During Game 1 of the Dota 2 finals, the crowd was 100% behind Vici. Nobody was cheering for Evil Geniuses other than a handful of English-speaking international press sitting next to me.
We were five voices against thousands. But I had a plan. Every time Universe successfully casted Phoenix ultimate, we would stand up, flap our arms, and yell “CA-CAW!!” as the egg dropped. Charlie, the EG manager, refused to do it. He turned and looked at us and said, “You all are actually so stupid.”
U-S-A chants and western TI bias has nothing on the blatant homerism of the Chinese DAC crowd. It’s an amazing atmosphere and a smart audience. They know their Dota. They cheer for every smoke, every de-ward, and even a stray Clockwerk rocket that stole a medium creep camp. Even the commentators get into it, losing all pretense of impartiality and starting a Vici chant themselves. It didn’t matter if it was Big God or HGT, China cheers for China.
When EG or Secret or Rave make a play, it’s just deathly quiet, like a Silencer ultimate in real life. There’s no groan of disappointment that you hear ten times a quarter during New York Knicks home games. It’s like everyone in the crowd collectively decided that they’re going to pretend a play that just happened didn’t exist.
So why did the most partisan crowd in Dota 2 history fall in love with a 15-year-old kid from Pakistan who Chinese authorities said is currently wanted for the murder of several Chinese Dota teams?
We’re a fan culture obsessed with the successful young prodigy. The idea of potential is even more tantalizing than reality. Potential is superhuman. Potential never disappoints. And Syed Sumail Hassan is the epitome of potential.
This is especially true in China. It’s probably the case that no matter how good you are at something, there’s a preteen in China who is better. It’s a matter of sheer numbers and culture, where kids train at sports schools at the age of five and become Olympic champions before they can drive.
Success while young deserves special respect in China, and that’s why the casters kept bringing up “he played Dota at age nine!” as Sumail’s Storm Spirit was first blooding some hapless Big God support during the Winner’s semis. The crowd generally doesn't see the observer wards or the Beastmaster hawks that make the gank happen, they see zip-zip-zip and an impossibly good 15-year-old.
The only thing better than being great is being great when you’re not supposed to be. Sumail is a sophomore in high school, and this week he’s going to walk into homeroom (he said he planned to wear his EG jacket) and his classmates are going to ask what he did last weekend and he’s going to say “I won enough money to buy my mom a house.” At some point his teachers are going to ask why he missed an exam and he’s going tell them to call his manager.
Shock and Awe
The truth is, Sumail put the fear of god into that Chinese crowd. Potential is scary, because potential has no limit, no ceiling. The crowd had no idea how to react to that final EG-Vici game. Sumail was effectively the boogeyman to them. When he rolled past Black, forced a Black King Bar, killed Fy, dodged iceiceice, and still got out, the crowd broke its silence and made this pained groan, something that we’d would later identify as the “bad things are happening to Chinese Dota” noise, the same sound they’d make for the rest of the game every time we heard the Storm Spirit’s ultimate go off.
I was watching the Chinese DAC camera operator next to me — the guy was a superfan. Less than 24 hours earlier he was chanting a chain of expletives in Chinese and holding his breath every time Rave smoked up against Big God. He was next to me during that same finals game when Fy ganked Sumail four times in the first five minutes. The crowd was going absolutely insane, and he joyfully screaming obscenities along with them.
Nine kills later, Sumail’s Storm Spirit completes a Bloodstone and the clock read 14 minutes, 15 seconds. The DAC camera guy stares straight ahead, lets out this resigned sigh, and mutters “motherf***er” in disbelief. Charlie, sitting in earshot and able to understand Chinese curse words, started laughing uncontrollably. We made eye contact. Charlie flaps his arms a little, and says, “Ca-caw.”
That’s what Sumail can do: inspire his own manager to act like an idiot.
I Mid, Therefore I Am (the Best)
In EG Latin, this would translate to “Cogito Ego Sumail.”
I have no idea how a 15-year-old who moved to the US eight months ago somehow manages to be far more self-assured than anyone I’ve ever interviewed. I feel like I need to add an unexpected thug life track to every single quote.
On high school: “Welcome to North America, it’s so easy. I don’t do anything. I don’t even study at home.”
On confidence: “After a year [of playing], I knew that I would make it to TI someday.”
On mentality: “Take the game seriously. Don’t play for fun. Deep down if you think you are good then continue, if not then just leave the game, it’s not for noobs.”
On aggressiveness: “I just want to get kills. I never focused on buildings or winning games, I just want to demolish the enemy team.”
On not listening to EG’s captain, PPD: “Sometimes he says ‘don’t dive, don’t dive’ but I do dive.”
It wasn’t just in my interview with him. On stage, on stream, and in front of a sizable live audience, the Chinese host asks, “How would you feel if we named Storm Spirit after you?” Sumail answers, “I think I deserve it.”
The crowd laughs – it’s cute that he’s cocky.
The next question: “Do you have advice to give kids who want to be like you?” Sumail says something to the effect of, “It’s hard to be like me.”
It might be a bit much. The crowd reacts with a different “is he serious” nervous kind of laugh. Cue a thousand Reddit comments about whether the kid is trolling or for real, whether PPD can rein him in, whether he found too much success too fast, whether his ego is larger than Arteezy’s.
Like an NFL wide receiver or cornerback, a mid laner is on an island most of the time. An aggressive mid has a few times each game where he’s just forced to clutch it out. His entire existence is justified by a few moments of simply outplaying other players. He has to think he’s the best. The bombast, the ego, walking the line between confidence and arrogance, it’s all necessary. Because in those moments that define him and his position, he, of all people, has to believe he can do it.
Sumail is just saying out loud what all great mids need to think: “I’m better than that guy across the river.”
This attitude, combined with his play, pretty much ensures that Sumail will get the Dota equivalent of LeBron-level media attention from now until TI5. Everything he says and does will be scrutinized and every play he makes will be analyzed.
After DAC, he tweeted, “TI5 next goal.”
Maybe he’ll win TI5. Maybe he’ll flame out and EG will replace him.
But right now, it doesn’t matter if he’s Dota’s LeBron James. All that matters is he could be.
Image Credit: IMG_7533 by Jakob Wells via Flickr. Modified for cropping/opacity. CC BY 2.0