posted by BigJams,
I’ve often thought of sports as story generators, the excitement in any sport comes from engagement in the narrative behind the gameplay. The footballing event that will be most remembered from the 2010s will most likely be the Premier League won by Leicester City. They were given 5000-1 odds at the start of the season and in the past 20 years the league had only been won by 4 different clubs. Their manager had just been fired after his son participated in a racist orgy, their best player, Jamie Vardy, was a bit of a nut case who tweeted things like “chat shit get banged”. Their new manager was Cladio Raneri, who few had any confidence in – since his last tenure in the league he’d achieved little and had even managed to lead Greece to a defeat against the Fareo Islands. But somehow, though smart signings like Kante and Marhez, they started winning and then never really stopped. I remember everybody talking about Leicester – even anti-sport bores, who say things like “oh they’re just kicking a ball” were forced to concede that, in this instance, the narrative behind the ball kicking had elevated matters. Yes, in terms of quality of play, that season was probably the worst the league had been for some years.
I’ve frequently rankled with the suggestion that the best DOTA 2 events are those which have a crowd who are entirely non-partisan and just want to watch ‘good’ DOTA. Sure, it’s fun to watch Sumail 'SumaiL' Syed Hassan dodge stuns and Xu 'BurNIng' Zhilei hit a ridiculous GPM – but the moments that prompt discussion and make an event great are somewhat separate from the mechanics of what a player would describe as perfect play. The International 2014 final featured two teams that played a measured tactical masterclass and it was as boring as hell. Newbee and Vici Gaming were of little interest to the Western scene and we were aware of no notable rivalries or narratives between them. Newbee had allegedly acted with racism towards the Malaysian players from Team DK, but DK had crashed out of the tournament in 4th so that angle was dead in the water. When people speak about what could have been for the TI4 finals, they don’t wish that Chen 'Hao' Zhihao had dodged a few more Sleight of Fists, or that there had been a base race – they wish for some drama, something to cling onto. They wanted the East vs West narrative of EG vs DK, they wanted to see a super team fulfil their promise, they wanted a brash unknown carry, Mason 'mason' Venne, to show his haters what he’s really made of. Instead, they got the technically best DOTA. Sure, the meta was stale and boring, but I believe that even if those games had been exciting, they would have been largely forgotten and would have not registered outside of DOTA's hardcore audience.
One of the questions I asked Kevin 'Purge' Godec, when I had him on the podcast, was about the difficulty of attracting new viewers to DOTA. His answer was that it’s not possible to do this without first increasing the player base, and that if they want more people to watch The International Valve could do a lot worse than improving the new player experience. Purge wasn’t wrong, and this would undoubtably help, but I think it’s not the only thing that we need.
When I speak to my friends about DOTA 2, as a way of explaining the scene that I’m pouring hours of work into, they find it difficult to connect with talk about the complexity and openness of the game. Generally, what gets people closer to the understanding that I’m not wasting my time is a mention of the money involved, talk about the complexity and depth of the preparations that players do before tournaments and talk about the specific histories of players that I’ve interviewed.
Esports players are, in my opinion, much more interesting than footballers; Jamie Vardy is generally spoken about as one of the PremierLeague footballers with the best story, he played in the lower leagues, wearing an ankle monitor after being charged for assault, before gradually dragging his way, fuelled by dubious energy drinks, up to the top of league. However, most top footballers became part of an elite academy at a young age, mixed football with their studies and then gradually through well guided hard work either made it into the first team – or were transferred elsewhere. I love Marcus Rashford with all my heart, but the only thing interesting about his story is that he broke into the first team much faster than anybody expected him to. Other than that, he’s a boring ordinary boy who has simply done exactly what he was told to do for 12 years. All DOTA players are a little more like Jamie Vardy, they’ve dragged themselves to the very top of a discipline that few in mainstream society believe is close to legitimate. They’ve been through interpersonal turmoil, betrayals, community attention and outrage – that they must manage most of by themselves. There is a wealth of information there, but we rarely scratch more than the surface.
DOTA 2 content, at events, is often focussed around player experience rather than the professional Dota that the events are meant to showcase. At the most recent summit (which was a brilliant event), the sketches on show were either film parodies or jokes riffing on the experience of being a person who plays DOTA. At Majors, interview and story telling content often takes a backseat to game analysis. Panels will talk about how teams play, and the mechanics of a draft, but rarely about what motivated the ten people on stage playing and the stories of how they got there.
There is of course a requirement for audiences to understand the mechanics of the game, but this can easily be covered by tutorials and run-throughs of the basics of play and the heroes involved, which can be outlined in the breaks between games. What will energise people new to the esport to keep on watching, is not an understanding of the game itself, but an understanding of the scene. The rivalries, why certain matches matter more than others, who players have played with, who are their friends and their enemies. It often feels like there’s a fear about talking about and bringing out this narrative on analyst desks. People feel safer talking about another Kunkka pick, when they could be using that time to tell stories about the players and make the game have a more personal element, which may energise more casual viewers.
I think DOTA is an esport that is perfectly poised to attract this audience – most other esports do contain the same dramas and narratives but the players are more sanitised and stage managed. DOTA has a culture of player freedom, of the kind of short term thinking that leads of fractured friendships and drama. I don’t think the NoTail and Tal 'Fly' Aizik beef could have happened, so publicly, anywhere else. Traditional sports are also sanitised and boring in a way DOTA naturally isn’t – think of the furore that the minor scuffle between Raheem Sterling and Joe Gomez has caused. There will be discussion of this across national press and office breakrooms. DOTA has got oodles of stories like that, at every tournament. We need to bring them out, the negative and the positive.
I’m not saying DOTA 2 broadcasters need to become drama hounds, and I do think that the scene has done a reasonable job telling player stories occasionally. However, the problem is that these stories are often relegated to being additional content, shown in the periods between games when fewer people will be actively listening, least of all new viewers who are not already engaged in the esport. Interviews are also often either entirely focussed on the mechanical, strategic element of the game or hopelessly simplistic. “Who’s the funniest member of the team?” is about as deep as we delve emotionally in the most mainstream content outside of TI loser interviews. To attract new listeners, we need these stories to be front and centre. We need to drag in casual, or occasional viewers with a story. Something they can believe in, and cheer for.
It’s also true that the community do talk about drama and interpersonal conflict, a lot, but what the community talk about is not accessible to new players. Somebody curious about the esport is not going to start their journey by reading drama threads about EE on Reddit, they’re going to watch a few games and a few panels. Tournament broadcasts, not the community on Reddit and Twitter, are the battleground.
I think, as a community, we also need to be less afraid of partisan crowds. There’s plenty to object to about the Chinese government, and even the behaviour of the crowd at The International 2019 towards TNC Predator, but it’s undeniable that the monolithic support of the crowd behind Chinese teams made the event compelling viewing. If you’re a fan of a Western team, against a Chinese one, you want them to win even more just to shut the crowd up – and Chinese victories lead to an outpouring of emotion that a crowd who cheers for everything indiscriminately cannot match.
DOTA needs drama and fractures and stories to grow and prosper – and I think it’s time to let it flourish.
Photo credit: Valve