Western European juggernauts Tundra Esports had one of the most dominant championship runs in Dota 2 history during The International 11 (TI11) back in October in Singapore.
On their way to raising the Aegis of Champions and claiming the US$8.5 million grand prize, Tundra never lost a single match and only dropped five games; four in the Group Stage and just one in the Main Event. They capped off their victory march with a resounding 3-0 sweep over Team Secret in the Grand Finals.
It was only the second time that a TI Grand Final ended in a 3-0 sweep, with the first being Team Liquid's sweep over Newbee in TI7.
In a press conference held on Wednesday (23 November), Tundra offlaner Neta "33" Shapira said they expected hard games in the finals "but apparently the hard games just never really came".
"You always want to plan for a really hard series, obviously we also watched Team Secret come from the lower bracket so they had momentum on their side," said 33.
"Even after the first and second games, we always kept telling ourselves, 'Guys, we won this game because we had the better draft, we had the better this and that, it doesn't matter. Expect a hard game next time'. We expected hard games, yeah, but apparently the hard games just never really came."
Carry player Oliver "skiter" Lepko and position 4 support Martin "Saksa" Sazdov echoed their offlaners' sentiments. Skiter said he expected the finals to be "closer than it was" while Saksa said the team "never really thought about winning" even as they were on the cusp of ultimate victory.
"I expected the finals to be closer than it was. For me, personally, I enjoyed other series we played in the tournament more than the finals," said skiter.
"In the Main Event, honestly, most of the games didn't feel that tough. It was just smooth sailing," added Saksa. "During the whole competition we never really thought about winning. Even in the third game of the finals while we were winning, we were just focused on the game itself."
Tundra's players admitted they found more satisfaction in some of their earlier matches of the Main Event, even if they did sweep those ones too.
The team opened the Main Event by sweeping regional rivals OG, made short work of Chinese powerhouse Team Aster, then defeated Secret, 2-1, in the upper bracket finals to punch their ticket to the Grand Finals.
"Our series against OG in the upper bracket was the most fun series of the tournament," said Tundra midlaner Leon "Nine" Kirilin.
"We weren't really winning those games in the laning stage and I was just playing one of my favourite heroes, Spirit Breaker. This is how I always imagined how I will play at TI, having fun with my team, and that's how that game felt like."
"To me, personally, I felt the game the most in those two series [versus OG and Aster]. I'll never forget about those four games because I think I played my best in those series. I think our level of play was the highest then, at least mine was," added skiter.
Putting in the work
But make no mistake, Tundra's dominance at TI11 was the result of a rollercoaster season and a year-long grind to prepare for the biggest tournament in the game.
Throughout the 2021-2022 Dota Pro Circuit (DPC) season, Tundra were one of the strongest teams in Western European regional league — which we now know is by far the best in the circuit.
The eventual TI champions finished third in the Winter Tour, fourth in the Spring Tour, and first in the Summer Tour.
But the season didn't come without its challenges for Tundra.
Despite coming in as heavy favourites in the ESL One Stockholm Major, they only finished in third place.
They then seemingly crumbled in the tournaments leading up to TI11, finishing 7th-8th at the Riyadh Masters 2022 and 15th-16th at the PGL Arlington Major.
Tundra never thought that the issue was with their gameplay or strategies, after all, they had some of the brightest and most innovative minds in their roster. Instead, they fell apart because their mental game couldn't handle the pressure.
Because of that, Tundra focused on improving their mentality ahead of TI11 and worked with a sports psychologist.
"I think it's an accumulation of knowledge gathered over the course of the time we've played on this roster together. It's like a machine that you keep on building on, with each loss and win, you try to fix and improve it going into the future," said skiter.
"And then when we were done building the machine we focused on the mental aspect and then during TI, we already put in so much work and so much time, so we were all like, 'Let's just see how it goes'. And apparently we did a very good job."
Tundra's stronger mental game, aside from helping them combat the overwhelming pressure of playing in Dota 2's biggest stage, also empowered their gameplay. According to 33, Tundra were always confident that their drafts and strategies were always superior.
"[Our victory] was mainly because we got drafts we were really comfortable with. At least, for me, I always had my best comfort heroes, so I felt like the game was under control even when we were slightly behind at some points. We were so confident in our drafts that we were not worried at all," said 33.
"We just played with the mindset that nothing can really go wrong, we have a good draft and we're gonna beat them no matter what."33
For Tundra coach Kurtis "Aui_2000" Ling, winning the Aegis by sweeping Secret of all teams only affirms all the hard work the team put in.
"I was really happy winning against Secret and Clement "Puppey" Ivanov in the Grand Finals because, for me, Secret has always been my favorite team. Puppey is also my personal pick as the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) of Dota, so I'm really proud that my players could take this team down and it was really insane watching them grow throughout the tournament," said Aui_2000.
An Aegis raised, a dream made real
And once Tundra forced the final GG call from Secret, with the fireworks exploding around them and the crowd roaring in celebration, the players said they were overwhelmed with emotions.
"I felt over the moon, I was so blissful and happy that we've won," said team captain Jingjun "Sneyking" Wu.
"I think what winning TI meant in front of the whole crowd was it proved that all the years you've spent in the game, practicing and training hard for this moment, was not done in vain and we were finally able to prove ourselves. That's the best feeling you can get from any competitive sport."
"Honestly I was very overwhelmed by winning. I didn't really understand everything that was going on because it all happened so fast," said Nine.
"It's just like you played for this moment for so many years, and then when it happened, I felt like was still playing. I was just overwhelmed and it was hard to grasp, honestly, it took a while before I really understood what was going on."
"The feeling that you're the best team in the world, and therefore one of the best players as well, it's surreal," added skiter.
For 33 and Saksa, raising the Aegis was once just a seemingly-impossible dream they have been working towards throughout their entire careers. Having it become a reality was simply a dream come true.
"It's amazing, it's what you work towards for pretty much your whole Dota career. It's like a distant dream, I always thought it was like, "Yeah, this is the goal." But it's almost impossible. You had 20 teams at TI11 and only one gets to win, it always looks unreal to me. It's like a dream come true and it was an amazing feeling," said 33.
"It's something we've all been striving for in the last 10 years, maybe even more. So I guess the best way to describe it is that it's a dream come true for all of us," added Saksa.
For Aui_2000, who had already won the Aegis as a player at TI5, "there's nothing quite like" seeing his players raise their own Aegis knowing all that they had to go through to get to this point.
"It's an accumulation of an entire year's hard work in Dota. You get to compete at TI, and to win it affirms all that hard work," said Aui_2000.
"I'm a coach so it's a bit different than being a player, but getting to see your players lift [the Aegis of Champions] is a different feeling because you're so proud of them and what they accomplished. There's nothing quite like it."
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