You don’t have to know what ‘mid or feed’ means to enjoy the stories behind this year’s DOTA2 International
Even with its astonishing growth over the last couple of years, eSports – the self-consciously serious moniker applied to competitive video games – is still one small niche within gaming. Even those who acknowledge the importance of games sometimes shake their head at the popularity of DOTA2 as a spectator sport. But increasingly, the competitive scene and its followers is becoming hard to ignore. Streams of tournament games or top pros practicing their skills hold perpetual dominance on sites such as Twitch and Azubu, and the stakes for competition are reaching astronomical heights.
As a case in point this year’s DOTA2 International (TI4), held at the end of June, is offering over $10 million US dollars in prize-money, a sum so vast that it exceeds the total prizes handed out for almost any other game in a single tournament. This landmark prize is all the more exceptional for not having come from wealthy corporate sponsors; almost all of it was contributed by the game’s community. This sort of passion and commitment mirrors the dedication of superfans in traditional sports, hinting at the essential human theatre which makes athletes into celebrities and packs huge stadiums with fans every weekend.
DOTA2 is a difficult game to understand for the uninitiated; filled with unspoken rules and interchangeable acronyms. But allow yourself to be swept up in the hype of this year’s grand tournament, and you may find the same great stories underpinning the tournament brackets as you would any classic movie or play. Here are a few to look out for at the Seattle main event:
The Tenacious Protagonists: Natus Vincere
While the identity of the “heroes” in any sporting contest is clearly a matter of perspective, it is difficult to dispute that Natus Vincere are the global fan favourites. Also known as Na’Vi.EU to differentiate them from their American branch, this mixed squad of Ukrainian, German and Estonian players have captured the hearts of casual and hardcore fans far beyond their eastern European homeland.
Mostly unaltered from the team that won the first International in 2011, Na’Vi.EU are an anomaly in a game where teams can change members more often than shirts. They’ve made themselves into a household name thanks to an aggressive, engaging playstyle on the field and some media savvy, larger-than-life personalities off of it.
Na’Vi’s unstoppable winning streak and their pioneering strategies (the work of their captain, Puppey) made them the Goliath of DOTA2’s Old Testament. Their lustre barely faded over the following years as they reached the grand final in 2012 and 2013; for ages their only serious challenge was the technically brilliant Chinese teams. Simply being the only Western team to survive past day one of the 2012 tournament made them a crowd favourite, as they assimilated fans from America, Australia and Western Europe. Even during slumps after long periods without practice or a rare lineup change, Na’Vi would always make good on their reputation. They became the punter’s delight: the team with a rep for never disappointing their fans when the stakes were highest.
But despite their past successes, DOTA’s most successful team are approaching this year’s International with a dark uncertainty around them. The players seem concerned and anxious; fans fear that they may not recover their form in time for the tournament. The scars from last year’s nail-biting grand final loss are still raw, and other top teams have now caught up to the Ukrainians on raw skill and strategy, exposing their famously light training schedule. It has been a long time since captain Puppey dictated what the strategey du jour is at each major tournament – now Na’Vi copy the leading teams, and they look miserable doing so.
Despite their legions of screaming fans, Puppey’s masterful captaincy and the genius of star player Dendi, Na’Vi are at the crossroads. Will they return to uphold their reputation as the “final boss” of The International? With this most unpredictable of teams, we shall have to wait and see.
Let’s Do It For Coach: Evil Geniuses And The Legend Of Fear
With Na’Vi and other past champions struggling in recent tournaments, it American stable Evil Geniuses who have installed themselves as standard bearers for Western DOTA this International season. While North America has long been overshadowed in competitive play by the stronger European and Chinese scenes, it has still produced a number of elite players. These players have done the United States or Canada proud even when playing in foreign lineups.
The most famous of them, Fear (originally FearDarkness), is one of the most veteran players still playing at the highest level. Fear has led or been a part of many celebrated lineups in his day, continuing to dominate and inspire even as the scale of competition has steadily grown. Since the first International in 2011, Evil Geniuses has kept Fear as the captain and rock of their DOTA2 squad, where he has presided over three years of flawed lineups and mediocre results. Despite these disappointments, Fear has remained the consummate professional and leader, earning the playful nickname “Captain America” from the fans through his quest to find local players who could mount a serious challenge at The International.
With the acquisition of a young, exciting lineup in February, Fear and EG may have finally found that group. This new squad has proven themselves against the top teams from both Europe and China, and pioneered the currently favoured style of play: tough team-fighting lineups and hard-farming heroes playing the middle lane. The $10 million dollar championship seems within their grasp, and how sweet a reward it would be for Fear, a star of the game since the days when $100 would have seemed a princely sum for a tournament win.
But on the eve of this greatest challenge, heartbreak struck. Fear took time off in April to rest a niggling wrist injury, but at each date set for his return, the American stalwart failed to reappear. He would repeatedly postpone his comeback as he struggled with rehabilitation. Finally, Fear was forced to announce that the initial diagnosis on his wrist had been hopelessly optimistic. Unable to say for sure when he would be fit to compete again, he stepped down from the EG active lineup for all upcoming tournaments, most importantly TI4.
Fortunately for American fans, EG have shown themselves to be just as strong playing with replacement carry player Mason as they were with Fear in the role. Newcomer PPD took over the captain’s seat as soon as the new lineup was formed and the team seems to have taken the loss in their stride. If anything, the absence of their legendary leader has redoubled their determination to win. Fear will still be traveling to Seattle to serve as the team’s coach and strategic advisor, and for fans of the “old man” we may see him get behind a microphone to lend official commentary, which is always a treat.
If EG and their mid-lane prodigy Arteezy – who has been playing as “FearArteezy” to honour their fallen teammate – can triumph and keep the Aegis trophy in America it would bring a bittersweet conclusion to one of the greatest careers in DOTA.
The All-Stars: Team DK
The history of competitive DOTA is full of great players forming bad teams. Attempts to throw together winning combinations from individual stars have usually been met with disappointing failure. DOTA2 is a complex game, ultimately more reliant on team strategy and coordination than individual playmaking, which has lead to the downfall of these so-called ‘all star’ lineups. However in DOTA there is an exception for every rule, and Team DK seem to have finally assembled their dream team.
Last year’s competition, TI3, left many Chinese teams feeling frustrated. Their best players had seemed out of touch, unable to deal with the dominant European metagame. They could only watch on as the finals were played out between Na’Vi and Swedish team Alliance. By the lofty DOTA standards of their nation, it was a bitter disappointment.
Sharing this sentiment were players iceiceice and Mushi, a pair of standouts from Southeast Asia. Despite dominating the 1v1 side tournament to prove themselves the number one and two solo players in the world, iceiceice’s team Zenith placed outside the top 8. Similarly, Mushi’s all-Malaysian team were relegated to 3rd place after a tournament-defining mistake by his teammate ky.xy cost them their final game against Na’Vi. Feeling that they had gone as far as they could with players from their homelands, whispers started after their elimination that the pair would relocate to China and form a new dream team – one to dwarf all others before it.
The truth of these rumours was proven almost immediately. Team DK, one of the most prestigious Chinese clubs, announced they would be dropping their entire lineup in the wake of TI3, retaining only their legendary carry player BurNIng, regarded as one of the “gods of DOTA”. Unable to keep their new team a secret for long, Team DK announced on April 9 their acquisition of iceiceice and Mushi, as well as Chinese superstar LaNm. After some speculation, fellow legend MMY was confirmed to be rejoining as the final member.
All five of these players arguably rank among the top 10 players in the world for individual skill; each of them is capable of playing any role, as any hero, and breaking a game wide open. A surprisingly strong team chemistry has made them seem nigh-unstoppable at tournaments. While they have sustained a few losses to other similarly-ranked teams in the lead up to The International, they are the clear frontrunners to take home the staggering first place prize. Think of them as DOTA2’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters; victory this year is not a hope so much as an expectation. DK is pegged to be the team to beat in the main event brackets, and expect a shockwave to rock the arena should they fall before the final day.
This year, there will be no excuses – the kings of DOTA will not be denied.
The International is a brutal and unpredictable tournament at the best of times – with this year’s astronomical prize pool it is guaranteed to be a slobberknocker. Of the eight teams qualifying for the main event not one will approach it with any lesser goal than to lift the Aegis of Champions. We are yet to see a repeat TI champion. But the real test for them and any other would-be champion is to find the one perfect strategy which will carry them to the final match of the tournament – it’s no coincidence that each previous championship has fallen to the team who has best understood the current state of the game, and the unique metagame which arises during the three frantic days of the event.
For now, my money is on Evil Geniuses; they are perhaps the most exciting team playing today, and with two of their best players still in their teens, they represent pro DOTA’s future as well. Their captain PPD has had a huge impact on how the game is played in 2014, and is in my opinion the world’s premier DOTA strategist heading into TI4. They have shown they can beat any other top team right now, placing 1st and 2nd at the last two major tournaments prior to this event. But with months of preparation for this most prestigious competition, it is the versatility and experience of teams such as DK and Na’Vi which pose the greatest threat; there are a great many games to play, and being able to pull out something never-before-seen from your playbook at a critical juncture could be all it takes for a team to become instant eSports millionaires.
It is this drama, this uncertainty, this clash of wills which has me burning with excitement for the DOTA to come – and which will keep me glued to my computer this weekend, sharing the highs and lows with millions of fans across the globe. And if the stories of these three teams have caught your interest, then I hope you can join us.
Credit to TeamLiquid and Valve for providing the research material for this article.