control throughout the mid game. Even ixmike, who had such a rough early game, was starting to get himself into place. He was swinging back with a kill and five assists for the low cost of one additional death. And Ush's Wraith King, the 19th hero he's played on this patch, was getting some farm.
"I don't personally think I'm that versatile in terms of heroes--there's just a lot of heroes you can pick as a hard carry," he said, "It doesn't have to be Antimage, Spectre, Morphling every game. There's a lot of heroes you can pick, and we've talked about it as a team, building strategies picking any hard carry we want and what does that do for us."
Despite his modesty, this new carry rubbing elbows with the big leaguers has played more heroes this patch than any other player at the event. "I think a big part of me playing more heroes is just that our team has the most games. Our team just picks me a hard carry , and it doesn't really matter what the hard carry is; it just has to fit our lineup and be good against there lineup. That's it."
This is a big part of the story; SNA has played more games on patch than any team at ESL One. But that's not all of it. At 61%, the number of his games so far this patch in which he's played a unique hero still puts him in the upper echelon of diversified players.
As game two continued, Cloud 9 took it back under their control with a forceful farm and positioning advantage. Their physical damage output came from not only their cores but also Witch Doctor with an early Aghanim's Scepter; standing and fighting was nearly impossible for the Sneaky Nyx Assassins.
Ush had said, "We have a lot of strategies prepared for this tournament." After a moment of reflection, he added, "A lot of strats." But they hadn't prepared for this situation, and how could they?
You all know that this story ends for Sneaky Nyx Assassins here, but don't count them out yet. Although they'll be decreed trashy, tier 99 n00blets by some of the community, this is a squad with a ton of potential.
As for Cloud 9, they'll move on to bigger, more recognizable opponents later today at ESL One New York, looking to bring down Evil Geniuses next.
It's fitting that we discussed ixmike's aggressive, borderline overaggressive positioning earlier in the day. He thought very carefully when I asked if SNA's plans to slow down their gameplay meant he would also be decelerating his style.
"I intend to stay aggressive," he finally answered, breaking into a giant grin. You can tell he loves the action. We both laughed. He added, "When I can."
And it's also fitting that he ended the day the way we started it… with a big bear hug.
This article was written by Gorgon the Wonder Cow, joinDOTA's Elder writer.Gorgon is a freelance shoutcaster and analyst for joinDOTA, CEVO, and anywhere a fast tongue with top insight is required. He will probably be known as the Pokemon hat guy forevermore.Location: Ann Arbor, MIFollow him on @GoTCoWDotA.