Last night, Twitter lost its mind over a match of Dota 2 between American mainstay Evil Geniuses and Chinese powerhouse EHOME. The International (the world’s biggest Dota 2 tournament) is this week, so it had a good reason to. The two weeks of the tournament are the best time for people who love Dota but don’t have much of a reason to talk about it regularly to geek out and discuss matches. If nothing else, people are less likely to roll their eyes at you.
If you were on the sidelines, it’s probably difficult to understand why the match was so such a good watch. Heck, you probably wouldn’t know what’s happening on-screen if you tried to watch when everyone was losing their mind. That’s not really your fault; to the casual observer, Dota looks like a clash of special effects, life bars, and cartoon characters.
But behind all of these obfuscating lights and sounds, there are several intertwining narratives that make matches like the one between EG and EHOME so enthralling no matter who the viewer is.
First, we have the most prominent narrative in any sport, physical or electronic: nationality. The International takes place in Seattle and EG is an American team, so the crowd was clearly on EG’s side. The crowd had a fairly large Chinese contingency (big enough to hear their chants on the tournament’s livestream, anyway), but the chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” would quickly drown it out.
Even though EG won last year’s International and had a relatively strong year (barring a few flops after some roster changes), an American crowd will not only still root for them, but see them as an underdog after years of Chinese and European dominance in the Dota scene. So even though the team has a Pakistani and Swedish player, national stakes are always at play in any EG match.
Second, this match quickly became “One of Those Games.” Most Dota 2 matches average between 20-30 minutes, especially after a series of patches attempted to speed up the flow of the game. But this particular match went on for almost an hour and half — the length of a full game in most other sports.
When matches go on that long, the game transforms into something else. Instead of a series of fights that slowly swing the tide in one team’s favor, any match that goes on for more than an hour can hinge on a single fight between the two teams. This ratchets up the tension as fans of both sides wait to see if the last fight in the match was the one that closed the game.
Third, regardless of who you were rooting for, after winning this match EG now have the greatest comeback in professional Dota under their belt. Without getting too stuck in the weeds, EHOME had EG on their last legs. The Chinese team decimated them early in the match, and at around 40 minutes, it looked like a sure victory. EG had no defenses left in their base, and it took everything the team had to push back wave after wave of monsters wailing on their base. But through a series of incredible fights and one-in-a-million plays, they overcame a disadvantage that no one has ever come back from at an International tournament. Fans often hope swings like this happen, even though they almost never do. But this match is why viewers never completely lose hope.
All of these story threads played out at once, giving fans several reasons to clench their muscles, hold their breath, and mouth words of encouragement the teams would never hear. It was a perfect storm of Dota 2 not just because it was an incredible display of technical skill, but because the basic stories it told were so universally appealing. Even non-fans should be able to latch onto that.