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Evaluating the Love of Dota 2's The International 4 Vs. The World Cup

Adam H. Condra | 18 Sep 2014 17:30
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Two of the world's biggest sporting events took place this summer: soccer's World Cup, and Dota 2's The International 4 (colloquially known as TI4). Obviously, one of these events has more bearing for gamers, and it's not the one with vuvuzelas. However, if you had told me a few months ago that I'd be genuinely excited to wake up early and go to bars to watch soccer, I'd have asked if my mugshot for treason captured my good side.

I joke, because soccer has only ever been a source of two things to me: playful xenophobia and being confused by its fans. I never took the sport seriously, instead reveling in stereotypical American contempt for a game that allegedly doesn't have much cachet in the land of the free. I'm here to admit that I was wrong. More than that, I'm here to discuss how the World Cup helped me identify problems in appreciating something else that I thought I was much more excited for: The International 4. Soccer helped me understand that Dota 2, the sport, has a long way to go before it's as exciting as Dota 2, the game.

I learned the practical way that it's easy to hate a sport until you commit yourself to understanding it. With Dota 2, I never had that problem. Having played the game for two years now, I've had plenty of time to absorb many of its Byzantine mechanics and lessons. When it came to soccer, hating it was easy, but I knew from my experience with American football that denigrating a sport just because I'd never watched it was a good way to miss out on something I might potentially love. Reminded of this lesson, I decided to see if I could learn to love fĂștbol just as much.

I went to my local bars and started force-feeding myself the World Cup's group stages. The first two matches I took in were stultifying. Russia vs. Korea ended in a 0-0 draw, as did Greece vs. Japan. I was ready to confirm my biases and give up, but decided that I would watch one more game: USA vs. Portugal. That match changed everything.

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I discovered that soccer thrives on emotional investment. I can watch a football or baseball game no matter who's playing, but soccer is different. At a taproom, surrounded by folks clad in Dempsey jerseys, screaming over every possession and riding the emotional sine wave of each fast break towards Portugal's defenders, I was hooked. When the US equalized we pounded the bar until it splintered. When Dempsey scored a second goal to put the United States up 2-1, we stomped the floor until it cracked. When Portugal tied the game in the last 30 seconds we threw up our hands and shouted, unaware of how to control our bodies in the midst of such neurochemical chaos. The US hadn't won, but few of us had ever been so excited.

It's fair to compare this experience to playing Dota 2, emphasis on playing. Though Valve's signature MOBA demands hours of practice and research just to become competent, both soccer and Dota evince similar emotional surges in the midst of gameplay. Executing a perfect gank, participating in a victorious team-fight, or instigating a gigantic momentum shift that can swing the outcome of a match in one's favor are just a few of Dota's many thrills that feel organically similar to soccer. But the high I knew from playing Dota felt strangely difficult to appreciate when I watched the pros play in TI4.

Two weeks after Team USA's thrilling draw against Portugal, I was rubbing my hands to see the start of The International 4. As the group stage began, I sat down at my PC, grew bored, and ultimately left to run errands after promising myself that I would catch the highlights later. As this pattern persisted, I recalled that this was exactly how I had viewed The Internationals 2 and 3. What was the problem? Why couldn't I stick with the Dota tournament despite my knowledge of the game? A number of factors presented themselves, some unique to Dota, and others inherent within eSports itself.

It's important to clarify that I don't think I'm incapable of enjoying TI4 the same way I enjoyed the World Cup. Both games are surprising and delightful because of the unpredictability of their play. But the difference between them is that soccer can be enjoyed even as a novice, while Dota takes much, much more effort, even as a veteran.

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