The Great Chinese Collapse of the Shanghai Major

Chen "Hao" Zhihao of Newbee at the Frankfurt Major Steffie Wunderl/ESL

Earlier Wednesday morning, Newbee, playing with three International champions on the roster, became the last of five Chinese teams in a 16-team field to be eliminated from the Shanghai Major. No Chinese team will finish in the top eight at Shanghai, and it'll be the first time in Dota 2 history this has happened at a Valve-sponsored event. The utter collapse of Chinese teams in this tournament is simply mind-blowing, to the point that it is difficult to put this in perspective.

The Great Chinese Collapse was as unexpected as it was complete. EHOME were arguably the odds-on favorites coming into Shanghai, as they handily defeated The International 5 Champions Evil Geniuses 3-0 in the Grand Finals of the MarsTV Finals, an over $275,000 LAN event held six weeks ago in China. EHOME also defeated Frankfurt Major Champions OG in the Winner's Bracket Final of that event. Long-time Chinese powerhouse LGD, deprived of the direct invite to Shanghai that many expected, breezed through what was at the time considered a loaded field in the Chinese qualifiers for the Shanghai Major. LGD followed this by finishing in the top 4 at Star Ladder's Season 13 Finals earlier in January, after suffering a narrow 2-1 defeat to EG in a single-elimination playoff bracket, and repeated the feat at MarsTV.

Then disaster struck. At Shanghai, Chinese teams went 15-27 in individual matches (or maps), and only 8-17 (32%) against competition from outside China. Unbelievably, Chinese teams were only 2-11 in series (including the best-of-three series played in last week's GSL-format group phase, LGD's loss in the upper bracket and four best-of-one losses in lower bracket elimination matches) against non-Chinese opponents. Both series wins came against Archon, considered by many the weakest team in the field before the tournament began.

We have to start somewhere. The Dota 2 Asia Championships, held almost exactly one year ago, whose roughly $3 million prize pool was at the time the largest for an event outside The International, were at the time considered a massive disappointment for Chinese Dota 2. Nine teams in the 16-team field were Chinese (four directly invited, four qualifier slots and wild-card qualifier HGT). Only three of the nine finished in the top half of round robin play, and only two of the nine finished in the top six overall. Vici Gaming, at the time the top Chinese team, was shut out 3-0 by Evil Geniuses in the Grand Final. Newbee, who months before won The International 2014 and its nearly $11 million prize pool (then by far the largest in esports history), finished 2-13 in group stage matches, second to last in the field, and were eliminated from the tournament before the playoffs began.

DAC 2015 left the Chinese Dota 2 community searching for answers. Some in the scene claimed the Chinese New Year, which sees a one- to two-week or more shutdown of most of the country's commerce, partially responsible for the results. Most top pro Dota 2 teams "bootcamp," which means spending several weeks living together in intense practice prior to Major events such as Shanghai. The holiday period is certainly disruptive to this -- arguably much more so than an event beginning Jan. 2 would be for Western teams. Others blamed complacency, with well-publicized stories of Newbee's players spending late nights before the event playing MMORPGs, and logging little to no time playing Dota 2 over the prior weeks or even months.

Whatever the explanation, if DAC were disappointment, Shanghai is devastation. As with many of these tournaments, we can't meaningfully compare to Shanghai's 2-11 series record because the DAC group phase was played in a round robin format. But Chinese teams went 79-95 overall in matches (maps) at DAC, including 42-50 (46%) against teams from outside China (compare to 8-17, 32%, at Shanghai). As disappointing as Newbee looked, the top two Chinese finishers (VG and "all-star team" Big God) actually defeated all three of the top Western powers at the time (EG, Team Secret and Cloud9) in best-of-three series in the Winner's Bracket playoff. By contrast, only LGD appeared in a best-of-three playoff series at Shanghai and lost 2-0 to SEA Qualifier team MVP Phoenix in the two shortest matches (23 and 27 minutes) of the playoffs so far.

Some pro Dota 2 analysts still bring up Southeast Asian team MUFC's infamous 0-15 record at The International 2013. (I'm one of them, and we're mostly doing it to have a little fun with Chan Litt Binn, better known as "WinteR," who played on that MUFC team and is one of the best analytical casters out there currently.) Again, though, any comparison between SEA at TI3 and China at Shanghai is not even close. Two other SEA teams, Orange Esports and Zenith, both posted winning records at the same event. Orange finished third overall at the tournament, bowing out to runners-up Na'Vi in a thrilling 2-1 loss in the Loser's Bracket Final. A year later, fellow SEA team Arrow Gaming finished 2-13 at The International 2014, but here again, fellow SEA team Titan finished 8-7 in round-robin play and were eliminated by eventual champion Newbee in a rather odd tournament format.

As bad as Shanghai has looked for Chinese teams, it has quite possibly looked worse for China's superstar players. Xu "BurNIng" Zhilei, once accorded legendary status as the game's top all-time carry position player, had 23 kills and 23 deaths in six games. Throw out a 9-0 performance against SEA qualifier team FNATIC (in a series his team eventually lost), and he is averaging 2.8 kills and 4.6 deaths in the remaining five games. Ren "ELeVeN" Yangwei, EHOME's rising offlane superstar, posted his four lowest assist totals in 40 games played in the current patch in EHOME's games on opening day of the event, and he was reportedly hospitalized before their final series because of a tooth infection. He finished the event averaging 5.9 deaths per game, with the five highest totals among 80 players competing.

Perhaps worst of all, the Collapse leaves the Chinese Dota scene vulnerable at a critical time. The great roster shuffles that follow every Major -- which see teams remade, born and die as players search for their best possible chances at the next multi-million dollar event -- take on an unprecedented urgency after Shanghai. Because of the new Dota 2 Major cycle, players who commit to a roster will be locked in for the next two Valve-sponsored events, including the Spring Major in Manila as well as The International 2016, likely to be the third straight edition with an eight-figure prize. Chinese organizations, which had made strides recently in their development of young talent, will once again be forced to choose between aging superstars and untested but talented youngsters. There will be no free passes. Although it's early, after their performance at Shanghai, not a single Chinese team is a safe bet for a direct invite to Manila.

In just over a week at Shanghai, production and personnel problems have dominated coverage of the tournament. But the Great Collapse of Chinese teams at this event could very well have a much bigger impact on the country's Dota 2 scene going forward. It's difficult to find words for how shocking and unprecedented this is. We'll settle for three that Paul "ReDeYe" Chaloner used at Frankfurt: