A Cinderella story is a sight to behold in any competition, and Digital Chaos embodied that spirit at this year's International.
"To put it simply, it was surreal," said Shannon "SUNSfan" Scotten, founder and owner of Digital Chaos. "The players and I just felt numb about the whole experience."
DC was a fresh organization with a roster of outcasts, unknowns and few quality wins to claim. Yet the team took second at TI6, ousting some of the best names in Dota 2 and solidifying itself as a force to be reckoned with in the competitive landscape. But time goes on, and now Digital Chaos has to face the upcoming 2017 season. The reality is, DC isn't the underdog anymore; it has to grapple with the transition into the upper echelon.
New faces, same places
The most drastic change between then and now, at least in the public eye, has been the release of David "Moo" Hull from the roster. One of the top performers for the squad, Hull was let go not long after the roster-drop period started. Team captain and support player Rasmus "MiSeRy" Filipsen had reservations, but explained that the team ultimately made the call.
"I enjoyed playing with Moo a lot, and especially during TI6," Filipsen said. "It was a hard decision for me to make, especially because of my own experience from Secret, but we discussed it thoroughly in the team and concluded the decision of replacing Moo was for the better of the team's future."
Digital Chaos recruited another stellar offlaner, David "MoonMeander" Tan, to fill the spot, but have otherwise stuck together as a roster. The team is on break for the months of August and September, and will look to regroup in October to start boot camping.
"I don't really know which tournaments there is to attend the next months," Filipsen said. "But personally, I'm still hungry for more and I believe the team is as well."
As far as the hype goes, though, Filipsen is trying not to let the success at TI get to the team. He says he doesn't consider DC favorites for the next Major and that he's trying to make sure they "stay humble and try [their] best." What's changed for DC isn't on the inside, but how the team is perceived from the outside.
"What changed the most is probably the way the community, and maybe to an extent some pro players, look at me, and the way they think of me as a player," Filipsen said.
Vision for the future
Though the roster shuffle was far from drastic compared to most teams, a greater shift for Digital Chaos is coming in the form of a new coach, William "Blitz" Lee. A veteran of the scene in all roles, Lee is a high-profile grab for the organization. Having coached Team Liquid through its TI6 run, Lee detailed his negotiations with DC, describing the team as "a group of guys that just, on paper, look very easy to work with."
"What changed the most is probably the way the community, and maybe to an extent some pro players, look at me." Rasmus "MiSeRy" Filipsen
"I had a talk with them after TI had wrapped up," said Lee. "They pretty much told me they were looking for someone like me, if not me directly, to work with, and that sort of level of drive and commitment to what I do felt great."
Blitz describes coaching as "the closest [he] gets to being a competitive player." Leading the team to victory, consulting and advising, can lead to greater stakes in games and a greater emotional investment in competition. It's also simply more stable than being a caster. For the offseason, though, Lee is looking to focus on not just improving the play of DC, but the cohesion. He has been encouraging Filipsen, for example, to relax and play other games during the break, so he can focus 100 percent on Dota when the team reconvenes.
"Team cohesion is sort of my specialty, as far as coaching goes," Lee said. "Making sure that all the players are self-aware, and pushing themselves to be both better teammates and better people, is a focus that I think a lot of teams lack. Or it gets pushed under the actual Dota stuff."
For expectations, though, Blitz already has a few metrics in mind. "My bar is for the team to stay together until TI7 without any roster changes, or more importantly, feelings of misgivings or regret," Lee said. "Obviously the goal is to get to every Major or TI minimum, and after that we'll see where we can reach."
Lee, however, is no stranger to roster shuffles. He has competed on several teams, and bounced between being a caster and being a coach for a few organizations. When asked about his future with DC and the stability of the overall scene, he explains his hope to set a precedent.
"I've honestly never come across an organization that communicates the way [Digital Chaos] does with players and me," Lee said. "At every level so far in my discussions with the organization, I've been honest and they have obliged. I think more teams will look towards the things that we hope to employ this season, and focus more on working on the team's mental state. Doing so I feel is the key to not having roster shuffles."
Building a brand
While the success of TI has ramifications for the players, an even greater question is what that success means for the organization itself. Digital Chaos is a fresh brand, competing in a space filled with giants. What started as just an idea for Scotten is now a much larger reality than most could expect.
"The main thing for me would be validation," Scotten said. "Not necessarily from outside parties, but for myself. It is nice to know that this dream of becoming an owner of an esports team is legitimate. Despite some very real struggles early on, we've proven that this model can work and I'm very happy I can make a career out of it."
Scotten wants a player-first organization, a creed he reinforced in his retrospective on DC's first year. "I used to be a semi-pro Counter-Strike player back in the day, so I know a little bit about organizations being greedy," Scotten said. "Of course, everything has gone up in scale, so it's difficult to compare. But I've heard every horror story there is concerning organizations and player disputes. I just wanted to create something that was unique to what has currently become a norm in this industry."
There's always lessons learned, though. Scotten reflected on some of his decisions, and says he's always willing to consider new ways of doing things. He brought up the 100 percent prize pool cut for players as one area he wants to rethink, explaining his "initial thought process was correct; the organization should take a cut in this specific business model."
Most of the changes for DC, though, come in infrastructure: a new manager, Alyssa "Slotherina" Thompson; a web developer to handle website concerns; new sponsorships and more extensive merchandise. Scotten explains that brand awareness is the team's new mission, and it seems the groundwork is already being laid for Digital Chaos to grow into a major organization, alongside names like Evil Geniuses and Team Liquid.
"I hope to be among those names," Scotten said. "I honestly think we're in that category from inside the industry, but we're definitely not there yet in terms of public perception."
As far as other games go? "We'd like to expand to other games," Scotten said. "But we're not going to force it."
All of that is extraneous, though. Beyond expansion, practice regimens, a renewed focus and offseason prep, Digital Chaos is still, simply, a Dota team. An organization dreamed up by a Dota fan. A team that made a historic run at TI6. They don't seem like the type of team to let the success get to their heads. Digital Chaos might continue to play, and even continue to win or lose, but they will do so as Digital Chaos.
"I plan on staying the same," Filipsen said. "And hopefully, I will."