blog, Jack's Stuff

The International 3: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

“Jack, did you just invite me to play? Why the fuck are you playing dota right now? You realize that’s like…if you asked me to play a pickup football game during the Super Bowl…” – Dean

Alliance claims the third aegis

Sunday wrapped up the week of DotA 2 comprising the biggest event in e-sports history, with 16 teams competing for a prize pool of $2.8 million. The championship match came down to an incredibly tense last game with the series tied at 2-2, something like the epic back and forth and final deciding moments of game 7 of this year’s NBA Finals. It also forced both teams to try and find victory in a uniquely rare situation for a DotA match, in addition to the added pressure of $800,000 hinging on the outcome.

For the time being, no extended discussion of a major gaming event comes without allusion to or at least awareness of its place in the bigger picture. Ditch a birthday party for this gaming event (as I did) and you hear perfectly deserved indignation that reaches its highest pitch ONLY once the reason is known: “You missed this party…for a VIDEO GAME?” But how many of your friends, sports-conscious or otherwise, would plan their birthday in direct conflict with the Super Bowl? Browse /r/dota2 after the event, and some of the highest voted threads are about this official news station or that legitimate magazine broadcasting the event or interviewing its winners, or the peak viewer totals on the live streams. DotA 2 is in its explosively growing infancy of traditionally short e-sports lifespans, fighting for attention and approval. It needs numbers like “1.1 million concurrent viewers” and “$1.4 million first place prize” to prove that it might not ONLY be for sweaty basement nerds.

Once upon a time, in Jim Thorpe’s age and even well after it, countless athletes in every now-recognizable major sport came and went. They were often paid approximately nothing and, if they were actually any good, ceaselessly manipulated by sleazeball owners and managers running shady, doomed leagues. They had to take other jobs and aspire to other professions, just to keep themselves alive to play the games they loved.  The public saw their competitions as interesting, entertaining curiosities, but saw some of them as freaks who were inexplicably getting paid to do things like throw, hit, or shoot.

We’re navigating through that phase now. E-sports in all its different forms is very much in a similarly unruly and unscrupulous era. In DotA 2 alone we have controversies over sponsored teams taking big cuts of their players’ prize winnings, limited or broken sponsorship promises, inability to get players to events, and a healthy share of delayed/scammed prize payouts and occasional match fixing scandals.

So it’s great to see a tournament with this kind of polished production, organization, and legitimacy. It’s great to see that, in a time where most entities within the e-sports world tread cautiously and want to see solid results before they invest in the game or its players, Valve takes the vanguard and puts on a yearly competition with a prize pool dwarfing all other DotA 2 events combined, ponying up front to nurture their game. The results are already encouraging; adding a portion of compendium sales to this year’s prize pool jacked it up 75% from last year, and the game’s official “release” from beta has already added millions of unique users in a few short months. And brave, persistent newcomers to the scene like Kaci (who did a great job after basically getting thrown into the fire) will keep helping the game grow.

With that, it’s time to muse and dream about how the scene might change as TI withdrawal sets in yet again.

 

1) What happened to the Chinese? How can they bounce back?

I love comparing DotA to games like basketball, which is easy to do because it’s also a 5-on-5 game requiring precision, execution, speed, and teamwork with specialized roles. But when the International rolls around, it’s more like the World Cup…you can have professional and regional team loyalties during the rest of the year, but it’s time to set that aside when everyone comes together to fight for the world title. Last year, the Chinese sent five teams to Seattle. All placed in the top 7. 3 placed in the top 4, with iG taking home the aegis and million. China was to DotA what the United States is to basketball: a  stable power with a well-developed and incentivized full-time professional structure and lots of talent, assailable really only by a few elite outside teams (the extended basketball analogy would be comparing strong western squads around that time like Navi, Complexity and Evil Geniuses to teams like Spain, Brazil, France, and Argentina).

What people rightfully feared most about Chinese DotA was that their precise coordination and overall advantages in practice and constant tournament competition reduced the game to almost a science. The Chinese reduced the variables of each game to something they were familiar and comfortable with, and then executed their game plans better than anyone else. We pretty much have to believe that Valve’s decision to introduce balance patches shortly before each International was geared at countering any potentially stagnant stranglehold – Chinese or otherwise – on each year’s metagame. And I can think of no better example for this than iG’s awesome game 1 performance against LGD.int in March’s G-League finals. LGD.int had gone to China to play and learn from the best, but they were still a western team by style and philosophy. They wanted to use their super-aggressive style to throw iG off their game…but iG picked that strategy apart, one patiently executed counter-gank and rotation at a time.

Few watching that game could predict that they were seeing then mighty iG’s last dominant performance against a western team. But then, why was LGD.int, not considered a super-elite western squad, even in the G-League finals? Was it because western teams really just needed the Chinese environment to excel? (StarCraft fans have heard that about Korea before…) Or had the Chinese advantage evaporated as quickly as iG’s unchallenged superiority, which needed several closely contested games to finish off LGD.int?

Then, at the next G-League, Alliance showed up and ran the table. iG didn’t even qualify for the playoffs. After the tournament’s shocking results, you heard things like this from iG’s Chuan, things that are a REALLY bad sign for any DotA team: “…I watched them play online and I didn’t really understand their draft. ” Later in that same interview, Chuan says that in the LAN situation of TI3, they’ll adapt and understand the drafts of western teams, who shouldn’t pose as much of a threat to an iG repeat as Chinese stalwarts LGD and DK. Given that Loda said the Chinese teams had been similarly shaky leading up to TI2, there was reason to believe Chuan.

Of course, fast forward a few months and this year’s 5-team Chinese contingent in Seattle looked quite lost at times. Only three placed, occupying 4th-6th, with the top teams’ feared reputations for precise execution and discipline occasionally turned upside down in a series of listless, hesitant and uncoordinated performances. I think few examples sum up the Chinese performance better than this groupstage fight and its aftermath, when TongFu kills Loda shortly after a buyback and proceeds to do absolutely nothing with the opening.

Some Chinese DotA fans have found a reason and culprit for this year’s decline, centered around the stagnant Chinese scene, with the domestic, League of Legends-loving ACE acting as a sort of cartel controlling elite team participation in tournaments, smothering upstart amateurism and depressing the competition, innovation, and talent that comes with it.

But while lack of general scene progress is a serious problem with consequences at the highest level (just look at North America, where DotA began but until recently has suffered from an egotistical, selfish, impatient and unstable player pool and hasn’t been truly elite in a long time), I won’t buy that lack of talent was the problem at this year’s international. Not with the same stable rosters that crisply dismantled opponents last year.

The Chinese had plenty of chances to advance through the winner bracket this year; TongFu, iG, LGD, and DK were beaten but not outclassed. You can argue that the metagame changed, giving them insufficient time to fully master all its wrinkles, but adaptation and evolution is what keeps DotA fresh and exciting, and it should always be that way. What it came down to is that the gap closed between elite eastern and western teams to the point where larger game decisions made the difference; decisions that seldom had a chance to be important last year, decisions that the Chinese teams aren’t used to needing to make against each other (the record 98-minute snoozefest stands as proof), and so aren’t ready to make when it counts.

Two examples from the main event in addition to TongFu’s decisive indecision above really stand out. In Game 1 of the Upper Bracket Quarterfinals between Alliance and LGD.CN, LGD was gradually worn down by Alliance’s PL/Furion split push, before charging down the mid for an epic throne race. There are some huge plays in this game, like the beautiful blinding light trapping Sylar’s Alchemist on the cliff during a crucial Roshan attempt, but as a Chinese supporter I was really disappointed with how LGD managed their game plan, and became certain that they would lose the series in spite of how close the game was. First, LGD has to understand as the midgame wears on – and even before then – that they can’t win a split defend game against the likes of Phantom Lancer, Furion, and Keeper of the Light. The way most teams deal with split push, which is of course generally quite strong, is to force the pushers to fight, negating the advantage of mobility. In this game, LGD seems paralyzed by indecision for a long time, trying futilely to defend against the split push, until they finally lose all of their barracks to attrition and must force it down mid. Even once PL and Furion have a decent gold advantage, there are still windows at 54 minutes, 55:45 after killing Visage, several others where they can try and push.

Now obviously KOTL isn’t easy to push against, and this plan might still have lost LGD the game. But isn’t making something happen preferable to grinding out a slow defeat? As the game turned out, Alchemist remained supreme in most of the engagements, with his acid, Beastmaster’s aura and Magnus’s empowered cleave allowing him to deal quite well with Phantom Lancer illusions. If LGD had planned or attempted their suicide push earlier in the game, with less immediate urgency on their throne, how would things have turned out? Losing a set of raxes or two obviously means nothing if you’re threatening the throne – this is likely what XBOCT and Dendi were thinking in the final match against Alliance as well. During the actual throne attempt, Sylar replaces his Battlefury with Divine Rapier; a Battlefury he had briefly rented and quickly returned like a shitty Blockbuster movie. It might sound like pure hindsight to say that Sylar should have gone for the Divine Rapier sooner, or that he shouldn’t have wasted precious game-deciding seconds killing Visage inside Alliance’s base. But these minor gaffes aren’t issues of deficient talent, and they stem from a bigger problem. LGD needed to both recognize and react to the fact that they’d get whittled away split defending against Alliance’s lineup, and respond accordingly.

The other example is the controversial fountain hook game. Say what you will about the method of Navi’s comeback; the understandable Hao perspective is that it doesn’t make sense to have an essentially risk-free ability to bring the fountain along for free kills. But it’s a part of the game and again, it’s possible to react and plan against this. I wish some kind of exchange happened like this among the TongFu players: “listen guys, we’re way ahead of them and these fountain hooks are their only way back. We need to bring the fight to them and push. And if you see Pudge going for any kind of hook, I want the support players to get in the way of it AT ALL COSTS. Whatever you do, don’t let the Gyrocopter get taken. And if Pudge misses, we kill everyone else.” Instead, TongFu keep trying to jockey for position, trying to build some kind of insurmountable lead in the face of the ultimate equalizing combo. Again you can argue that the game might still not swing Navi’s way if the aegis Gyrocopter doesn’t fall victim to the fountain hook, but there are ways to minimize the opportunities for this kind of tactic. It’s certainly a losing proposition dealing with it in the long run, when deaths become much more costly and allow Alchemist crucial space to catch up. I promise you that Alliance would have adopted a more forceful kind of solution if they were in TongFu’s position.

Last year, we kept hearing that western teams were afraid to go to the lategame against the Chinese. This year’s games should dispel that notion. If I were making decisions on a western team, I’d either want to draft or drag games against Chinese teams to a point where adaptive planning and decisive execution trumps preparation and familiarity.

And if I were the Chinese…well, history shows that insulation and xenophobia don’t have a good track record. Looking for some novel hero ideas and builds to practice as surprise picks? North America is fertile ground for that. Want to learn from teams with elite mechanics that can also formulate, stick to, and execute diverse game plans? Look no further than the two TI3 finalists. It might be a stretch for Chinese teams to consistently leave home to compete elsewhere given the relatively paltry prize pools or laggy online qualification stages, but it won’t fly to keep pretending that western DotA is built around gimmicks that can be digested and dominated within weeks of The International. Within eastern DotA circles, even Orange’s versatility is worth studying and emulating.

2) Which hero, once added to Captain’s Mode, can really shake up some drafts?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of the heroes currently unavailable in Captain’s Mode, Centaur, Medusa, Elder Titan and Abaddon have all had their day in the DotA 1 sun, and might well again if they’re allowed to return. Of the two trolls, even the Warlord has been pressed into service here and there. But the Huskar has been quietly biding his time, and if recent high-level pub games after his patch transformation are any indication, he could become quite a force.

The last time I even remember seeing Huskar excel in high-level DotA, he was being handled by…who else, Loda! I think the match was an IHCS1 game from WAYYY back in the day, and the man largely responsible for giving my favorite hero, Phantom Assassin, a seat at DotA 2’s big boy table completely took over that game with him. Just by nature of how the hero works, Huskar forces opponents into difficult decisions on when to fight or avoid him. He was always already a nightmare solo matchup because of Burning Spears, but the reworked Berserker’s Blood lets him hit a frightening maximum of 280% increased attack speed with 98% magic resistance. So Huskar is much harder to burst down than he already was; most supports and even magic-based cores have little chance of actually killing him. Even with little farm or only a Ghost Scepter, this guy has brutal killing power…watch his initiation instantly melt an 11k health Pudge in this test video. Basically this is a hero who can completely dominate many lanes without help, doesn’t need much protection or farm to melt enemy heroes, and must be accounted for during the drafting phase. We might not even have to wait for Loda to see Huskar make a big splash in the carry pool.

3) Coaches?  Timeouts? …Reserves? 

I’m glad that a veteran of Jason Kidd…I mean Maelk’s caliber is coaching Team EG, and as coaches become more common, I think they can be much more important than teams realize. Anyone who has played DotA before understands the level of focus, concentration, and energy that a game takes. Sometimes you just get tunnel vision, or you miss things going on around the map. There’s also a very high level of frustration when things aren’t going smoothly, the sort that makes public games an occasional cesspool of spite and rage, and even breaks really good teams apart when the players have differences over plays or philosophy. Individually, I think all of us would improve if we had a respected neutral observer helping us see the things we miss. In other sports, coaches help teams focus, manage egos and distractions, stay motivated, and improve through the grind. It should be quite clear by now that this is also the case in DotA.

 

 

And remember that tiff that Merlini and Puppey had over tactical pauses? I actually wonder if competitive quality would go up if we allowed each team say, one 30-second timeout (when there’s no hero combat going on, of course) per game. Sure, it breaks the flow of the game, though not to the extent that ridiculously excessive timeouts at the end of football and basketball games do, but it’s also an opportunity for a team to collectively regroup and hash out some big decisions. And if the cameras are on for an event like The International…who wouldn’t want to hear what the players are thinking and saying in the booth when a crucial decision has to be made? Think Navi would have benefited from a timeout to discuss whether to throne race against Alliance in Game 5? Think Orange could have used a few moments to gather themselves and stay disciplined after the inexplicable aegis deny against Navi? I think a timeout per game allowance would actually help to build tension and anticipation before tough decisions or major fights. I’d much rather see games decided with bold, cohesive decisions than blunders and directionless confusion.

The people who make DotA have done  a wonderful job evolving the game and expanding the pool of potential heroes. Almost everyone got picked at least once at this year’s International, and of the heroes who saw the most action, people would seldom consider extremely high skillcap heroes like Batrider to be boring. I’m sure that future balance patches will continue to aim for making more and more heroes viable selections. At the same time though, the only reason some existing heroes don’t get more love is BECAUSE of their high skillcap – you can’t pick someone your team isn’t comfortable running at a high level, even if it would be a good fit or counter. Pudge isn’t a factor in the draft unless you’re playing as or against Navi; the fact that some Chinese teams respect-banned the big guy last year gave Navi an advantage in some drafts. Sheer versatility with a wide range of heroes gives some teams a big edge, just as it should. But what if teams kept a specialist or two in reserve who were adept at specific heroes? Wouldn’t this increase each team’s strategic options and lead to more interesting drafts and exciting games? Teams have rostered extra players in the past, mainly to deal with scheduling or geographic conflicts, and this usually doesn’t end up working out. But as the level of talent and competition grows with the game, there’s got to be plenty of Admiral Bulldogs out there who can help teams by excelling at specific heroes, adding to their draft versatility.

4) Bring back…ARDM!

Around Christmas of 2007, I went to the Fire & Ice DotA tournament in Chicago with my friend, who was playing for fourth-place finisher Transcendence (shoutout to GANKED!). MYM, then a titan in the DotA world, flew out Maelk, Hanni, and Mania to join Americans Merlini and P0c in stomping the tournament. The third place squad was Team Pandemic, an American team with elite inhouse league players like miraclechipmunk, tree eskimo, dayjungenie, and yoshi (COME BACK!!!).

Powerhouse MYM (but not in ARDM?) – Mania, Hanni, Maelk, Merlini, p0c

At some point during or after the finals, Yoshi, still stewing about the loss, says “you know what? I’d bet $200 that we could take any of those teams in ARDM. Easy.”  All Random Deathmatch had been a staple mode in the American inhouse league, and required a different set of skills…the game changes each time someone dies and gets a new hero, and since most of the team is farming somewhat generic items to account for future randoms, ARDM favors adaptation and versatility over structure. You can win by depleting your enemy’s hero pool, or traditionally.

Sure enough, Team Pandemic took on MYM in a post-tournament ARDM, and won. (I recall a six-slotted Troll Warlord trying to fountain farm MYM at the end).

The point is that in DotA, just like poker and other games of the mind, you can have really fun variations on a familiar theme. The International has its Main Event, of course…but how about some smaller side tournaments? That path was explored this year with the solo tournament and All-Star Match, but how about some other game modes? Which team would reign supreme in ARDM? Or a mode which has already seen tournament action…REVERSE DRAFT! What better way is there to get seldom played heroes in professional hands, get more DotA games outside the box, and get players and fans more to enjoy?

As we enter the relative Dark Ages, complete with chaotic disbanding and reformation before the next International (thankfully there’s no real offseason and tournaments will resume shortly!), it’s still too soon to make any important predictions. After all, during TI2 Loda was still playing with Zenith, Admiral Bulldog was months away from ringing for Navi during DreamHack Winter, and the No Tidehunter squad that would eventually become Alliance didn’t exist. We don’t know how the scene will look next year…but we do know that DotA will be bigger and better, and will make us proud again.

 

 


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