Header illustration by Gareth Damian Martin
Through the smeared window of a 757, Mount Rainier is gargantuan. It is too big to be real. It looks like a piece of videogame scenery viewed from outside and above the map, a huge dome dropped atop a featureless peneplain stretching to infinity in all directions. My eyes are giving me very clear data where this mountain is concerned—facts such as, one, the mountain is extremely large, and two, there is a bunch of snow at the top—and yet despite these observations I am having a good bit of trouble believing it is actually there.
Today is Tuesday, August 4, 2015. Ginny and I are on our way to Seattle for the fifth annual International Dota 2 Championships (TI5). Determined to write an article on this experience, I’m already scribbling furiously in the blue notebook I’ll carry everywhere this week. (My first note: Delta onboarding video w/ memes.) Of course, by the time I get around to writing anything substantive, it will almost be time for TI6, but on the plane to Seattle I am blissfully unaware of the gruesome procrastination to come. Instead I am full of clueless optimism. The future overflows with wonderful possibilities! Maybe Team Secret will win TI5! (They won’t.) Maybe I’ll get an autograph from Arteezy! (I’ll never even see him.) Maybe my article will get published! (Eventually.)
TI5 is not my first esports rodeo. That distinction goes to a 2012 Major League Gaming tournament held in a Raleigh, North Carolina convention center that smelled like ten thousand unwashed armpits. MLG Raleigh was more advertising circus than tournament, with half the floor space occupied by booths promoting computer peripherals and for-profit game design colleges with slogans like “Turn Your Passion Into Your Career.” But there were still people competing in StarCraft II and League of Legends and Call of Duty; you could walk right up to them after they played and get them to sign your stuff. The greatest Western StarCraft II player of all time, Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri, was there. He signed my hat.
That event was surreal in its own way. My fellow attendees at MLG Raleigh were noxious, unshaven, and foul-smelling. They clustered in fawning groups around the buxom sylphs hired to hand out free Speed Stick samples (a clever ploy by MLG but, unfortunately, not a successful one). MLG Raleigh wasn’t what I expected an esports tournament to be; it was what I was afraid an esports tournament would be.
TI5 is an esports fantasy. The esports fantasy.
TI5 is an entirely different animal. The audience fills up a basketball arena, and tens of thousands more fans would have attended if they’d had the chance. Tickets became available at 10:00 a.m. PDT on March 27, 2015. By 10:02, if you hadn’t already clicked the “purchase” button, you were out of luck. The center of attention at TI5 is indisputably the competition: no for-profit universities hawking their cardboard diplomas here. The teams compete for $18 million, which every esports evangelist will be quick to inform you is far greater than the prize pools of the Masters or Wimbledon. There also isn’t a noticeable odor in Key Arena, so either gamers have made leaps and strides in personal hygiene over the past three years or the stadium’s ventilation systems are top-notch.
TI5 exceeds all expectations. When I’m not in the bleachers cheering, I walk around in a daze with a goofy grin plastered across my face. Right before each match, the players emerge from the same courtside tunnels used by the Seattle Storm and their opponents at the start of a WNBA game. NBA point guard Jeremy Lin makes an appearance on the analyst desk. Altogether, TI5 is an esports fantasy. The esports fantasy. So why is it that, when I’m waiting for the next match to start, or unwinding in the hotel each evening, the feeling that keeps coming back to me is this quiet, implacable dread?
The answer is the insecurity inherent to every contemporary esport. I can forecast with confidence that Super Bowl LXI will take place in 2026. Football is too deeply entrenched to be replaced any time soon. But with Dota 2, I have no such confidence. I can’t even predict that Dota 2 will be around five years from now. The esport with the most successful run was arguably StarCraft: Brood War, which reached a level of popularity in South Korea verging on universal, and even that game fizzled out after twelve years. Time and time again, we’ve been told that one particular game is going to be the one that makes esports mainstream, and time and time again we’ve had to bury our disappointment and move on to the next promising title.
It’s not that esports is doomed. Far from it: research firm Newzoo forecasts that the total esports economy will surpass $1 billion by 2019. It’s safe to say that esports will soon dwarf the physical side of the X-Games, one of the first mainstream entities to make a serious stab at capitalizing on competitive gaming. In the US, I expect esports to reach the level of popularity enjoyed by any tier two sport: golf, or tennis, or the Winter Olympics, or whatever. But that’s the industry as a whole. For an individual esport like Dota 2, no such success is guaranteed.
That’s why TI5 can be so bittersweet: it’s the biggest, most lucrative esports tournament in the world, so we expect it to erase all doubt about Dota 2’s future, to prove that We Made It, Boys, but instead the fear only becomes more palpable. TI5 is a tantalizing taste of what the game could be, if only we could count on it to last.
I try to imagine how ungainly it would be to haul $11,000 of Dota 2 merchandise around
Maybe that’s why, when the five victorious members of North American team Evil Geniuses (henceforth EG) emerge from their booth to fanfare, confetti, and fireworks, having just won six million dollars in the grand finals of TI5, they accept the Aegis of Champions with uniformly emotionless expressions. These guys have been playing video games six to ten hours a day for a combined total of forty years, and for the most part it has been a thankless and discouraging job. If it were me up there, I think I’d be distrustful of the moment. If it were me on that stage, as fireworks filled the air with the sharp odor of saltpeter, I’d be wondering if I’d ever have a moment like this again.
When Ginny and I arrive at Key Arena on Tuesday morning, we feel the awkwardness at once. Everywhere there are huge banners and milling throngs of 18-to-30-year-olds wearing shirts with Dota 2 characters on them. Everybody seems super nonchalant until you realize they’re casting furtive glances all over the place, checking to see if their attempts to look nonchalant are working. The official walk of The 2015 International Dota 2 Championship is the Forced Saunter. Ginny and I forcibly saunter to the check-in counter, where a blond kid much closer to eighteen than thirty has been assigned to hand out gift bags. This guy’s whole job is to hand out bags of goodies to people who don’t have a stamp in their ticket lanyards yet, which is why it’s tremendously awkward when he stamps our lanyards but somehow forgets to give us our bags, setting the stage for three minutes of really excruciating small talk, until he finally realizes why we’re still standing there.
A big draw of attending a Dota 2 tournament in person instead of just watching it over the internet is the merchandise. Ginny and I head over to the line for the Secret Shop. There’s plenty of time, as the serpentine queue winds its way toward the stable of purchase stalls, for us to peruse the gold catalogs so thoughtfully included in our goodie bags. In front of us, a largish man in a muscle shirt talks very loudly about how much he loves getting drunk and going to parties. His companions nod vigorously.
Earlier Internationals featured diminutive gift shops that were swarmed by rabid and fat-walleted fans, creating lines so long that they infamously wrapped around the entirety of Key Arena, one year; this time around, the folks at Valve seem to have optimized the process, with a line feeding into twenty separate purchase stations, and businesslike paper forms you fill out to indicate your order, and basically just no real physical “shop” whatsoever. When we reach the front, Ginny and I buy matching Tidehunter sweaters, an Earthshaker t-shirt, and a few plushies. The young woman at the register says she likes video games but is too competitive to play Dota 2 because she’d hate being bad at it. Ginny asks her what the biggest order she’s seen so far was, and the young woman says $11,000. The bag we are given to carry our spoils is comically huge and made of some soft but tough plastic composite. As we walk away, the bottom of the stupidly gigantic bag almost brushes the ground, and I try to imagine how ungainly it would be to haul $11,000 of Dota 2 merchandise around. Then I try to imagine spending $11,000 on Dota 2 merchandise in the first place.
Much has been written about esports’ fanbase, usually with the unspoken subtitle “who watches this shit, anyway?” In America, fans tend to be males between the ages of 18 and 49. While some statistics claim that 38% of esports fans are female, anecdotal experience suggests a number closer to 15%. In the broader esports world, there are practically no women competing seriously anywhere. One of the fundamental ironies of gaming culture is that a good chunk of the ostracization gamers complain about is their own damn fault, and their kneejerk rejection of women who try to get involved is a prime example. When Ginny plays Dota 2, she never uses her mic, because letting the other players know she’s a woman tends to send them into conniptions.
It may seem odd that a community desperate for broader acceptance would risk alienating such a huge swath of potential newcomers, but esports fans are nothing if not contradictory. On one hand, they’re generally optimistic, friendly, and passionate to the point of incoherence. On the other, they can be suspicious of outsiders, prone to bickering and infighting, drawn to quick conclusions, and relentlessly and near-suicidally critical of everything and everyone involved in making esports possible in the first place. These characteristics can all be traced to two conflicting mindsets. First, competitive-minded gamers want very desperately for their passion to become “mainstream.” Second, those same people all still fear, at some deep level, that this dream will never come true.
Above all other factors, esports fans feel united by a common history of ostracization. They see themselves as outsiders, passionate about an activity that society (they feel) dubs the domain of basement-dwellers at best and mass murderers at worst. Many of them were drawn to videogames in the first place because they didn’t fit in with their teenage peers. They still want to belong, to connect with other people, although they may not always have a concrete idea of how to go about doing it. In a word, they’re insecure.
Perhaps I’m projecting my own experience onto other esports fans. Just about everybody is insecure. But to be a dedicated esports fan is to care deeply about, and invest significant time into, a phenomenon that is historically unstable, poorly understood, and frowned upon by a good portion of society. It’s even worse for professional players, who devote their entire lives to mastering games with competitive scenes that implode every couple of years.
Maybe this explains the $11,000 Secret Shop purchase, and the broader enthusiasm for Dota 2 merchandise, physical and digital: people want the game to succeed in the long term, but fear that it won’t, and are thusly driven to purchase more stuff by the twin-headed frenzy of supporting-the-game and getting-souvenirs-while-still-possible. TI5’s $18 million prize pool was subsidized almost entirely by fans purchasing and upgrading the TI5 Compendium, a digital book featuring special challenges and in-game goodies. One quarter of every dollar spent on TI5’s Compendium went to the prize pool, meaning that fans around the world pitched in more than sixty million dollars, all for items that only exist within Dota 2—and, of course, the pride of being able to say their esport is biggest.
A phenomenon that is historically unstable, poorly understood, and frowned upon by a good portion of society
Is the system sustainable? Dota 2’s main competitor, League of Legends, models its own scene after traditional sports as closely as possible, eschewing crowdfunding for smaller prize pools funded by familiar sponsors like Coca-Cola. The argument against crowdfunding from League’s developer, Riot Games, has both moral and practical implications. In 2014, Polygon quoted one Riot employee who expressed disgust at Valve “begging” its fans for money. Official Riot statements center more on crowdfunding’s potential to undermine long-term momentum: at some point, the argument goes, you raise less money than you did the previous year. And when that happens, the perception of the game’s future change from optimistic to pessimistic. Right?
So far, The International Dota 2 Championships haven’t had to confront this question. The first crowd-funded prize pool, in 2013, notched $2,874,380, and that was just based on selling Compendiums themselves. When Valve added more goodies and in-game items in 2014, the prize pool rocketed to $10,931,105. TI5 nearly doubled that, reaching $18,429,613. Will TI6 continue the trend of explosive prize pool growth? Perhaps out of fear that it won’t, Valve is offering a special reward for every player who contributes if 2016’s prize pool surpasses 2015’s total. The Dota 2 player base isn’t growing very fast anymore, so unless Valve reveals new tricks for excavating the wallets of its fans, TI6 will be the first International in three years without a drastic increase in prize pool. Then again, that’s what people say every year, and every year Dota 2’s fans prove them wrong.
But even if 2016’s fans pull off another miracle of generosity, you can’t help but feel that there’s a tinge of nervous urgency to the whole thing. Come on, guys! Pitch in! We have to beat last year’s total if we want the Dota 2 revolution to succeed! It’s no coincidence that the language bandied about the Dota 2 subreddit during prize pool-engorgement season is reminiscent of political fundraising emails.
But these are all questions for the future, and at TI5 the future is the last thing we’re trying to think about. It’s time to watch some Dota 2.
After our merchandising adventure, Ginny and I catch the upper-bracket match between European powerhouse Team Secret and the famed Chinese organization EHOME. Team Secret has spent several months utterly demolishing the scene; they enter TI5 on a four-LAN winstreak, and are favorites to win it all. They’re the kind of superstar-conglomerate that emerges from time to time both in esports and traditional sports: “Best Player in the World” Artour “Arteezy” Babaev, Swedish playmakers Ludwig “Zai” Wåhlberg and Gustav “s4” Magnusson, and legendary captain Clement “Puppey” Ivanov. The final member, Kuro “Kuroky” Takhasomi, will be the only one to fully recover, by the following summer, from the team’s fast-approaching conflagration. But for now, understand this: on August 4, 2015, there is no team in the world against which Secret is not the favorite.
We’re well into the Secret/EHOME game one draft, the tense and cerebral process whereby each team selects five complementary heroes, and the commentators are expressing qualms about Secret’s selections. “This really doesn’t feel like a Secret draft,” says one analyst. “They don’t have wave clear, they don’t have control, they have very unreliable disables…”
“To me, when I look at this draft, I think that they need a miracle,” says another analyst, right before the final pick. Secret last-picks Viper, a hideous flying dinosaur-thing known for its domination of the early game and not much else.
They proceed to lose.
Secret’s defeat puts me in a melancholy mood, which is only intensified later that afternoon when the eternally bumbling fan favorites Cloud9 suffer their third straight 0-2 defeat, this time at the hands of Vici Gaming, and are eliminated from contention. I brighten up somewhat when we rendezvous with a group of fellow players and fans I’ve hitherto only known through the internet. These garrulous gamers go by the collective sobriquet Weeb Stack, from the colloquial and vaguely derogatory “weeaboo,” meaning “fanatical anime fan,” and “stack,” which is Dota 2 slang for a group of players who queue for matches together. It goes without saying that people you’ve only met online never look anything like you expect when you meet them in real life. The ones I thought were short are tall, and the ones I thought were tall are short. Some of them are a little bit round, but not in a bad way—more like endearing embonpoint. We walk to a Korean hot pot place for dinner, where we’re split across two tables to accommodate our swarmlike numbers. Ginny and I sit across from Pyro—his real name is Ryan, but to me he will always be Pyro, his in-game tag—and his wife, Morgan, the only other woman in the group. The feeling is one of adult table vs. kids table, with our foursome trading classic double-date small talk (“Where do you work? How did you guys meet? Have any pets? Three huskies? That’s so cool!”) while the bachelorized Weeb Stack members shout and carouse and blow straw wrappers at one another at the next table over.
When we walk back to the hotel after dinner, the streets are full of people wearing TI5 lanyards.
The next morning, Ginny and I try the hotel’s free continental breakfast, with its rubbery eggs and stiff lengths of industrial bacon. I order a fruit cup that turns out to be about 70% honeydew melon. We resolve to seek future breakfasts elsewhere, and head to the arena to catch the first match of the day. It’s Virtus Pro against compLexity, and because neither of us have much of a dog in that fight, we are ultimately waylaid by the autograph line for Jacky “EternalEnvy” Mao.
Drops of spittle barrage my neck
EternalEnvy (aka EE) typifies the esports success story. A smart kid, he legendarily gave up on an engineering degree at the University of Toronto and dropped out to pursue competitive Dota 2 full-time. That was 2012. Basically everyone called him an idiot and told him to stay in school (“U sound like u need a psychologue [sic],” observed one commenter, “reconsider what makes u happy in life and seek some help.” One can only imagine what his parents had to say.), but he didn’t listen, and now he’s here at TI5 playing for Cloud9, perennial second-place finishers until their implosion yesterday. It turns out you can make a pretty decent amount of money placing second at every tournament: EE’s 2015 winnings will ultimately total $247,255, and that’s not counting what he’ll make in salary. Next year, his incarnation of Team Secret will win the Shanghai Major and secure him $222,000 in one fell swoop. I spend my twenty minutes in line desperately trying to think of something interesting to say to him. Ginny is no help whatsoever. “Just say ‘Hi,’” she suggests, restraining eyes that clearly want to be rolling, “say you’re a fan, and ask for a picture.” I continue to scrape the walls of my mind for something funny or clever. Something, anything, to show that I’m different from everyone else. Then I get to the front of the line and my brain shuts off.
“Hi EE, I’m a big fan, do you mind if I get a picture with you?”
EE is polite but distracted. He keeps jumping over to look at the screen where the VP/compLexity game is being broadcast. Even after he’s eliminated, his competitor’s brain never stops working, gauging opponents, sizing up strategies, trying to break through that last plateau of comprehension that separates the great from the superlative. He never quite makes eye contact, just smiles over the top of my head (he, too, is much taller than I anticipated). I walk away with his signature on my mousepad and the rueful realization that I am no more worthy of his attention than any of the other nameless fans in that long, winding line.
That afternoon, Secret plays again. Dota 2 tournaments are typically double-elimination, meaning teams have to lose twice to be eliminated. If Secret loses this series, it’s over. Ginny and I sit in the Chinese section of the stands. Dota 2 is gigantic in China, and there are a huge number of fans who have made the transpacific journey this week. Invictus Gaming (IG), Team Secret’s opponent, is probably the worst Chinese team at this tournament, but it’s led by old guard fan-favorites Xu “Burning” Zhilei and Wong “Chuan” Hock Chuan. The scene in the Chinese section of the stands when IG enters the arena is absolute bedlam. During the game one draft, when IG picks Burning’s trademark Anti-Mage, the stands literally writhe.
Then the game actually gets going, and we see why Anti-Mage is Burning’s signature hero. Secret gets annihilated. During the big fights, the people behind me stand and stomp their feet and yell things I can’t understand. Drops of spittle barrage my neck. I begin to feel very bitter indeed right around the point it becomes clear that Secret cannot win the game. Where once I was amused by the enthusiasm of the Chinese fans, and warmed to see evidence of esports transcending culture, I now begin to feel that my neighbors are being extremely rude. I even find myself forced to suppress certain very unfortunate thoughts along the lines of “is it their culture that makes them this crass and loud and rude?” Of course, during games two and three, when Secret manages to eke out a couple of wins and take the series, I’m the one standing and clapping and shouting myself hoarse, while my neighbors grumble and stay firmly planted in their chairs and shoot ocular daggers in my direction.
The whole East vs. West dynamic in esports is another great example of its instabilities and tensions. In fact, it’s such a well-developed trope that Valve centered its Dota 2 documentary Free to Play entirely on the Ukrainian team Na’Vi overcoming the supposedly unbeatable Chinese at the first International. In StarCraft II, Korean players are so much better than players elsewhere in the world that the American and European communities actively oppose their participation in local tournaments. There are various rationalizations for this exclusionary argument—fostering a local scene where players are encouraged to grow their talent instead of getting smeared to a greasy paste by Koreans all the time; the oft-repeated, patently false, and vaguely racist argument that Korean players are more “boring,” personality-wise, than their Western peers—but none of them really make much sense. If what you care about is seeing high-quality StarCraft II, why does it matter where the players are from? But I’ll admit: when I used to be a major StarCraft II fan, I always found myself rooting for the foreigner (in this case, foreigner means non-Korean). And in Dota 2, I tend to support the North American players, like Arteezy, EternalEnvy, and the whole EG roster. Is that racially motivated in some way? Or is it just, as in traditional sports, a tendency to root for the hometown team?
“This giant bird was changing colors and killing everyone”
As Team Secret struggles to survive, Ginny’s beloved Evil Geniuses thwack their way through the upper bracket. That night, they dispatch the same EHOME lineup that 2-0’d Secret. In game two, EG selects Techies, a hero that basically no other team plays. Techies is something of a joke hero, setting piles of invisible mines around the map that blow up when an opponent walks over them. Infamous and hated in public matches, Techies now prompts cheers of unprecedented scale and volume merely by being selected, enthusiasm that only intensifies when the insufferable hero proceeds to wreak havoc on the disciplined EHOME squad. There’s a certain glee watching a team of professionals fall prey to the same kind of thing that has ruined so many of your own games. The other thing that has the crowd riled up is the specialness of it all; it’s the only Techies we’ll see all tournament, because every team EG faces from here on out will use one of their precious first-phase bans to eliminate Techies right out of the gate.
By the time the match is finished, it’s eleven o’clock, and most of the restaurants in the vicinity are closed. We join the throngs headed for famous local burger bar Dick’s. There’s a long line, and the Weeb Stack members within earshot are making every possible joke you just thought of re: “Dick’s” at least three or four times, but I’m starving, so I tough it out. Ginny, who isn’t hungry, waits for me in a red plastic booth. When I arrive with bag of Dick’s in hand, Ginny says she must have dropped her phone back in Key Arena, because she certainly doesn’t have it here.
We sneak back into Key Arena and are immediately cornered by a trio of septuagenarian ushers, who insist that the arena is closed for the day. Once we’ve explained what we’re after, they shuttle us from one walkie-talkie-toting authority figure to another before finally sending us with a truly gigantic lady to go retrieve Ginny’s phone from the upper levels.
Our guide is friendly and speaks with a gentle Southern twang, but—bless her heart—she does not walk so much as ooze. We do not take the stairs. We take the service elevator, and just walking there has her out of breath, so we are stuck trying to decide whether it would be more impolite to talk to her while she’s wheezing, thus drawing attention to the wheezing, or ignore her completely. We opt to talk to her as the service elevator rumbles up.
“Get a chance to watch any of the games?” Ginny asks.
“A little,” the lady says.
“I imagine it’s pretty tough to understand,” I say.
“Yeah, I was watching, and this giant bird was changing colors and killing everyone, and I asked a young man if that meant they were winning, and he said no.”
We find the missing phone in an abandoned nacho tray.
The phone saga is one of our trip’s few memorable interactions with a person outside the Dota 2 community. Another one happens the following evening, back at the hotel, when we share an elevator with a British tourist, his seven-year-old son, and their suitcases. We chat a bit (it’s the kind of elevator that takes its damn time). Father and son give our matching Tidehunter sweaters a curious look.
“We’re here for a videogame tournament,” I explain. “It’s a character from the videogame.”
The dad wishes us luck in the tournament as we depart the elevator.
Like describing the NBA playoffs as “teams of freakishly tall men flinging balls at hoops”
This mirrors something I noticed in previous weeks, when I told coworkers that I was going to Seattle for a videogame tournament, mentioning of course the $18 million prize pool. Everyone immediately assumed I was competing. This is absurd on multiple levels. I’m fairly sure there is no contest in the world I could win if you offered the top finishers eighteen million dollars and informed the public ahead of time. But it illustrates something people outside of esports just don’t understand, and, therefore, one of the things esports fans get most defensive and self-righteous about: games like Dota 2 are only worth competing in because they are extremely complex and hard.
Intuitively, this makes sense. Even if there are millions of dollars involved, nobody wants to devote eight hours a day to an easy game. The easier the game, the less of a gap between good players and bad players, and the bigger a role chance plays in selecting the winner. That’s why competitive Chutes & Ladders will never take off, and why traditional sports are built around rules designed to make things arbitrarily harder (“Do not touch the ball with your hands,” “Do not move without bouncing the ball on the floor”). This concept is called “skill ceiling,” and it’s a massive point of contention among esports fans. Dota 2 fans cite skill ceiling when disparaging League of Legends, but this petulant bickering about relative placement on the spectrum is beside the point: all successful esports are hard, because it’s the difficulty itself that makes them interesting.
Not that I blame people for underestimating the complexity when all they know about esports comes from personal experience with video games and journalistic coverage like this:
“Teams of video gamers playing characters ranging from wizards to monsters exchanged virtual punches, fireballs and lightning strikes over the past six days, battling at the main event of the Dota 2 International 2015 tournament in Seattle.” (Reuters)
Because, okay, yes… technically. Technically this is a description of a Dota 2 tournament. But it’s a bit like describing the NBA playoffs as “teams of freakishly tall men flinging balls at hoops.”
The fact is, esports has done an absolutely terrible job explaining itself to the general public. Not that it’s an easy thing to explain. To a newcomer tuning in to ESPN3, Dota 2 is a game of indistinguishable dudes running around and occasionally erupting into variously colored and textured explosions, while excitable commentators screech and scream with intensity proportional to the number of explosions on the screen, uttering completely nonsensical mumbo-jumbo like “IT’S A FIVE MAN WIPE” and “HE SNATCHED THE AEGIS” and “DENDI STOLE RAVAGE.” As esports seeks to grow, it must find a way to explain itself to the broader public, or its maximum viewer count will always be inextricably linked to its player count. Can you imagine if the Super Bowl were only watched by people who played football at least once a week?
Another barrier to entry is the voluminous complexity of Dota 2’s competitive narratives. An enormous tournament like TI5 has so many crisscrossing storylines that it’s impossible to keep track of them all. There’s the storyline of Team Secret’s disintegration, culminating in a gruesome 1-2 defeat and elimination at the hands of VP on Thursday (I don’t want to talk about it). The story of CDEC, a Chinese team that claws its way out of the wild card series and the group stage before riding a train of 2-0 victories all the way to the grand finals. Then there are the stories of tournament-defining heroes, like Storm Spirit, who plays a key role in countless victories, including VP’s upset of Secret, and Leshrac, a hero with ridiculous damage output who is banned every game until the grand finals, when EG discovers that CDEC can’t play it. The Dota 2 metagame—a constellation of strategies generally accepted to be optimal—changes frequently, not just because the players adapt and evolve, but because Valve tinkers with the rules on a bimonthly basis. The strongest heroes in one version may be (and in the case of Storm Spirit, will be) complete garbage in the next. This, along with the constant dissolution and reformation of teams like Secret, contributes to the overall sense of transience in the Dota 2 scene. Some teams, like TI3 winners Alliance, play much better during patches when their signature heroes are strong. The uncertainty about how long those periods will last—IceFrog, the mythical and anonymous Game Balance Emperor of Dota 2, is swift to drop the hammer on any hero that displays too much strength—creates a sense of urgency for such teams, and adds to the feeling of loss when their efforts still fall short.
With Team Secret eliminated, I promptly transfer my allegiances to EG. I’m stuck here for another two and a half days, so I might as well do my best to enjoy it. (Ginny can’t resist calling me a bandwagoner, to which I respond with a chilly sniff/stare combo that only seems to amuse her more.) And there turns out to be plenty left to enjoy: at one point during the next series, Vici Gaming’s Chen “Hao” Zhihao kills every member of the enemy team within a twenty-second period. This is called a rampage. The closest analogy in traditional sports is probably baseball’s Grand Slam, a single tremendous blow with game-altering impact. Forty-eight games of Dota 2 will be played on the main stage in Seattle’s Key Arena this week; a rampage will occur only once.
This particular rampage is one of the more exciting ones, because it requires Hao to abandon all sanity and dive deep behind enemy lines to secure the final two kills. It’s a trademark Hao maneuver. His willingness to risk everything on crazy plays is a source of endless consternation for his millions of fans, but when it pays off, on occasions like this one, you can’t deny that the results are thrilling.
And there’s no question that the rampage has everyone in Key Arena thrilled. The shoutcasters have to scream into their mics to be heard over the fifteen thousand fans, most of whom are on their feet, stomping and clapping and bellowing themselves hoarse. The resulting roar is almost impossibly loud.
“We made it”
We’ve reached the point in the tournament when everyone has arrived, the scalpers have desperately offloaded the last of their tickets at a quarter the original price, and the stands are consistently packed. These days, esports events struggle more with laying out their arenas than filling them. Some tournaments, including previous Internationals, rely on a single huge screen. The obvious downside to this is that those fans sitting along the sides of the arena must crane their necks for hours at a time to keep an eye on the action. This year, Valve has attempted to rectify the round stadium/single screen dilemma by hanging four enormous screens in the center of the arena, but there are blind spots in the corners, which means that even when the arena is crowded it still has four empty gashes of seats. These triangular gashes play havoc with attempts to take the kind of impressive panoramic photographs sought by journalists seeking to prove esports’ importance. Weeks later, I will show a coworker a panoramic photo of TI5 and he will helpfully point out that the stands are not full; when I attempt to explain the whole blind-spots-at-the-corners-of-the-screens thing, he will simply smile and nod, smug in his reaffirmed knowledge of esports’ inferiority… or is the smugness my imagination, a projection of my own insecurity?
On Friday, Ginny leaves the arena during a draft to procure lunch from the food trucks outside. No sooner has she returned, paper tray of Pad Thai in hand, than she gleefully recounts a conversation overheard between two gentlemen behind her in line.
“Did you talk to any girls?” asks one.
“Yeah,” replies the other, “but it didn’t work out.”
“Girls wear too much makeup,” says the first guy, apropos of nothing.
“Use a pillowcase to get it off,” says the second one.
At this point they supposedly both laugh, which in my mind sounds like a piggy snort-snort kind of noise, although who honestly knows? Maybe you have trouble believing that this conversation really occurred, but I certainly don’t. The day before, when acquiring an autograph and photograph from Kevin “Purge” Godec, Ginny and I had observed a similar event. Purge’s girlfriend was lovely, a Valkyrian beauty, and while he smiled and posed for photos with fans, she was mobbed by sweaty dudes armed with the most haphazard attempts at small talk ever conceived.
Friday evening, Ginny and I accompany Weeb Stack to GameWorks, a sports bar and arcade. The arcade is full of Dota 2 fans, identifiable by the TI5 lanyards most of them still wear around their necks. The high point comes when Ginny and I are sitting at the Tekken machine, each having selected the bear character—the bear is named “Kuma,” unless you toggle its appearance to look like a panda, in which case its name is “Panda”—and we have decided to begin by playing around with the controls, our ursine combatants hopping and ducking peacefully beside each other, practically frolicking, when an adult male we’ve never seen before reaches over from an adjacent machine to slap at Ginny’s buttons, prompting her bear to beat mine in the face. There is something deeply disturbing about this, her bear bludgeoning mine, this stranger touching her buttons without permission, his eyes dull and cold behind thick steel-rimmed glasses. We smile, force out a couple of weak laughs, and disengage.
A few minutes later, B-List Dota 2 commentators Capitalist and Sheever amble past with a few friends in tow. Several fans follow at a calculated distance, their faces flushed with more than just excitement. One of the ruddiest gentlemen approaches us and lays a hand on my shoulder.
“We made it,” he says, eyes shining.
It’s impossible not to grin. The guy is full of the pure, unfiltered, bubbling positive energy that comes with being whacked out of your mind in a room full of people you think are famous.
“I just saw Sheever and Cap at the bar,” he says, his eyes drifting happily away from my face, although the big soft hand stays planted on my shoulder. “We made it!”
Sheever and Capitalist move on, and the drunk guy takes his hand off my shoulder to join the bibulous crowd that floats after them.
Later I realize that the excited drunk guy and the Tekken button-pushing guy and the guys in line at the food truck and the guys chatting up Purge’s girlfriend are all the same: like everyone, they’re desperate to make connections with other human beings. The problem is that connecting with people is hard. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. We’ve all, at some point, been the guy who thinks he can make a couple of new friends by reaching over and silently slamming their arcade console’s buttons. Then what was supposed to be a playful joke turns out to be something unintentionally aggressive, desperate-seeming, and the potential new friends react with glassy uncomfortable smiles… we slink away defeated, our cheeks heating red.
If esports fans are plagued by a niggling desire for human contact, then a tournament like TI5 is the prototypical catharsis. All these thousands of people, esports fans who in their offline lives can share their greatest passion with no one, find the ultimate human connection in the roar of a crowd. On Saturday, as EG’s five tenacious players work their way through the lower bracket, the spectators unite in stomps and shouts and cheers. In the grand finals, when EG finally snaps CDEC’s winning streak, when Saahil “Universe” Arora lands the six-million-dollar Echo Slam that ends it all, the roar of the crowd is a tidal wave of elated animal force. In two days, it’ll be back to work, back to the cubicles and check-out counters and Bluetooth headsets of everyday life; but today, in this deafening colosseum, we are living our wildest dream.
Then, with no warning whatsoever, it all comes to an end. The lights go down; the stadium is dark. Spectral wisps of electronic music emanate from the loudspeakers, and spotlights illuminate world-famous DJ Deadmau5, complete with trademark cartoon mouse head, on the stage below. People in the front rows yell and shout and jump around, but as the music gets going, lights strobing the stands in submarine shades of red and blue, it is clear that most of the attendees are quiet and still. They’re not leaving, but they’re not displaying the sort of enthusiasm they were five minutes ago, either. It’s 5:30 PM, and away to the southeast, Mount Rainier casts a growing shadow. Later there will be multitudinous complaints about the closing ceremony, about the supposed incongruity of Deadmau5’s grinding, trance-influenced style, about the horrible camera work (frantically zooming in and out on Mr. Mau5 in a bid to manufacture excitement), and about the concert’s abrupt and anticlimactic conclusion. But for now, before anyone has had a chance to come up with these rationalizations, to scapegoat Deadmau5 for the emptiness it is natural to feel at the conclusion of The Biggest Tournament Ever, the thousands of fans in Key Arena stand Naga Siren-slept amid the fading gunpowder fumes, awash in complex, bittersweet emotions, each of us wondering in our own bass-rattled skull what on Earth will possibly happen next.