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Esports Flashback: Dendi, the Dota 2 Millionaire

Looking to take a trip through the annals of esports history? Here's a classic interview we had with Danil "Dendi" Ishutin in 2012. He discusses his abilities as a Dota 2 player and how he won the 2012 The International tournament.

(Editor's note: We recognize the outdated capitalization of "eSports", but have left it as originally written for nostalgia's sake.)

Meet Dendi

Winning one million dollars would be huge for any twenty-one year old, but for someone living in a country where the monthly living expenses can be covered with around $300, one million dollars isn’t just a fortune; it is life changing money. That is exactly what happened for Danil ‘Dendi’ Ishutin, who together with his team, Natus Vincere, took home the biggest prize pool in eSports history when they won “The International” Dota 2 tournament - a cool $1 million.

Danil Ishutin does not look like your typical student-gone-millionaire, with his shy demeanor and shaggy brown hair, but then again, there isn’t much about him that is typical. Danil has had spent numerous hours in music school when he was a youngster and even spent years in acrobatics training.

"My childhood was quite eventful," Danil says when asked about how it was to grow up. "I lived together with my parents, my grandparents and my two siblings. From childhood, I attended music school and was engaged into acrobatics. Later in my life I became fond of dancing, playing basketball and doing all sorts of other kinds of sports.

Music, acrobatics and dancing could seem like a weird mix of youth activities for most gamers, but Danil grew up in the West Ukrainian city of Lviv, often nicknamed “Little Paris of Ukraine”. The city has more than 750 years of history as home to several world class cultural institutions; Lviv philharmonic orchestra and the famous Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet amongst others.

...he would much rather have played games all day with his brother...

It wasn’t Danil’s choice to attend music school, he would much rather have played games all day with his brother, but being part of a musical family, he was left no choice.

"I was attending musical school for five years. At that time I didn’t have the choice of how I wanted to spend my free time. My parents signed me up for musical school and that was pretty much it. I have a 'musical' family as my mom, brother and sister have been playing music for quite some time. Both my brother and my sister were also involved in acrobatics." All the while, Danil still managed to find his way into gaming.

"As a matter of fact I got a computer while still being a kid. I was carefully watching as my brother played PC games. From time to time I played myself, and when I did, I gave every game on our computer a try."

It isn’t an understatement to say that he gave every game a try. When they got the computer, only a few games were available, but soon Danil would install all the games he had access to.

"I played every single game I could install on my computer. And that’s quite a lot, of games I must say," he noted and continued to list up some of his favorite games. "The most famous of them are Warcraft 2000, StarCraft, Need For Speed, Worms 1 and 2, Heroes of Might and Magic 1 and 2, the DOOM and Quake series’ and many more. I remember being especially fond of Heroes of Might and Magic 2."

It wasn’t Heroes of Might and Magic that would bind the young Ukrainian to the computer and eventually make him a millionaire. Instead, it was the Warcraft® universe and its myriad of custom modified maps that would propel Danil into eSports history. While playing WarCraft III he was introduced to a custom map called “Defense of The Ancients”, a game where two teams of five aim to destroy each other’s base. With a simple layout, a steep learning curve and a complex set of items, characters and skill sets, the game instantly appealed to Danil.

Dota 2 Turns Things Upside Down

Dendi grins and points with finger guns. Source: SteelSeries

The game seemingly suited Danil, and he made swift progress and quickly became one of Ukraine’s best players. In 2007 he was a part of the Ukrainian national team that made it to the top three of MYM Prime Nations - the closest thing to an online World Cup Dota has ever had, and only a few months later his own team, Wolker.Gaming, made it to the Grand Final of the most prestigious online Dota tournament; MYM Prime Defending.

After he broke onto the International scene in just a few months, Danil has been impressing quite often. In a community where players change teams left and right, Danil has always managed to get the better of these rotations. In 2010, he teamed up with DTS and won the ASUS Spring tournament, held in Moscow, Russia, in front of several world class teams. That feat was quite something, but a few months later he topped it by almost beating the Chinese favorite, EHOME in the ESWC Grand Final, a feat no one had ever been close to.

"I think that Dota 2 will be exactly what everyone is imagining Dota could have been like."

As Dota was slowly dying out on the competition circuit, Danil realized it could all have ended there. Instead however, in October 2010, the game publisher Valve announced that they were going to create a sequel to the popular custom map, very close to the original but complete with its own platform, a port of heroes and abilities. Valve had even hired Dota’s main contributor in the last few years, Icefrog, to head the development of the game.

In an interview Danil said that he didn’t expect much of the new game, but hoped that it would be close to the original:

"I think that Dota 2 will be exactly what everyone is imagining Dota could have been like. I hope it will be the same old Dota with tweaked graphics, with the same heroes, the same game mechanics and the same balance - running on a new engine and with features like reconnect, hotkeys and so on."

As it turned out he would be one of the very first to try out the new game, although at that point he didn't know about that.

As 2010 turned to 2011, rumors started to surface on the Internet that Valve was up to something big with Dota 2. Natus Vincere (aka NaVi), the biggest Ukrainian eSports team, saw its chance to establish a Ukrainian powerhouse and recruited Dendi to their 2011 lineup. In mid-June NaVi bought out Dmitriy ‘LighTofHeaveN’ Kupriyanov’s contract from Moscow5 for $2,000 and also added the Estonian ace, Clement ‘Puppey’ Ivanov. The transfer of Kurpiyanov added more fuel to the fire, and strongly indicated to everyone that the rumors about a Grand Dota 2 tournament were true; why else would someone pay such an amount of money for a player, in a game with no events, people were asking rhetorically.

When “The International” was eventually announced on the 1st of August 2011, Danil and his team mates in Natus Vincere had already played the game for several weeks. Just like all of the other teams who had been invited to the tournament, they had received beta access so they could practice the game.

The Million Dollar Tournament

Dendi plays around with a corded mouse. Source: SteelSeries

When you are creating a sequel to a Warcraft 3 custom map with reportedly 20 million downloads, and you showcase it for the first time ever in a tournament with a $1,000,000 1st place prize purse, you will be sure to generate a lot of buzz. If that tournament is hosted during the biggest Games show in Europe and includes the 16 best teams in the world, the attention will explode. Valve sure knew what they were doing, when they introduced “The International” and poured $1,600,000 worth of prize money into it.

Amongst the invitees were the best teams in the world. Seven Asian teams had been invited, along with the very best teams and players in Europe and the United States.

Money was not the issue for Valve, who covered all costs for the attending teams. It seems weird to think back on it now, but the Natus Vincere players were far from being regarded as favorites going into the event. The Danish MYM team, as well as the Asian teams of invictus Gaming and EHOME, were the public front runners for the title.

Rather than using his time on fearing his upcoming opponents, Danil spent his time studying them. Having played MYM several times already, Danil says that he looked forward to meeting the Chinese teams at the event.

"I felt awesome (prior to the event) and I was ready to fight against the Chinese teams," he says and concedes that he had high hopes for his own team. "I guess our team was considered to be one of the strongest (before the event.)"

A Flawless Performance

Dendi taunts the audience with hands on his head and his tongue out. Source: SteelSeries

Had people doubted NaVi’s ability to challenge the very best at The International, it only took the group stage to convince them otherwise. Grouped with some of Europe’s best players in GGnet and nevo, the Ukrainians swept the group clean. Just as expected, the Asian team in their group was the toughest challenge however.

The Singaporeans from Scythe.SG, who ultimately finished 3rd in the tournament, was however also brushed aside as NaVi deployed a play style which they had been working on for over half a year. Danil described it to in the spring of 2011.

"The right way to play Dota is to pick-up towers, because they give you advantage. If you can take towers, you get advantage. So if you take heroes that let you pick 6 towers and enables you to defend your 6 towers, you still win even if your opponent has more late-game, because you have those 6 towers. Late-game is very random. You can lose the game at any moment. All it takes is a small mistake and you risk losing the game. You play 60 minutes, someone kills your hero and you lose. What's the point of going late-game if you can push and win in 20?"

The rhetorical question set the tone for the entire tournament for the Ukrainians. Topping their group they went into the playoffs with a 1st placed seed, taking on the Russian team from Moscow 5 in the quarter-finals. As they beat them handily, the contours of something grand started to appear. When NaVi bested the Chinese million dollar team of invictus Gaming, qualifying for the Winners Bracket Final, it weren’t just contours anymore; everyone now believed that Danil and his four teammates had a realistic shot at winning The International.

"We were 80% sure that we could win the event at that point. It really cheered us up, Danil remembers."

As Natus Vincere stomped Scythe.SG on two maps in the Winners Bracket Final they accomplished an impressive feat. After seven games of Dota 2 they were still undefeated, and going into the Grand Final, already having $250,000 secured, it didn’t seem like that was about to change.

Practice Made Perfect

Dendi winks at the camera.

"The [Counter-Strike] guys helped us a lot, they gave advice to us on how to behave during the matches and how to think when we were playing,"

For onlookers it was a surprise that NaVi had qualified for the Grand Final with such a dominant performance, but it was anything but a coincidence that it was Danil and his team who had made it so far. Before the tournament they had been boot camping for several weeks, even obtaining advice and coaching from Natus Vincere’s award winning Counter-Strike team. Their fellow countrymen had let the Dota 2 team borrow their practice facilities, and had taken the time to mentor them about things their competitors didn’t seem to focus on.

"The [Counter-Strike] guys helped us a lot, they gave advice to us on how to behave during the matches and how to think when we were playing," Danil says when asked about the influence of the mentoring.

"They made us believe that we were stronger than our opponents. I want to thank them a lot for that and for their support. That really affected us, I think. And what more is they let us use their training base, special thanks for that!"

NaVi’s Counter-Strike team are not strangers to competing for big checks on the international scene, and their advice and support was a key part of the Dota 2 team’s performances. They however couldn’t possibly have prepared their inexperienced teammates for the pressure which was about to hit them head on.

The Most Important Match

Dendi laughs while holding a corded mouse. Source: SteelSeries

If you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, would you capture it or would you just let it slip? Eminem puts it ever so eloquently in his 2002 monster hit “Lose Yourself”; the Grand Final of The International had handed Danil an amazing opportunity to change his course of life, and he wasn’t about to let that escape his grasp.

"We tried to hold ourselves up (going into the game). We had two options either to win or to fail. Surely we hoped for the first one," Danil says about the prospect of going into a one million dollar game.

The opponents in the match were EHOME, one of the most dominant Dota teams ever to emerge from Asia.

Dubbed as one of the favorites before the event, EHOME had won their group in a convincing manner and looked unstoppable until the semi-finals. Here they ran into Scythe.SG who sent the Chinese team to the losers bracket. EHOME didn’t give up however, and after an impressive losers bracket run - resulting in a losers bracket final win against Scythe. SG - they qualified for the Grand Final.

At that point in time, NaVi hadn’t played EHOME at all in the tournament, and didn’t know what to expect from them. Consequently the Ukrainians applied the same strategy as they had done the entire tournament; they wanted to push the Chinese team’s towers but still be able to defend their own.

It didn’t work. The one strategy which had not failed Danil for the entire tournament now fell apart. For the first time in ‘The International’, Natus Vincere had lost a match, and their ever impressive defense had taken a huge hit. For Danil, the loss just meant he now had an even higher desire to win.

"I felt like I wouldn’t give them any chance to win the next game."

Coming into the Grand Final NaVi were leading 1-0 due to coming from the Winners Bracket, meaning that EHOME had now tied the match to 1-1. With at least two games yet to come, the Ukrainians resorted to a different strategy than the one they had lost game one with.

"We had a special plan on picking up the heroes. Telling you the truth, it was the first time I played Dota 2 with Enigma against EHOME in the Grand Final. I was a bit nervous back then," Danil says about the strategy for the 2nd game.

If Danil was nervous in the 2nd match against EHOME, he didn’t show it. With stellar Enigma play and an amazing showing by his team mate Oleksandr ‘XBOCT’ Dashkevych on Spectre, Natus Vincere managed to claw back and achieve a 2-1 lead. The momentum carried into the third game in the Grand Final which NaVi dominated in order to take a 3-1 victory and win The International. Danil still remembers it as if it was yesterday.

"It was so rejoicing! We were so pleased! "The [Counter-Strike] guys helped us a lot, they gave advice to us on how to behave during the matches and how to think when we were playing," he says, but in the same breath concedes that the many hours of playing had exhausted them.

"We were extremely tired both morally and physically. So one of the first thoughts was to relax in an empty room and enjoy the moment of victory."

Plans For The Future

Dendi looks determined for victory with raised fists.Source: SteelSeries

A year ago Danil was a University student with a degree in automation and computer technologies, who earned a decent salary for playing computer games. Now, following the victory at ‘The International’, he is by his own country’s standard, a very wealthy young man. A fifth of one million dollars might not seem like a life changing amount of money, but if Danil were to pursue a career in his field from University, he says it would net him “like $300-$400 monthly salary in my own city”.

Unlike many of his teammates who have already put their prize money to work, Danil has decided to take a more relaxed approach to the money.

"Actually I still feel like a noob some times, even though I’ve gotten several important victories. I hope to become even better in the future."

He doesn’t want to plan a future in eSports because as he says; “Right now it [eSports] is at a level that does not let you plan for the future, and that is really dangerous”.

That’s why Danil wants to save his money for a rainy day, although he still has to decide exactly how to do so.

"I haven’t decided yet what to do with the money. I’m very likely to invest it into real estate."

In terms of gaming, Danil considers himself a Dota player and will attend any major tournament in either the original game or the sequel. Over the last few months NaVi has won the Dota 2 tournament at the eSports World Cup in Paris, France, but failed to make a mark at the World Dota Championship in China.

And his motivation? Well, Danil certainly hasn’t let his new found fame and fortune get the best of him, in fact, after winning The International; he said what he really wants is to continue practicing and improving.

"Actually I still feel like a noob some times, even though I’ve gotten several important victories. I hope to become even better in the future."

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