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Dream green: The rebuilding of OG's empire

Johan "N0tail" Sundstein is the carry for decorated Dota 2 team OG. OG has just won its third Valve Major. Oliver Ludlow for ESPN

"It's better than what I thought was going to happen, honestly."

That's how Johan "n0tail" Sundstein, one-role player and founding member of OG, described the outcome of the roster shuffle season. After every International, Dota 2 teams begin to unscramble and reassemble, piecing together new squads and losing dead weight in order to better themselves in response to the 2016 season. After a disappointing 9-12th place showing at TI6, OG was on tenuous ground.

"Post-TI shuffle is always weird," Sundstein said. "You can never try and fully predict what's gonna happen. You can have a couple of ideas and you might get some of them right. But it's just a very unpredictable thing. How it turned out, though, was pretty good in my opinion."

The former OG was an all-star team, the victor of two Majors and poised for the top. Now only Sundstein and captain Tal "Fly" Aizik remain; but in the gap left by the shuffle, the team has found new talent, and already took third at one international LAN. OG may have been wounded, but it continues to be a contender headed into the 2017 season.

Pocket aces

The key to OG's new look is its newcomers. Sundstein and Aizik are joined by three players who all bring their own quirks and abilities to the table. Jesse "JerAx" Vainikka is the most recognizable quantity, coming off a breakout season on Team Liquid to play four-role support. Sundstein described Vainikka as "one of the best support players of last year," but for Vainikka himself, he's still finding his footing on the squad.

While Vainikka returns to a comfortable role, Gustav "s4" Magnusson is challenging himself with a new venture into the offlane. It was a shift Magnusson said he's been thinking about for some time, but moving to OG gave him the chance to leave his comfort zone in the mid lane. "From my perspective, I view S4 as one of those guys that keeps track of the map," said Sundstein of Magnusson's new role. "I see him shine a lot more on heroes that punishes teams for a lack of focus, or when they split up, because he has such good control of what's happening everywhere, not just next to him. If I had to put a role on somebody who had that quality, what role would fit them best is offlane. Right now all the initiation happens from the offlane: Slardars, Clockworks, Nyx's, the jumpers are usually in the offlane. So for me, it's kind of natural. It's been very natural having S4 as an offlane player."

Magnusson echoes Sundstein's sentiments; the playstyle that he excels in lies more in the offlane, and so he's taking up the challenge. "For me, the offlane role and the heroes that are being played there fits me perfectly, so that's a big reason why I wanted to switch the lanes," said Magnusson. "I thought more about the heroes [themselves] rather than the lane when I made the decision. Playing it now, I'm enjoying the challenge to perform and show people that you can do something different with enough practice. I'm very hard on myself because I feel like that's how I will improve the most."

With two aces from other teams, it might be fitting that OG would seek a third. Instead, the team went in a different direction for the mid lane vacancy. A relatively unknown player at the time, 17-year-old Anathan "ana" Pham, was sitting on the Invictus Gaming bench when OG captain Aizik first took notice of him. After TI6, Aizik recalled the conversation and got in touch.

"I couldn't think of a veteran player who was not already on a team that I would be extremely happy in having, so having some new talent was the next go-to idea," Aizik said. "I wanted someone who is dedicated, talented and also daring. I saw all these qualities in [Pham], despite his young age."

Many players, especially in the mid lane, are young upstarts. Look at EG's Syed Sumail "SumaiL" Hassan or Abed "Abed" Yusop, who made a name for himself on Execration at TI6.

"When I was younger, I used to play [Pham]'s role," said Sundstein. "I was the guy who was gonna focus purely on mechanical skill, purely on my own read on the game. Back then, you aren't really trying to replicate scenarios as a player, at least not intellectually. You're doing it all instinctively. All you do is play. All you do is mechanics. You're, in a way, in-tune with the game, and that goes away the older you get."

Pham was the wild card for OG, so bringing him on was certainly a gamble for the team. He had some impressive showings against Newbee as a sub for IG, but lacked seasoned experience. For Pham, there's been some culture shock, from getting adjusted to American pubs (which he says are less team-oriented than Chinese pubs), to overcoming the distance he's traveled. Jumping from his homeland of Australia to China for a year with IG, and now to the West to play with OG.

"Homesickness strikes me occasionally, but I guess that's part of the job," said Pham. "When I first joined OG, it was quite a shock to myself. Entering that level of Dota is challenging for me. This is the first time I've played pro Dota in an English-speaking environment, and it's definitely much easier. There is a lot of room for me to improve, but I feel like my journey has been going really well."

Beyond the meta

These aces came together for a third-place finish at MDL, a solid outing for the team where it took games off Newbee, Team Secret, EG and Vici Gaming. Despite a 2-1 loss in the loser's finals to Evil Geniuses, Sundstein is content with his team's performance regardless of the outcome.

"All tournaments are unique," said Sundstein. "Our performance against the teams at MDL, the way we lost games, the way we won games, it was very good for me. I found myself being very happy after the tournament."

"All you do is play. All you do is mechanics. You're, in a way, in-tune with the game, and that goes away the older you get."

Johan "n0tail" Sundstein

Where OG will seek to improve over the coming weeks, and even throughout the year, looks very different from previous seasons. In many different patches, the game was defined by heroes that were strong on the patch, and the pros who could play them. All pro players nowadays have a strong understanding of the game and individual heroes. The mechanics aren't an issue anymore; it's what teams are doing once mechanical skill isn't a defining factor.

"What I think is really important for us is how to take it to the next level, in terms of getting on the same page, working on communication," said Sundstein. "And then the biggest thing, for me, is how you're feeling mentally, how you're mentally going to prepare yourself, work on atmosphere. These things are what I think is gonna matter most for us."

Even during the offseason, the players of OG have been hard at work. The last couple months since the conclusion of TI have been quiet from a tournament standpoint. This is usually a time when players might take time off. Sundstein says he's been working on renovating his new apartment, where he and his girlfriend will be staying. Furnishing, new locks, all the trials and tribulations of new property ownership - but he still finds time to boot up Dota 2.

"I don't think any pro player really escapes the game," said Sundstein. "They might want to take some time off, but I don't think any of the tier one players actually spend more than one week without playing a single game."

For players like Sundstein, Aizik and the rest of OG, they have reached the upper tier of Dota teams. The issues of the past, like making enough tournament winnings to survive or struggling to juggle competition with a day job to support yourself, are gone. There's only one goal in mind: the Aegis in Seattle. Already, OG is juggling scheduling, planning tournaments and boot camps.

Building a green dream

The unofficial motto for OG has been "Dream Green," a saying for fans to put their hopes towards the team's success. But the green dream has been something else for founding members Sundstein and Aizik, as well as manager Evany Chang. "It's been a lot harder than I anticipated," Sundstein said. "It's been very hard, trying to create an org that you want while being a player. But I stand by what we do. We did it to try and do the right thing, and going into tournaments with your own organization, knowing that you're not dealing with some people you might not want to be dealing with, it's a much nicer feeling. I do not regret what we did, but like I said, it's been a lot harder than I originally thought."

Sundstein has been in the scene for many years now, and has seen the ups and downs, the good and bad. For Sundstein, he has his own vision: an organization needs to have something to offer to players, to better them both inside and outside the game, and avoid taking advantage of its players. "An organization might poach one of the best teams, and give them half of what they deserve, or half of what the organization should be offering them," said Sundstein. "The organization might be making a lot of money off this one team, knowingly, but they get away with it because young players, young scene. This scholarship, this opportunity, isn't what it's supposed to be yet."

Team manager Chang, who has also dealt with hardships in the past, reiterated the team's drive to help players in the long run. She says she hopes to see OG establish itself among top names, such as EG and TL, with continued hard work from the organization.

When it comes to victories, though, Sundstein doesn't seem as dead-set on the prize. "The success will come. Winning is not everything," Sundstein said. "I think that's a stupid thing to say, because I feel like a lot of games are being ruined by this idea of points, ranked matchmaking systems, MMR, tournament placements, of being above others. I think that's becoming too much, and people are forgetting they're actually playing games."