This piece originally ran in August 2016.
Competition brings out the best in athletes. Poised against your fiercest opponent, those long-standing rivalries foster innovation and generate storylines that persist season-to-season. When two rivals meet on the field, it’s not a one-off, but years of struggle and fervent passion culminating in a single game.
Red Sox and Yankees; Duke and UNC; Ali and Frazier: History is littered with the records of rivalries. E-sports might be comparatively young, with few records as long as those between major baseball clubs or franchises; competitive gaming, however, has rivalries that have similarly driven different games to the top.
In the early days of League of Legends, competitive play was still a fresh concept. Unlike the modern era of ESPN-level production, instant replay and defined breaks and segments, the early years of League played younger brother to Starcraft, a community riding high on the advent of its much-anticipated sequel. League of Legends was living in the shadow of giants.
This era grew to be defined by two teams, each at the top of their game: Team SoloMid, or TSM; and Counter-Logic Gaming, CLG. The most-heated games were between these two, as some of the best players of the time were competing on these teams. Players would appear on podcasts or the League subreddit to talk trash and build hype, and a community swelled up around these teams.
A similar rivalry was seen in Dota 2, though much later in the game’s life. After several years of “beta” release, the third annual International tournament coincided with the game’s full release on Steam. Players flocking to try out the game in its finished form would also be tuning into the big tournament in Seattle, drawn by the allure of high-level play, spectacle and a massive prize pool.
This was the era of Natus Vincere and Alliance, two teams that had butt heads often in the lead-up to TI3. The boys of Na’Vi were painted as underdogs, led by crowd favorite Danil “Dendi” Ishutin and genius drafter Clement “Puppey” Ivanov. On the other side was Alliance, the Swedish powerhouse that had roared through the tournament, losing only a single game before the grand finals. Fans were watching Dota 2 for the first time, and just as the Atlanta Braves used basic cable ubiquity to become “America’s Team” in the ‘80s and ‘90s, everyone was drawn to root for one of these squads.
It’s in these rivalries that community and fandom build, in a way that ties the audience into something greater than just a display of skill. The history between two teams, the words flung and players moved, build a rising heat. Brandon “Saintvicious” DiMarco was a jungler for TSM in the early days of League, but left to join CLG. In a heated exchange, DiMarco publicly dismissed the play of his former team’s replacement, saying “I was really disappointed in how [oddone] played and I thought he would adapt better.” TSM captain and mid lane player Andy “Reginald” Dinh dismissed the claims, replying “CLG speaks with authority but lacks the force to back it up.”
The contest of these two teams was a contributing factor to the rise of League of Legends, as fans found more personality and excitement in the scene. It built fan-bases, gave a sense of solidarity and camaraderie, and heightened already close games to monumental matches. In Dota 2, the Na’Vi-Alliance match-up in the third International grand finals was already a clash of titans, but storylines built it up even greater; Na’Vi, the underdogs who had fallen 0-2 to Alliance previously, took the unstoppable team to a fifth and final game in the series. A last-second base rush, with both teams racing to destroy the Ancient and win the trophy, created one of the greatest moments in competitive Dota: a single Puck play that stopped a Na’Vi retreat and secured the game for Alliance.
It’s moments like TI3 and the “million-dollar Dream Coil” that heighten the e-sports experience beyond the monitor, and tense rivalries foster those times. Sometimes it isn’t even just a history, but years of close matches and good competition that force the best out of each other. The best competitor forces you to adapt, react and play better than you ever have before. Take, for example, the infamous “EVO Moment #37.”
Two players, Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong, had met frequently in different games throughout the years. Two masters of their craft, any match between the two was bound to be electric, and in the 2004 EVO finals, in a match of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, Justin Wong pushed Daigo to play at inhuman levels.
In a contest between Justin’s Chun-Li and Daigo’s Ken, the latter is left with a sliver of health in the match point of the series. Justin unleashes Chun-Li’s Super, a flurry of kicks which Daigo can parry if he can get almost frame-perfect inputs on every single attack. Daigo proceeds to not only parry every hit of the super but reply with a final parry into a follow-up combo, taking the final game in an explosive climax. It became one of the finest moments for Street Fighter, a huge gamble and display of skill from Daigo. The Online Edition of 3rd Strike even included a challenge solely based on this moment, where tons of rookies who thought it looked easy could try and fail to replicate it.
At this single moment, two competitors pressured each other. We see Justin take Daigo to the ropes, and the only response left for Daigo is to either lose, or play perfectly. Even if a rivalry isn’t as vocally stated as with TSM and CLG, the competition between two opponents on the top forces them to play not just at their best, but better than their opponent’s best, like Ali and Frazier. Competition isn’t just about the prize, but the victory of becoming greater than your opposition, while the loser now has motivation to come back even stronger, pushing harder than before.
It’s the tension that drives any competition, and for e-sports it has been no less important. Rivalries tell stories, build anticipation, enhance matches and force players to not just compete against any opponent, but one that knows them in-and-out, one who will push them to their greatest heights or leave them in the dust. Storytelling is the crux of sports, and has been for years, and in e-sports, as in all sports, the rivalries tell the story.
Eric Van Allen is a Texas-based writer. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.