This Dota 2 team’s twisty tale to victory is gripping, even for a non-fan

I get why people love spectating sports, even though the longest that I could hold an interest in watching it was only about three weeks. Way back in 2002. It was the FIFA World Cup and I was a teenager and there was peer pressure. But I get it. We’re glued to the display of mad skills and tactical maneuvers on the field, but what’s most captivating was the unpredictability. Even when there is a favoured winner or an obvious loser, the beauty is that, at any point in the game, there can be a twist to that fate.

And twists abound in OG’s journey to win last year’s The International (TI), the biggest annual championship in Dota 2. The winding tale is made for TV – and that is exactly what OG’s sponsor, Red Bull, did.

Against the Odds, a documentary by Red Bull Media House, chronicles what it calls “the gaming Cinderella story” (the Disney remake would, presumably, turn the pumpkin into a gaming PC and the mouse into a SteelSeries).

Steelseries Rival 600 mouse
Source: SteelSeries Rival 600 Dota 2 Edition mouse
Bert, is that you?

OG was formed in 2015 by Johan “N0tail” Sundstein and Tal “Fly” Aizik, both pro-gaming veterans and best buddies, along with three other members. Throughout the years, old teammates left and new ones joined. But N0tail and Fly kept their eye on the prize – the Aegis of Champions, the coveted trophy awarded to TI winners.

But no such luck. OG’s performance fluctuated between dismal and dominating – it won two prestigious tournaments in pro Dota in 2016 before choking on the main stage of TI that year. The team recovered, won the next two international scrimmages, but got pwned in the group stages at the 2017 TI by LGD, a formidable team from China.

Source: Screenshot from Against the Odds documentary
Johan “N0tail” Sundstein 

With the Aegis twice eluding their clutches, N0tail and Fly were crushed. Their frustration culminated in one of the most devastating breakups in e-sports bromance. A mere three months before TI 2018 (TI8), Fly pulled what seemed like an ultimate ‘villain move’ and defected to a rival team called – I kid you not – Evil Geniuses (EG). Fellow team member, Gustav “s4” Magnusson, did the same. Another teammate pulled out due to mental stress. 

N0tail, with a broken team (and heart), rushed to snag enough players before the big game. Skeptics were doubtful that he would be able to cobble together a team within such a short time, and the new roster seemed to prove them right. The replacements include returning member Anathan “ana” Pham, newcomer Topias “Topson” Taavitsainen, and OG’s own coach, Sébastien “Ceb” Debs. Ana was a promising and talented teen, but his fumble at their previous competition – and the heckles from netizens – had left him shaken. Topson had never competed in TI before. Ceb had semi-retired from playing for years.

Red Bull OG
Source: Red Bull
OG at the recent press screening of Against the Odds in Malaysia. From left: Sébastien “Ceb” Debs, Anathan “ana” Pham, Topias “Topson” Taavitsainen, Johan “N0tail” Sundstein, and Jesse “JerAx” Vainikka. 

To make matters worse, OG was not invited to compete in TI8 due to its changing roster. This means the ragtag troupe had to earn a spot through the open qualifiers, which essentially anyone can join. It’s a bit like if Kesha had to win tickets to the Grammys through a radio contest.

OG, of course, slayed through the levels and proceeded all the way to the upper brackets of TI8, only to come face to face with new nemeses and old rivals – EG (captained by Fly) and LGD (now rebranded to PSD.LGD).

Source: Screenshot from Against the Odds documentary

Against the Odds is practically your standard sports anime, except what’s clichéd in fiction was actually happening in real life. Its purpose was plain – to glorify OG (and to sneak in as many shots of the Red Bull logo as possible).

The documentary has a gripping narrative, but it could do with better balance. Fly’s side of the story on his departure was hardly explored, aside from a small snippet about how much he hates losing and a quote on why he ditched OG for EG: “I wanna win, and I wanna do it with teammates I believe in.” Shots fired.

Whether he was truly the ‘villain’ of the story or just made out to be one, hearing more from him – or any other rival teams – may lend a more complete and nuanced picture. Instead, the audience is steered towards rooting for OG, the scrappy underdog wronged.

Source: Screenshot from Against the Odds documentary
Tal “Fly” Aizik, now a captain for Evil Geniuses

Yet, despite some engineered elements, Against the Odds wins with raw emotions. Its behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with OG players allowed the humanity behind a fantasy game to shine through. Most of us would never play pro or touch an Aegis, but we can understand Ana’s pressure as a virtually-unknown teenager playing for a team once pegged to be Dota 2 legends, or N0tail punching the keyboard after playing against his former-BFF, or the friendships forged among a motley crew needing to fight from the very bottom to the very top.

Dota 2 is known for being impenetrable for outsiders, both due to the complexity of the game and the toxicity of its players. But Against the Odds brought a pro Dota 2 team, and the game, out of its cocoon and onto a more relatable plane for the mass audience.    

Source: Screenshot from Against the Odds documentary
   Anathan “ana” Pham overcome by emotions

As someone who doesn’t play Dota 2, I was not lost or bored. The documentary included infectiously-enthusiastic voices from e-sports commentators and journalists, explaining the basics of the game and providing context at every turn of events. By the time the grudge match between OG and EG kicked in, I was utterly invested.

Even those already familiar with the pro Dota 2 scene may appreciate OG’s tumultuous backstory and well-cut recount of last year’s riveting TI matches. The ones watching the documentary in the same press screening hall with me certainly seemed to, cheering and yelling “Ceeeeeb” (for Ceb’s remarkable maneuver that carried the team to victory).

OG team
Source: Screenshot from Against the Odds documentary
A Ceb-y ending for the team

Against the Odds sometimes plays out like an extended advertisement, albeit the kind that knows what it’s doing. But promotional materials are not inherently bad. In that 81-minute film, I entered a world that I had always brushed off as too alien and daunting, and found similarities to my own.

Watch Against the Odds on Red Bull TV.  


Also published on Medium.

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