There and Back Again: Clement "Puppey" Ivanov and Team Secret - Part 1

Team Secret at the Shanghai Major, left to right: Jacky "EternaLEnVy" Mao, Aliwi "w33" Omar, Clement "Puppey" Ivanov, Rasmus "MiSeRy" Filipsen, Johan "pieliedie" Åström Tim Franco for ESPN

Clement "Puppey" Ivanov cuts an imposing figure. On stage, he stands 6 feet, 5 inches, easily the tallest player on any top-tier Dota 2 team. He has shed the Fabio-style locks he sported early in his career for a distinctive, cerebral mien, his brown hair (just a hint of curls now) close-cropped and wide face dominated by professorial glasses.

But it is in game where his visage is most distinctive, and where his list of accomplishments truly towers over competitors. He has won 299 career games (maps) in pro Dota 2 LAN events, fourth most all-time and more than 60 more than the next closest Western player. Of the 28 players on that list with more than 200 wins, only three, Ivanov and fellow super-captains Zhang "Xiao8" Ning and Gustav "s4" Magnusson, boast win rates of better than 65 percent. Of the seven Valve-sponsored Dota 2 tournaments since the game's birth (four Internationals held in Seattle, one in Germany and, new this year, two Majors in Frankfurt and Shanghai), Puppey has appeared in an incredible five grand finals, two more than any other player (his former Natus Vincere teammates Danil "Dendi" Ishutin and Alexander "XBOCT" Dashkevich have three each).

Early on Sunday, March 6, Ivanov stood on stage in Shanghai and held aloft a trophy fashioned in the likeness of a crystal Mystic Staff to the delight of a roaring Chinese crowd. It is his 34th pro Dota 2 tournament win, more than any other active player (Gustav "s4" Magnusson has 32). It is quite possibly his most unlikely. And it is this win that makes him, almost undoubtedly by a wide margin, the greatest captain in professional Dota 2 history.

The all-stars that weren't

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Eight months ago, Team Secret stormed into Seattle as near-prohibitive favorites at The International 2015, which at more than $18 million boasted by far the richest prize pool in esports history. Their roster was a professional Dota 2 all-star team, featuring, at the time, the four highest win percentage players ever with 100-plus Dota 2 LAN games played (Ivanov, Magnusson, Artour "Arteezy" Babaev and Ludwig "Zai" Wåhlberg). Secret's fifth player, Kuro Salehi "KuroKy" Takhasomi, had been Puppey's support partner for two years with Na'Vi, and founded Team Secret with Puppey after the pair's departure following TI4.

"Against the odds, Secret become the most consistently successful team in last year's post-TI period."

Kuroky is himself considered one of the most versatile players and finest leaders on the professional scene, and his career is linked inextricably with Puppey's. Coming into TI5, Secret had won an unprecedented four straight LAN events in three months against international competition.

Their run began in San Francisco with a dramatic 3-2 victory at the RedBull Battle Grounds against Invictus Gaming. Their roster at the time featured arguably the most decorated carry (Xu "BurNIng" Zhilei), mid (Luo "Ferrari 430" Feichi) and support duo (Wong Hock "ChuaN" and Zeng "Faith" Hongda) in Chinese Dota 2 history. The streak culminated in Germany with a dominating 3-1 win at ESL One Frankfurt over an Evil Geniuses squad that just months before won the Dota 2 Asia Championships, at more than $3 million the largest prize pool ever outside of The International. By late July, Dota 2 fans and analysts alike virtually vibrated with expectations of a Secret vs. EG rematch in the TI5 final.

The rematch never materialized. Plagued by drafting and personal issues, Secret suffered a lopsided 2-0 defeat to rising Chinese power EHOME in the winner's bracket of the main event. After clawing out a 2-1 win over the same iG squad they'd beaten in May, they were upset 2-1 by CIS team Virtus Pro, which put up little resistance in a 2-0 series loss to LGD. Arteezy, viewed by many as the most talented player in the game, appeared to engage in a shouting match with KuroKy on stage inside the team's booth. Secret, the presumptive favorites, left the main event as barely a footnote, with only three wins in eight matches, finishing in a tie for seventh place in a 16-team field.

The aftermath of TI5 was, if anything, even more devastating for Secret and its fans than their failed tournament run. Post-mortems focused around questions about the team's leadership. S4 had taken over drafting responsibilities from Puppey earlier in the summer, which at the time seemed to key the team's remarkable LAN run. After TI5, arguably his poorest career performance on a major stage, s4 was released from the team. He eventually resumed leadership of the Alliance squad he captained to victory over Puppey's Na'Vi team at The International 2013. In a shocking announcement, Zai, regarded by some as a talent equal to or perhaps even greater than Arteezy, declared he would take time off from competitive Dota 2 to finish school. Arteezy and KuroKy continued their conflict after the tournament, escalating on streams and social media. Artour soon announced his return to Evil Geniuses, while Kuro left the team to assemble a promising young roster that would eventually become the current Team Liquid. Of the five all-stars, only Puppey remained.

For all his accomplishments to that point, Puppey faced serious questions about his record as captain. Though a champion of the first International in 2011, Puppey had joined Natus Vincere only months before, leaving a GG.net team he'd shared with KuroKy (who would later rejoin Puppey on Na'Vi's roster prior to TI3).

Na'Vi were given their Dota 2 beta keys only three weeks before the event, and Ivan "Artstyle" Antonov, not Puppey, captained the team in their spectacular undefeated TI1 run. Despite leading Na'Vi to two more back-to-back Internationals Grand Finals in 2012 and 2013, Puppey's squad would lose both series, 3-1 to iG and 3-2 to Alliance. Puppey's signature drafting style, often deliberately allowing opposing teams to pick their signature heroes or strategies, was criticized following both events.

The year before, in 2014, Puppey had captained a fractured Na'Vi squad to a seventh/eighth-place finish in a 16-team field, losing to a Cloud9 squad captained by Jacky "EternaLEnVy" Mao and stabilized by Johan "pieliedie" Åström's steady support play. It would be Puppey's final series with Na'Vi; he and KuroKy announced their departures immediately after the event, founding Team Secret shortly thereafter. In the nearly two years since, Na'Vi has never again found the level of success they enjoyed with Puppey on their roster. TI5 marked Puppey's second straight seventh/eighth-place finish at The International. And, for a second straight year, his team fell apart afterward.

Rebuilding turned reloading

Following TI5, Team Secret embarked on what many assumed would be a lengthy rebuilding phase. Puppey recruited former C9 teammates pieliedie, EternaLEnVy, and Rasmus "MiSeRy" Filipsen, and, after allegedly being turned down by at least one (possibly several) more prominent players, settled on Aliwi "w33" Omar to play the critical mid-lane role. While the previous Team Secret was an all-star team, this roster was far from decorated. EnVy and MiSeRy had disappointed themselves at TI5, finishing in the bottom half of the field on a C9 squad that, despite being highly rated by many coming into the tournament, failed to win a single match at the main event.

"For all his accomplishments to that point, Puppey faced serious questions about his record as captain."

EternalEnVy, "EE-sama" to his fans, is himself one of the most colorful and controversial figures in pro Dota 2. If he, in some ways, epitomizes the gamer stereotype (he is a self-described Otaku, extreme introvert, and often socially awkward). He also typifies the other, usually untold part of that stereotype: He's a tremendously smart former engineering student with a singular focus and an impressive analytical mind. EnVy's career began in 2012 with the founding of No Tidehunter, a talented but relatively unseasoned squad.

Shortly after their first public appearances, their roster featured four Swedish stars, including s4, and the Canadian EnVy. Despite surprising success, with first-place finishes in five of the eight Dota 2 tournaments in which they competed, EnVy was released from the roster in February 2013. Six weeks later, the then all-Swedish roster renamed itself Alliance and dominated The International 2013, going 20-1 in the tournament before triumphing 3-2 against Puppey's Na'Vi in the Grand Finals.

Widely perceived as a phenomenal talent, EternalEnVy remained a polarizing figure. At the time he joined Secret, he had only one career victory in a major LAN, which came in late 2013 at MLG Columbus, and was a coming out party for budding young superstar Arteezy, who played as a last-minute stand-in for the team and showed dominant individual form. The team, sponsored officially several months later by Cloud9, became (in)famous for a string of second-place finishes in high-profile tournaments. Though subsequently praised by teammates for his leadership role on Cloud9, EnVy's individual numbers were mediocre at best for a top carry-position player, and his individual in-game decisions were labeled inconsistent by many critics.

Secret's other three acquisitions also stirred debate among pro Dota 2 insiders. MiSeRy, a veteran player who entered the pro Dota scene in 2008 and served a brief stint with Secret in late 2014 and early 2015, was himself the subject of controversy after the announcement that he would be switching to the difficult off-lane role after several years playing mostly support.

Pieliedie, who had been replaced by MiSeRy on Cloud9's roster in January 2015, had also played professional Dota since the late 2000s, but like EnVy, the MLG Columbus win with EnVy and Artour was by far the biggest on his résumé. W33, a 20-year old Syrian-born Romanian citizen, was known to many (perhaps even most) fans by the derisive nickname "w33fresh," gained after an unfortunate cheating incident in a high-level European in-house league match earlier in the year (the game was a "vouching match," viewed by some players as a formality, and did not impact standings in the league).

Against the odds, Secret became the most consistently successful team in last year's post-TI period. After their new roster's controversial direct invite to ESL: New York in October, the squad defeated FNATIC and TI5 runners-up CDEC, falling 2-1 in the finals to the surprising young CIS team, Vega Squadron. W33 showed flashes of real brilliance on Windrunner as well as his signature Meepo. MiSeRy's initially shaky off-lane play quickly solidified, with his stellar Slardar play cementing the hero throughout the scene as one of the top picks in the off-lane role.

EnVy, seemingly beginning to realize the potential many had seen in him, nearly single-handedly brought Ember Spirit back into the metagame as a viable safe lane carry, compiling a gaudy 17-4 record on the hero. Secret followed their second-place showing in New York with back-to-back wins at elite international LANs: over top Chinese team Vici Gaming at the Nanyang Championships and over TI5 Champion Evil Geniuses at the MLG World Finals in New Orleans. Pieliedie's support play is as steady as ever, and the notoriously stoic Swede finally shows joy on stage, wrapping Puppey in a bear hug after the team's win in Nanyang. Despite the latter's previous captaincy, Puppey, not EnVy, is the undisputed leader of the team, which showed consistent excellence in both drafting and in-game decision-making, the twin calling cards of the game's great captains.

By November, Secret, unbelievably, once again sat atop the Dota 2 world. They are again the favorites (perhaps co-favorites with EG), this time at the Frankfurt Major, the first-ever Dota 2 Valve-sponsored tournament, besides the first International, held outside of Seattle (aside/footnote: The Dota 2 Asia Championships, held early in 2015, were hosted by Valve's Chinese distribution partner Perfect World). And this time, they don't disappoint. They finished at the top of their group, and roll through the winner's bracket, reprising their victories over VG and EG in dramatic 2-1 series.

They played beautiful Dota, dominating on the same heroes who won them two straight events, with a few surprises, including EnVy's Huskar and pieliedie support Tiny, thrown in to wow the German crowd. By the event's final day, they sat awaiting the winner of EG vs. OG in the lower-bracket final. OG, like Secret a talented roster formed in the wake of TI5, featured Johan "BigDaddyN0tail" Sundstein and Tal "Fly" Aizik, two of the founding members of Team Secret with Puppey and KuroKy, as well as budding young superstar Amer "Miracle" al-Barqawi, an 8k MMR pub phenom rumored to have been among the most desirable players in the post-TI5 roster scramble.

Once again, it is not to be for Puppey and his squad. OG stun EG in the loser's bracket final, 2-1, denying a much anticipated rematch. The Grand Finals quickly turned sour for Secret, with their support Tiny strategy failing disastrously in the opening match in a 32-minute loss. Game 2 is hard-fought, and at more than 65 minutes the third longest of the event, but OG prevail behind Miracle on Alchemist.

Secret managed to beat Miracle's already near-legendary Shadow Fiend in game 3, but OG go back to it in Game 4, and this time, Secret run out of answers. Like the opening match, Game 4 ends before 35 minutes, and OG become the Frankfurt Major Champions. The three ex-Cloud9 players on Secret's roster once again finished in second place. It is the third time (in only five tries) that Puppey has captained a team to the Grand Finals of a multimillion-dollar Valve sponsored event. It was also his third straight loss.

Stay tuned for part two of There and Back Again - Clement "Puppey" Ivanov and Team Secret tomorrow, where Nahaz explores Team Secret post-Frankfurt and chronicles the first phase of their dramatic run in Shanghai.