Just before midnight on August 10, 2016, I jumped up from my seat screaming at the top of my lungs about Dota 2. I wasn’t even playing the game myself, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand it on the level of the players I watched that night. In a Dota 2 match that remains one of the most dramatic ever played in the game’s history, Evil Geniuses and EHOME played their asses off for 75 minutes, only for one to strike a surprise deathblow in the 76th.
The previous year, Evil Geniuses had won The International, Valve’s annual Dota 2 tournament. In 2016, they were one of the favorites, but they seemed to hit a wall when they met wildcard winners EHOME in their first match of the upper bracket semifinals. EG got shoved around a lot in the opening 15 minutes. They’d plot ambushes that would turn into reverse routes, or they’d bide their time, leveling up by working the edges of the map, only to get hunted down individually and squashed like bugs. Like Bond hanging off the edge of a cliff and getting his hands stomped, EG managed to hang on despite EHOME’s pressure and regain footing through a couple of clutch plays that left the broadcasters stuttering.
Like Mario Kart, Dota’s design encourages rubberbanding. The further behind a team falls, the higher the rewards for small victories in terms of experience points and gold. But the game doesn’t serve up opportunities for comebacks on a silver platter. It requires a little bit of luck, a lot of patience, and an overwhelming amount of skill. EG managed enough of all three in the ensuing hour to tie things up. After dying in the 26th minute to a quick pickoff by EHOME under cover of invisibility, EG’s Ancient Apparition immediately bought back into the game and used his giant ice ball ultimate to help force EHOME off of an objective. It bought time, but it also disrupted EHOME’s flow, leading their star player to wander off course just long enough for EG to get revenge with a return kill against a higher value target.
Evil Geniuses seemed to have the comeback well in hand. But then, around minute 68, shit started to go sideways. In a fight just outside their base, EG traded ultimate attacks and thousands of damage points in a chaotic slugfest that left EG scrambling. The team appeared to be on the brink of annihilation. I’m not sure I breathed during the minute they spent trying to repel EHOME’s incursions.
Somehow, EG had one last gambit to reveal before the match was done. The heart of Dota 2 is its deep item system through which players can augment and compliment their characters’ stats and abilities over the course of a match, and EG had spent the rest of the game speccing out even their support players with deadly arsenals. Because of those preparations, the team’s surviving players could jab EHOME in the eye through its final siege. EG defended their base through one trick play after another; it was the hold of a lifetime, something casual players like me could only dream about pulling off.
The crowd in Seattle’s KeyArena burst out into loud chants for EG, who then marched down the center of the map, shut down a surprise attack by EHOME, and destroyed their opponent’s base before they could respawn using the most powerful and risky item in the game. It encapsulated every aspect of Dota that I had fallen in love with after 1,000 hours of playing, every moment that I had caught faint glimmers of during my own matches, blown up into cascading bolts of lighting and captured in the bottle of this thrilling tournament match. The friends watching with me, fellow casual fans who only occasionally let themselves fall down the Dota rabbit hole, rose from their seats to bounce around with me as we all tried to unload the excess energy pulsing through our bodies. In that moment, I forgot about getting up for work the next day, or anything else. I had crossed over into a new realm of Dota devotion.
Ever since that 2016 match, I’ve made following Valve’s annual Dota 2 tournament a priority, pouring my hopes and dreams into an arcane multiplayer strategy game like it was the World Cup. I never intended fall in love with Dota 2, much less devote approximately 30 work weeks worth of time to it. I especially never thought I’d fall in love with professional Dota 2, which involves watching people I’ve never met play the game at a pace I can barely comprehend in the hopes of making millions in prize money and buying fancy sports cars. It just sort of happened, like the first time I kicked a soccer ball around the school playground with some kids I hardly knew, only to find myself playing rec games and, a couple decades later, screaming at my TV for Everton to stop playing like chumps every weekend.
The International has some downsides for everyone involved, thanks to Valve’s mostly hands-off approach and seeming unwillingness to take the professionalization of the sport to the next level. The pros could benefit from players’ unions, more equal paychecks, and a more diverse third-party tournament scene outside The International. I shake my head at the flaws I see in the competitive Dota 2 ecosystem, but The International still brings out the fan in me. The heart wants what it wants, and my heart wants more nail-biting and incredible moments like I saw back in 2016. That’s why I listen to the matches streaming from my phone in the car. It’s why, at more than one wedding, I have stuck in earbuds and peaked down at my phone under a tablecloth, hoping to catch a clutch play. I know how it feels to watch Dota 2 magic unfold in real time, which is why I don’t ever intend to miss it.