Quick Thoughts on The International 7 Grand Final

I have been thinking, for what seems like forever, about writing some history articles on esports, specifically DOTA 2. Watching The International Grand Final tonight, a specific similarity struck me; Newbee, favourites to win the best of five series, looked absolutely decimated after losing the first two games. Their body language was terrible, especially when compared to their opponents Team Liquid, who seemed loose and enthusiastic. It mirrored similar things I’ve seen watching sport my whole life: one team was shocked, stunned… waiting to be beaten. The other team was in the groove and probably could not even imagine losing. People turn these situations around all the time of course, but it’s not easy.

I was not stunned when Newbee went down in the third game (though a sweep was certainly shocking in the broader sense). They had already been beaten. They had the look I’ve seen on athletes’ faces again and again and again. In this little moment whatever barriers exist between traditional sport and esport ideologically or otherwise melted away for just a little while. It’s these little linkages that intrigue me. Up to now I have been mostly interested in looking at how DOTA, LOL and more recently Overwatch’s nascent economic structures either mimic or fail to mimic the early origins of professional sport. In particular I am interested in notions of national competition in esports versus traditional popular sport. In this particular regard newly crowned champions Team Liquid are particularly interesting: the team is North American, but the actual players were not, coming from Europe and the Middle East.

A lot to chew on, really. In short, it was a great tournament and well worth your time. We spend a lot of time talking about the prize money (the five members of Team Liquid now have to split ten million US dollars between them) but with each year that passes the championship feels more prestigious. This rings true when you see Chinese teams that under-performed in majors all year suddenly show up, and it comes home when you watch the increasingly more impressive video reviews of and callbacks to previous tournaments. This feels established now.

The International 2016

The International 2016, or TI6, has started today with the Wild Card round in Seattle. I’m excited.

Coverage of DOTA 2 becomes more accessible every year, but the core experience still feels centered on Twitch, Twitter and various forums across the Internet. More than ever, it feels like a good thing; Valve’s increasingly professional studio setup embraces online handles, an approach common throughout eSports that makes it relatively straightforward to follow interesting analysts and casters (announcers). ESports, at least for this observer, seems closer than ever to finding its own groove.

Legitimacy helps. The prize pool for TI6 is currently drawing in on US$20 million, and ESPN continues to invest significant energies into eSports as a whole, with TI6 airing on its online channel ESPN3 and its eSports hub already one of the most welcoming places online for curious would-be fans. Recognition as a “sport” (whatever the heck that means at this point) has been the holy grail for a while across various eSports games and ESPN is offering it, sometimes spurring predictable huffing and puffing from disingenuous gadflies. Momentum is clearly gathering however, and with it more and more sports personalities are willing to talk up the concept of competitive video game competition. Sure, part of this is the ongoing and long since worn out “it’s cool to be a nerd” zeitgeist, but scoffing at people watching eSports is fast becoming about as productive as pretending expensive cable subscriptions are going to make a comeback.

Not that things are perfect just yet. Chinese team LGD Gaming have to do without support player Xue “September” Zhichuan after repeatedly having applications for a visa for entry to the United States denied, Xue’s case the most high profile of several leading up to the event. Visa issues are common across various games in the eSports world, quite possibly a symptom of the currently wide open environment of team organization and ownership. Any kind of overarching international body a la FIFA or the IOC seems a long way off. Not that those organizations offer particularly positive examples, of course.

I find myself in an interesting spot with eSports, my interests driving me to learn as much as I can but the practicality of other obligations (not least among them a toddler) enforcing a continued familiarity with a more “casual” perspective. The International does feel like an important moment in the culture as a whole each year, though. The tournament garners broad attention, it is in my opinion the most fun tournament to watch, and the last few years as each Grand Final has come to a close, I’ve found myself thinking: “that was great. What about next year?”

A Short note on DOTA 2 and online culture

I played a game of DOTA 2 last night where one of my teammates had named himself (I’m going to go ahead and assume it was a he) “WHORE,” all caps included, and another called us all “faggets” as soon as he loaded onto the map.

This isn’t okay.

Now, if you’ve come upon this with little knowledge about how people communicate in online video games you might think that’s a fairly obvious statement. Since my decision to resurrect my interest in DOTA 2 a couple of weeks ago, I have yet to go two online games in a row without reporting a player. This has usually been for use of offensive language (typically gendered slurs or effusive use of “retard”). I cannot say I have much confidence anything will really happen. It’s a disgrace. How does someone create a username “WHORE”? How is that okay?

If I come online and write a blog post complaining every time I have an unpleasant experience playing DOTA 2, things will get ridiculous in a hurry, but it continues to concern me that nobody seems all that bothered. Video games are not the only area with this problem; Google’s ongoing refusal to even attempt to address its poisonous YouTube community is pathetic. However, only in video games is it apparently gripped on to tightly as part of online culture. I wrote once about Starcraft star Greg “Idra” Fields, a talented player infamous for getting upset and abusing his opponents. Standard advice offered to new DOTA 2 players is to make good use of the mute button. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy it’s there, but why are we okay with this? Why is it simply part of the price of admission? It’s not a coincidence that so many people online took the position during Gamergate that people upset by death threats made against them online were overreacting, or who argued implicitly or explicitly that this was simply a part of having a public life online.

This even happens while I’m spectating games in the DOTA 2 client. I enjoy watching professional games in client because I can interact with the UI myself if I like to check various statistics, how individual players are performing, what they are doing, and so on. It’s fantastic and it’s clearly the future of watching all kinds of sport. Unfortunately, by default the client includes a public chat room of various people watching thrown together. It is not the spastically frenetic mess of Twitch chat thanks to the closing of the chatroom to a relatively small number. It mostly doesn’t save me from people being deeply unpleasant. I can, at least, turn the feature off, but it’s a sad indictment of the social capacity of such a service in the first place.

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The unpleasantness in such situations is not always the use of offensive language. It is often people being incredibly unforgiving of the casters or the production. This is an intriguing extension of a phenomenon I have come to know well in MOBAs, particularly in DOTA 2, where someone with little to no justification in criticizing you will assume the mantle of expert. It’s not helped by the fact that the audience feels close to casters and other producers in a way that they do not to Joe Buck or Al Michaels. Somewhat confusingly, this sometimes also leads to the potential for forgiveness of completely unacceptable behaviour by broadcasters themselves on the basis that using offensive language or acting like an inappropriate teenage boy during a live stream going out to thousands of people is somehow okay. The whole thing is draining.

I play games for fun, Valve. I understand DOTA 2 is intense, and I’m willing to deal with that, but I don’t understand why I must be exposed to unpleasantness as part of the price of playing the game.

DOTA 2, Theory and Practice

I have a book to write, classes to prep, a family to hang out with and, in theory, a social life to try and keep alive. So, I’m reviving my interest in DOTA 2.

I played DOTA 2 rather briefly a couple of years ago, won more games than I lost, and generally gained a little insight into why the game is just so popular. I can’t quite recall why I stopped, but I vaguely remember it being centered on a stranger spending ten minutes of the game complaining about me specifically and my decision that I had better things to do with my time.

And the time, the time it takes… Dear me. With everything going on, I would be mad to get back into DOTA 2.

I am going to play my (almost) first DOTA 2 game with humans in more than two years later this week.

Perhaps, if I was being generous, I could argue that this adventure could become an experiment of sorts. I’m just not sure what experiment would amount to:

  • married dad tries to play DOTA with predictable results
  • area man quits Internet after multiple evenings of abuse from strangers during his free time
  • video game fan of thirty years finally figures out what a “hard support” is

The desire to play more DOTA is partly the resumption of a long held desire and partly a need to fulfill a certain obligation. I do like MOBAs, in theory at the very least, and I long ago decided DOTA 2 was the best one. I also enjoy watching competitive DOTA 2. I want to write more about DOTA 2, and the fact is that I will be able to that better if I play the game regularly, admittedly if what I choose to call “playing” amounts to occasionally figuring out how to ward properly in pub games.

I did the same thing what feels like a long time ago now with my dissertation. The plan to write on baseball had no roots whatsoever in any interest I had in the game, and so I had to give myself an education. I went from having the mild distaste for baseball every decent European has to being very happy yesterday that the Texas Rangers went twenty games over .500. Seeing as I actually enjoy DOTA 2, I have a head start.
The trick, of course, will be to shut out people who try to make the game less fun. This is the problem with DOTA. I fully understand that it brings a competitive experience that is very difficult to match in other games, or at least one that can be reached with less investment than you might think. I get that. However, if I’m having a rough game and letting down the team I probably feel badly about it already. That, or I promised my wife we were going to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones after this. Either way, really.

The funny thing is, it’s difficult to just rise above it. I know there are mute buttons but it’s tough when a teammate decides to spend a significant chunk of time complaining about every decision you’ve made in the last five minutes. I find this more difficult to deal with than an idiot being abusive, honestly. Finally, I think I’m getting better at recognizing that a lot of these people are just bizarre. I have a grammatically rough “almost” up there in parentheses because I did play a game a few months ago. A reasonable person tried to get us all together on voice chat, a young boy panicked and died a lot, and two other teammates basically went off in a huff and did their own thing. And we won. It was incredibly weird. I plan to mute all microphones before I even start.

So, we’ll see. We’ll see where all this takes us. We’ll see where I find the time. Let’s go. Summer of DOTA.