Photo: ESL/Adela Sznajder. Fair warning: spoilers follow for ESL One Frankfurt 2015.
In the aftermath of ESL One Frankfurt, the professional Dota 2 status quo seems to be very much set. Team Secret's 2-0 defeat of IG and 3-1 victory over EG establishes them, convincingly, as the world's best. Meanwhile, the metagame has stabilised to a substantial degree. Tusk, Shadow Fiend, Queen of Pain, Clockwerk and Leshrac are the heroes of this patch, with the first pick and ban phase of the draft now largely an exercise in determining which team gets which set from that narrow pool. That's not the whole story, of course: the weekend saw strong cases made for Naga Siren, Rubick, Bounty Hunter, Visage and Sven (and Io remains Io). It certainly feels, however, that there's a way to play version 6.84c and the top teams largely agree on what that is.
It's interesting to compare this situation to last year. ESL One Frankfurt 2014 convinced me that TI4 was going to be the tournament of EG and maybe IG, of dazzling Brewmaster counter-initiations, greedy supports like Kunkka and Wraith King, and a lot of Tiny-Io. That this turned out to be wrong is well-documented: but a similar switcheroo seems less likely this year. There's no would-be Newbee waiting in the wings, and nobody (Valve included) wants to see the metagame flip into a rut as dramatically as it did back then. It could happen. Optimistically perhaps, I don't believe it will.
With that in mind, it might seem strange to say that this is a very exciting time to be following high-level Dota. This game traditionally struggles when it becomes too stable. Yet ESL One Frankfurt demonstrated a type of stability that we don't see very much. This wasn't about one strategy beating out all others. This was about there being so much talent at the top of the ladder that the game itself seems to warp around it.
The standard has never been this high
There have never been better Dota 2 players than the ones playing right now. On the analysis desk, Nahaz said that we might look back at RTZ and SumaiL as the best to ever play the game. I think the game has a longer life than that perhaps implies, but I agree with the general point. Of note also are those veterans like Fear, Puppey, KuroKy and ChuaN who have continued to improve and improve over the course of long careers. Taken in combination, you have teams that play as close to perfectly as I have ever seen. It used to be that 'never making a mistake' was a quality attached to specific teams (TI4-era DK, for example). Now, it's a flat-out requirement if a team is going to be in the top three. It's hard to imagine old Na'Vi, beloved as they rightfully were, making it in this environment. It's never been more punishing to attempt a risky aggressive play and fail.
Plays don't end games, mistakes do
Case in point: the end of yesterday's grand final. There'll be those who herald the return of the EG throw, but really what happened was a moment's miscalculation being expertly turned into a tournament defeat by a team that knew exactly how to do so. Fear and PPD's choice to re-commit to the fight outside Secret's base might have cost them the tournament, but it's a completely understandable decision. There's a parallel universe where it worked: where we woke up this morning to a million gifs of the Echo Slam-Mana Void rampage that forced a fifth game. In reality Secret's positioning was too good; they didn't let it happen. EG lost.
There's something exciting about that, too: against another team, that play might have worked. It didn't because Secret's second-to-second decision making, both as individuals and as a group, is peerless. This is what high-level Dota is all about: not plays or killstreaks, but high-pressure strategic decision making so advanced that it amounts to massaging probability.
It's like a staring competition: don't be the first to blink
This translates into a defender's advantage, of a sort, and I suspect it's why we saw (and will continue to see) the most dramatic moments arriving in the form of counter-initiations rather than initiations. This is the reason that players like KuroKy and UniversE are so valuable to their teams and so entertaining to watch. It also explains the sudden rise of Virtus.pro. Their victory over Alliance was built on the back of clutch defensive decisions: the use of Silencer, Tusk, Centaur Warrunner and Winter Wyvern to create in an environment where being a playmaker carries more and more risk, where the first person to blink is often also the person who loses in the end.
Virtuoso Dota lives: but it means far more
SumaiL's Storm Spirit in game two of EG vs. Virtus.pro is the counterpoint to all of this. He may well have matured as a player in the last few months, become less prone to crazy over-aggression, but here he demonstrated that he doesn't always need to hold back. Virtus.pro are hardly pushovers, as they demonstrated the day before that they can deal with a Storm Spirit. They couldn't deal with SumaiL at his best, however, and that's what makes it so exciting: sometimes the person who moves first does win, but only if they are at the absolute top of their game. Only if they can defy probability. What were impressive plays before are moreso now because they carry greater risk. Risk translates directly into drama, and that's good for Dota as a whole.
I have a few concerns ahead of TI5. I'd like to see an upset to the metagame, as long as it keeps matches dynamic. There's also a more general issue that higher-level Dota means a game that is harder to follow for newcomers: consider StarCraft. That's a problem for the future, however. For now, it's a great time to be a fan.