The International 2014: looking back on the Grand Finals
You can find write-ups of all three previous days of play at the International here.
The fourth International is over. As a fan, there's always a hollow feeling that comes with this period - the sense that the last of the hype has finally burned away, that this event that has come to occupy so much of your time and energy has been suddenly brought to a close. Post-International blues are a real thing. This year, though, those inevitable doldrums have been compounded by a Grand Final that won't have been what many fans were expecting when the main event began. Below I'm going to explain why I came away from the finals largely satisfied even though I agree with some of the criticism, and what I think the course of those four games say about the state of Dota 2 as we enter the next year in its life. Spoilers, obviously.
Before the main event I suspected that Vici's stand-out performance in the group stages was owed, in part, to the best-of-one format. In securing their place in the Grand Final, however, I was shown to be wrong. It's not the format, it's the patch. Vici under rOtk's leadership knew exactly how to play Dota in 6.81b. They demonstrated that against DK and EG, two teams that almost anybody would have placed ahead of them. This isn't unusual: The International is always, ultimately, a way of discovering which team has come closest to approaching Dota like a solved problem. Last year, that was Alliance. This year it was Vici and Newbee.
6.81b isn't friendly to strategies that rely on being able to fight back into the game if the early game goes south. Comebacks are much harder and the majority of matches are decided in the laning phase. On Twitter I joked at the beginning of game one that winning lanes meant winning games meant winning the tournament. That's a glib point but it's true: all but one game of the four played yesterday was won by the team that secured first blood. Only one lane of barracks was destroyed in the entire match because normally the losing side would know that it had lost when the first tier two tower fell. In a way, Vici's firm understanding of the game is what made those early GG calls inevitable: when you know enough to know that you're beaten, why continue?
That truth is unsatisfactory to spectators, especially those that are used to seeing Dota games decided by teamfight ten rather than teamfight one. Some of that dissatisfaction is owed to shifts in the metagame that require a bit of mental recalibration to appreciate and some of it is owed to the narratives we'd trained ourselves to look for. We were thinking about the rise of the DK dream team and the triumph of North American Dota and the struggles of the returning champion, not which of the Chinese teams had got the most out of the last four months of scrims. Newbee's extraordinary run from 11th place to 1st is one of the year's best performances, and deserves to stick in the memory, but it'll take a little while to get there. Getting there means appreciating the risks that Newbee took in the final, particularly when they were on the back foot, and how that translated into momentum and ultimately the title.
Vici's sole victory - game one - was a study in the pace-setting dominance that the Chinese teams love to establish. The ban phase eliminated the heroes most regularly associated with this kind of play, like Razor and Death Prophet, so Vici made it work with Lone Druid and Clockwerk. fy emerged from this International as arguably the world's best support player, consistently winning the early game for Vici. rOtk's Clockwerk and Fenrir's Earthshaker commanded the rhythm of the game from then on, and when fights were taken they were taken on Vici's terms.
That's how both teams want to play. What Newbee identified, going into game two, was that they couldn't rely entirely on the same set of picks and counter-picks to pull back the momentum they had lost. They needed to draft into their own comfort zone, even if it meant reaching outside of what might have been considered 'safe' at the International. In game two, that was Hao's Weaver - a position one carry who achieved 600+ gold per minute largely through kills. There's a moment, during the major teamfight in the Radiant jungle, when he's a few inches from being blown up by a Waveform from Sylar's Morphling. He jukes it, just, and survives to get another kill and escape the fight. That one small play - that moment of calm focus when his opponent reached desperately for the kill - is one among a number of similar plays that earned Newbee their prize.
Mu's Puck exemplifies that principle. Once again the hero emerges as the star of the International, the playmaker of all playmakers. Game three was the first game that was lost by the team that got first blood, but it was lost because of an incredible early-game gambit by Mu that turned Vici's first blood into a return double kill for Newbee. There's certainly an issue with the game when the momentum earned by a moment like that decides so much of what follows, but there's no doubting Mu's talent either. This was as close to a perfect Puck game as I have ever seen.
I'd have liked to see Vici come back in the final game, but you could tell that they'd tilted. The draft attests to that: Newbee picked up Brewmaster while Doom was still available, and, ignoring that opportunity to counter-pick, Vici took Weaver. They might have been trying to keep it from Hao, but they opened themselves up to a win-win-win Doom draft by Newbee that not only protected the Brewmaster but countered the Weaver and opened the draft up to Ember Spirit. This was the point, for me, where Vici's tilt tipped over. Under extreme pressure, they gave Newbee everything they needed to take the set.
If there's anything that disappoints me, looking back on the final, it's that the superlative skill that delivered Newbee through games two and three was present but not as necessary in the final game. Where 2013 came down to a $1m Dream Coil (or so it's told), 2014 came down to a $5m haste rune. xiao8's first blood on a mid Venomancer with an offlane Doom was a total disaster for Vici, the worst possible combination of roles and results. I'm not surprised that rOtk fell apart after that; most people would. fy and Fenrir deserve huge credit for keeping Vici in the game with their Ancient Apparition and Sand King counter-initiations, but it was Newbee's final to lose from the very beginning. That it lasted as long as fifteen minutes is, in a way, a sign of Vici's willingness to play it out: they could have GG'd ten minutes earlier.
Newbee's ability to find their footing and build momentum from nothing is what makes them worthy International champions. They deserve to walk away from the event as heroes, and Mu deserves his own commemorative Puck set. In the year to come, I hope Icefrog and the team at Valve consider the importance of comeback mechanics and work to lengthen the game at the highest level of play. But that's for the future. The International is over, we have our champions, and it's time to recognise the difficulty and magnitude of their achievement.
PC Gamer's coverage of The International 2014 is brought to you by SteelSeries.