I'm going to try something a little different this week. It might be alarming, and I don't want you to panic. This week's column is not going to be entirely about Dota 2. It's going to be about a related game, Smite, and a recent experience that has helped express something I've been considering about competitive games in general. A lot of the things I've learned and written about while playing Dota could apply to Smite, League of Legends, Counter-Strike, or any other team game: this is simply the furthest I've ever taken that notion.
The Smite pro scene is currently undertaking a run of regional championships to determine which eight teams will earn a place at the $1.3m World Championship in January. Last weekend I attended the European finals in Cologne, a modest event by modern Dota standards but a reminder of how exciting it can be when an e-sport is still finding its feet. The Smite scene is young, and it lacks the history, orthodoxy, and to an extent the politics of professional Dota 2 or League. You should be watching Smite right now because this lack of precedent means that upsets are more likely, bringing the personalities of individual teams and players to the fore.
(It also means that there are a load of UK players in the scene, which was such a novelty I'm still not sure I believe it. I'm so used to encountering my countrymen exclusively as casters and personalities that meeting a British pro player elicits genuine delight and surprise, like seeing a cool dog in the pub.)
Nobody has successfully codified what makes a professional gaming team effective—or an amateur team, for that matter. There's a lot of chaos in the system, and few formalised practices regarding coaching, management, or training. Underprepared teams sometimes win through superlative skill; prepared teams sometimes win through collective discipline. Sometimes there's a little of both, and sometimes there's no pattern at all. I followed Alliance because of the attitude expressed by Loda during this interview; I also understand why old-Na'Vi and their particular swagger drew the approval it did (and does).
E-sports are, I think, a few years away from approaching the kind of stability encountered in traditional sport—and I don't think there's anything to be done to speed up the process of getting there. The only power we do have, as fans and players and managers, is to decide what we're going to focus on: what approaches to play that we'll celebrate, which attitudes we'll try to imitate. It's in this way that it's possible to exert a degree over control over the tone of a game, whether that's just for you or your friends or for the community as a whole.
There is, I think, a natural but problematic imbalance in the kinds of top-level plays that garner attention. Specifically, it tends to be solo players and virtuoso moments that hold the most sway over the minds of the community. It's easier to build narratives around individuals than teams, and it's easier to imagine yourself as the game-winning lone wolf than it is to see yourself as the guy who really knows how to ward. This is the essential root of every drafting disaster that has ever happened to you in ranked matchmaking. It's why people seek other individuals to blame to preserve their own ego. It's why the community flips out about solo MMR in what is fundamentally a team game.
The reason I want to celebrate teams that win the other way is because it sends a message to the community: things do not need to be the way they are. When a team's collective strength is their greatest attribute then it suggests a better way for players to interact with one another. The best recent example of this that I can think of took place in Cologne, in Smite, when Aquila (a Cognitive Gaming team) stormed the regionals through determination, preparation, and teamwork.
Aquila are more or less the dream, as far as e-sports success stories go. They missed out on inclusion in the Smite Pro League by a single game and had to fight their way into the regional championships through the Challenger Cup, also known as the amateur league. They had their own coach and analyst before being picked up by Cognitive but are otherwise fresh to the circuit—Cologne was their first LAN. While certainly underdogs, there was nothing scrappy about their approach to the game.
"I don't think any other teams prepare in quite the same way as we do" team captain Nate 'Ataraxia' Mark told me after their first match. "We're much more formal."
And what a first match. Notable chiefly for featuring the most profound upset in competitive Smite, Aquila vs. Cloud9 turned on a dime when the latter refused to press their advantage in the second game to close out the set 2-0. C9 were maybe two or three auto-attacks from ending the match when they backed off, and while the obvious narrative here is that they threw the game, they were able to throw it because Aquila kept their shit together in the face of first-round elimination.
"No-one was saying anything bad" Ataraxia said. "Everybody kept positive, which is fantastic—especially [support player] KanyeLife. He never gave up. He was always upbeat, always positive."
That ability to keep their heads in the game ultimately turned that game around, and the momentum from the win carried them through the decider. Then they defeated Fnatic 3-2, claiming a spot at the World Championships; finally they beat SK Gaming 2-0, earning the European title. Both of those victories were at the expense of teams that prioritised their star players—Xaliea for Fnatic, Realzx (and increasingly maniaKK) for SK.
Aquila's playstyle stood out to me because, unique among the Smite teams I watched, they valued objectives and efficient rotations over raw individual fighting power—something that the game emphasises given its focus on action. They are extremely disciplined (a little like 6.79-era Alliance or recent Virtus Pro, Dota fans) and I wasn't surprised to hear that they're known for how seriously they take match preparation.
"I'm kind of strict on the guys" said Aquila coach Job 'CaptCoach' Hilbers. "Around some of the other teams, there's not really a strict format. I set up a training schedule, make sure that everybody's on time and that they get everything they need. I make sure that they can fully focus on the game."
There's this notion that creeps around the competitive gaming scene that preparing beyond a certain point is trying too hard: that it's better to win without the effort, if you can, and that strat spreadsheets should be the preserve of teams whose shirts are already covered in sponsor logos, rather than the ones that want to get there. CaptCoach sees it differently: preparation is something that comes naturally as a consequence of the team's hunger to win.
"We keep very close track of what other teams are doing" he says. "And something that a lot of teams forget is that you yourself also need to look at what you are doing. We analyse ourselves like we analyse others so we know what they're going to see—what our weak spots are. Then I want to eradicate those."
Self-knowledge is, I think, the difference between a good team and a potentially great one: it's the answer to ego, and ego is pretty much the root of all evil in a competitive context (the caveat here being that evil is fun.) "There are teams where you have star players that get pulled ahead" CaptCoach says. "I try to keep everybody level, make sure that everybody's comfortable. That's my most important job."
I wish that 'comfort' was more highly regarded, as an attitude to competition. Comfortable players don't rage or look for somebody to blame: they don't demand particular heroes or roles or lose their minds when told what to do. It is, inevitably, harder to identify heroes to worship when what makes a team special is the fact that they have no heroes; but it's also important. The community would do well to celebrate the successes of teams that genuinely and seriously treat each other as equals—no matter how cheesy those prematch fist-bumps can be.
To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.