With a prize pool of nearly $11 million dollars and a viewership that exceeded 20 million, The International 4, Valve’s annual Dota 2 championship, was the largest esports event in history. But beyond its raw entertainment value for fans of Dota 2, TI4 presents an opportunity to reflect on the hotly contested categories of “sports” and “esports,” and whether or not that prefix matters all that much. Because there is no one definition of “sport,” we are better served by asking whether or not a given activity, such as an “esport,” does the things we ask traditional sports to do. That is, can watching Dota 2 inspire the feelings of transcendence within spectators that watching elite athletes can?
Dota 2 is one of the few games that, when played well enough, is truly beautiful to me, and as a content developer with Evil Geniuses, who placed third at The International 4, I’ve spent the better part of the last three years trying to capture experience that in my writing. At its best, professional Dota 2 produces in me the same sort of ecstasy, in both form and magnitude, as watching Matt Ryan, under pressure, throw a perfect, forty-yard pass straight into the outstretched arms of Julio Jones.
In time, I’ve discovered that it’s far more challenging to describe how I felt these feelings rather than the feelings themselves. It’s challenging, of course, because esports don’t place the same type of pressure on the body, which, conventionally, is part of why athletics appeal to the spectator. Take, for example, the argument of the late David Foster Wallace’s “Federer as Religious Experience,” a personal account of what it was like to watch Roger Federer play tennis at the earth-striding apex of his career. For Wallace, the titular “religious experience” involves the reconciliation of the limitations of one’s own body with the unimaginable kinesthetic potential of an athlete like Federer. Wallace concludes
Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform—and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.
For Wallace, this is nothing short of the restoration of faith. The juxtaposition of the sacred—the divine physicality of Federer, a “creature whose body is made of both flesh and, somehow, light”—and the profane—Wallace’s acute awareness of his physical shortcomings—causes him to make peace with his own astral insignificance.
And yet, there are no bodily feats in Dota 2. What we, as spectators, witness is not the players themselves, but a disembodied representation of their avatars. This seems, at first, irreconcilable with the embodied process described above. Yet Wallace, if only implicitly, describes how one might have a “Federer moment” while watching competitive gaming.
It is telling that in describing the athleticism of Federer and handful of other elite athletes, Wallace can only represent their athleticism in ways that are not of the body, but outside it. That is, Muhammad Ali’s jabs defied time, Michael Jordan’s jump shot could cuckold gravity, and Federer seemed to bend the space around him to his will. That is, however, “seemed,” because no one can step outside the laws of physics. It only appears that way to those of us who know those laws mainly as limitations.
It is precisely here that Dota 2 can impart the same affect as the athletic sublime. It is a question of the relationship between spectator, player, and the rules of the space they inhabit. An implicit point in Wallace’s argument is made explicit by Dota 2. From the Malaysian teenager in a LAN café to the 95 progamers who competed in The International 4, everyone who plays Dota 2 is subject to the same rules, in much the same way we on earth cannot escape Newtonian physics.
And yet those who competed in Seattle did within those rules what to the rest of us seem impossible. Such moments were on display in spades in Seattle: in game three of the grand finals, Newbee’s Zhang “Mu” Pan’s Brewmaster activated Primal Split with a single point of health remaining, narrowly threading a window of less than a hundredth of a second. Or Artour “Arteezy” Babaev’s preternatural ability to farm in one minute what others cannot in five; the map comes up to greet him, forming itself to his intentions. What about Saahil “UNiVeRse” Arora’s flawless sense of initiation, predicting his opponents’ movements better than they can predict them for themselves? How is it that they, held to, yet apparently not limited by, the same set of rules as we are, may do and see what we may not?
This is, in short, the digital corollary of the experience Wallace described, the crucial difference being that athletics can speak to everyone because there is no one who has not known the experience of being in a body. To know this feeling while watching Dota 2 is accessible only to those who have played—and, more likely, played quite a bit. It requires you know the rules for yourself as deeply as you know what it is like to be in your own body. In the end, the “e” in esports doesn’t matter if you believe it doesn’t. But what if that were enough?