Just as the dust seems to have settled from The International, another major is right around the corner. Set in Boston, taking place in the Wang Theater, the first major of the 2017 competitive Dota 2 season will host 16 teams vying for a $3 million prize pool and the first title win of the new year.
Boston will do more than just break in the new year, though. Changes to the format, offseason roster swaps, and a shift of balance in the strong regions has skewed perceptions of the scene going into the major. Though it's only been a few short months since The International, those months can feel a lot longer in Dota time, and a lot can change in that period.
Who's poised to succeed, and what's changed the most since the grand finals in Seattle? For 16 teams set to play this weekend, here's some of the big storylines to watch.
One shot, one opportunity
One of the most talked about changes heading into the Boston Major is the move to a single-elimination bracket. While a group stage will still determine the seeding for the main event bracket, teams will only have one life to live on the main stage, always one series from the next step or a quick exit.
This benefits the logistics of the tournament; a single-elimination bracket means less games per day, so 12 hours or more watching Dota will be the exception rather than the norm. It will also likely have little change on the final outcome. Though Evil Geniuses at TI5 is the obvious answer, several voices in the community have already noted that more often than not, the team that comes into the grand finals from the upper bracket usually wins. A single-elimination bracket also frees the tournament up a little more for larger series, so best-of-one elimination matches will no longer be held in the first round.
For teams in the middle of the pack though, single-elimination means a harder shot at earning a greater share of the prize pool. While the grand finals might still determine the "best team," many squads that have fought up through the lower bracket to make a higher split will be snubbed by single-elims. Teams like Digital Chaos and Team NP have made a name for themselves, fighting through the lower bracket to earn the larger prize pool split and finish, and that opportunity will be lost with single-elimination in Boston.
New teams, same players
The offseason saw a great deal of changes among top rosters, with only Wings Gaming keeping its TI6 lineup together. Some of these are more obvious adjustments, like David "MoonMeander" Tan joining Digital Chaos, or prodigal son Artour "Arteezy" Babaev returning to Evil Geniuses. These are surface-level replacements, seeking to either fill a retired player's spot (the latter) or switch out a player who wasn't clicking with team (the former).
More significant are the major changes, like Evil Geniuses' Peter "ppd" Dager moving into a management position, replaced by former OG support Andreas "Cr1t-" Nielsen. A TI-winning captain making way for a new EG was a huge move for the team, but so far it has been a clear fit, with Evil Geniuses taking a win at the MarsTV Dota 2 League 2016 Autumn finals and third place at The Summit 6. Nielsen's former squad, OG, also made significant adjustments, though those cogs haven't clicked quite yet. Rookie mid-laner Anathan "ana" Pham's performance varies from match to match, and the team had erratic performances against the uppermost tier of teams.
The most interesting shift has been in the new substitution rules, which allow teams to sub in players prior to the major, so long as they are not locked into a squad that has already qualified for Boston. MVP Phoenix used the new rule to bring back Lee "Forev" Sang-don to fill the one-role carry position, and Complexity was forced to utilize the sub rule after the sudden departure of Justin "jk" Rosselle. Whether these last minute changes will click or not remains to be seen.
Changing of the guard
If you haven't been watching Dota 2 since the grand finals of TI6 in September, the biggest surprise coming into the Boston Major will be how many recognizable teams are absent. Team Liquid, Team Secret, Alliance, Fnatic, Vici Gaming and Invictus Gaming all missed the mark for Boston, falling in the qualifiers.
It's representative of a gradual shift in the scene, as smaller teams have begun to close the gap with established giants. If you've been on Dota blackout, you won't recognize squads like Virtus.Pro, despite its dominant first-place finish at the recent Summit. Team NP has made waves in North America, even taking series against EG and DC, and Team Faceless has looked strong against traditional Southeast Asian favorites like Fnatic and MVP Phoenix.
More than likely, the team that wins Boston could be a first-time major winner. Though the upper-tier of teams like Wings, EG and OG still perform on a consistent basis, it's just as likely that Team NP, EHOME, Virtus.Pro or Team Faceless could go home with the first major title of 2017. Many of these squads boast veteran players of the scene, from Daryl "iceiceice" Koh Pei Xiang and Jacky "EternalEnVy" Mao to the CIS all-star lineup of VP.
There are no guarantees in Dota 2, and over the next week in Boston, there will be no surefire bets on winners. In a single-elimination bracket, with new squads looking to prove themselves and old guards adjusting to new lineups and playstyles, anything is possible. The first major of the 2017 season, and the last major held on patch 6.88, will start on Dec. 3, and likely set the tone for the season to come.