MVP Phoenix may be competing under the South-East Asia banner, but make no mistake: this team is pure Korean.
In fact, their umbrella organization Team MVP is a Korean multigaming team that originally started in that most quintessentially Korean of gaming pools: StarCraft II. MVP entered the Dota 2 gaming scene in 2013 shortly after conclusion of The International 3, which at the time was the largest Dota 2 event to ever have run. While its SCII faction flamed out in dramatic fashion, MVP birthed two Dota 2 teams. The first of these was MVP Hot6. A few months later, MVP Phoenix followed.
Though the younger of the two sister teams, Phoenix has traditionally always outperformed Hot6 by a wide margin. At TI4, MVP Hot6 did not make the cut for the tournament, whereas MVP Phoenix scored itself a spot in the playoffs (a phase essentially identical to today’s wildcard process). They went on to defeat Virtus.pro but lost to Team Liquid, subsequently ending their run at TI4 glory. Last year, both teams fought their way through the TI5 qualifiers, and although Hot6 scored itself a guaranteed slot, Phoenix only made it by the skin of its teeth as a wildcard. Phoenix ended up placing 7th, and Hot6 placed last.
This year, MVP Phoenix is once again the only member of Team MVP to make it into the Internationals. They are the only SEA team to do so through direct invite.
Though the team has been around since 2013, many of MVP Phoenix’s players are new to the team.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they are new to the game. Several of MVP Phoenix’s players are in fact recruits from the Hot6 team.
Lee ‘FoReV’ Sang-don is such a player. In fact, Lee been shuttled between the two sister teams, starting on Phoenix, then moving to Hot6, only to return back to Phoenix in December of last year. (Note: the author has chosen to present the names of the players in keeping with the Korean tradition of surname first.) Pyo ‘MP’ No-a is another: following seven months on Hot6, Pyo joined Phoenix in August 2015 following TI5.
Kim ‘QO’ Seong-yeob is currently the longest-serving member of Team Phoenix, having been a part of the team during last year’s TI5.
Team captain Kim ‘DuBu’ Doo-Young is yet another Hot6 transplant, and a youngblood in every sense of the word: his brief stint with Hot6 began in September 2015 and ended in November of the same year, when he jumped ships to board MVP Phoenix. He is one of the newest members of the team, having joined at the same time as teammate Lee in December 2015. This year’s TI6 marks his International as a player; last year’s tournament saw Kim in the position of coach for the team. But being a coach is very different from being a player, let alone a team captain. Kim has said on the topic:
As a player, the most different thing is… I care more about team mood… [as opposed to] strategy. The most important thing is teamwork.
The story of Kim ‘Febby’ Yong-min plays out almost like young adult novel or coming-of-age film.
Inspired by friend Park ‘March’ Tae-won, Kim moved to Korea with dreams of finding success in the nascent Korean Dota 2 scene. And so he joined Park to become part of FXOpen e-Sports. The two were so close that Kim’s gamer tag ‘Febby’ was bestowed upon him by Park: Kim was the ‘February’ to Park’s ‘March’. This was later shortened to ‘Febby’, and the nickname has stuck ever since.
Despite their friendship, the two began to experience conflict on the team, and parted ways. Park helped form MVP Phoenix, and Kim joined Pokerface.
However, where Park found a measure of success, Kim was unable to do the same. With no family around, no support system in place, and scant tournament winnings, Kim endured a year of homelessness. It got so bad that Kim took to sleeping in abandoned buildings when money was scarce.
“Sure it was dark. Sure I had no food, no house, no anything,” Kim agrees. Whatever he earned, he poured back into the game, spending his time at internet cafes to keep his skills sharp. “Sometimes I would have no money to eat, because I would need to practice every day. And I would have no money left over for food. Sometimes! Only sometimes,” he hastens to add.
Anyone else might have quit, but Kim was relentless. He was determined to show all the naysayers that Korean Dota 2 could be great. And it was personal, too: Kim burned to be part of the best Korean Dota 2 team.
Although the situation was often bleak, Kim was sustained in part, he says, by the power of love—his girlfriend, professional StarCraft II player Kim ‘Aphrodite’ Ga Young, was “one of the main reasons I stayed in Korea,” he admits.
Despite the difficulties, Kim’s focus never wavered. He chose not to dwell on the negative aspects of his situation. “What was going through my mind was ‘How should I pick tomorrow? How should I play tomorrow? How can I improve my Dota? How can I improve our team’s Dota?'”
Park retired in March of this year to complete his mandatory period of military service in Korea’s armed forces. Kim plays on—driven, determined, defiant.
“I don’t regret it at all,” Kim says. “It helped me become a better person.”
Korean Dedication: Eat, Sleep, Play
For many Korean viewers, MVP Phoenix represent a bastion of hope for prospective Dota 2 pros.
Despite bigger prize pools and larger audiences, Dota 2 in the Korean world is simply not as popular as other games. It’s puzzling, as Korean gamers are well-known for and widely considered the undisputed champions of pure mechanical skills; this could easily translate to Dota 2 domination. Korean gamers, with their technical aptitude and relentless work ethic, could definitely pose real threats to the existing top-dogs. However, League of Legends still reigns supreme in Korea for MOBAs; even Heroes of the Storm and Smite garner more attention.
Part of this may be due to the lack of support from Valve to help the scene flourish: in late 2015, Valve took over the handling of Dota 2 from Korean studio Nexon. Dedicated Korean Dota 2 servers were subsequently shut down; Korean players would have a choice of playing on Chinese or SEA servers. The lack of popularity may also stem from the fact that LoL was released first, accompanied by an aggressive marketing campaign—something that Dota 2 has always lacked.
Whatever the reason, Dota 2 in Korea has never really taken off. Which is why MVP Phoenix’s performance is so important to the Korean eSports scene.
Last year was lacklustre for performances. MVP Phoenix never even made it past qualifiers for the Frankfurt Major, and the struggle seemed only to intensify. But this year, MVP Phoenix, like their mythical namesake, have risen from the ashes and come back better and more ambitious than ever. Failure whetted their appetites, and they practiced hard to improve their MMRs—6k players became 7k, and 7k players became 8k. Team captain Kim said of his own improvements that he took his cue from those around him: he ate, slept, and played Dota 2.
Their hard work has paid off: earlier this year, MVP Phoenix thrashed last year’s TI winners Evil Geniuses 3-0 in the Dota Pit League Season 4 championship to claim first place.
Having already done so much, MVP Phoenix are looking to achieve even more. Whether they can add an International win to their impressive list of achievements remains to be seen. It won’t be easy—but that’s never stopped MVP Phoenix.
Hard work, after all, overcomes hardship.