International Adversaries, Part 4: The Return of El Clásico

by theScore Staff Jul 28 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Helena Kristiansson / theScore esports / StarLadder / ESL

A wash of cheers rolled around Benaroya Hall like thunder promising a rain after a long drought. It was the conclusion to Game 5 of The International 2013 Grand Finals: Alliance vs. Natus Vincere.

Na`Vi had taken a narrow gold and experience lead from a brutal early game full of kills. By 15 minutes, David “LD” Gorman was shouting "Na`Vi are pulling away with this game!" as AdmiralBulldog fell to a Dendi triple kill.

But although Na`Vi's early aggression worked the crowd into a near-panic, it came back to punish them. XBOCT’s carry Alchemist had less than half of Loda's last hits at 15 minutes. Alliance narrowly claimed an Aegis — after three minutes of contesting and five buybacks between the two teams — and it looked like Na`Vi's hopes of being the only repeat International champions were floating away on the torrent of cheers.

Na`Vi was forced into a corner. They pushed down mid as Alliance engaged their trademark split-push strategy. As Na`Vi tried to back out, s4 landed one of the best Dream Coils in Dota 2 history, preventing TPs and giving Alliance the opportunity to take down two sides of Na`Vi's base. Using Scythe of Vyse and Dream Coil, s4 would do it again, with a "Million-Dollar Dream Coil" that shoveled the last fistful of dirt onto Na`Vi's casket. Fans roared.

Alliance's AdmiralBulldog

There has been no more indelible series in Dota history. The metagame at the time was heavily combat-oriented, active and challenging. Every game of the five-game Grand Finals had more than a kill per minute, with even more until the mid-game lull.

It’s worth remembering that Alliance and Na`Vi went into The International 2013 already splitting opinions. Although Na`Vi was narrowly favored over Alliance ahead of TI3, fans, players and experts were all over the board in their predictions. Some firmly believed Alliance was unstoppable (pointing to their undefeated StarSeries Season 6 run and four other first-place premiere events) while others didn’t see how they could possibly take down Na`Vi (with their own four first-place premier events). Take it from someone who knows: if you want to start a fight among Dota fans, take a stance on which team was projected to win that year.

The match wasn’t just exciting; it marked an inflection point in the development of competitive Dota. It was the last match to be played before the switch to the larger Key Arena and, for many, marked the beginning of a new era in esports. The following year, The International would be big enough to fill a stadium and saw its prize pool inflate 400 percent. Prize pools at independent events would likewise grow from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In many ways, Alliance's victory marked the end of the first era of professional Dota. It ushered in the modern age of career players who started pro gaming in high school, switched over from HoN and took up Dota with the explicit goal of playing it as a competitive sport. The following year, teams like Evil Geniuses and players like Swindlemelonzzz and MoonMeander would join the scene.

TI3 was the last International before Dota 2 truly took off. What better time to craft the image of two leviathan competitors in the minds of fans?

Today’s Na`Vi meets yesterday’s Alliance

Sonneiko, ArtStyle and Dendi at ESL One Frankfurt 2016

The rivalry between Na`Vi and Alliance extends well beyond the teams themselves, and is as much, if not more, a rivalry of fans. No other split has so divided Western viewers between the old and the new; those who appreciate strategy and those who appreciated technique; those who want empires and those who want evolution.

Both teams ran into trouble in 2014, after TI4, and they both lost their captains to Team Secret. That squad — eventually evolving to become s4, KuroKy, Arteezy, Zai and Puppey — had a historic run of success that came crashing down at the main event the following year.

Without s4, Puppey and KuroKy, neither Na`Vi nor Alliance found stability in the season between TI4 and TI5. But both have been able to reinvent themselves over the last 12 months.

Alliance did so by reaching into the past and recreating their 2013 roster, with Loda, s4, AdmiralBulldog, Akke and EGM. Na`Vi did so by reaching into the future, bringing forward fresh talent from smaller CIS teams: Victor "GeneRaL" Nigrini, Akbar "SoNNeikO" Butaev, and Dmitry "Ditya Ra" Minenkov.

It's ironic that the team which once stood for legacy now stands for incorporating a new generation, while their opponents, who once represented perfecting new strategies under a new banner, now represent the old guard. At The International 2016 — an event that signals an unprecedented shift away from veterans towards new talent — Alliance will be the only squad to return with all five members of a former International squad. They will also host more than a third of the returning TI winners who will be present.

According to Dotabuff, Alliance and Na`Vi have played against each other in 92 ticketed games over their history. But since Na`Vi's 2016 renaissance and Alliance's post-TI5 reformation, they've only met each other in a single match — a 2-1 win for the new Na`Vi at the Manila Major.

Unlike most compelling Dota rivalries, no current member of Na`Vi has played on a roster with any member of Alliance, nor have the teams ever exchanged players. The one piece of roster history that glues these teams together is AdmiralBulldog, who was discovered by Dendi and did sometimes substitute for Na`Vi prior to joining the team that would eventually become Alliance. His unusually specific hero pool often ended up giving his captain, s4, leverage in the draft, as opponents would often feel forced to ban multiple Bulldog heroes while leaving other positions relatively (or completely) untouched.

EGM, Akke and Loda

Bulldog's global awareness and prowess as a split-pusher are arguably the strengths that allowed his team to build a successful playbook and outmaneuver Na`Vi in that fateful 2013 series. Na`Vi was the world's best fighting team, but Alliance was better at subtlety, sacrifice, and split-push.

Alliance had a modest run of success last fall — culminating in a victory at The Frankfurt Major qualifiers, where they ousted Liquid to represent Europe at the event — but since then they have hovered just out of the spotlight at interregional events, bobbing up and down the ranks over the past nine months. They have managed to attend all three of the Majors so far, but have yet to finish above Top 6.

Their rivals have spent that same time honing their game and becoming one of the teams to beat on the international stage. Na`Vi even won StarSeries, the final tournament before The International this year, which if nothing else should provide them with a boost of confidence heading into the event. Alliance step into The International on their reunion tour, looking to prove they’ve still got it, while many see Na`Vi as a favorite for Top 6.

Regardless of the outcome, the history and the emotion that characterize this rivalry make a potential matchup as compelling as ever. It's hard to imagine Dota fans would fail to tune in for a modern reboot of El Clásico.

Ryan "Gorgon the Wonder Cow" Jurado writes about Dota 2 and freelances for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.