Switching roles can be a challenge for even seasoned Dota veterans. Moving from one lane to another means adjusting your positioning, your mentality, your entire playstyle. Kanishka Sosale, known to friends as "Sam" and the Dota world as "BuLba," hasn't only changed roles this year; in fact, he has switched teams more than most players ever have in a single year.
Sosale, 25, has been a member of four different teams in 2016, culminating in his new role on Team Liquid as a support. It could be a challenge for anyone to make that radical of a switch, but Sosale doesn't just have experience on his side. Having acquired new skills while playing middle and offlane for many teams, he is prepared to make adjustments.
"I think playing support actually fits a lot of the strengths I've gained in the last year," Sosale told ESPN. "I think I'm fine playing all support heroes."
A rocky start
Sosale has had a tumultuous career in Dota. Despite being one of the most well-known veterans of the North American scene, the past few years have been checkered. The player who popularized offlane Clockwerk and who inspired the infamous "Liquid are doing it" catchphrase, has found himself between teams frequently this past year.
His season started at Digital Chaos, a small team at the time, where he played alongside Kurtis "Aui_2000" Ling. After a mixed season, an offer came to the two from Evil Geniuses, two days before the roster lock.
"That was a really hard decision," said Sosale. "Because we had something good going on with the team [DC]."
After thinking it over for a while, Sosale and Ling made the jump to Evil Geniuses, a team that Sosale felt was going well at the beginning. The team put up a solid performance at WePlay Dota 2 League Season 3, and spirits were high. Then came Epicenter.
"That's when we started drifting apart," said Sosale. "There was a lot of animosity between certain players on the team."
Sosale described to me a pressure-filled environment. There were aspirations to live up to, with the kind of talent EG had available if things went south, and the fifth-sixth finish at Epicenter didn't build any confidence.
"I felt some of the EG members didn't really care as much as they normally did before," said Sosale. "I thought they were kind of just waiting for Manila Major to end, so they could just replace one of us."
The team's 13-16th place Manila Major results cemented the inevitable. Changes needed to come for Evil Geniuses, and failure to achieve success at the Major "definitely contributed" to Ling and Sosale's release from the roster, as Sosale himself described it.
In the post-Manila trade, Sosale found himself at Team Secret, a roster that had suffered similar failures in Manila. He said Secret and EG shared another similarity: a growing sense of bad blood between teammates.
"Before I joined the team, there was a lot of animosity between certain members on our team too," said Sosale. "It's kind of shared, with EG and Secret, having personal conflicts on the team as we joined."
As he described it, animosity within teams "is usually related to whether teams are losing or not." When the wins are coming in, it's easy to be friends and compete together, but the greatest test of teams is how they react to defeat, especially for the five players on roster.
"It's harder to fix Dota teams, in general, than other sports teams," said Sosale, referring not just to other esports but to sports as a whole. Sosale describes the esports scene as being at an infant stage.
"There isn't the same infrastructure of support staff and management and coaches, so emotions and stuff can run amok more and ruin teams," said Sosale. "Unlike sports teams that are more professional than a young group of guys."
According to Sosale, players have most of the power in esports. Unlike traditional sports, coaches and management don't have as much say in matters. Despite this imbalance, bringing on Sosale and Ling as a coach helped ease tensions within the team. Sosale said that Secret was bonding, taking pictures together, going out to eat and playing games together.
The good times wouldn't last though, as the LAN losses began to stack up. The tipping point for Team Secret was, in Sosale's opinion, the StarLadder Grand Finals. Secret went into a finals series against Natus Vincere feeling confident, coming off the first half of their TI boot camp having beaten everyone the team scrimmed. The 3-1 loss to Na'Vi though, even though it was in the Grand Finals, tilted Secret.
"Suddenly, it [felt] like the team [was] really bad at dealing with losses," said Sosale. "There's just one second place, and all the stuff that happened before on the team came back. I could sense there's so much animosity between people; the atmosphere became way worse. It was harder to play for everyone."
"It was a cancerous environment," Sosale added.
An environment that carried over into the second half of Secret's TI boot camp. Sosale described the second boot camp week as "hell" and it was like "night and day" compared to the Secret before StarLadder. There was plenty of potential in Secret, according to Sosale, but the problems kept stacking up.
"I think our problem with the team was maybe there was too many egos on the team," said Sosale. "Too many people that, instead of just taking responsibility for what had happened, saying we just played bad as a team, they just point at each other instead. No one wanted to take blame for anything that went wrong. People didn't work together like they used to."
Scrims led to conflict, as multiple voices started speaking out after losses. The phrase "too many cooks in the kitchen" might be conservative in terms of the intensity in the air; Sosale told me there were two coaches and five players in the room, and "everyone had a different opinion on what went wrong."
"I don't like when people scapegoat each other on teams, because in the end, everyone can take some blame," said Sosale. "If you all take blame, it also helps build confidence for each other, and trust for each other, you know?"
The subsequent results at The International 6 spoke for themselves. Secret failed to live up to its potential, a performance Sosale describes as a "huge train wreck." The shot at the Aegis came and went for this all-star team, and thoughts began to drift to the fall roster shuffle.
Before all the drama, before the many other rosters, Sosale had made a name for himself on Team Liquid. Playing in the mid lane, his Tinker and Invoker were well-known and feared. Now he returns to Liquid to fill the four-five support role, an offer that surprised Sosale. He had been in talks with Jacky "EternaLEnVy" Mao, working to create what would become Team NP.
"I really liked EnVy, I love playing with him a lot and I really liked him as a person," said Sosale. "I was really good friends with [Theeban "1437" Siva] and Aui, as well. We just wanted to make a team of friends, and try and make a team that gets along with each other."
Sosale had heard rumblings about Jesse "JerAx" Vainikka's departure from TL for OG, but didn't know for sure until he was approached by Kuro "KuroKy" Salehi Takhasomi to fill the spot. Sosale found himself caught in a difficult situation, between a team of friends and returning to Liquid.
"I debated about it, and I just said, 'I'm going to do Liquid,'" said Sosale. "I really want to play with 'Kuro' and 'Mind_Control' and 'MATUMBAMAN'. At the time, we didn't know who our mid player was going to be, but I knew I really wanted to play with those three."
Now, Sosale is in a short break period before the 2017 season starts. He's preparing for a role he hasn't played in a long time, but the "BuLba" of today has grown a great deal.
"I've played the five position before, I've played support before, but I was really inexperienced," Sosale says about his early support play. Now, though, Sosale has learned and grown from his years in competitive Dota.
"I've been through all these teams and I know what my weaknesses are as well, so [I want to] work on those," said Sosale.
"I don't know, maybe it sounds like a big cliché," Sosale tells me. "But going through all these things, all these losses and defeats, really makes you think about stuff."
Though the fall has been unexpectedly quiet for him, "BuLba" has been busy playing in mixed scrims, honing his support skills and training for the upcoming season. He said he'll miss playing offlane, especially his Dark Seer and Sand King, but he's excited to play support and to rejoin the Liquid organization.
"A lot of the people I used to know before on the team are still the same," said Sosale. "So I have quite a bit of friends. All my favorite memories from Dota were from Liquid too."
Sosale has support from his captain "KuroKy" and managers like Mohamed Morad. He's training to hopefully co-captain alongside "Kuro," a role he feels confident in and wants to play in Liquid. The last year has been tumultuous for "BuLba," but a homecoming to Team Liquid seems to be the perfect fit for North American Dota's wayward son.