The International is a few weeks away, and its winning team will receive the Aegis, the acclaim, a slice of a record breaking prize pool—projected to above $20 million—and a slew of new fans. That’s not to mention the ones who latched onto that team’s success through the course of the tournament. We’ve seen this trend on a lesser degree throughout the year, and we call them, pejoratively, “bandwagon” or “fair weather” fans. These fans are line-cutters, nudging in and reaping the rewards of shared success, right along with the real, authentic and loyal fans, who have stuck with that team since the beginning. But can these bandwagoners be blamed for not adhering to the same fan-code expected from other sports?
Dota is barely nascent, only entering its sixth year of The International and coming off its first year of its Major circuit. Compare this to the recent NBA champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who won their first championship in 46 years of the franchise. How loyal can Dota fans expect to be for such a limited time, and should it matter?
Time And Timing
First: time. Real fans pick a team—usually their hometown team—and they’re stuck with that team the rest of their lives. They can trace that team’s history back to their own child and young adulthood, like telling war stories. The longer they’ve been in the trenches of fandom, the more credibility they gain as real fans. For the lucky few, there’s a championship here and there, but the rest of the time it’s about resolving the cognitive dissonance of loving a team that continues to fail.
Second: timing. Real fans don’t drop their team at the first sign of trouble, then renew relationships when that team wins again. Real fans remain loyal and committed, weathering the anxiety, disappointment, and frustration over time. They love their team like an ugly child—out of obligation.
Now, the issue is that these two components fall short when applying them to Dota. Dota is too young a game to foster childhood nostalgia and emotional scars. Its competitive history is too young to be proud of a six year commitment. With Na’Vi’s comeback into relevancy, how many Na’Vi fans are patting themselves on the back? For sticking to a team that’s never missed an International? For staying with the affable Dendi over Puppey and Kuroky?
To be fair, Na’Vi is among the very few teams who have maintained competitive consistency throughout Dota 2. There’s also longstanding organizations such as Evil Geniuses, EHOME, Fnatic, and Complexity. But there’s also a plethora of teams who rotate in and out of tournaments throughout the year. Unlike other sports, Dota teams don’t play a set number of games. There is no league. It’s up in the air whether your favorite team will receive an invite, or make it through the thicket of qualifiers. Despite the amount of money funneling into Dota 2, there’s a serious concern for the scene’s sustainability. The majority of winnings are funneled to a handful of teams. Last year’s TI was the first attempt to smooth out the payouts for the bottom half of finishers (TI5’s 9th-12th teams each received 1.2% of the prize pool, compared to TI4’s 0.35% payout for 12th, and nothing for 15th-16th place). It’s tough to be a loyal, consistent fan for a team that might not even be around at the next tournament.
What’s The Local Team?
It’s tough being an esports fan. For most sports fans, they attach to the team of the city they grew up in. Fans in other areas gravitate to the nearest team, unless they’re overseas or in a desert, then they just pick the Yankees and Cowboys. By consequence of esports’ medium, there is no local city team. New fans of Dota are stranded, so why not just pick the best team? Yes, there are regions, but that’s still too wide a berth. For North Americans, take your pick, for this TI, of Evil Geniuses, Digital Chaos, or Complexity. Choose wisely.
Still, this isn’t the Olympics. Many teams—with the exception of China, SEA, and Alliance—who claim a region have rosters that are comprised of players from elsewhere nationalities. Evil Geniuses, America’s team, has 3 out of 5 players born in America. Team Secret had their choice whether to compete in the NA or EU open qualifiers. Complexity, a historic, NA esports organization, has three Swedes. And here’s the five national backgrounds of Digital Chaos’ rosters: American, Ukranian, Syrian, Swede, and Macedonian.
The nationalist connection is a weak one too, when teams are diverse internally, while also split into four regions, when people generally connect their identities with more specificity. Is there ever a reason to chant EU-ROPE? What if you’re British? Then there’s Na’Vi, during their heyday, who used to receive cheers of U-S-A, U-S-A.
It’s A Player’s League
If esports fans aren’t bound to their teams by location, then what’s keeping them there? The organizations’s colors, the brotherhood of fans, or loyalty? Even players aren’t loyal to their own teams. Every major tournament is guaranteed to be followed by the musical chair act that is the shuffling of team rosters. The event is framed as if teams are moving players to better their organization’s chances, but players, namely the superstars of Dota, are also seeking to improve their own situations. And it makes sense, because if you’re a player who can significantly increase your team’s chances to get in the top 8 of a $20 million payout, who really is your primary employer? Is it your organization or is it Valve?
The volatility of the scene, from team rosters to team solvency, makes it tricky for fans to pick a team, and rationalize why they should stick with it when in weeks or days, everything could change. For sports fans who are stranded, sometimes they just end up following Kobe or whatever team Lebron James is on. It’s easy to do the same for Dota. There will be Na’Vi fans for as long as there are Dendi fans. The Dota competitive scene is still in its infancy stage. It hasn’t been around long enough to define clear lines for what is a real fan. For the moment, everyone is a bandwagon fan.
Headline Image from Valve