Arguably, no one has had a more capricious 2021-22 Dota Pro Circuit so far than Simon “Handsken” Haag. Following a respectable 9-12th place appearance at The International 10, expectations were high for the Swedish player and his team, Alliance, to continue their momentum for the new DPC. In addition to running it back with fellow teammate Nikolay "Nikobaby" Nikolov, Handsken saw the inclusion of Rodrigo "LESLÃO" Santos, Ondřej "Supream^" Štarha, and Adam "Aramis" Moroz who were all poised to help the team continue their quest of being the best Dota team in the scene.
Unfortunately, that didn’t come to be, as instead of vying for the top, Alliance floundered to finish in the bottom of the Western European league standings, subsequently relegating them to Division II. Unsurprisingly, Alliance’s descent necessitated major changes to the lineup, and by the end of the offseason, Handsken, who had been with the team for nearly two years, was released for the Spring Tour.
Despite the setback, Handsken persevered with the clear aim of returning to the DPC just as quickly as he had left it. Accompanied by past teammates (Gustav "s4" Magnusson, Linus "Limmp" Blomdin, Charlie "aQua" Arat [CharlieDota]) and a fresh face (Petu "Peksu" Vaatainen), Handsken formed goonsquad ahead of the DPC WEU Spring Tour open qualifiers.
Needless to say, the new stack didn’t waste time to make their presence known. By the end of the Spring Tour, goonsquad finished with a 14-0 game record, becoming the first team in the current iteration of the DPC format to go perfect in a season.
Having secured a spot in Division I, Handsken sat down with BLIX.GG to discuss the formation of goonsquad, how they went perfect in the Spring Tour, his perspective on Alliance’s disappointing showing during the Winter Tour, his recovery process during the offseason, and much more.
Pedro Romero: Thanks for the interview, Handsken! It's not every day I'm speaking to a player who was promoted to Division I in the DPC, but in your case, you did it as a member of goonsquad, a team that was formed less than three months ago. To start off, how are you doing while knowing that you will play back in Div. I for the third tour of the DPC?
Handsken: It feels good. That was always the goal for this squad, to be in Division I, and also compete in that league. It feels good that we have achieved our goal and now we're going to take a little bit of a break before coming back strong and hopefully make a splash in Div. I too.
As the team announced on social media at the end of the Tour, you guys were the first team in the history of the current DPC format to have finished the season perfect without dropping a single game. What do you make of the team's performance to stay on top for so long amidst this schedule in Div. II?
About the clean score, that's pretty good. Actually, I didn't know about that. I read about that statistic just afterwards but it feels good. Obviously, I think we knew that the potential was already there when we built the roster because of our players and each of their history, but I think what made us get this clean score was we just took it very seriously regardless of opponents or anything. We prepared for every game regardless if they were one of the better teams in the league or one of the worst. We took each series very seriously and we're trying to build really strong habits moving forward because we don't really have that many opportunities to get to LANs now that we're in Div. I for the third Major cycle of the season.
I want to go back to the moment when this squad was formed. Of course, as everyone knows, you left Alliance following a disappointing Winter Tour in which the team was relegated to Div. II. As a result of that, you then formed this new squad, which consists of yourself, s4, Limmp, Peksu, and aQua (otherwise known as Charlie), for this tour. I'd like to know what was the process in forming goonsquad prior to the Spring Tour?
Obviously, I was removed from Alliance which was a setback for me in a sense. I had to look for a new place to play or consider my options, etc. I had a pretty good relationship and a good history with Limmp and s4 from the past. We played in Alliance for a long time, I played with Limmp in other teams, and Charlie is a guy that I've had a good relationship with for a while. He's Swedish so we've known each other for a while regardless if I haven't played with him at all. Charlie was a guy that I had a close connection with already and we ended up talking and going over ideas. I wanted to know what he was doing and things like that. We then kind of just came up with the idea of hitting up s4 and Limmp to see what they wanted to do because obviously both of them were inactive at that point in the pro scene. We basically did that and I ended up getting in touch with Limmp and s4 again and everyone was pretty much into it.
All we had to do then was look for a Position Five player who was someone that wasn't necessarily going to be the captain. Me and s4 have been doing that for the longest time together already. Then it felt very natural to grab Peksu, a very promising player. Him and Charlie played safelane for a while together. Yeah, I felt it was pretty smooth and natural. It was all about connecting the pieces that were already there on the table, if you know what I mean?
Why the name goonsquad? What made the team come up with that name for the DPC?
Limmp suggested the name actually. It's actually a phrase that we use inside the game. You know how everybody knows about the 'Four protect one', right? It was just something that we liked to call. We call the people who are supposed to make space inside of the game the goons, so it just became natural for us to use the name. It's something we've been using for years now at this point. It has some sentimental value so we felt that it fit.
Before actually entering the DPC, you guys had to undergo the open qualifiers. Although there were an assortment of prospective teams vying to enter the DPC, with this particular squad, it consisted of TI-caliber and top quality players, if I do say so myself. What was the mindset for this team in trying to qualify for DPC? Was there much confidence from the team or reservation in order to ensure the team didn't go overboard while playing games?
It's hard to say. We haven't really played many open qualifiers as you said. We're used to being in Div. I, but our mindset going into open qualifiers was just trying to figure out the current patch because there was a major patch released maybe one or two weeks beforehand, so we tried to gather our ideas on what we think is good, what is not, and what we can use from our old stuff. And then in terms of the game and competing in the tournament itself, we just took it very seriously, game by game, and tried to not get overexcited or anything like that because best-of-ones can be tricky, even if you play against worse opponents, if you can call it that. We just took it very seriously and tried not to get cheesed obviously. The main focus was definitely on ourselves, our ideas, our strategies, how we want to play, and all of these things related to the game.
You mentioned yourself being familiar with three of your teammates from past teams (s4, Limmp, and aQua). Besides, the team had to pick up another individual which soon became Peksu, someone who you never played with before. What was the process like to not only see Peksu integrate himself with the team, but also you guys welcoming him into your respective ranks?
I guess you could call it an updated or changed version of the old roster that we had among myself, s4, and Limmp. When you play offlane and make them the Position Four, you kind of become a big piece in the map for the team. We spent a good amount of time talking about what we want from this new player, what kind of type of character we want him to be, things like that. Do we want a veteran player? Do we want a newer player? What we came up with is we definitely want a new and hungry player who could get into our system, if you will.
On top of that, with Peksu playing with Charlie and him being a new player with high skill, and not to mention he's also Finnish which is pretty close to Sweden. Obviously, it's not the same language but it's pretty close culturally speaking, but it kind of just made sense. Our mission is to meet up in real life at some point also and I think Peksu was a pretty easy choice for us, to be honest.
Obviously, that paid off dividends once the team qualified for the DPC and started playing in Div. II. Looking at the field you had to take on in order to secure promotion for Div. I., what did you think of the general field of teams?
There were a lot of question marks for me. Some teams we would know a lot about going into the tournament. We kind of had a good idea on how Chicken Fighters, Into the Breach, IVY, and Team Bald Reborn were going to be. We've seen them before and they obviously made changes here and there. Generally speaking though, I think they met our expectations in terms of strength. When it came to Alliance, CHILLAX, and Winter Bear, I think they were all a bit bigger question marks for me personally. It's hard to say how good Alliance was going to be with a brand new roster. In the end, I'm happy.
Obviously, it's hard to say anything else when we went 14-0, but I think the competition was good. It was fun and it was challenging. It's easy to look at it from the outside and say it was super easy or anything, but personally, I think we did a very good job and I'm happy with that. I wouldn't say we are much better than the competition. I think we just worked a bit harder.
Even though you guys have obviously finished undefeated, were there any challenges that you and the rest of the team faced amidst the season?
There are always going to be challenges in one way or another. I guess one thing that is pretty challenging about this DPC in itself is that a long format which lasts for seven to eight weeks is pretty challenging regardless of how you want to put it. If you're playing in this league, you don't really want to slack off, you don't want to take a rest from pubs and stuff like that too much. You want to make sure that you follow the meta all the time because it has happened in the DPC or at least every season that I played in. Seven weeks is a long time even if it's just one region. The meta is going to change, there's going to be new heroes that are hot s**t when it comes to drafting new item builds, and everything like that. It happens pretty fast so you want to make sure that you're always on top of that.
You need to make sure you study other teams and try to get as many scrim partners as you can from different divisions. I think the biggest challenge is the time period that you have to spend when playing the league. It can be a little bit easier when you're playing a LAN that lasts for two or three weeks, but when it gets really long, it gets a bit challenging in a different way.
So that was the biggest and only challenge that you experienced for the Spring Tour?
Obviously, there are other things coming out with the patch while trying to figure out heroes and things like that, but that's just Dota. That's nothing really different from any other tournament. One thing for certain is that I'm drafting for this team, which is a bit of a challenge, but I think it's just fun either way. It kind of happens naturally because I enjoy it so much. I like spending time theorizing and mock drafting and things like that. It's more like a fun challenge and not necessarily something very tough to go through.
Yeah, you mentioned the enjoyable challenge of trying to draft well within each game, so I'd like to know how you improve that aspect in addition to leading a team following the disappointment from what Alliance displayed in the Winter Tour to now?
I would say that my drafting skills have not really changed that much to be honest. I don't think I'm doing something very different from what I did before in terms of actually picking up arrows, but I think I have a very, very good second man in this team in s4. We have a lot of trust in each other. He helps me out a lot which definitely helps.
He and I have a system where we can support and challenge each other and find the best ways to move forward in terms of preparation and drafts. On top of that, with this squad, obviously there's some history so it's been a bit more natural, but I think there's a lot more trust in his team in my drafting and leadership compared to the old one that I had. I think the trust wasn't nearly the same in the last Alliance iteration, and part of that blame for the downswing lies on me as well, so it's my responsibility also.
For this goonsquad to do as well as they did by the end of the Spring Tour, were you surprised as to how they fared by going undefeated? Did you expect for this team to finish undefeated by the end of the Tour?
I wouldn't say that I'm surprised we won the league, but I would have at least expected us to maybe drop a map or two, you know? At times, there were certain maps we played that I thought could've been tougher. Sometimes you're not always happy with the draft or the early game or the decision making, but in the end, I feel we were super composed and even when the games went tough--we had at least one game that went past the hour mark--we stayed composed. We trust each other and we learned from these games also by their end. In general, our games have been looking cleaner and cleaner. I wouldn't say I'm surprised about winning the league but I'm definitely happy we didn't lose a map. I did not expect that going into it.
Leaning away from that, I want to touch upon your time with Alliance and how it ended. That team came into the Winter Tour with high expectations, if I do say so myself, since they signed players such as LESLÃO, Aramis, and Supreme^, who played alongside yourself and Nikobaby. Unfortunately, that didn't come to be and the team ended up being relegated. It's been three months since you left the team, so I'm wondering what you think went wrong for that team?
Like you said, there were a lot of expectations and a lot of hype regarding the roster. I think Alliance fans were expecting a lot. I think the players and management expected a lot from the team, so we definitely had really high expectations--I would say almost unhealthy expectations. I think we expected to do way better which, in hindsight, was not very realistic. It takes time to build a strong squad especially when you're moving or changing some of the pillars of the team, right?
I think we just didn't have patience to see the results we wanted. I would definitely say though the players on that roster are definitely all better than what it showed in that team. I think maybe we didn't match well together but I think there's definitely potential in these players and I hope they do well in the future. Everyone, including the organization itself, will take some wisdom from this and hopefully it makes us better people in the future, right? You can only live and learn from our mistakes.
Additionally, you had to watch from the sidelines during certain matches within that season. How much of an impact did your absence within those games play on the team's subsequent performance?
Well, it's hard to say because I was no longer involved in the process at that point. I was already kind of shut out of the whole thing. Even though we announced that they were going to use a substitute, it was very clear to me that I was not going to be on the team anymore and I was not involved in communication, so it's very hard for me to say how that impacted the team's performance because I wasn't there. I wasn't part of it. [laughs] To be honest, I think Nikolay "CTOMAHEH1" Kalchev, their new pickup on Position Five, and Nikobaby are doing a pretty good job so it's looking pretty promising in that sense, I would say.
What was it like to face this new version of Alliance during the Spring Tour in Div. II?
To be honest, I kind of looked at them as a brand new team. Obviously, I played with Niko for a very long time, which was fun. I know a lot about him and he knows a lot about me, so it's really fun to play around someone you've been so close with for a long time. In that way, it was fun to play as him, but for the rest, I know them. There's no really special feeling playing as other players if I'm gonna have to be honest. In terms of playing against Alliance, when you get removed from a team, it feels good to beat them afterwards, right?
Fans like to do these things such as surveying who arrived and who left and that sort of thing. Obviously, it's fun beating them, but in the end, the goal was always about winning the league and not so much about them. I'd probably say I enjoyed the Alliance win a bit more than the rest. It was a good game. We prepared a lot and we were focused on Dota and then it worked out.
Do you have any regrets as to what could have happened differently with Alliance during the Winter Tour?
Yeah. I would say there are some lessons. Like when you asked me about what went wrong, I think kind of easing into it a bit more would have been a good idea. I think we did a lot of things before we started practice and also outside of the game, such as trying to get some team building going and talking about a lot of things.
Also trying to figure things out naturally instead of doing all this ‘work, work, work’ thing. It's kind of like starting the team in a sense of, 'Hey, we're here to enjoy our time together. Let's see how we can make the best system for each other,' instead of going in with a mindset of 'Hey, I'm expecting this from that guy. He's expecting this from me' and whatever, you know? I would've liked it to be more simple.
What I'm trying to do with this team is sort of like the old school days where you make a stack from scratch and figure out what everybody's like, such as finding their strengths and weaknesses. It kind of happens in a very natural and steady way instead of trying to optimize everything from the first minute you're in the booth, so to speak.
I guess by that regard, you and the rest of goonsquad did exactly that. You just basically built a team from the ground up the old-fashioned way and it worked out perfectly.
Yeah, pretty much. I think it's just a good way of building trust and building comfort in each other. I think respect and trust is very key in terms of how you treat your teammates and how
Following up on that, how did you reset during that window between your time in Alliance and you forming goonsquad?
I think the first thing was I had to think about my future, right? Every time I end up at a crossroads, I try to think about what I want to do with my life, such as finding what really makes me happy which explains why I play Dota: to get fulfillment and happiness from it. I think the decision of continuing to play pro Dota was pretty simple and fast for me, and then when it came down to who am I going to play with and what role am I going to play, I knew I wanted to play with some of these players for sure if the opportunity was there.
Handsken in TI10 (Credit: Valve)
I started that process right away and then I was pretty certain I wanted to play Position Four, so as soon as that was decided, we knew we had a month and a half until we had to start playing officials. In that time, I was focused on getting a bit of a mental recess. Last year, I spent most of my time in bootcamps or at LANs and so what I tried to do is just take some time off the PC, to be honest, and try to enjoy my life a little bit outside because I knew the process was going to start again. So I tried to see friends and family as much as possible, work on my health, go to the gym, everything that I enjoy doing outside of Dota. I guess I had a bit of a reset period for about a few weeks until I knew we were going to start scrimming again. After that, it was practicing as normal I would say: high-intensity Dota and working on everything such as drafts, replays, and scrims.
Just going back to the general grind of it all?
Yeah. Pretty much.
Do you view your time with goonsquad as a sort of renewal, as far as your career is concerned?
A little bit. I think it's really fun to just play with a team of players that want to play with each other. We're all here by choice. We're not bound to any contracts and we don't have expectations from anyone else except for ourselves. I think that's really fun. That's how all of my old-school teams started back in earlier points in Dota. We weren't here because we were assigned to an org and they wanted to pick the players or anything like that. It's just five guys who want to play Dota and improve together and I think, in that sense, it feels very nice for me. I really enjoy this setup and even if we decide to go to an organization or not, I think the foundation here is that we're doing this because we enjoy this journey together and not because of another reason.
It is through that mindset and familiarity within goonsquad that they will face the rest of Div. I in the next Tour. What do you think of your team's chances of competing for the top spots in the league?
It's hard to say exactly because some of these teams are very new. We haven't really played against them too much apart from practice and it's hard to gauge how strong you are in a practice sense or point of view. But I think our chances are pretty good. WEU has four slots to the Major, which means that half of Division I would compete there, I think our chances are good.
Our goal is to be the best in whatever we do, as always, but we're gonna have to see. I would say I'm very confident in our process on how we do things and how we work in these leagues, because every time I play with s4 and Limmp in these DPC leagues, we were doing really well historically, and I think we have a really good understanding of how to do it. Regardless of bootcamp or online, I think we sort of have our own kind of scripts on how to do it and then the rest is going to be about Dota.
We don't know yet if there's going to be a new patch and stuff like that but, with the Major happening soon, there's also going to be some meta renewal because there's going to be cross-region competition, which will definitely change things for the future. But overall, to answer it shortly, I would say we're very confident we can do really well or at least make it to the next Major no problem, I would say
Will there be another 7-0 for goonsquad in Div. I?
I would love to, but that's gonna come down to how we're feeling on the day, you know? It's a long league and that would be amazing. I wouldn't say anything like that. The main goal is definitely to make it to the Majors and do as well as we can; but getting 7-0 or 14-0 seems a very hard thing to do. I wouldn't say it's impossible, but I would say that getting a 14-0 in Division I Europe is hard for any team in the entire world.
Which team are you most looking forward to face in Div. I?
I think Gaimin Gladiators is the team I'm most curious about right now. I think they have a very interesting idea about Dota. Actually, they remind me a lot of how we used to play back in Alliance a year ago, in terms of how the rules work and things like that. I'm very excited about playing them. I think they have good ideas on how to play Dota and they are not just following this sort of idea that has been built by Secret, Nigma, and old OG, so they kind of have a fresh idea on how to play Dota and I think it's very interesting.
Steering slightly away from the discussion of Div. I, we have the second major of the DPC coming up, and within that event, Western Europe is going to send four teams to the competition (OG, Gaimin Gladiators, Team Liquid, and Tundra Esports). What do you think of the region's chances of winning the Stockholm Major?
I think Europe has some really strong teams right now. I would say at least two or three teams have a very good chance of at least making the finals. In terms of who's going to win the Major, it's hard for me to bet against China. I think they're looking really strong but that's gonna come down to if they actually end up playing or not with the whole lockdown thing going on over there.
I would say Liquid - actually, all of the four teams going to the Major from Europe are looking very strong. I think they can all do really well. There's some experience there both in players and coaching roles. I think some North American teams have a good chance, and then China. I don't know how SEA or South America is goingn to do and with CIS, we don't know if they're going to be playing because they haven't played DPC this season. But I think for me, China and Europe are looking the strongest right now.
As a North American, it’s kind of weird for anyone to talk well of North America. For you to say that, I really appreciate it. I'm going to publish that all over social media.
*laughs* No problem.
Returning to goonsquad, the main goal for this team right now is obviously to do well in Div. I and qualify for TI, but beyond that, there has been hints from social media which talks about you guys planning to stick together and form an actual org. What do you think of that goal to try to start an org as other people have done in the past?
It's definitely something that I'm open to. I think it's a really fun idea. It's not something that is in motion at this moment, but I've been playing for a lot of different orgs. I've actually been part of starting an org myself which is now called GODSENT. I was one of the co-founders of that. It takes a lot of work.
It requires a lot of trust in the people and you need to know what kind of values you want to build upon. It's definitely something that will be really fun and these are some of the people I would like to do it with if we end up doing it, but it all depends on the horizon. We haven't made a long plan in terms of what happens after TI and such, but that's definitely not off the table at all. I would say that I'm very open to that and I think some of the other guys are also.
Right now, we have been mostly focused on Dota as you can imagine, but definitely, if we end up with a lot of followers and secure sponsors for ourselves and stuff, I could definitely see that happening, but I can't guarantee that it will.
You're just taking it one step at a time.
Yeah, exactly. Right now, all of our players are committed to the bigger quest of winning TI, but as you get older, there are other things that become more important in life. Right now though, none of us have a bigger priority than playing in TI and winning that. Until we have figured that out. I don't think we're going to be putting too much focus on something else.
I think that wraps up all of my questions for the interview. Do you have any final words to share?
Thank you to all of our fans and supporting goonsquad. If you like us, please make sure to follow our new Twitter and stay tuned. We're going to try to show up to the Major as a team and watch some games and other stuff as well. If you want to meet us, that could be your chance, and apart from that, just stay tuned until Division I starts in June, because we're gonna be grinding hard.