The state of NA Dota: An ixmike88 interview

Dota 2 Geoffrey “SophoS” Magdziasz

Historically, North American Dota has been a bit behind the curve relative to other regions like Europe and China. The region has been the subject of scrutiny by online “reddit experts”, some accusations being warranted but others enveloped in extensive exaggeration. Let’s delve into these accusations and investigate the state of NA Dota to determine whether these charges are warranted or not.

Most recently, the NA International Qualifiers were a scathing example of roster inconsistency undermining the quality of Dota that the NA region is capable of displaying to the world. As we all know, the NA main qualifiers showcased fewer teams than any other region. Roster volatility forced some of NA’s best teams to fight in the open qualifiers, including NA’s juggernaut – Evil Geniuses. EG was never in any danger of missing the main qualifiers, but there were quite a few teams within the open qualifiers competent enough to give teams like Digital Chaos and compLexity a run for their money, but were never given the opportunity. Some blame Valve’s governing body for this, but it’s important to remember that the rules exist for a reason and they must be followed. If we find flaws in these rules as we have just discovered then it’s imperative to change these rules to prevent the same mistakes from happening again.

There are a handful of solutions to fix what happened in the NA main qualifiers regarding the rules. In the scenario of fewer teams being directly invited to the main qualifiers, the open qualifiers will allow both finalists in the grand finals to move into the main qualifiers and not just the victor. Similar changes can be made in the first or second open qualifier stages to the extent which is necessary to fill the main qualifier slots. Michael 'ixmike88' Ghannam put forth an excellent idea in our interview. The problem inherently wrong with the qualifiers is the roster lock deadline. Ghannam calls for a reduction of the traditional six month roster lock to a two to three month window and an increase in the “trade window” after a major ends. He further says that these current restrictions only “hurt the players, viewers and tournament quality.”

The NA region has an infamous reputation for their roster inconsistency. Individual players within the NA region are a bit more trigger happy to make the changes they deem necessary, but for the most part the NA region is not any different from the other regions. This is in fact the first time this occurrence has happened to the region. Other teams, such as Vici Gaming, Team Secret and TNC Gaming were all forced to go through open qualifiers for this year’s International due to roster changes. The only difference between the NA region and others is that there are many more formal teams to take their place. There is a significant lack of sponsorships within the NA region.

The lack of sponsorships forces NA players to juggle around Dota 2, school and jobs leaving very little time for anything else

This forces professional Dota 2 players to create last minute rosters to compete in the premiere tournament, something that can be quite a disadvantage for a tournament with a six month roster lock. The lack of sponsorships forces NA players to juggle around Dota 2, school and jobs leaving very little time for anything else. This same problem is felt within all regions for most tier two teams but is much more prevalent in the NA region. The problem has much less to do with the teams in the NA region and more so with the overall institution. The NA region does not have a lack of talented players waiting for their time to conquer the international stage. It has a lack of sponsorships to maintain the cohesion necessary to take them there.

How can we attract more sponsors, so players may focus solely on their craft? Unfortunately, there is no one answer fix all to this question. Luring sponsors to a team is a long and arduous task. Seldom does a sponsor approach a region proactively and assemble a roster and certainly not for a base salary. More often than not it takes a group of players to come together, qualify for tournaments and then perform in these tournaments to earn a sponsorship.

To get the ball rolling, a major contributor of bringing these players together is in-house leagues. In-house leagues offer players the bridge to be able to go from high MMR pub stompers to calculated and strategic team players via heightened competition. Leagues like NADotA Elite League (NEL) and FACEIT have played an important role in the NA region and all regions for that matter. Arteezy, EternalEnvy, Zai, Cr1t, MoonMeander, SumaiL and more all got noticed and built relationships with each other as a result. While some get recruited by tier one teams, these tools are imperative to tier two teams for recruiting a winning formula to further their quest for sponsorship. Others simply come together as a group of five that built some comradery with one another.

Putting all reasons, or excuses as some would call them, for the current state of NA Dota aside, there is one message that should be learned from recent experiences. To those that might be a bit too trigger happy for change, success cannot always be achieved overnight. More often than not, you need to work for your worth. Any team, in any sport, will have differences from time to time. Winners come out of these differences unified and stronger than ever before. NA Dota has a chance here and now to come out of this experience as winners. Accountability is a crucial building block for success. At a time when the skill gap is closing exponentially, teamwork has proven to be the driving force for elite teams.

Below we have an interview with ixmike88 to explore his development and history of NADotA Elite League, how it functions, the motives behind it and more on the state of NA Dota. GosuGamers is grateful for him agreeing to sit down with us as well as the projects he has taken on to improve NA Dota and the professional Dota 2 communities. Ixmike88 and those that carry responsibilities like him are the silent champions that push the game to the heights it has achieved today.

image source: @ixmike88

Many would say that NEL was the main factor for the NA scene’s growth, and now we have players like Envy, Zai, Arteezy, Cr1t, MoonMeander and so on playing for EU teams after making a name for themselves through the league. NEL history goes way back, in the Warcraft III era, what was the motivation back then to create an inhouse league?

I found out about inhouse leagues, namely "IHL", created by Ucross. I really enjoyed the concept of everyone taking games more seriously with no leavers and no easy mode.

I was casually playing DotA back in 2006. When I started to take it more seriously, I found out about inhouse leagues, namely "IHL", created by Ucross. I really enjoyed the concept of everyone taking games more seriously with no leavers and no easy mode. A few years later, the league stopped being active and the community believed that new leagues had to take its place. Plenty of leagues have risen and fallen since then but I started leagues in Warcraft after programming a league script with Stealth Bot in 2009, I believe. My friend, Whd.Mark, helped me programmed it and administrated the league with me, and I probably wouldn't have created NEL or IXDL if not for him.

To what extent would you describe Aaron Stern's involvement?

In late 2013, after TI3. IXDL and NEL were pretty active, especially due to the frustration that match making was heavily unmoderated and ranked had not existed at the time. I knew NEL could be something greater, with tickets, casters, and proper advertising, but it was something I was not familiar with and something that Aaron was very good at. He helped make NEL what it is today through managing casters, marketing, and other production aspects.

Last year ixdl and NEL moved to FACEIT, what happened exactly with the leagues after that?

I thought FACEIT was the best choice for both myself and the community. I found IXDL to be an overwhelming amount of work with all of the other things I wanted to do and FACEIT has a large amount of resources and money they're willing to invest into inhouse leagues. However, due to the huge amount of LANs in the summer along with constant practice that the teams do, it's hard to maintain constant activity month in and month out, so FACEIT has decided to take a break until after TI6. My intention with NEL is to just be a casual place for competitive players to play until then.

After the not so bright run of the NA teams for the TI6 qualifiers you’ve been asked to restart NEL, and here it is, live and kicking, can you walk us through the entire process? What are the monetary requirements to run a league like this, who helps you now etc?

All of the programming for IXDL is done, so bringing NEL back was as simple as turning on a switch. I am quite hesitant because of how much time it takes to handle vouches and make sure everything is always running smoothly, but due to the increasing demand I decided to take on the responsibility. The only monetary requirements are the server fees. As of now, NEL is ran only by myself. As a result of NEL being active, the NA Open league has been revitalized and is currently ran by my long time friend Saptz.

How does the ranking system work in NEL?

The ranking system uses a modified ELO system, similar to that of matchmaking. You gain and lose 40 points per game, when the team's ratings are even. If one team is much stronger than the opponent, they will receive less points if they win, and lose more if they lose. There are other ways to gain points, such as by having win streaks, or breaking win streaks, along with some other "fun" things.

The skill gap between players is closing quickly. Does your league focus on taking skill a step further or does it focus more on teamwork?

I think it does a little bit of both. It takes skill a step further in that the games are much higher quality than that of matchmaking, so that learning becomes easier and faster. The games are also Captain's Mode, which mimics scrims and matches, instead of All Pick, creating a more realistic environment for players. It also focuses more on teamwork as the players are expecting more from their teammates, instead of like a pub game where everyone is a bit more careless and lazy.

What is the difference between a 6-7k pub player and a 6-7k professional player? How does your league assist in closing this gap?

I think the main differences between a pub player and a professional player has to do with experience. Professional players are usually thinking more about strategy and the bigger picture in games, while pub players are often thinking about themselves and rely on beating up worse players to win games. Hopefully, NEL bridges this gap by being somewhere closer to competitive, where you have to work with your team and think about the game as a whole instead of relying on weak players to crumble or give up.

What is it about the NA scene that makes roster consistency so chaotic and how can your league help to alleviate those problems?

I think the roster changes that occur in NA are extremely over exaggerated. While there are frequent roster changes, you'll be hard pressed to find a team in any region who hasn't changed players if they are not doing well. NEL probably won't have any impact on roster consistency, but it can be a place for players to find new teammates and branch out further.

My next question is a bit similar but on a player level, I feel the reaction may be the same but I'll ask anyways;  NA region has built an infamous, world-wide reputation for being cancerous. Do you feel this problem exists within the region alone, or is it a general problem within all regions, in the game in its entirety? If it is a much more broad problem across the game, what do you have to say to those to dispel people’s beliefs about NA? If it is worse in NA than other regions, what can we do as a community to fix it?

I think the problem exists at all regions (and in all games), but gradually gets better at higher levels. However, I do agree that the matchmaking pool in NA is much worse than other regions. I don't exactly know why this is, but having played in every region and as players with the same experiences will say, US East is extremely "cancerous". Players tend to give up after one bad team fight; break items, run down mid, or just go afk if they're not having their way. This happens even at the top levels, 6K MMR games are plagued by this, and it becomes very hard to learn things from the games when players are picking joke heroes or ruining games, on either team. As a community, I don't think there's much that can be done because people generally do not change. I think the burden is on Valve to improve matchmaking, in a similar way that they have done for CSGO.

For matchmaking to drastically improve, I think it's just a matter of whether or not Valve wants to get involved

A lot of things have been suggested, if Valve is interested in addressing the situation. Ranked MM bans, an Overwatch system, Low Priority system reworks, cosmetics for being on the winning team, etc. For match making to drastically improve, I think it's just a matter of whether or not Valve wants to get involved.

You’ve been playing Dota 2 and the Warcraft III campaign DotA for a decade or more now. Reflect on the beginning when you started playing the game to present day. Reflect on the high points and the low. How has Dota evolved over these years in your eyes?

Despite all the complaints, I think Dota has done nothing but improved. The prize pools and viewerships are massive, teams can easily get salaried sponsors compared to a few years ago, and it's doing nothing but getting bigger each year. There are a lot of things I wish for as both a player and a competitor, but regardless, the game is going in the right direction and I expect it to continue to grow for at least another 5-10 years.

Your league does a great job when it comes to bringing the next generation of players into the spotlight. Who are some of the biggest new names from NEL to get recognized by professional teams?

Unfortunately, I don't think there are that many new names due to NEL being inactive for a while. But I think it has also served as a place for players to meet each other, teams such as EG, old DC, OG, etc, have met their current teammates from NEL.

Looking at what happened in the regional NA qualifiers for TI6, what do you think of Valve allowing fewer teams in the International NA main qualifiers compared to the other regions? Should there be a rule change to allow more open qualifier teams to reach the main qualifiers to fill the remaining spots?

I think there were plenty of good teams in the NA Open qualifiers that could've given compLexity and maybe DC a run for their money, but they were never even given a chance because they had to go through EG first

I think there just should have been a roster unlock after the Manila major. I understand what Valve is going for but I just don't think it'll work. All they are doing is hurting the scene with a 6 month roster lock, and surely, everyone will say "it's the own player's faults for not sticking together," but nobody is going to stay together with a team they don't believe in. The people preaching this have no idea or experience about the topic they so passionately have an opinion on. I think there were plenty of good teams in the NA Open qualifiers that could've given compLexity and maybe DC a run for their money, but they were never even given a chance because they had to go through EG first. Nothing good comes from this roster lock, it just hurts the players, viewers, and tournament quality.

How much time do you think is appropriate for a fair roster lock deadline?

I think the 2-3 month windows they usually have is fine. I would like a bigger "trade window" after a major ends. Usually there is only about two weeks to make adjustments to your team before the roster locks, and I think that is too little.

You’ve created a large following among your fans, as well as many professional players who appreciate your efforts to raise the bar in the NA region. What do you have to say to these people that look to you as a leader of the NA community and beyond?

I don't see myself as anything special, just someone with the opportunity to make NADota a better place.


Where does most of the blame fall for NA Dota?

Lack of Sponsorships
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The Teams/Players
Thank you for voting!
Geoffrey “SophoS” Magdziasz
Accounting graduate, Esports enthusiast, aspiring businessman. Follow on Twitter @SophoS_Dota


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