The International is transformative

Spirit swept the entire world off their feet with their brilliant TI10 run. Picture by Team Spirit.

Yesterday Team Spirit won TI10. The reality of their run was doubted at every turn. Surely not. With each subsequent win. Surely not. Every step of the way. This can’t be happening. Team Spirit defeated PSG.LGD in a best of five grand final to crown themselves world champions. Surely not. Not them. Not LGD. Not like this.

Even now, with the benefit of hindsight, there is doubt. Who could deny the brilliance of Yatoro’s neverending hero pool? Did any player come close to Miposhka’s vision game? How much more evidence do you need to accept the brilliance of Collapse. His Magnus, his Mars, his anything. And lets not forget the serene and steady presence of Silent, which could probably ground a tidal wave. We understand many things that made Team Spirit stand out at TI10. We can piece together the story of their success. And yet, despite all of that, there is that nagging doubt. Surely not. How can this be real?!

On pragmatism

Philosopher W. V. Quine famously argues that our beliefs face the “tribunal of experience” not one-by-one but as a whole. Every time we are confronted with a new experience that challenges our beliefs, in deciding which of our previous views to revise, we choose pragmatically. For example, the experience of a green ruby might sooner be met with thoughts about innebriation, colour-blindness or misclassification than the immediate acceptance that actually not all rubies are red.

Dota 2 is no exception. Every fan, analyst and competitor entered TI10 with a complex web of beliefs about the game and its competitors. For most people, the possibility of Team Spirit emerging as the victors was simply not consistent with their web. And so every time they exceeded our expectations, we made the easiest revision first, changing “I didn’t think they would pull that off” or “I didn’t think they would win that game” to “I guess they’re a bit better than I gave them credit for”. It’s not natural for us to immediately jump to the big revisions. It’s not intuitive for us to go from “this team might top 8” to “this team might win the whole thing”. We want so desperately for our prior understanding to remain intact. Everything we thought we knew. It has to mean something! And so, one at a time, series after series, we accepted that we’d misjudged Team Spirit, but insisted that this would be as far as they’d go. They beat VP, sure. But iG is gonna be a lot harder. Beat them too? Okay, but it’s Secret now. They did what? Well, LGD are giants, nobody is anywhere near their level! Until finally, they’ve won TI10, they are the champions, there is no more room to doubt them. And yet, still, our doubt persists. What just happened?

The International is transformative

It is outrageous to deny the reality of Team Spirit’s success. But it also feels just a bit too unlikely that everything that all our experts thought they knew is wrong. Fans, sure. But our experts surely have real knowledge. How did none of them see this coming? I would like to propose a theory which reconciles these two lines of thought. We don’t have to deny Spirit’s brilliance and we also don’t have to deny the expertise of our specialists. We just need to accept that The International is transformative. Not always, and not for everyone. But once you start looking for it, it’s easy to find other teams who dramatically exceeded anyone’s expectations at TIs. Think of CDEC’s TI5 run, DC’s TI6 run, LFY’s TI7 run or OG’s TI8 run. Dota 2 moves fast and our memories are fragile but the reality is that all of the above runs were met with similar levels of disbelief at their times. And all of them have in common with Team Spirit that prior to the event they genuinely didn’t look good enough to go that far. Not by their results, nor by their gameplay.

Why does this only happen at TI? No doubt due to the sheer scale of the event. Each instance is the biggest esports event of all time. The most money, the most pride, the most pressure. It’s no secret by now that the mental game is enormously amplified at TI, and more and more we are seeing teams taking this seriously by bringing in specialists ahead of the event. However, the part that I find truly magical is that as of yet nobody has been able to do it on purpose. The transformative power of TI is not something you can just opt into. The teams we’ve seen on magical runs are quite emphatically not the teams who have tried to manufacture them.

Predicting the magic

The obvious question then is which factors determine who gets to transform at TI? A lot of the picture remains a mystery — precisely why it feels natural to invoke “magic” — but there are some features that we can begin to recognise throughout all of the transformational runs we’ve seen.

First, perhaps by definition, magical TI runs have only ever happened to teams of whom limited expectations existed. It pays to be an underdog. If you are not a team that people are watching, if you are not a team expected to perform, if you are not a team with a target on your back, it gives you the room to come into yourselves during the event.

Second, a necessary requirement appears to be a degree of cameraderie, harmony, or at least a general respectfulness amongst teammates. The overdone trope of the “power of friendship” is likely exaggerated. For each group of friends who stuck it out and succeeded, there’s 100 others who stuck it out and didn’t. So it’s not a sufficient condition. But it might well be a necessary conditon for activating that TI magic.

Finally, the big one, which brings the other two together: confidence. Really what the lack of expectation and good team relationships do is combine to enable the possibility of weaponising confidence. Confidence comes in many forms but the most potent kind is the kind that is shared with and reinforced by others.

Interestingly, of these three factors, the only one that is easy to control is the relationship you have with your teammates. You can’t do much about what others expect from you. Indeed, we saw Secret quite deliberately keep a low profile all year, holding back in many performances, hoping to avoid a target on their backs. And hey, they did get their best finish yet, but the truth is that there was still significant expectation around them going into the event, despite their best efforts.

Meanwhile, OG went to great lengths to pump themselves up and recreate their famed TI-winning confidence. However, where TI8 OG was on a transformational run, and TI9 OG was simply the best team of the patch, TI10 OG’s confidence felt somehow superficial. Manufactured. I’m sure we all remember Ceb saying he “takes offence” when teams think they can beat OG.

In my view, Ceb intentionally spoke this way in an attempt to puff up his team’s confidence. And honestly it’s commendable how deliberate he is about the mental side of the game. The problem is that this style of confidence-building just doesn’t ring true. You can’t just say confident things and then become confident as a result. It’s something that has to build up organically.

Ultimately, because crafting underdog status is difficult, and building confidence is complicated, the cleanest way to set yourself up for the chance at a miracle TI run is by just being good to your teammates. Again, it will never be enough on its own, but without it many doors will remain perpetually closed.

Looking forward

Team Spirit genuinely were the best team at TI10. They were also clearly not the best team before TI10. We can hold both these views consistently once we accept the transformative power that TI can have. The challenge for Team Spirit will be what comes next. Previous transformative TI performances have been very isolated, and teams have usually dropped off quickly to their previous (or even lower) levels. The challenge for everyone else is to decipher all the ingredients that go into magical TI runs, and how to harness them. Of course, transformative runs are not the only route to TI success, but they may well be the only route to narrative immortality.

Anthony is a former Dota 2 coach and commentator. He is currently studying towards his Masters in Public Health.