Risen from the ashes: Top ranked Pro Circuit squad & 4 time Major Champion Virtus.pro looks to rekindle the flame of CIS Dota with the region’s first TI title since 2011.
Another year of Dota 2 action has come and gone, and the stage is now set for the Dota 2 world to once again come together to enjoy and celebrate the game on the biggest and most prestigious of stages: The International. With The International 2018 fast approaching, it seems appropriate to offer fans both new and old some information on the squads that will be fighting in Vancouver for a chance to lay claim to the Aegis of Champions and cement themselves a place in Dota 2 history. Each post in this series will provide a brief profile of one of the 18 teams that have earned a place in the field at TI8, including a small overview of the team/organization’s history, a breakdown of its 2017-2018 season, a look at the players on the team’s roster, and expectations entering TI itself. Whether you’re deep into the pro Dota scene already or just looking to get your feet wet in preparation for TI8, the hope is that these profiles will give you a bit more insight or a refresher course for the teams that will be playing in Vancouver in August. With that in mind, we’ll take a look at the number 1 ranked squad on the Pro Circuit this season and the newly emerged king of the CIS region: Virtus.pro.
Region: Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)
Dota 2 Pro Circuit Rank: 1st (12,372 Qualifying Points)
Qualification Method: Direct Invite (DPC Top 8)
2017-2018 Pro Circuit Event Appearances: 12 (10 Top 4 Finishes)
Previous TI Appearances: TI3 (13th-16th), TI5 (5th-6th), TI7 (5th-6th)
2017-2018 Season Notable Achievements:
Dota 2 Pro Circuit Majors
1st – ESL One Hamburg 2017
1st – ESL One Katowice 2018
1st – The Bucharest Major
1st – ESL One Birmingham 2018
2nd – China Dota 2 Supermajor
3rd – Dota 2 Asia Championship 2018
4th – EPICENTER XL
Dota 2 Pro Circuit Minors
1st – DOTA Summit 8
3rd-4th – MDL Macau
4th – AMD SAPPHIRE Dota PIT League
Non- Pro Circuit Events
2nd – Adrenaline Cyber League
The VP organization has been a mainstay of what we would consider to be the modern era of esports, with the CIS organization officially forming back in 2003 with the signing of a Counter-Strike 1.6 team. In 2007, the team took its first foray into the Dota world with the signing of a DOTA Allstars squad that claimed 3 straight 1st place finishes in the MYM Prime Defending series of tournaments. That squad did not fully transition into Dota 2 however, and the CIS organization ended up signing its first Dota 2 team in May of 2012. That squad remained on the periphery of the international scene until around 2013, when a series of roster changes saw the squad rise to a more prominent level and receive an invitation to compete at The International 2013. The event didn’t go particularly well for the team, as it won just 3 of its 15 matches overall and finished at the bottom of the standings in the collective 13th-16th place position. Following that poor performance on the international stage, the team spent the rest of 2013 shuffling through several roster permutations as it struggled to find success. 2014 saw the team put together a significantly stronger performance with a more stable roster, but fell short of the mark for qualifying for TI4 both in the Regional Qualifiers and in Phase One of the TI4 Playoffs. The team’s inability to make a return to the TI stage sparked a significant change in the organization. The main Virtus.pro squad underwent roster changes once again, while the organization picked up a second squad by signing regional team NVMI to play under the name Virtus.pro Polar.
The main VP lineup went on for a few more months after that, but found itself failing to match the success of its sister squad, which had been playing as ASUS Polar since the beginning of 2015. In March of 2015, the VP squad was released by the organization, and the ASUS Polar roster was re-branded as the new main VP team. The team put together an impressive run in the months leading up to TI5, claiming 1st place finishes at Dreamleague Seson 3 and the Esportal Dota 2 league along with a 3rd place finish at the Dota Pit League Season 3 and a 3rd-4th place run at ESL One Frankfurt 2015. Those strong performances against regional and international opponents alike earned VP an invitation to TI5, where it made a run all the way to the 5th-6th place position. The team’s showing on the Dota 2 world’s biggest stage put VP on the map in the international scene, and the squad closed out the year with a number of high profile event appearances including a 7th-8th place finish at the first Dota 2 Major (The Frankfurt Major 2015). Unfortunately, 2016 did not begin well for VP, as the squad struggled outside of its home region and put together a lackluster performance at The Shanghai Major. A series of roster changes in March helped to turn things around for the team to a small degree, but those improvements weren’t quite enough for the team to earn a place at TI6. Following its unsuccessful run in the TI6 Europe Qualifier, the organization dropped its Dota 2 roster. VP’s hiatus from the pro Dota scene didn’t last long though, as the organization returned in August with a new lineup. The new-look VP proved far more successful than its predecessors, claiming a cavalcade of impressive performances spearheaded by a 2nd place finish at The Kiev Major that catapulted the team into a position as one of the leading squads on the international stage. That success bred stability as well, as the team maintained its roster throughout the entire year and secured itself a direct invite to TI7. A 5th-6th place finish at the event cemented VP as one of the more formidable teams in the Dota 2 world as the CIS squad headed into the first ever Dota 2 Pro Circuit season.
Season in Review
The beginning of the season saw the CIS region experience something of a power vacuum in terms of the strength of its teams. Long gone were the glory days when Na’Vi dominated the region, and squads like VP, Team Empire, and Vega Squadron were all on the rise and looking for a chance to claim the top spot in the regional hierarchy. The team’s regional rivals may have been searching for opportunities, but VP found them and took advantage of them almost immediately. The squad won 2 of its first 3 Pro Circuit Qualifiers, and put together a spectacular debut on the Pro Circuit stage by claiming the team’s first ever Major Championship at the ESL One Hamburg 2017 Major in October. The team followed up that strong debut with 2 more Pro Circuit appearances, though only 1 of them (AMD SAPPHIRE Dota PIT League) resulted in further Qualifying Points for the team. That being said, the team’s success to that point in the season had it comfortably ahead of all but 1 or 2 other squads in the Pro Circuit standings, which left the squad feeling comfortable enough to make a temporary change to its roster. Team Captain and support player Alexei “Solo” Berezin took a hiatus from the lineup for the final month of 2012, with coach Ivan “Artstyle” Antonov serving as a stand-in for the team’s 2 Pro Circuit appearances in December. Even with that temporary change, VP continued to dominate its competition, laying claim to a 3rd-4th place finish at the MDL Macau Minor and a 1st place run at the DOTA Summit 8 Minor to close out 2017.
The 2018 section of the season saw Solo return to the active lineup as Virtus.pro attempted to continue its winning ways and retain its place near the top of the Pro Circuit standings. The team’s first event back after the new year was the ESL One Genting 2018 Minor which saw VP finish just short of a Top 4 finish in the 5th-6th place position. Looking to make a change to start the second half of the season, VP swapped support players with fellow CIS squad Na’Vi just before the roster lock deadline in February, trading Ilya “Lil” Ilyuk for Vladimir “RodjER” Nikogosyan. The trade produced near immediate results for the squad, as around 1 month later VP secured back to back Major Championships at ESL One Katowice 2018 and The Bucharest Major. Those spectacular performances on the Pro Circuit stage gave the team enough Qualifying Points to statistically guarantee itself a Top 8 position in the Pro Circuit standings and a direct invite to TI8. With its place in Vancouver already secured, the remainder of the Pro Circuit season became something of a victory lap for the team. The CIS squad continued to participate in Pro Circuit events, making appearances at 4 more Majors over the rest of the season and producing Top 4 finishes across all of them. Those 4 Top 4 finishes included yet another Major Championship at ESL One Birmingham 2018, tying Virtus.pro with OG for the most Major Championship titles in the history of Dota 2. The team ended the season as the top ranked squad in the Pro Circuit standings, and was the only team on the Pro Circuit to rack up 10,000 or more Qualifying Points on the season. VP’s dominant performance on the Pro Circuit stage throughout the season makes the CIS squad one of the most feared and respected opponents in the field heading into this year’s iteration of The International.
Roman “RAMZES666” Kushnarev (Carry) – RAMZES666 has absolutely flourished in his time with Virtus.pro, and has established himself as one of the premier carry players in the Dota 2 world. The Russian phenom’s considerable talent and success on the professional level serves as a significant distraction from the fact that RAMZES666 is still fairly young even by the standards of the esports world, with VP’s carry player entering TI8 at just 19 years of age. Despite his youth, RAMZES666 has already accrued quite a bit of experience across a handful of teams within the CIS region, though his career didn’t exactly begin in spectacular fashion. The young Russian got his start in 2014 as a substitute for Courage Gaming, a relatively minor squad in the CIS region that unfortunately went inactive soon after his addition to the roster. In April of 2015, he joined the roster of ScaryFaceZ as the team’s offlaner and helped the team put together a series of solid performances in minor regional tournaments and qualifiers. Around July or August, the team officially moved RAMZES666 into the carry role, a role that he would retain when he left the team to join the new lineup of CIS Rejects in September. The newly converted carry player remained with the team through its transition to the Team Spirit organization, but left the squad just days after a 13th-16th place finish at The Shanghai Major to join the new Team Empire lineup. With Team Empire, RAMZES666 put together some solid showings in regional qualifiers and a couple of international events, the most prominent of which was an appearance at The Manila Major in June of 2016. Unfortunately, RAMZES666 and Team Empire missed the mark to qualify for TI6, and soon after the event Virtus.pro acquired the young carry player to join its newly created roster, where he has remained ever since. Throughout his career, RAMZES666 has displayed an incredible level of skill and managed to perform on a fairly consistent level. However, those talents have been amplified with Virtus.pro thanks in large part to a certain level of creativity both from the squad and from RAMZES666 himself. The Russian carry’s hero pool extends far beyond what has been considered to be within conventional expectations or in the “meta”, and VP’s willingness to put him on unexpected and unconventional heroes has given the team a wild card that opponents have struggled to deal with. That level of flexibility has been a large part of the team’s success this season, and serves as an invaluable asset as RAMZES666 hopes to help his squad claim its first ever TI victory.
Vladimir “No[o]ne” Minenko (Mid) – No[o]ne is the other half of an incredibly talented young duo for Virtus.pro, as the team’s sole non-Russian player is just 20 years old heading into TI8. The Ukrainian Midlaner began his career in 2014 with stints on several semi-professoinal teams including UrsaStriotHramm, Team Yard, Team-ASC, and BUHLO-UroPb. That last squad included fellow VP member Pavel “9pasha” Khvastunov (then playing under the name 9pashaebashu), and ended up being signed by CIS organization Vega Squadron in November of 2014. 2015 saw the team undergo some roster changes, including the addition of another of No[o]ne’s current teammates in Alexei “Solo” Berezin. Those changes didn’t help Vega Squadron qualify for TI5, but the CIS squad was able to close out year in solid fashion with a series of solid showings that included a 1st place finish at ESL One New York 2015 and an appearance at The Frankfurt Major 2015 in November. Those performances helped build up the team’s reputation and set Vega Squadron up for a strong campaign in 2016. Unforutantely, No[o]ne and his teammates once again failed to earn themselves a place at TI despite numerous quality performances both within their home region and on the international level. In August of 2016, No[o]ne officially left Vega Squadron alongside 9pasha and Solo in order to form the new VP lineup. Since that switch to his current organization, No[o]ne has been a consistent contributor and a steady presence that the team has come to rely on frequently to take control of matches. His penchant for playing high impact and heavily active heroes in the middle lane has fit perfectly into VP’s more aggressive play style, and his consistent level of play has been a significant factor in the team’s success over the past 2 years. No[o]ne has risen to become one of the most stable and formidable midlaners in the Dota 2 world, and if VP has plans to bring the Aegis of Champions back to the CIS region, he will assuredly play a pivotal role in a successful run at TI8.
Pavel “9pasha” Khvastunov (Offlane) – VP’s offlaner may not always attract as much attention as some of the team’s other star players, but 9pasha has proven himself to be a perfect fit in the team’s lineup. In a position often called upon for stability and play-making, 9pasha has been a player that has simultaneously been able to fit into the team’s aggressive style without stepping too far outside of his role and overextending himself. 9pasha’s affinity for the offlane role is even more impressive when one considers that he hasn’t always played it throughout his career. The Russian player began his time in the professional Dota 2 scene in 2013 playing offlane for semi-pro squads like UrsaStroitHram and BUHLO-UroPb, but switched to the carry position when he joined the Vega Squadron lineup towards the end of 2014. 9pasha remained with Vega Squadron for over a year, playing a large role in the team’s 1st place run at ESL One New York and helping the team secure a direct invite to The Frankfurt Major in November of 2015. Despite moderate success both within the CIS region and on the international level, 9pasha left the organization in March of 2016 to join the newly formed squad Polarity. Unfortunately, 9pasha was unable to replicate the success of his former squad in his time with Polarity, and departed from the lineup after just over 2 months to join Fantastic Five and return to the offlane position. That stint lasted an even shorter period of time though, with the Russian offlaner sticking around long enough to make an unsuccessful run through the TI6 Europe Qualifiers before being picked up by Virtus.pro in August. The move reunited him with former teammates No[o]ne and Solo, and together those players have helped shape the development of one of the Dota 2 world’s most dangerous squads. 9pasha may not always be as flashy as some of his teammates, but the veteran offlaner is exceptionally experienced in his role and provides a frequently stabilizing and consistent presence within the team’s lineup. Much of VP’s aggressive play style often relies upon his initiation and play-making, and 9pasha will need to continue being a steady contributor to the squad if VP want to take their shot at reclaiming the Aegis of Champions for the CIS region.
Vladimir “RodjER” Nikogosyan (Support) – As the most recent addition to the VP lineup, RodjER is a player that has received a significant level of scrutiny this season. If a team that is already sitting at the top of the Pro Circuit standings is willing to trade for a player, then that player will certainly be expected to perform at the highest possible level. On that front, RodjER has not disappointed, as the support player has integrated almost flawlessly into VP’s lineup and play style. All things considered, it might not come as a surprise that RodjER was able to so easily adapt to his mid-season shift, as the Russian player has seen more than his fair share of roster moves throughout his career. RodjER began his professional Dota 2 journey with Cleave Gaming back in 2013, but ran into organizational issues in 2014 that saw himself and his teammates shift from the Cleave Gaming name to Aware Gaming and then back to Cleave Gaming all within the span of around 5 months, culminating in the disbandment of the squad. 2015 saw RodjER in limbo for the most part, as the support player served as a stand-in for a couple of squads but didn’t stick with any 1 squad on a long-term basis. That changed in 2016 when he joined the Prodota Gaming roster, although the team didn’t manage to build up much momentum outside of minor regional tournaments during his 5 month stint with the squad. The next few months became a rotating carousel of organizations and team names, as RodjER joined FlipSid3 Tactics in August of 2016 only to see the team dropped by the organization 2 months later. The squad then played as Rebels for a few months, stringing together a series of impressive performances in smaller regional competitions that included back to back 1st place finishes in the ProDota Cup Europe before being signed by Effect in January of 2017. The new organization did not bring much success for RodjER or his teammates, and the support player ended up jumping ship 4 months later to join Team Empire just in time to make a successful run through the TI7 CIS Qualifier. With his new squad, RodjER was able to finish in the 7th-8th place position at TI7, but once again ended up changing teams in the run up to the first Pro Circuit season. and wound up with a spot on the Na’Vi roster. Na’Vi began the season with strong runs in Pro Circuit qualifiers, but couldn’t seem to convert those opportunities into a large sum of Qualifying Points. A duo of Top 4 finishes in December made the squad look somewhat stronger, but the CIS team was looking to make a change as it entered the new year. For RodjER, that change meant a trade as he was acquired by VP in exchange for fellow support player Ilya “Lil” Ilyuk. The move placed RodjER on the top ranked team on the Pro Circuit, where he closed out the season and now looks to help claim the Aegis of Champions for VP. RodjER has proven to be a perfect fit for VP, as his hero pool heavily features supports that are capable of high levels of mobility and aggression and help facilitate the team’s cores. With RodjER’s fantastic support play paving the way for the team’s signature aggressive style, VP stands as a heavy favorite to claim the Aegis of Champions in Vancouver.
Alexei “Solo” Berezin (Support, Captain) – VP’s captain is a player that has found himself on both ends of the spectrum of success throughout his Dota 2 career. Solo has seen action with a multitude of teams within the CIS region, dating back as far as 2012 when he began his career playing for Moscow Five and Eclypsia. Neither of those squads was able to secure much success, and Solo entered 2013 with a new squad in the form of XX5 Gaming, though that stint lasted only 2 weeks before he was on the move again. Solo moved to the Ice Climbers lineup, before the team was picked up by 3D!Clan just 1 month later and was then signed by RoX a month after that. His time with RoX brought some modest levels of success, but also embroiled him in what has become a somewhat infamous incident. Solo was caught placing a bet against his own team in June of 2013 that would have seen him gain $322. The scandal caused RoX to remove Solo from the lineup, and the phrase “322” has come into common use in the Dota 2 world as a means of mocking a play or player that is performing so poorly that it appears to be intentional. Nearly 4 months after the betting scandal, Solo was able to return to the RoX lineup, but stayed with the team for just over 2 weeks before agreeing to join Virtus.pro in October of 2013. Once again though, Solo’s tenure with a squad was severely curtailed, as he spent just 10 days with VP before moving to join Poseidon for around 1 month before ending the year with Relax. The start of 2014 saw Solo return to the lineup of RoX and put together a solid string of performances over the first half of the year. However, those results didn’t help the team stay together, as RoX disbanded in May and Solo closed out the season on the roster of Team Empire where he helped the squad claim a 1st place finish in the Excellent Moscow Cup 2 in October. 2015 brought even more change for Solo, as the support player began the season back on the roster of XX5 Gaming before being picked up by Vega Squadron in April. Vega Squadron proved to finally be a squad with which Solo could remain on a long-term basis, as he remained with the organization for over a year. In that time, the squad established itself as a regional power and began branching out into the international scene beginning with its 1st place run at ESL One New York 2015 and an appearance at The Frankfurt Major. The team’s success continued into 2016, but Vega Squadron was unable to get itself through the TI6 Europe Qualifiers, leading to Solo being acquired by VP alongside No[o]ne in August. Since then, Solo has shown himself to be one of the sharpest minds in the Dota 2 world, as his captaincy has seen the CIS squad elevate itself to stand as one of the most successful and formidable teams in the world. Solo’s drafting style and self-sacrificing tendencies in-game have helped pave the way for VP to enter TI8 as a heavy favorite to lay claim to the Aegis of Champions.
Ivan “Artstyle” Antonov (Coach) – VP’s success is not down to just its players, as the squad has had the benefit of a veteran presence in Artsyle in the coaching position. Artstyle has been a part of the professional Dota 2 scene dating all the way back to 2010 with one of the earliest lineups of Na’Vi that famously won the first ever iteration of The International in 2011. 2012 saw Artstyle leave Na’Vi to join the Darer lineup, making a return to TI but falling far short of replicating the success of his former squad. Following the end of TI2, Artstyle bounced around a bit, playing for regional squads Team Kharkiv and Eclypsia before taking a hiatus from the professional scene. He returned to the Dota 2 world near the end of 2014 with various short stints with teams like Relax, HellRaisers, and Natasha ishet Parnya, but ended the year on the roster of Ukrainian squad ScaryFaceZ. 2015 saw Artsyle make his return to the Na’Vi organization just prior to the team’s successful run through the TI5 European Qualifier, marking his third appearance at The International. Artstyle remained a part of various Na’Vi rosters through November of 2016, as the squad slowly began to decline both within the CIS region and on the international level. When Na’Vi overhauled its roster at the end of the year, Artstyle was not included in the team’s lineup, which led the veteran to try his hand at coaching with Virtus.pro beginning in March of 2017. Since then, his extensive experience and success at both the regional and international levels has served as a invaluable asset for the team as it has risen to elite status in the Dota 2 world. The VP lineup is exceptionally talented in its own right, but having a 4 time TI attendee and TI Champion in its corner as a coach and analyst has been a massive boon for the CIS squad as it looks to bring the Aegis of Champions back to the CIS region for the first time since Artsyle’s Na’Vi squad claimed the first TI title back in 2011.
Expectations at TI8
Coming into The International 2018, the expectations have to be sky high for Virtus.pro as it looks to claim the first TI Championships for the CIS region since TI1 back in in 2011. Any time a team comes into an event as the number 1 ranked squad in the world, it will stand as a significant favorite to win, and VP is no exception in this situation. The team has been absolutely dominant on the Pro Circuit this season, proving time and time again that it is more than capable of taking down the best of the best in the Dota 2 world. The 4 time Major Champions have been one of the most consistent performers across the entire season, seemingly never suffering from any sort of prolonged drop off in terms of its level of play. The CIS squad boasts a lineup brimming with both talent and experience, and we’ve seen just how dangerous the VP roster has been regardless of the situation it has been presented with. With that kind of consistency and success on the highest level in the Dota 2 world, VP will more than likely be the favored team in just about every match up it will face in Vancouver. Only the other Pro Circuit leaders like Team Liquid, Team Secret, and PSG.LGD are squads that would reasonably be expected to bring down the CIS juggernaut. Of course, with every team gunning to bring down the Pro Circuit leader, VP will certainly have quite a large target painted on its back. However, the spotlight has yet to be a significant distraction or hindrance for Virtus.pro so far, and the squad will likely welcome the added pressure and attention as it enters TI8 as one of the teams most likely to claim the Aegis of Champions and walk away from Vancouver as kings of the Dota 2 world.