On Sunday, The International came to a close with a final that almost felt like an anti-climax; after so much drama, and so much upset, in the previous two games, it would have to do something pretty spectacular to keep the curve of excitement on the upwards. Ultimately, it was just two very good teams playing very good games of Dota 2.
‘Just’. Like it was boring. It wasn’t, in the slightest. Na’Vi and iG were on the top of their respective games, and when the style of play between the Ukrainians and the Chinese was so very different, it was a genuine pleasure watching them clash to see which was dominant.
The problem is Na’Vi had pulled out all of the stops in the last few days. They’d thrown every tactic that they had at both iG and then LGD, ending the latter’s nineteen game winstreak with a display of beautifully left-field tactics and utter mastery of both their overall strategy and the ever important details of micro management and effective play.
In the aftermath of the group stages, I was feeling a little disappointed. All of the big Western teams, the likes of mTw, EG, coL and mouz were underperforming, sitting around the mid-level of each group, whereas the Asian teams, Orange, iG and LGD were happily sitting at the top, having soundly thrashed most that had come before them. The latter two, in particular, had come away with iG having a single loss to their name, and LGD utterly untainted by defeat.
The disappointment wasn’t routed in any continental or cultural loyalty; as much as it’d be nice to see a British team win the International, I’d rather just see versatility of play and some interesting tactics pop up now and again. The problem was that the Asian style of playing the game, while massively effective, isn’t exciting to watch as a spectator. They’re incredibly technically proficient, but they’re focused on playing the long game; earning enough gold and enough experience so that you haven’t an overwhelming advantage when you actually go into a fight. It’s smart, but it’s also safe.
You only had to witness the Loser’s Bracket final, between iG and LGD, to see that. Hour long matches decided by who could earn gold fast enough, rather than who had the most decisive team fighting, or which brilliant ambush or pincer move could be pulled off. It was a match won in increments, rather than dramatic flourishes.
And, if they had gone unchallenged, as it looked like both teams would, after the group stages, it would be a message to competitive Dota as a whole; the boring game is the most effective, and if you can’t keep up with the relentless farming of the Chinese and Asian teams, you might as well just stick to regional tournaments and leave the internationals to the East. It would have not only hurt the confidence of pretty much everyone in the Western scenes, but it would have been detrimental to the Dota 2 Esports scene as a whole.
Because having multiple meta-games is better. Having tactics be something you could discuss, and be opinionated about, is where invention and creativity thrive. And make no mistake; a game of Dota 2 is a creative endeavour, where flair and insight are just as useful as being technically skilled at playing your hero. Having the strength of will to surge into a fight at just the right moment, or pull back when you know a fight is lost, is what sets apart good players from bad. Knowing when your time is up and refusing to go down without a fight, to just passively run away from your opponents and instead standing, laying everything you’ve got on one target in the hope of a kill or at least injuring them enough for your team to come in and finish them off, is what separates the great from the good.
So when the tournament proper started, and Na’Vi surged into life, winning games and heading through into the Semi-Finals, a flicker of hope started. Not that Na’Vi would win, although that was certainly a hope, but that they would give the Chinese game a run for their money. That they would show that it wasn’t dominant, and that it could be challenged.
iG vs Na’Vi was the first Semi-Final where I actually shouted at my screen. The first time during the tournament that I swore out loud, and the first time it looked like the Chinese game wasn’t this all powerful machine of almost preternatural teamwork and finesse. Na’Vi lost the first game in sixteen minutes, taking with them everyone’s assumption that Na’Vi was finished, that last year’s International was a fluke of timing and a small hero pool.
And then they went and picked Juggernaut.
In the competitive scene of Dota 2 you can split the 90 odd heroes of the game into specific tiers, based on how often they’re picked or banned in professional games. Before the International, Juggernaut was sitting comfortably in Tier 4, of 5. They haven’t released September’s list just yet, but I’m fairly sure he’s going to be sitting a little higher now.
So Na’Vi had a pick that no one could have predicted, and they picked him for a very good reason; he was a pretty effective counter to a Tier 1 pick, Naga Siren. And iG had just so happened to pick Naga Siren. What followed was a game that was a beauty to watch, with Na’Vi constantly winning teamfights based on gorgeous individual performances, each of them reinforcing one another. Dendi on Rubick, stealing spells and slinging them back into the opposing team. LightofHeaveN throwing down giant Black Holes, each one disabling the entire iG team while Xboct’s Juggernaut sliced and diced them.
With a little flair, and more than a few tricks up their sleeves, Na’Vi had just taken the Chinese game to school, demonstrating in two decisive victories that iG weren’t unstoppable. Had, in fact, just been relegated to the Loser’s Bracket.
Which left LGD. Nineteen wins, and never even looking remotely challenged. So Na’Vi did what they’d just done, and picked first Juggernaut in game 2, and Faceless Void, a hero who not only needs all the gold he can get, but requires an incredible amount of careful placement if he wants to use his best spell, a giant dome of suspended animation that freezes every player, friend or foe, inside it except himself.
It worked, though, and LGD went down to meet iG in a Loser’s Bracket final that looked like what most imagined the Grand Final would; the two best Chinese teams duking it out to see who is best.
Ultimately iG went on to beat Na’Vi in a tense set of games in the Grand Final, where it was clear that Na’Vi had run out of surprises, left to rely on their technical prowess to carry them through. And while they were close, that was one area where they couldn’t match the Chinese.
In the days since the International, the various chat rooms that the Dota 2 client throws you in have been full of people bemoaning Na’Vi for picking this hero, or not doing that strategy. They were convinced they could have won, that they threw the final away. But it doesn’t matter, in the long run; Na’Vi did the impossible, and showed the world of Dota 2 that the Chinese game isn’t an insurmountable mountain, or an unbeatable way of playing the game. It’s just competitive.
Which, when you think about it, is just about the best result that anyone could have hoped for. iG didn’t go down the instant Na’Vi pulled their strategies, instead doing what they do best and coming back just as hard. Na’Vi didn’t crumple when they’d run out of esoteric ways to counter the Chinese game. They were level, despite iG winning 3:1 in the final.
And Dota 2’s competitive scene can continue to thrive, knowing that both ways of playing the game are equally valid. And as a spectator, that’s all I could ever want.