The pre-TI8 final shuffle is almost over. We are just hours before the rosters lock deadline, and just like previous shuffles, the one for Winter 2018 brings a couple of surprises on the table.
Who would have thought a month ago that Virtus.pro will make any change, especially knowing that their player contracts were renewed for another year just before the team went to Seattle for TI7? VP were rather bragging with their confidence in their line-up and the announcement was posted by the Russian organization several times, pre, during and post TI7.
Who even dared imagine that Ilya “Lil” Ilyuk will join Na’Vi before TI8? Yet, it happened five days ago. When the Na’Vi – VP player swap happened, most of us thought “ok, this is the most exciting part of this season’s CIS shuffle”. It probably still is, although only two days after signing Lil, Na’Vi took everyone by surprise with the Akbar “SoNNeikO” Butaev release. And the unforeseen decisions did not stop there. It’s been announced earlier today that SoNNeikO’s support position will be taken by Nikola “LeBronDota” Popović, and yeah that’s one hell of a story to follow from here on.
LeBron’s acquisition by the most iconic CIS organization is perhaps hard to understand at first. But for those who know LeBron, him joining a big team was just a matter of time. Despite his not exactly young age for a pro player (he will turn 28 in April), LeBron is somewhat still a fresh face in the competitive scene. I wouldn’t be baffled at all if someone told me “I haven’t heard of this dude before”.
Like any other Dota 2 pro player, LeBron’s passion for the game goes far back in the day. His desire to meet one day players like Dendi or Loda, to play with or against them kept him motivated until the very present day. But as the story goes for so many who have the same desire, LeBron had to overcome a lot of obstacles. First and foremost he comes from a country where an esports pro career, let aside a Dota 2 one, is not a popular choice.
To be perfectly honest, I discovered him as a pro player nearly two years ago while watching the Manila Major European open qualifiers. He was playing back then in a Serbian – Croatian stack called Spider Pigz. They’ve lost in the finals and the stack didn’t last too long after. But LeBron’s name kept popping up every now and then, especially after he joined Elements Pro Gaming. EPG was his first stable team and his first glance at what a pro player career could mean. His first team house, his first bootcamps, his first team photo shooting sessions, the first big LANs happened with EPG.
LeBron’s story is about determination, belief in himself and in his dreams. He began to dream at a pro career after The International 2011 when he actually heard about Na’Vi and their players for the first time in his life. “After watching how NAVI dominated and won the tournament [TI1] with so much passion I became a huge fan and I dreamt of playing with them” says LeBron nearly seven years later, when he is announced as Na’Vi’s latest addition.
When I first meet LeBron, exactly one year ago, at Dota Pit Season 5, he told me how everything changed for him after Gleb “Funn1k” Lipatnikov discovered him in a pub game. Funn1k was still a Na’Vi member when that happened, and that was LeBron’s first confirmation that he can truly turn to a pro career. However, his day by day life wasn’t allowing him to commit 110% to his goal. Living with his parents in a small town in Serbia forced him to focus on his studies. “I feel that I Improved only after I went to the big city to continue my university studies“, LeBron told me in November 2017 when I got to see him again at the WESG European qualifiers. We spoke more about how hard it was for him, and any other Serbian player for that matter, to accomplish his dream of becoming a pro. “There a lot of extremely talented players in Serbia, the community is great there, but the general mentality about esports, or a Dota professional career, is still quite behind” he added after his team qualified for WESG 2018 Global Grand Finals. “Most of the good players we have can’t really turn to a professional career because they are either not allowed by their families, or they need to sustain themselves from a so-called “real job”.
While he was still living with his parents, LeBron climbed the FPL ladder from the bottom to the top and in that regard, his story is similar to Liquid’s Mind_ControL (who by the way, is still the ONLY Bulgarian player to have made a break out). He set for himself small goals that kept him motivated every day. He went through all the hustle starting with let’s get 6K MMR, then the 7K goal was real, “I won’t stop until 8K” he said after funny enough, SoNNeikO was the first support to reach that milestone. A few months later LeBron was 8,020.
In his nearly two years of pro career, LeBron changed just three teams, which says a lot about his dedication and commitment. He formed strong bonds with all his former teammates and every time I saw him and his team at a LAN event, the general vibe was that they were a group of friends sharing the same dream before anything else. Gracious to anyone who would talk to him, happy to be around those who inspired him to become a pro, LeBron can always be found in the tournaments venue watching and enjoying his adversaries games. You might see him cheering or applauding a nice play regardless of who did it. LeBron loves the game with every bit of his heart and never stopped to believe that one day he will get to play for the team that he’s been a fan of for over seven years, Na’Vi.
“Even though this dream seemed unrealistic at the time, I was still hoping that I can make it. It doesn’t matter how old you are – if you are working hard and commit everything you can, I am sure you can make the dreams come true! As a big fan of NAVI I know what fans expect and that’s being back on top, and I can assure you that we will try our best to make it happen! I want to thank the organization and the players for believing in me.” – extract from LeBron’s official statement after joining Na’Vi on, February 2018.
Dreams do come true, LeBron is the perfect example and most likely his story is set to encourage and give hope to many other aspiring players.