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 fútbol 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.
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.
Consider any athlete who plays a traditional sport. In a rapid amount of time, an observer can learn their strengths, weaknesses, specialties, and even their personal history. Sports media has become incredibly efficient in disseminating this information and giving audiences ways to form their opinions when they watch games on TV. In viewing just three USA games during the World Cup, I knew enough to question whether it was prudent to bench midfielder Kyle Beckerman and his defensive skills during the game against Belgium. It was not particularly incisive analysis, but it was informed.
Contrast this with Dota 2, in which viewing a match with full appreciation of a team and its abilities means applying several more layers of knowledge. A team isn’t known by just its names, or its nationality; you must also be able to match each player to their eSports name. Beyond recognizing each player, what is their role on the team? Are they a carry, or a support, or a jungler? Do they specialize in multiple roles and play off lane? How does this affect which heroes they will select in the match? Only when you can synthesize the strengths of a particular player with a working knowledge of the character they have selected can you begin to understand how the game is going to play out on “the Lords’ Pitch.” And that’s before you consider item builds, counter-picking, and “the Meta,” a catch-all term for the wider-ranging interactions between characters and their abilities that can change markedly with each balance patch.
This effectively creates several strata of “sport” to be observed. The characters in Dota 2 have to be evaluated just as much as the players controlling them, and that extra level of distance between athleticism and play made it harder for me to get invested in The International, even though I’ve been playing the game for years. Several matches at TI4 featured characters I’d never played as, and characters whose usefulness has changed drastically since TI3. Commentators and hardcore fans brought this knowledge to bear when watching the match, but trying to keep up with it as someone who plays about once a week meant that I was often missing the forest while trying to identify each new tree. By the time I felt like I had my feet under me, NewBee had already won the Grand Finals.
The division between players, characters, and player identities is certainly not an insurmountable level of information to understand. TI4’s prize pool and viewership prove this. However, I cannot help but conclude that the effort it takes to get oneself up to speed is a factor that denies Dota 2 many more fans than it could already have without these problems. The fact that TI4 largely takes place over the internet also impedes the kind of communal celebration that is present in the World Cup and similar traditional sports.
But things are improving. One of TI4’s advantages in being broadcast online is that multiple languages and commentary teams are readily available. Not only are viewers able to find a feed in their native language, Valve leveraged this flexibility to provide a “newcomer’s stream,” in which commentators explained every stage of the match in basic, thorough detail, from character picks to item builds, and even to speculating what teams would do next based on their circumstances and why. At times it often felt just as obfuscating as the regular stream, but did so by pulling back the veil on how truly complicated and adaptive Dota 2 is.
When you factor in that Valve has also spent top dollar for terrific production values, and even a berth on ESPN2 for the Grand Finals, the idea that The International will continue to grow in popularity seems a sure bet. As the audience and cultural relevance of Dota 2 grows, so will the gaps in its accessibility and number of fans watching alone start to shrink. At least, that is my hope.
Dota 2 remains fascinating, capable of visiting great rewards upon the people who invest time and energy in understanding it. Yet its quixotic appeal as a game has not yet fully translated to its potential as a sport. Learning to enjoy the World Cup, its simplicity, its efficiency in conveying player narratives and igniting national pride, and the fervor of experiencing the game in a room full of friends showed me exactly what I was missing when I tried to watch TI4. In time, as it grows in popularity, I hope to see The International rise to the same level of prominence and effortless zeal inherent in its traditional sports brethren.
Adam H. Condra is a freelance writer and teacher living in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He looks forward to the next time he can chant “I believe!” while quaffing an IPA at 9 in the morning.