It's strange to think that a two-time Valve Major winning mid laner like Anathan "ana" Pham has yet to attain near universal praise. But that's just the kind of career Team OG's ana has had since day one. It's been a hard road of constant comparisons and criticism, despite the results that he pulls in. After all, it wasn't that long ago that the young mid laner was just beginning his career as a 16-year-old out of Melbourne, Australia, chasing the pro player dream.
"When I started playing pubs in Australia, there weren't very good pubstars so my laning was never the best," ana replied when asked about the difference between his playstyle and the explosive Syed Sumail "Suma1L" Hassan of Evil Geniuses.
In 2015, ana made the move to Shanghai in order to solidify that pursuit. A few months later, he joined Chinese club Invictus Gaming and almost immediately, he wound up playing second fiddle to the legendary Luo "Ferrari_430" Feichi. The moment that The International 2 champion returned to active form, ana was relegated to the bench.
"But I would always play these 1 vs. 5 pubs so I was more skilled in these teamfight skirmishes and late timing decision-making [and] fighting," he said. "Suma1l is a really good player. I look up to him since he's around my age, and has already won a TI."
Even as he messily exited Invictus Gaming (before giving the team a LAN win at the National Electronic Arena 2016), he was met with a brand new wave of unfavorable comparisons. His next team -- the Majors-crushing juggernaut that's known as Team OG -- just lost the most talented breakout star of 2016, Amer "Miracle-" Barkawi.
The criticism levied at ana from fans and pundits alike has been the enduring since he joined. Analysts desks, articles and reddit threads all focus on his creep score deficits in the early game, even as he posts impressive KDAs (kills/deaths/assists) en route to victories. But now, after winning two Majors, including what might be his first true test as a superstar mid laner in OG's Game 5 victory against Virtus.Pro in the finals of the Kiev Major, ana may have finally earned the right to set the terms of comparison.
"Individually, there are still some things to improve [in my playstyle] if you want the easiest games," ana said.
He has always played more of a macro-strategic role in OG's current run, especially since the majority of the gold distribution shifted to Johan "N0tail" Sundstein, which stands as a stark contrast to the Miracle-focused identity of OG just one year ago. While ana is able to play hard carry heroes like Troll Warlord or Medusa in the mid lane, he has always been more than happy to take a back seat and give up a favorable lane matchup as long as the overall hero draft remained strong.
"I guess the playstyle is fine if it's winnings games," he said. "I think that hero lineups are better than, say, having a winning matchup. Because if something bad happens, then the game usually just turns."
At Kiev, captain and drafter Tal "Fly" Aizik seemingly put his trust in ana, despite what critics said of his laning phase. Of the 25 games that OG played at the event, ana received 12 unfavorable head-to-head matchups (48 percent). In some cases, the matchups were extremely lopsided, such as pitting ana's Troll Warlord against Vladimir "No[o]ne" Minenko's Outworld Devourer in that pulse-pounding final match.
OG, however, compensated by giving him a greater focus on the macro-strategy of their draft. Against Team Random, OG gave ana Ember Spirit against Lina in the mid lane, but blunted the otherwise murder lane for the Ember Spirit by drafting a Treant Protector to shield him in the laning phase.
As a result, ana lost spectacularly in the early game but also came back from the deepest deficits to rally his team to victory. His now immortalized run at Kiev, where OG faced heavy losses against VP in their deciding match, characterized his style: that of the mid laner who could hold the line and MacGyver a win condition from hopeless situations.
Last week, OG and ana faced their first test on the road to The International 7. The Manila Masters represented a unique challenge to the young mid laner. While the caliber of the tournament was certainly high, Evil Geniuses ended up walking away with the title. Team OG might have fallen out early, but they're playing for the long haul. If ana's story is any indication, he seems up for the challenge come August. He's come a long way from being the bench warmer to world-class mid laner. After all, ana has finally found his own style. It's his turn to set the terms of comparison.