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Photos of Team Liquid Dota 2 at the ESL ONE Hamburg Major
NEWS

The (Humble) Road to a World Championship

Nov 302017

INTRODUCTION

Maroun “GH” Merhej’s rise to stardom in the public eye has been nothing short of meteoric. 

Earlier this year at age 22, GH became a world champion by winning the biggest tournament in esports history, The International 7. He did so with Team Liquid, only 9 months after officially beginning his international gaming career. 

The road has been a slow and winding one but GH had some inkling of what the future would hold.

“When I was younger I knew I wanted to be a sportsman,” says Maroun. “I used to play a lot of sports like basketball and table tennis and I used to be pretty good at both of them. I wanted to go pro playing table tennis, but if you wanted to make a living in table tennis you had to be the absolute best at the game and some people were just beasts, I just wasn’t up there. I was decent but I wasn’t anywhere close to their level."

“When I was 11 or 12 I used to win a lot of tournaments for my age and then play with older people but when I was about 16 I stopped playing ping pong and now I just play Dota,” says Maroun.

“Just play Dota” is a bit of an understatement, especially as Team Liquid’s victory in Seattle over the summer netted him over $2 million, catapulting him into the Top-10 highest earning esports players of all time. 

THE EARLY YEARS

 

GH’s first contact with Dota came with the original, a mod for Blizzard’s real-time strategy title Warcraft 3. At age 10 GH began to play at home versus AI much to the dismay of his parents. “When Dota got introduced to my life things went downhill a bit too fast,” jokes Maroun. “My parents were worried about me because I was playing all the time, I wasn’t studying. I didn’t miss school or anything, I just didn’t study at all.”

 

By age 12, GH was hooked and he would stay up late at night until his mother would eventually catch him and scold him, forcing him to turn off the PC and go to sleep. However, at age 14 GH’s involvement in gaming took a giant leap as he began going to a Netcafe brought along by his 18-year-old brother and his friends.

 

“At first I was just watching them but nobody wants their younger brother to just sit there doing nothing just watching like a creep,” says Maroun laughing. “So I just learned on my own at first and didn’t bother anyone and I slowly got into it.”

 

A few years later, Valve would release Dota 2 and a place at law school gave GH newfound freedom; but it also presented him with a problem. “I used to play Dota while I was at school but it was quite hard to balance my Dota and my studies, so some things had to suffer in this process. I found a solution though... I used to go to law school for 7 or 8 hours and then do 7 to 8 hours in the netcafe. I didn’t have any social life [laughs]. I didn't talk to anyone except on WhatsApp.”

 

GH skills would improve enough to be part of Wired Gaming, a Lebanese roster who reached the MSI Beat it LAN Finals in Taiwan through winning the Middle Eastern Qualifiers in 2014.  The roster would later attract sponsorship from E-Lab but GH’s LAN debut in Taiwan ended in defeat. “We lost hard in Taiwan,” says Maroun. “but it made me think ‘this was really cool, I want to do this’ — I wanted to go back there and win next time.”

 

A CHALLENGE GH COULD NOT REFUSE

 

Up until 2014 GH had primarily played party queue with friends. “We would enjoy the 5-man party, we’d wake up together, sleep together. We’d get up up at 5am, grab some coffee and some donuts and then just play. Sometimes I wouldn’t leave the netcafe at all. Since I knew the owners I would just sleep on the couch.”

 

A challenge from his then-team-mate CouchPotato however, would trigger his competitive nature.

 

“CouchPotato was one of the highest MMR players in the Middle East, he was 6.6k when everyone else was 6.1k or something. One day after I told him I didn’t want to play solo queue he said, ‘I guess that’s a good idea since you’ll never beat my MMR anyway’. That was the thing that pushed me to finally go solo queue, that challenge.”

 

While still juggling his classes GH began his grind, self-motivated and determined.  

 

“I never had a mentor but for me the road was simple. I used to play every role in my pub games so I understood the game better. I played offlane, mid lane, safe lane, support. Sometimes I would lose MMR because I’m not the best carry, but sometimes other people don’t enjoy certain roles so I have to step in and take the mid for example. Doing all this helped me to now know what to focus my support skills on.”


His drive to rise in the solo MMR rankings was an arduous one, and he did so under the scrutiny of on-lookers in his local netcafe who watched over his shoulder, sometimes blowing cigarette smoke at him as he played even after he kindly asked them to stop.

 

“There were still flamers but I cancel out the negativity in my life, I don’t really listen to negative voices, I just see the positive in people,” remarked Maroun.

 

“Some people tried to give me tips or some people tried to flame me. ‘Why don’t you use your spells man? Hello? What’s wrong with you?’ I was 7.5K MMR and I see this 3.2K MMR guy trying to tell me what to do. I wouldn’t say anything to hurt his feelings, I would just nod my head in acceptance.”

 

“I actually didn’t give it my all to resolve problems because I’m not the kind of guy to point out something bad in someone else. I hate negativity in my life. We could argue it’s kind of bad to keep it to myself but I personally just can’t come out and say something that could hurt someone; flaming the shit out of people, that’s not me.”


Regardless of the conditions, GH’s efforts in solo queue would be rewarded and 18 months after Couch Potato’s challenge GH had not only beaten him, but had reached Rank 1 on the European Servers!

 

This would be his calling card for the professional scene.

TEAM LIQUID COME CALLING

 

By November of 2016, GH was a stand-in for Team Liquid, who had just narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Boston Major with their previous line-up, and Gh put his education on hold to seize the opportunity. His impact was instantaneous and he gelled immediately with Liquid’s mid-laner Miracle.

 

“I really liked the new line-up with Miracle, I was a fan of his. We got on instantly, we’re both Arabs so we speak the same language and we just naturally became friends,” says Maroun.

 

“It was hard for me to make the move at first because everyone on the team was so talented.  Kuroky really helped me with that, he told me not to stress myself or to feel pressure, he told me just to play, to keep doing what I’d been doing, and I’ve been doing just that ever since.” Just a few weeks after GH’s addition Team Liquid flew to Sweden and won DreamLeague Season 6 collecting $90,000, a perfect end to what could have been a disappointing season. 

 

At the start of 2017 the team secured another LAN victory at Starladder i-League Season 3 in China but eventually hit a wall in April of this year at DAC 2017, where they were knocked out early on. The honeymoon period was over, but Maroun was quick to get back on his feet. He remarked, “I do take losses badly but I try to learn from them. A guy can’t lose and be happy about it. I needed one day or two to accept our result at DAC and move on.”

 

A resurgence at the Kiev Major where GH and Team Liquid placed Top-8 would then lead to a phenomenal run across 3 continents. 1st place at Starladder Invitational 2 in Shanghai, led to another 1st place at EPICENTER 2017 in Moscow and one more 1st place at DreamLeague in Atlanta.

 

The secret to success?

“We just took it one tournament at a time,” says Maroun. “If you have to worry about future tournaments or previous tournaments, or defeats — if you pressure yourself to have some certain placement — you will be pressured the whole tournament. Those were the wise words given by our captain Kuroky and I feel like that is the way to go. If you go into a tournament thinking ‘I need to get Top-1 or 2 or 3,’ then the pressure starts building up right from that moment.”

 

That said, no tournament comes with more pressure than The International, an annual event in Seattle hosted and organized by Valve themselves, and Team Liquid entered this year’s TI in fantastic shape. While in their group stage Team Liquid finished in 1st place, come the playoffs they suffered an unexpected defeat to Chinese team Invictus Gaming in the very first round.

 

Dota fans had seen it before, teams stumbling and crumbling when push comes to shove at The International. Many top teams had faltered in the past at the illustrious event and following that defeat TL were just one loss away from becoming another TI disappointment. One more defeat and they were history, but that wasn’t Team Liquid’s destiny.

 

Their first opponent in the lower-bracket was Team Secret and when Team Liquid went 1-0 down it looked like it really was all over. However, Liquid did not surrender and GH refused to lose. Liquid turned the series around to win 2-1 and began their historic run in the lower-bracket.

 

The incredible run culminated in a 1st place at The International 7 with Liquid defying the odds to win six matches back-to-back to claim the record-breaking $10.8 million. GH was now a world champion and, living up to his Internet namesake, a God.

 

A WORLD CHAMPION BUT AN UNCHANGED LIFESTYLE

 

GH returned to Lebanon after winning TI7 to be welcomed by a crowd of 300 people, a mixture of family, friends, gamers from the netcafe and simply lovers of Dota. However, despite becoming a world champion not much has changed says Maroun.

 

GH is recognized on the street more than before and the number of “non-believers” as he calls them has dropped, but in terms of his lifestyle and friendships it’s stayed very much the same.

 

“I’ve had the same group of six friends since primary school,” says Maroun. “They’re my closest friends, some of them are Dota players, some of them aren’t. I do everything with them. We go for road trips, go to bars for a few drinks and a chat, and play sports — even football which I’m not very good at. They’ll still bring me along though to not let me down [laughs].”

 

But what did the TI7 world champion do after coming home?

 

“I just sat in my bed and said to myself no more Dota for a couple of weeks,” says Maroun. “Then after 1 or 2 days I was like ‘what do i do now?’, so... I just went back to the netcafe and played Dota on the 3rd day (laughs).”

 

He may be a world champion but outside of the game GH hasn’t changed. He achieved in 9 months what many players have spent 5, 6 or even 7 years trying to achieve, but you wouldn't know that if you passed him on the street. GH is a millionaire who still keeps the same childhood friends, still lives in the same house and still takes the short walk to his local netcafe to play Dota surrounded by other gamers, on a PC which he is proud to say he made himself.

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