ICYMI: Dota 2’s esports scene has turned into a real-life sports anime

As six new friends, forged into Dota 2’s most unlikely championship team, OG spins the trophy in glittering blue light while the roar of tens of thousands fill the arena. The news of their triumph tsunamis through the digital sphere.

OG’s win is a rare moment punctuating the usually tight borders of esports title-driven fandom. The story of the team’s impossible success even shone outside the shadowy, confusing, vulgarity-filled Dark Souls-esque halls of esports itself. But why?

Let’s start with a number: 52.

That’d be an epic two full seasons of a sports anime, right? But what if I told you that 52 was also the number of games that a scrappy group of players, their team broken and reformed, had to battle through in a single tournament? Just from raw endurance, 52 games across four tournament stages spread only a couple weeks (or even days) apart would be astounding. North American League of Legends Championships only have a maximum 39 games in a regular split, which takes almost a month or longer to complete! But like one of those grizzled voice-over narrators in anime talking from the future, foreshadowing darker times that were overcome after great hardship, it takes some explaining why OG found themselves on this nigh-hopeless road.

Team OG.

The Flightless Crows

Only a couple years ago, OG were regarded amongst the shining stars of their esport, winning more of the highest-tier “Majors” tournaments than all other teams combined during an unprecedented run across a span of 2016 – 2017. But they always failed in the ultimate tournament, The International (TI). Without that capstone, they drifted lower and lower. OG’s history kept them fighting, even as they declined from the spotlight of main stages.

Unlike some other esports, like professional Overwatch, Dota 2 doesn’t have an official league. That means: no franchised teams, no regular schedule. Only a few events sponsored by game developer Valve, and a massive number of sanctioned private events ranging from tiny LAN parties to Chinese stadium tournaments. Sleep beside your keyboard in enough hotels and get enough decent finishes, and you get the thing that matters most: qualifier points for TI.

After jet lag and multiple poor showings took their toll, the rotating door of the OG Pokégym saw the departure of Ukrainian Roman “Resolut1on” Fominok. Without a fifth player, OG coach Sebastien “Ceb” Debs of France had to lock up the clipboard and join them on the field. Their teamwork was clunky, and their fans few, but OG had some superstar talent that could still trounce cocky aspirants. With their aggressive slumming circuit, they still might have enough points to sneak one more shot at true glory.

But there’s a catch. To prevent teams from buying their way into this super-tournament, Valve has a rule that the group of players that qualifies has to be the team that goes to the International. But Resolut1on, who had been brought in to fill a previous roster vacancy, departed after the team lock deadline. OG, already mocked by fans, now had that imposter status officially branded on them: they had the same name, but counted as a totally new team with no qualifier points.

There are only 18 slots for The International. The top eight points teams qualify directly to the main tournament. The other 10 teams have to go through the agonizing open qualifiers with over 1000 competing teams across all the regions, playing repeated best-of-one elimination matches. One mistake and you’re out. Win, and all you get is the chance to play in another qualifiers tournament against the most cutthroat, desperate, and unpredictable teams that also withstood the opens.

You can just see the battle montage: repeated slash cuts, a rehashing of the opening theme song, and teams built on every oddball gimmick the sleepdeprived character designers could pull out of their sketchbooks. Teams with names like wrestling heels: “Backstabbers,” “Cheat On,” and “AN1MAL.”

‘You Should Have Come to Shiratorizawa’

Across the Atlantic, former International winner Evil Geniuses was hatching a fittingly nefarious (albeit reasonable) plot. On May 27, 2018, OG co-founder Tal “Fly Aizik and another long-time support, Sweden’s Gustav “s4” Magnusson, announced they had signed with ascendant Evil Geniuses. With the last-minute changes, EG would have to face the North American open qualifiers as well, but with a full five superstar veterans blooming from their roster. OG’s dreams were already withering.

You really can’t blame s4 and Fly. All pro players are driven to win. But Fly and fellow OG co-founder Johan “N0tail” Sundstein of Denmark were known for their strong and enduring friendship. For Fly to turn his back on not just the team he helped create but N0tail as well is the sort high-emotional-stakes drama normally found in the pages of Shonen Jump.

OG, its coach still splitting time as a substitute, cancels all upcoming tournaments. If this were an anime, the two people left of the team would take long walks around the city. Cicadas singing, school bells echoing, train crossing signs flashing as the duo wait with unopened vending machine soft drinks in their hands.

For Fly to turn his back on not just the team he helped create but N0tail as well is the sort high-emotional-stakes drama normally found in the pages of Shonen Jump.

When they get back, there are two shadows. Australia’s Anathan “Ana” Pham, their former superstar carry has come out of retirement? And oh no… it’s that guy. The hot-headed local celebrity public match brawler, Finland’s Topias “Topson” Taavitsainen. The latter is known for crushing amateurs, but has barely played in a professional tournament. Is this really the shot in the arm OG needs to get back in the rankings?

Meanwhile, EG struggles in the North American opens. They’re facing some of the best teams and strongest pedigrees in the world (Immortals, compLexity, OpTic, and VGJ.Storm) playing glorious clashes that could have happened at any Major. s4 and crew start erupting in more and more spectacular plays, eventually securing a TI8 invite in a tournament.

Back in Europe, it only takes two matches in the first open qualifiers before the shaky, untested OG starts losing matches. They face elimination against Unchained (see what I mean about the names?), then again in regional qualifiers against Wind and Rain, a team that has played three professional tournaments and won zero prize money. But OG wins, breathes a sigh of relief, and is immediately given the lowest possible power ranking by most analysts. Only 18 months ago this was inarguably the best team in the world.

PSG.LGD takes the stage at The International 2018.

PSG.LGD takes the stage at The International 2018.

A High, High Wall

During group stages, despite their clever strategies, OG is repeatedly outclassed by superstar teams. Evil Geniuses lurks in their group and beats them twice in quick succession. Some teams would tilt. Some teams would get angry and make mistakes. But from what little the desk talks about them, it’s rumored OG is mostly staying up late practicing, laughing, and talking shop until all hours. They fight for every game, and maybe no one is more surprised than they are to land in 4th place, which places them directly into winner’s bracket.

Evil Geniuses also places high, and you can imagine when the players see their next opponent, s4 and Fly’s old team, they probably assume it’s a joke. OG must be filling in for Storm because the Chinese players got food poisoning or something. The games go back and forth in a mythic, bloody frayboth teams slamming against each other with broken bodies and blades (and tails and wings) littering the battlefield. They trade games, until in the final match, the map is left a smoldering wasteland after 94 total kills. But OG limps away the victor. EG (with s4 and Fly) drops down to loser’s bracket.

Meanwhile, OG’s next opponent, PSG.LGD, a mega-organization combining the best Chinese esports infrastructure with the star power of the Paris Saint Germain soccer fortune, is impossibly solid, talented, and coordinated. They play with a consistency and refined style that forces their opponents immediately and permanently to their limits. As OG’s clear, ultimate rivals, the PSG.LGD players even don sleek helmets and race go karts in their introduction video.

Playing OG in the winner’s bracket finals, PSG.LGD sorely underestimates the Europeans and drop a game. They laugh it off, take game two seriously, and start the thrashing all over again in game three.

Whatever It Takes to Keep the Ball in the Air

The problem is that OG doesn’t give up there. While most games of Dota 2 end with surrender, at the end of game three OG is trapped in its home base but refuses to concede. It’s over. It’s unpleasant to watch. So I walk to the kitchen to get another scotch. I’m pulled back as I hear the commentators’ desk flounder in unprepared silence. Did their teleprompter break?

No! The narrators had prepared their notes to talk about OG’s bad manners for refusing to leave the game, but it quickly became clear OG had wisely hoarded its instant-resurrection buybacks.” LGD had rashly burned its own extra lives  to finish quickly. OG might not have had a base, but LGD had no players to stop a reverse rush to its nearly-empty side of the battlefield. Any other team would have GG’d out minutes ago, but OG let its opponents impale themselves on their own spear!

Even in a loss, LGD’s defense and offensive technique is impossibly refined. It’s like seeing an animation cel where the animators have drawn 100 ping-pong paddle slashes in one frame. EG tried to fight them for a shot at revenge, but no matter how much you dislike s4 and Fly’s defection, you don’t want to see how badly they got crushed. It’s clear only OG can stand against the relentless fists of LGD. And so the Grand Finals commence.

The Grand Finals of International 2018.

The Grand Finals of International 2018.

The View from the Top

Game one mirrors the previous series, with OG using a once-a-tournament trick draft to lock in an unexpected win. But then things get weird. Topson, so brilliant throughout the tournament, gets killed 12 times in a row in a humiliating game two. Game three is barely better. Down 1-2, game four looks like the last gasp for OG, with Topson on pace to die even more. He dies, and dies, and dies. It’s ugly. His team never helps him. He gets up only to be smashed down again. Have OG’s fragile bonds broken under the pressure?

Quite the opposite. OG has realized they can’t win head-on. So the team agreed to the ultimate gamble: they abandon Topson, and use all their resources to get un-retired veteran Ana to spiral out of control. The proudest pub brawler is asked, on the biggest stage in the world, to make a fool of himself. They trust, he sacrifices, they execute, and it works as Ana’s Phantom Lancer multiplies endlessly for the win. Now it’s a best-of-one for $11,000,000.

As the draft unfolds, the analysts are stunned when they realize the wildest team is using the same comp they used in the open qualifiers, when they just started playing together. Under the bellowing crowd, the draft locked, everything riding on a single match, the coaches are asked how confident they are. LGD’s coach says “Very confident.” OG’s new coach, Cristian “ppasarel” Banaseanu, pauses. Knowing this might be the last thing the public hears him utter, maybe remembering that empty training room only months ago, he replies, “Confidence level over 9000!” The crowd explodes.

People who barely knew each other only months ago, a team written off by statisticians as the least likely to win… Who could have asked for a more dramatic, more cathartic result?

LGD opens with all their might, crushing OG. But as always, OG just goes again. And again. And goes. And goes. Fighting, brawling, Topson dying, the team still laughing, relentlessly spamming emotes, happy to be fighting even after six grueling hours. People who barely knew each other only months ago, a team written off by statisticians as the least likely to win TI8, know they can take whatever LGD can give. They know through endless games, through so many near-eliminations, that have more secret techniques, combo breakers, and impossible counters than anyone else. They relish the fight.

They win.

Who could have asked for a more dramatic, more cathartic result? News spread quickly beyond the confines of Dota 2 fandom, and even the other weekend esports events with which TI8 had been competing for attention. I got the text in the middle of Overwatch All-Stars: “OG WINS!” I turned to the random guy next to me in the Blizzard studio and repeated the news. Disbelieving, he scrambled to check his phone for proof.

As McCree yells “It’s High Noon!” over the thunderous speakers, I see an angelic blonde-framed face, and hear a gruff “Holy shit, OG wins?” And so went the awed whisper as it spread from the cheapest seats, one mouth to the next, forward through an audience that probably had little idea what an Aegis of the Immortal” even is.

From superstars to underdogs to the greatest stage in the Dota 2 world, all in the span of a single season, OG wins. 

I’d watch that anime. Wouldn’t you?

Photo credit: Valve’s official Dota 2 The International Flickr.