The crowd roars as LGD Gaming’s Alchemist shove their way through the Tier 4 towers, headed for Alliance’s Ancient. He’s aided by a Black King Bar to grant him magic immunity and a Divine Rapier to increase his damage to an absurd degree. Meanwhile, Alliance has brought the remains of their five-person team to the base of their opponent, pushing through rax and towers. Alchemist busts through the final towers, turning his dual cleavers on the Ancient. Simultaneously, Alliance’s Phantom Lancer’s illusions are doing serious damage to LGD’s Ancient. It’s a race to do the most damage, and it looks like LGD has a chance of winning it.
And then, it’s over. Phantom Lancer’s illusions simply do too much damage for Alchemist to keep up, leading to an Alliance victory. LGD slumps from the soundproof play room, knowing that they’ve come the closest to taking down the undefeated Alliance that anyone in The International has. It’s a crushing defeat.
To folks uninitiated in Valve’s recent free-to-play MOBA monster, the action onscreen is unintelligible. A mess of numbers, crazy looking abilities, and hundreds of items, it’s simultaneously one of the most popular online games in the world and one of the most inaccessible.
And yet, the world championship tournament The International, held in Seattle’s 2500-seat Benaroya Hall, sold out in less than an hour. Those attending are the most hardcore fans of one of the most hardcore games out there. They’re knowledgeable, dedicated, and passionate.
As for me, upon my arrival to the American Northwest city, I had logged less than 25 hours into Dota 2. For game that is considered to be one of the most complex and deep games out there, that’s a miniscule amount of time. Many consider one’s first couple of hundred hour-long matches to be not much more than a tutorial. After watching my first professional game, I found myself to be out of my element nearly entirely.
Now, I’m not unfamiliar with the MOBA genre entirely. I’m a halfway decent League of Legends player. But Dota 2 is a whole different animal. It’s much more complex and harrowing to get into. But that’s what makes the fans that were surrounding me at Benaroya so in love with it.
“I had never watched eSports prior to [last year’s International]. Frankly, I thought it was a load of shit,” said a fan who chose to be called John in between matches. “But when you see the level of mastery that people have over such a deep game, the teamwork that goes on, and the interactions that happen, it’s like watching an actual sport.”
I met John standing outside Benaroya Hall, where he was attempting to scalp a ticket off of anyone that had an extra. It was his third day waiting on the curb to find a ticket.
Nearly everyone I talked to had been playing Dota since its inception as a Warcraft 3 mod in 2005, then titled Defense of the Ancients. Often, when asked what brought them to Dota, many folks would go into long monologues taking in the history of the mod and how it came to be released by Valve. These are people that knew their stuff.
Valve knows this. Rather than focusing on drawing in new, casual players – as competitor Riot Games seems to be doing – the developer is directing their efforts to the faithful. Rather than hire and train in-house announcers for the tournament, established community commentators were brought in. These men and women, who go by their in-game aliases like TobiWan or 2GD, have come up through the ranks of the Dota 2 scene, and are often seen as mini celebrities. They’re just as excited to be involved in such a big event as those watching them.
During the final match, in which Team Alliance beat perennial crowd favorites Na’Vi, I saw John, arms raised, cheering along with everyone else on the floor of Benaroya. Finally, he was inside The International, and I understood.
Even for a relative neophyte, as the casters shout, celebrate and elaborate on what’s happening in each match, I realised that I didn’t need to know every last move, item or character. I just had to feel it out; it was less about learning the intricacies of the game, it’s about being swept up in a passionate community.