Keen Ambition: Chinese squad Keen Gaming hopes to overcome some late-season stumbles to establish a legacy and take its place among the great Chinese organizations by claiming the Aegis of Champions at TI9
With the conclusion of the second even Dota 2 Pro Circuit campaign, the attention of the Dota 2 world now shifts to the game’s biggest and most prestigious of stages: The International. The 2018-2019 Pro Circuit season set the stage, but now the time has come for 18 of the world’s best teams to take their shot at earning immortality as they look to cement their place in Dota 2 history with a victorious run at The International 2019 in Shanghai, China. For the first time in its history, TI moves away from the western world into the waiting arms of the Chinese scene, with TI9 set to be hosted in the Mercedes-Benz Arena as the venue will transform into the crucible from which one squad will emerge with the Aegis of Champions in hand. With the even itself fast approaching, this series will serve to highlight each of the 18 participating squads that will be making their way to Shanghai in the hopes of becoming TI9 Champion. Each post will focus upon a specific team in the field for this event, with a small overview of the organization’s history, a review of its 2018-2019 season, a run down of the members of its roster, keys to success entering TI9, and expectations for the squad at the event itself. Whether one is a newcomer to the pro scene or an avid Pro Circuit spectator, these posts will hopefully serve as a useful source of information or a refresher course on the teams that will be battling it out in Shanghai in August. With that in mind, we’ll take a look at 1 of the 4 Chinese squads that will be taking the stage in Shanghai, as we focus in on a team that will be making its first ever appearance on the TI stage: Keen Gaming.
Pro Circuit Rank: 12th (1,140 Pro Circuit Points)
Qualification Method: Direct Invite (Pro Circuit Top 12)
2018-2019 Pro Circuit Event Appearances: 3 (1 Top 4 Finish)
Previous TI Appearances: None (TI Debut)
2018-2019 Season Notable Achievements:
Pro Circuit Majors:
5th-6th – DreamLeague Season 11 Major
9th-12th – MDL Disneyland Paris Major
Pro Circuit Minors:
3rd – The Bucharest Minor
Pro Circuit Qualifiers:
1st – The Bucharest Minor China Qualifier
1st-2nd – MDL Disneyland Paris Major China Closed Qualifier
3rd – DreamLeague Season 11 China Qualifier
3rd – StarLadder ImbaTV Dota 2 Minor Season 2 China Qualifier
6th-8th – EPICENTER Major 2018 China Closed Qualifier
7th-8th – The Chongqing Major China Qualifier
Non-Pro Circuit Events:
1st – ESL One Mumbai 2019
2nd – World Electronic Sports Games 2018
9th-10th – ESL One Birmingham 2019
1st – The China Hope Series #2
1st – H-Cup Season 12
1st – JJB Spring Cup
1st – Jiabet Asian Masters League
3rd – Asian Dota2 League
3rd – H-Cup Season 10
4th – H-Cup Season 11
7th-8th – China Dota2 Winter Cup
9th-10th – Dota2 Professional League Season 6
The history of Keen Gaming as an organization is not a particularly long one, as the team has only existed in its current form since 2017. The organization’s roots actually trace back to another major Chinese esports organization, as Keen Gaming began life under the EHOME banner as a youth and development squad by the name of EHOME.Keen. In September of 2017, the team left the EHOME organization, striking it out on its own as Keen Gaming in the inaugural 2017-2018 Pro Circuit season. The team was met with some early success within its home region, performing well in various Chinese qualifiers and making its debut appearance on the Pro Circuit stage at the ESL One Hamburg 2017 Major in October. The start of 2018 brought some significant changes to the team’s roster, but the organization proved capable of keeping itself relatively stable through those changes as Keen Gaming continued to put up respectable showings on the home front. In April of 2018, the squad’s efforts were rewarded with another Major appearance at the Dota 2 Asia Championships 2018, and just over a month later the team claimed its first Top 4 finish on the Pro Circuit stage with a 2nd place run at the GESC: Thailand Dota2 Minor. The team’s 2017-2018 Pro Circuit campaign culminated in a respectable, but ultimately unsuccessful run in the TI8 China Qualifier, with the squad finishing in the 5th-8th place position overall. While the team’s impact on the international level had not been particularly significant, Keen Gaming had shown some incredible strength and potential for an organization that was still under a year removed from its departure from EHOME. With that in mind, the squad entered the second Pro Circuit season determined to reach even greater heights as it looked to raise its profile both at home and on the international level.
Season in Review
The 2018-2019 Pro Circuit season began with some big changes for Keen Gaming, as the team saw three members of its TI8 Qualifier squad part ways with the organization in the offseason period. Between those roster changes, a hiatus due to health issues, and player vacations, Keen Gaming’s roster field 8 different players through the first 2 months of the season. By the end of October though, the team’s lineup had stabilized, with Keen Gaming beginning to pick of some momentum for itself over the final months of 2018. The squad managed to earn itself 14 Top 4 finishes within the Chinese region from September to the end of December, headlined by victories in The China Hope Series #2, H-Cup Season 12, and The Bucharest Minor China Qualifier. That final performance earned the team its season debut on the Pro Circuit stage, and would kick start what would be an impressive run for the Chinese squad in the second half of the Pro Circuit season.
The 2019 segment of the 2018-2019 campaign saw Keen Gaming make its first Pro Circuit appearance of the season, and Keen Gaming certainly stepped up with an impressive 3rd place finish at The Bucharest Minor to secure its first Pro Circuit points. That performance proved to the catalyst for a massive run from the team in the subsequent months, as Keen Gaming turned in 3 straight Top 4 finishes within the Chinese region, and carried over that success onto the international level with a 2nd place showing as the World Electronic Sports Games 2018 and a massive 5th-6th place run at the DreamLeague Season 11 Major in Stockholm just two weeks later. That impressive showing at the Major transformed Keen Gaming from a rising power within the Chinese region into a potential contender on the international level, with the squad now having realistic aspirations of finishing the season with a Top 12 spot in the Pro Circuit Rankings and potentially earning a direct invite to TI9. The month following the team’s run at the Major saw it continue to play some of its best Dota of the season, as the squad claimed back to back qualifier wins before putting together a dominant run at ESL One Mumbai 2019, winning the event with a 14-3 overall record. That victory in Mumbai served as the high water mark for Keen Gaming’s campaign though, as the final months of the season saw the Chinese squad regress a bit both at home and on the international level. The team’s follow up appearance on the Pro Circuit stage at the MDL Disneyland Paris Major resulted in a solid, but otherwise uninspired 9th-12th place finish, and the squad would fail to qualify for either of the final 2 Pro Circuit events of the season with a 6th-8th place run in the EPICENTER Major 2019 China Closed Qualifier, and a 3rd place performance in the StarLadder ImbaTV Dota 2 Minor Season 2 China Qualifier. The squad did have one last chance to finish its season on a high not with an appearance at ESL One Birmingham 2019, but a 9th-10th place performance at that event proved to be a disappointing result for the squad. Keen Gaming ended up watching the final events of the 2018-2019 season from home, but the results from the season’s final Major ended up being beneficial for the Chinese squad, with Keen Gaming just barely holding on to its position in the Top 12 of the Pro Circuit Rankings to earn itself a direct invite to TI9 in Shanghai. Despite holding out and managing to earn itself that coveted direct invite status, Keen Gaming’s rather sharp decline over the final months of the regular season leave the squad with more than a few questions to answer as it prepares to make its first even TI appearance as an organization.
Wang “old chicken” Zhiyong (Carry)
Season averages (Pro Circuit events and Closed Qualifiers only): 6.60 kills, 8.39 assists, 3.08 deaths per game (75 matches)
Prior to the start of this 2018-2019 campaign, old chicken was signed by the EHOME organization, but the announcement of the team’s new lineup pushed the Carry into an inactive role with the squad. That shift away from EHOME’s active roster freed old chicken up for a transfer to Keen Gaming, though he still technically is contracted by his old organization and has been “loaned” to Keen Gaming by EHOME. It’s only appropriate for old chicken to remain associated with both organizations though, as he has bounced back and forth between EHOME and Keen Gaming throughout his career to this point. After beginning his career back in 2015 as a member of Energy Pacemaker, old chicken spent a period of over 2 years with the EHOME organization, before briefly moving to Keen Gaming in February of 2018. After spending a little under 2 months with Keen Gaming, old chicken closed out the season with EHOME before returning to Keen Gaming at the start of this 2018-2019 campaign. While his career has not been quite as long as some of the other veteran Chinese players, old chicken is certainly no stranger to playing at the international level, having attended 6 Majors, 2 Minors, and 1 TI between his time with EHOME and Keen Gaming. Across the majority of this 2018-2019 campaign, the trend for Carry players within the Chinese region did not vary much from what it had been in times past, as the emphasis for many teams in the region was on high volume farming heroes. Old chicken mixed things up in his 2018-2019 campaign, with his top played heroes of the season including picks like Weaver, Troll Warlord, and Phantom Assassin that afforded him the ability to both farm and fight comfortably earlier than many of his regional counterparts. Oftentimes, that play style gave Keen Gaming to option to control the pace of play in its matches, which is an advantage that the team will hope to enjoy once again as it prepares for its TI9 run.
Zhai “一” a.k.a “yī” Jingkai (Mid)
Season averages (Pro Circuit events and Closed Qualifiers only): 6.41 kills, 9.76 assists, 3.08 deaths per game (75 matches)
一 has developed into one of the stronger players on the Keen Gaming roster this season, which should come as an added point of pride for the organization considering the fact that the Midlaner is effectively a homegrown talent. 一’s career began in 2017 as a member of EHOME.Keen, and he has spent nearly the entirety of his career with the organization save for a period of around 2 months with EHOME near the beginning of 2018. Despite having just a bit over 2 years of professional experience under his belt, 一 had proven himself to be a remarkably reliable piece of this current Keen Gaming lineup. With fellow core old chicken often being put on more agile, positional based heroes, 一 has been called upon to be the anchor of the squad’s drafts on a fairly frequent basis. With heroes like Razor, Outworld Devourer, and Medusa sitting among his most played in this 2018-2019 campaign, 一 has shown himself capable of serving as the focal point of his team’s composition while producing consistent numbers for his team. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of 一’s performance this season has been the fact that he has been able to consistently keep his average deaths per match low while earning that impressive production. Across Pro Circuit events and qualifiers (75 games), his average deaths per game sits at just 3.08, and across all appearances in general this season (175 games), that average still sits at an impressively low 3.18 deaths per game. For a somewhat less experienced player, 一 has been surprisingly cool under pressure, which is an aspect of his game that Keen Gaming will likely have to rely on if it wants to find success at TI9.
Ren “eLeVeN” Yangwei (Offlane)
Season averages (Pro Circuit events and Closed Qualifiers only): 5.23 kills, 11.16 assists, 4.68 deaths per game (75 matches)
As the elder statesman of this Keen Gaming lineup, eLeVeN has seen quite a bit of experience in his career both within the Chinese region and on the international level. His professional career began back in 2013 with a pair of minor regional squads, before eLeVeN was picked up by the Immortal Magneto Gaming organization in November of 2014. After just 4 months with the team, eLeVeN’s talent was noticed by EHOME, with the organization adding him to the roster of EHOME.K before moving him over to the team’s main roster in September of 2015. After a period of around 2 years with the organization, eLeVeN has spent the past 2 years of his career on loan to various other squads in the Chinese region. He spent some time in 2017 as a member of LGD Gaming, attending TI7 and finishing in 4th place with the squad before being sent to Vici Gaming for the 2017-2018 Pro Circuit season. That season saw eLeVeN attend 5 Minors and 6 Majors with Vici Gaming, culminating in a somewhat disappointing 9th-12th place performance at TI8. As a member of Keen Gaming, eLeVeN has proven himself to be an incredibly valuable piece of the squad’s lineup, shifting between the roles of team fight controller and initiator while finding success with both strategies. Heroes like Doom, Centaur Warrunner, and Nature’s Prophet have been eLeVeN’s most played in this 2018-2019 season, but the veteran player has also comfortably fallen back on team fight powerhouses like Dark Seer and Tidehunter when called upon. Although his signature Batrider fell off a bit in this 2018-2019 campaign (just 7 matches played with a 28.57% win rate), eLeVeN’s considerable experience and talent with the hero (Batrider is the only hero that eLeVeN has more than 100 professional appearances with) will always make it a potential threat for prospective opponents. Between his solid play with heroes in the current meta and his reputation with somewhat less popular picks, eLeVeN serves as a veteran presence to anchor some of the less experienced members of this Keen Gaming roster.
Hu “Kaka” Liangzhi (Support)
Season averages (Pro Circuit events and Closed Qualifiers only): 3.24 kills, 13.33 assists, 5.43 deaths per game (75 matches)
Throughout the majority of his career, Kaka has been considered as one of the most skilled Position 4 Supports in the Chinese region, if not the Dota 2 world as a whole. Kaka’s professional career began back in 2014 as a member of HyperGloryTeam, with the Support attracting a bit of attention within the Chinese region and getting his first taste of major international competition in the squad’s appearance at the Dota 2 Asia Championships 2015. Those solid performances earned Kaka a place within the EHOME organization, as he spent a period of around 4 months with the squad before being picked up by Newbee early in 2016. His runs with EHOME and Newbee were where Kaka transformed himself from an up-and-coming talent into a true powerhouse, with the Support making appearances at 2 TIs, 14 Majors, and 6 Minors with the two squads. Throughout his impressive career, Kaka has made his mark with a brand of aggressive play emphasized by frequent rotations and gank attempts for his cores, and that style has continued to serve him well as a member of Keen Gaming. Heroes like Nyx Assassin, Lion, and Shadow Shaman have been frequently picked up for the veteran Support, but Kaka’s top hero continues to be his signature Rubick. In fact, Kaka played Rubick a total of 44 times this season (Pro Circuit and non-Pro Circuit matches), posting an incredible 72.73% win rate with the hero. Kaka’s aggressive style has allowed him to average 13.33 assists per game in Pro Circuit appearances, with that average rising to 13.97 assists per game across all official matches this season. The veteran player’s reputations as an aggressive play maker is certainly well deserved, and Keen Gaming will be hoping to utilize those talents as much as possible at TI9.
Song “dark”‘ Runxi (Support, Captain)
Season averages (Pro Circuit events and Closed Qualifiers only): 2.83 kills, 12.99 assists, 5.76 deaths per game (75 matches)
On a roster of veteran players and rising stars, dark often finds himself a bit overlooked when one sees this Keen Gaming lineup. However, the Support player and Team Captain has put together a fairly impressive resume in the early days of his career. dark’s time at the professional level began back in 2017 as a member of EHOME.Keen, though at the time he was playing as the squad’s Offlaner. He remained with the squad through its departure from the EHOME organization, and helped the team reach its first ever Pro Circuit event with its 5th-6th place showing at the ESL One Hamburg 2017 Major just 1 month into Keen Gaming’s run as a separate organization. With dark at the helm, Keen Gaming proceeded to attend one more Major as well as one Minor in the 2017-2018 Pro Circuit season, but fell short of the mark to reach TI8 with a 5th-8th place run in the TI8 China Qualifier. The new season brought changes to the Keen Gaming roster, with dark moving over to the Support position while retaining his place as the team’s captain. The transition from Offlaner to Support has gone remarkably well for dark though, as he has managed to average 12.99 assists per game on the Pro Circuit level, and holds a 13.97 assists per game mark across the whole of the season in general. Nothing about dark’s style as a Support player is particularly flashy, with the young captain largely favoring heavy team fight enablers like Disruptor, Lich, and Keeper of the Light, or strong single target controlling heroes a la Witch Doctor or Bane. It isn’t always the most glamorous style of play, but dark brings a level of consistency at the position that Keen Gaming has come to rely upon, and will continue to do so coming into this event.
Wu “Fyms” Junying (Coach)
As both Manager and Coach of this Keen Gaming roster, Fyms finds himself in a position in which he must show a high level of familiarity with both the organization and its players. Fortunately, Fyms has both of those in abundance, having previously served as both a player and a coach for EHOME.Keen between 2015 and 2017. While Fyms did not find a particularly high level of success during his playing days, his tenure of coach for EHOME.Keen and now Keen Gaming has proven to be far more impressive. With his added guidance and insight, Keen Gaming has transformed itself from the former developmental squad of a larger organization, into a respected power within the Chinese region with its sights set on even greater glories on the international level. With Fyms in the coaching role, Keen Gaming has reached 4 Majors, 2 Minors, and now its first ever TI appearance in Shanghai. Of course, at the end of the day it comes down to the individual players of Keen Gaming to find success for the squad as a whole. However, the adjustments between games and the strategies that the team employs are every bit as important as raw talent for a squad to find success on the Dota 2 world’s biggest stage, and Keen Gaming has to be confident that they have the right man for that job in Fyms.
Keys to Success at TI9
Coming into this event, the term “success” has a number different meanings depending on which team one is discussing. Obviously, the ultimate measure of success for any of the squads attending this event would be to walk away from Shanghai with the Aegis of Champions in hand and the title of TI9 Champion. Considering the fact that only 1 of the 18 participants at TI9 will be able to do that though, and also considering that not all of these teams are regarded as being on an equal footing in terms of skill and experience, a “TI Champions or bust” mentality won’t fit for every squad in the field. With that in mind, this section is not a “do these things and win TI” sort of list in terms of keys to success. Instead, success in this section will be marked in a team’s ability to play its best level of Dota and put itself in the best possible position to push as far up the event standings as it reasonably can.
Don’t be afraid to be unconventional with old chicken
old chicken has proven himself to be a strong and reliable Carry for Keen Gaming, as he has been more than capable of holding his own with some of the current and recent meta’s more popular heroes. Heroes like Lifestealer and Troll Warlord have fit themselves rather comfortably into Keen Gaming’s drafting and strategies thanks in large part to some solid play from old chicken. However, part of Keen Gaming’s success this season has stemmed from old chicken’s ability to step away from some of those popular heroes as well and employ heroes with a more “hit and run” sort of style. For example, we can look at the 3 events in which Keen Gaming put together perhaps their strongest performances on the international level: WESG 2018 (2nd), ESL One Mumbai 2019 (1st), and the DreamLeague Season 11 Major (5th-6th). While old chicken was able to find success with some of the popular picks like Lifestealer, Troll Warlord, and Juggernaut, his strongest performances came with the likes of Phantom Assassin, Weaver, and Spectre. old chicken played 20 matches across those 3 events with the aforementioned trio of heroes, averaging 10.3 kills and 12.35 assists on 3.3 deaths per game. The “hit and run”, elusive style of play has been one with which old chicken has excelled so far this season, and it’s an aspect of his game that Keen Gaming should continue to exploit in the hopes of keeping opponents off guard at TI9, or at least making opponents change their draft strategies against the Chinese squad.
Take advantage of eLeVeN’s versatility
For many teams in the Dota 2 world, the position of Offlaner has fallen into one of two potential categories. The first category is the true third core, in which the Offlaner is called upon to pick up a hero that fills a core position and receives a higher priority level in terms of farm. The other category is a sort of play making Offlaner that is not expected to farm at a particularly high rate and is mostly utilized for their lock down capabilities or team fight power. In eLeVeN, Keen Gaming has a player that seems to transition almost seamlessly between those two styles with fairly equivalent levels of production and consistency. On the one hand, eLeVeN has put together strong showings with team fight controllers and initiators like Centaur Warrunner, Dark Seer, Tidehunter, and Beastmaster, with the veteran Offlaner holding a combined 64.81% win rate with those heroes across 54 total matches this season. On the other hand, eLeVeN has been able to utilize heroes like Doom, Nature’s Prophet, Lone Druid, and Sven to an equally impressive degree, racking up a 64.71% win rate in 51 total matches. The fact that eLeVeN can produce relatively similar results with two pools of heroes that traditionally fall under different play styles is a testament to his skill and versatility, and those traits open up a lot more options for Keen Gaming in terms of its drafting and how it wants to attack an opponent. To be able to shift between a 2 or 3 core lineup with the confidence that your Offlaner can handle either situation is a massive confidence booster for Keen Gaming, and its an advantage that the squad will hopefully utilize to its fullest extent in Shanghai.
Let 一 be a focal point, but don’t force him to be one
This one is going to sound a little strange at first glance, as one would assume that a squad that has a player with 一’s skill set would be intent upon utilizing that as much as possible, especially at the biggest event in the entire Dota 2 world. 一 has put up some impressive numbers for Keen Gaming this season, averaging 7.21 kills and 9.90 assists on 3.18 deaths across all of the team’s official matches both Pro Circuit and non-Pro Circuit. However, he has done so while filling a somewhat specific role within the team, with that role being one of a focal point for the squad but not necessarily the primary piece of the team’s draft. The team’s Midlaner has seemingly thrived in situations in which he is given more room to operate, but is not required to carry the heaviest load for the team on a consistent basis. With his top played heroes being picks like Razor, Puck, Outworld Devourer, and Medusa, 一 has very rarely been put into a situation in which the team’s game plan revolves around him, and him alone, having a strong enough performance to carry the squad to victory. Without that extra level of expectation and strategic emphasis, 一 has been free to play in a manner that has led to some impressive numbers for himself and a certain degree of success for Keen Gaming as a whole. In essence, the Chinese squad can certainly rely upon 一 to put together strong performances, but it cannot become overly reliant upon those performances to find success or the system will likely fail. If Keen Gaming ever end up in a situation in which it starts pushing 一 towards the realm of the Terrorblades, Alchemists, and Morphlings of the current meta, then his effectiveness may drop off to a dangerous degree.
Expectations at TI9
In a period of less than 2 years, Keen Gaming has gone from an interesting but unproven offshoot of the EHOME organization into a potential contender within the Chinese region. However, many squads have risen in China only to find their time in the sun cut short by roster changes and pressure from regional rivals, and the true question for this Keen Gaming squad coming into TI9 is whether or not the squad has the staying power to avoid a similar fall from grace. The greatest of the organizations within the Chinese Dota 2 scene have proven themselves through strength, not just on the regional level, but on the international level as well. Organizations like Invictus Gaming, PSG.LGD (formerly LGD Gaming), Vici Gaming, EHOME, and Newbee were and are certainly powerhouses within their home region, but their legacy has been cemented by success on the international level, particularly at TI. Those legacies have endured even beyond the heyday of some of those organization, allowing them to retain a certain degree of respect even in the face of reduced results and roster rebuilds. A legacy like that is exactly what Keen Gaming is hoping to build with this run at TI9, but establishing that reputation is going to be quite the task for the squad as it prepares to face off against the strongest opposition that the Dota 2 world has to offer in Shanghai.
Does Keen Gaming have what it takes to contend with some of the best teams in the world at TI9? The answer for that particular question is somewhat complicated, but the easiest and most simplistic answer possible is maybe, but more than likely no. Keen Gaming brings a solid mix of veteran experience and younger talent to the TI stage in Shanghai, and we’ve seen the squad put together some impressive performances both at home and on the international level at times. However, the team has struggled a bit against the elite teams within its home region, with Keen Gaming posting a 16-17 record against the other Chinese squads that will be representing the region at TI9 (Vici Gaming, PSG.LGD, and Royal Never Give Up). Of course, those squads only represent 3 of the 17 possible opponents that Keen Gaming could end up facing in Shanghai, and the good news for the team is that its record against international opposition in this TI9 field is somewhat stronger at 25-19.
Those numbers certainly aren’t bad for Keen Gaming, but it still appears to be a far cry from the kind of results that the team would need to be considered a favorite coming into this event. Add onto that the fact that the team didn’t exactly end its regular season in the most confident of fashions (finishing in the bottom half of the event standings in 3 of its last 5 appearances), and Keen Gaming is not sitting in the strongest position in the run up to TI9. If everything breaks right for the squad, then perhaps Keen Gaming could push itself into the upper echelons of the TI9 standings, but for now the squad appears to be in line for a finish somewhere closer to the middle of the pack in Shanghai, leaning a bit more towards the lower half of the event standings.