It takes a special kind of player to go to The International. As competition has grown, we’ve seen an increasing number of players miss just by the skin of their teeth. Anyone who manages to attend multiple successive TIs, that too with star status loaded onto their shoulders, deserves a place in the annals of Dota history.
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Yeik "MidOne" Nai Zheng is one of Southeast Asia’s young blood and an upcoming Malaysian esports star. Past legends have had success ebb away from them, as Chai "Mushi" Yee Fung - the most successful player SEA has ever seen on an international stage - will not be attending TI for the second time in three years. MidOne is very much a spiritual successor to Mushi himself.
It would not be unfair to say that MidOne, 23, has led the charge for the new generation - being the first SEA server player to break 8000, 9000 and 10,000 MMR. As fortune had it, this high MMR came at the ideal time, when teams had recently started recruiting flashy new talent to be complemented by veterans, and there were few flashier than him. That was his ticket into the top-level Dota 2 scene. With little international experience, he was first picked up by Fnatic in 2016 - a team that had legends Mushi and Ohaiyo within it already.
Fnatic - Succeeding Mushi
There had historically been very few players who had, at that point, relegated Mushi off mid lane for an extended period of time. Only Kecik Imba had been able to substitute him for any significant length of time, and even that was rescinded eventually. MidOne, being a Malaysian pubstar who had gained some notoriety, had to be given his most comfortable position: Mushi’s former stomping grounds, the mid lane.
There was immense speculation about the move, with this being one of the first pubstars from SEA to be directly picked up into a tier one team. Although OG was having success on the other side of the world with Miracle, and W33ha with Secret, it had always been considered that the Southeast Asian matchmaking scene was much more individual-focused. It was increasingly believed that this was a move that would either destroy the team entirely, or give it wings to fly to the top.
The gamble paid off, and it seemed like Mushi had found a worthy successor for the mid lane crown. His early games were nostalgic of the old-school Mushi days, where he would be given priority of lane for the sake of his comfort - occasionally switching between 1 and 2 depending on the hero played - and then he would use that position of comfort to absolutely dominate and create a lead that could be snowballed into a win.
Results were more than impressive, as their 2016 LAN debut was seen at The Shanghai Major. Featuring a very good group stage where they took second seed in a not-too-easy group, eliminating the directly invited Vici in the process. The playoffs saw them eliminated by EG in the first round of the upper bracket though, and soon face to face with the number one seed in the tournament: OG. The series was practically prophetic about what would happen, come TI6. Despite being the favorites to win the tournament, OG was eliminated by a team that came from the Southeast Asian qualifiers. MidOne was undoubtedly the MVP of the series, finishing off game three with fourteen kills and zero deaths against OG.
What started off with a bang at the Shanghai Major, continued throughout the year as a second 5th place finish put them in a comfortable dark horse position heading into TI6. Ultimately, Fnatic was able to finish in fourth - the third highest a SEA team has ever been able to achieve to date. Only Mushi’s third place finish at TI3, and iceiceice having the same at TI1 could compare.
All this, done on the back of a player who found himself surrounded by the very stars he had once worshipped. It looked as though the region had finally found themselves a consistent top contender, and Mushi had finally found the one who he could train to rise to the greatest heights as tragedy struck.
MidOne’s Dirty Secret
By 2016, Secret already has a reputation both for poaching and for switching players quicker than you could snap your fingers. Puppey, the legendary Dota captain, still had the pull to get practically anyone he wanted, and when MidOne received an offer to join the team, he did the same that that Mushi did in 2013. Bags were packed, goodbyes were said, and one of the first SEA import players came into the Western scene. MidOne and MP were the new recruits to Secret, as Puppey seemed to have run out of Western players he had faith in.
Results were disappointing. Secret failed to qualify for two of the three majors, as they weren’t at Boston, or DAC. Even the major they did qualify into - the Kiev Major - was disappointing to say the least as they found themselves eliminated in the group stage. The year ended with a 9th place finish at TI7, and it seemed MidOne had committed career suicide. Bridges with the SEA community were burnt, and if Secret’s track record was anything to look at, MidOne wouldn’t be long for the roster.
However, for the first time in Secret’s history, a TI failure did not result in a new mid lane player. Whether this was a lack of other options or Puppey simply having faith in MidOne’s ability, we may never know.
Results for Secret saw a sudden turn-around. The inaugural season of the Dota Pro Circuit allowed them to be pegged as a comfortable invite to TI8. Multiple top 2 finishes and never dropping below top eight, was a radically different Secret to what was seen in the previous year.
As TI8 rolled around they finished roughly where people expected, losing a best of three to Evil Geniuses and another to Liquid - both having been teams considered amongst the favorites for a potential victory. They beat all the teams they were supposed to beat, with no real upsets coming against them or for them, resulting in a 6th place finish. Although this was the best that Secret had in years, it wasn’t enough for MidOne.
Seeking his inheritance
To inherit the SEA crown, MidOne has to either meet or exceed those who came before him. Should he want to have the most successful run of any in Dota 2, he needs to make the finals of TI9. This year’s Secret looks like it has the chops to do just that. Finishing highest on the DPC points, they’ve had more success than any other team - beating out even the DPC machines, Virtus.pro.
They’re the favourites heading into TI, but the favourites often have not won. First place in the DPC rankings may not tell the real tale, as every single team is going to be gunning for them.
For MidOne, this is his chance to finally inherit the crown. There is very little doubt in the Dota world that he will be the next king of SEA, but the professional scene is ruthless. An event like The International being in the calendar makes the rest of it seem so much less meaningful. When we talk about Secret, most people think about Puppey’s dream to be the first ever player to lift the Aegis twice. However for MidOne, winning TI is about so much more. TI9 is his best shot yet.
Now, MidOne awaits his coronation.
Pictures: StarLadder / Flickr