I’m waiting for the bus by my house with two teenagers wearing International lanyards. I have a lanyard too. I want to talk shop. I ask them how they felt about NewBee winning out Thursday over the much-feared DK and the home country favorites Evil Geniuses. They start to nerd right out, but stop as soon as they see my press badge. One of them says, “I don’t want it to sound like I think I know anything, because I don’t.” I ask how many hours he has logged into DOTA 2. He says over 2,000.
So what does it take to be a professional DOTA 2 player? Everything, apparently. Fans of the game hold these players in such high esteem that they won’t even talk about the game on the record out of a sort of fealty.
There is a post on Reddit about Cloud 9 player EternaLEnVy (aka EE) that presents his narrative, his path to The International, as the redemption story of some misunderstood savant athlete: how he dropped out of engineering school to become a progamer; how supposed narcissism and unpredictable play style got him kicked off his first squad; how this squad would go on to win The International 2013 a few months later; how his next squad was abandoned by Arteezy, who would later be considered the best in the world; how he was never supposed to be at the tournament; how he was condemned to mediocrity while others succeeded. “Do you remember being EE?” the poster asks.
Puppey from Ukranian squad Na’Vi is all about mind games with his drafting. At last year’s tournament he allowed Alliance to pick their trademark hero. Then he drafted around to focus on killing the hero’s support. Alliance would hoist the trophy that year, but people still talk about the draft.
The captain of Evil Geniuses, Fear, is famously absent from tournament play because he is on the esports equivalent of a disabled list after suffering probably the only injury that could keep him from playing: a hurt wrist. “He’s 26 years old,” an EG fan told me. “He’s been at this a long time. It was bound to happen eventually.”
These teams are filled with athletes, geniuses, generals.
And then you see them.
Before Saturday’s first match between Cloud 9 and Na’Vi, I’m genuinely excited to size up EE in person. I picture him to be a stricken, fidgety madman. Maybe a little gaunt. Maybe a little handsome. But when the teams take the stage all I see are a line of totally normal, slouching 20-year-olds. EE in particular reminds me very much of one of my more difficult students back when I was in grad school.
Put together a line up of the Cloud 9 squad with some of their fans and you will not be able to differentiate the players from the spectators. There is no other sport where this is the case, where the professionals aren’t separated from us low folk by any number of godlike physical characteristics. These progamers are both superstars and utterly average.
This is highlighted by the way teams are staged during matches. The players are kept in a box with their rigs, backlit so you can only really see their silhouettes. In front of each player is a five-foot-tall, ultra high definition screen that displays in glorious color and motion the hero each player is using. The heroes look fantastic and terrifying: giants and winged warriors and spirits made of electricity and beautiful women riding beasts. The actual players are resigned to the background, just shadows.
So when a player does something great, as EE does with Morphling during the first match with Na’Vi, farming at will, pushing in the lanes, utilizing some expert replicant play and blowing up support, getting in and out before Na’Vi knows what’s happening, is the crowd cheering for EE or for Morphling?
Cloud 9 takes the first match, drops the second, and knocks out favored Na’Vi in the elimination game. Everyone is on their feet. Then the hero screens go dark and the teams exit from their respective cages. They exchange awkward handshakes. They won’t look out at the crowd. There are thousands of people out there, after all. That would make anyone feel uncomfortable in their skin. And so EE leaves the stage. He needs a snack. He goes back to being human.
* * *
It’s day three and I’m just now starting to watch matches and actually follow what’s going on. I imagine this is much to the relief of the people around me in the press box, who are just trying to live blog and don’t need me asking why it’s important to kill Roshan . During the elimination game between Cloud 9 and ViCi Gaming, I keep shouting “Fire Remnant!” at SingSing’s Ember Spirit so SingSing will do Fire Remnant. But SingSing doesn’t listen to me and thus C9 is knocked out of the tournament.
Day three also features what feels like the first real marquee matches of the weekend. The first is between Team DK and LGD gaming. LGD is the fifth best Chinese team, someone told me. Having beat out the second best Chinese team, iG, they are going for the upset by trying to eliminate DK, the best Chinese team. There are a lot of good teams in China.
People keep talking about how DK is the team to beat. They look like the villains in some esports Bad News Bears: taller, more handsome, full of swagger. During a post game conference, DK’s perfectly-named iceiceice is asked by the pretty sideline reporter how he intends to keep winning, or something to that effect. His response is, “I want to keep winning so I can come back here and talk to you.” The crowd loses it. They cut back to the booth, but even the panelists are a little flustered. Oh, iceiceice. Don’t change.
DK squashes my underdog narrative by beating LGD in two straight matches. They then move on to face Vici Gaming, who had just eliminated Cloud 9. And so begins the first matches in the tournament where there is not an empty seat in the house. The fans are transfixed, quiet. I’m caught up as well, now that I’m sort of able to follow along with the action.
The play of the day happens during game two. Vici’s fy and iceiceice are literally standing side-by-side but can’t see each other due to the fog. The live commentators have put the crowd into a frenzy as we wait for someone to make a move. Finally fy turns the corner and instant fight. A number of things happen very quickly. First, fy traps iceiceice within a wall of these fire serpents. The rest of DK appears to help, and it’s pandemonium, just a jumble of sound and color, the entirety of Key Arena convulsing and frothing at the mouth. In the end, DK loses three heroes for their efforts. I feel like I need a cigarette.
Vici squashes my villain narrative by beating DK in two straight matches. No more postgame rendezvous for iceiceice, which is sad because when iceiceice is laying it on we all win. Meanwhile, Vici is quietly steamrolling through the tournament. Just in terms of word-of-mouth, I know less about Vici than any other team. I put away my press badge and find some kids orbiting around a cosplayer who is wearing under garments as outer garments. I ask them what they think of Vici, and everyone starts to chime in, as if I had just walked up to a crowd at Burning Man and asked, “Hey, how do we all feel about hula hoops?”
“They push early and they push hard,” someone says, without considering phrasing. They are dashing. They try and beat teams early. They go for the jugular.
Now a Vici expert, I return to the arena to watch them take on Evil Geniuses, the only American team left in the tournament. I thought the crowd was loud before, but the crowd was just saving it for EG this whole time. Five stoner-ish guys walk on stage and the main cameraman cuts to a fan wearing a bald eagle mask. Until this moment I wasn’t aware that I needed a dog in the fight. I want EG to win and win big and marry my sisters and go on vacation with me to the Caribbean where we can spend their prize money together.
Vici squashes my and-they-lived-happily-ever-after narrative by beating EG quickly and without much consequence. The average DOTA 2 match is somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes. Vici took the first and third game in 15 minutes. They pushed and pushed hard. They went for the jugular.
Wandering the streets with the other tragic home country fans, feeling legitimately sad that American wunderkid Arteezy not only lost, but lost quickly enough for the people in line for the bathroom to miss it, I must ask myself: when did I start loving this game?