“I can’t get rid of the sting. It’s just too much.” — Kanishka ‘Sam’ “BuLba” Sosale
Those were the words uttered by BuLba upon his elimination from The International 7. This was his fifth try at making a run for TI, but once again he lost. It was a bitter disappointment, one that had him on the verge of tears. It was a disquieting moment. Obviously it was painful for BuLba, who was having his insecurity and regret broadcast around the world. It was sad and uncomfortable for those who tuned in expecting the rosy afterglow of winner interviews.
That level of intense investment is what makes competition great. I’m not saying that as viewers, we’re are all sadists, hoping to harvest the broken dreams of a professional players. But that raw pain, the sadness, the disappointment — this is what is at stake at tournaments of such a high magnitude. Everything we value in life is commensurate to how much we put into it. And in Dota 2, there is nothing more important than The International. For a participant, what is truly at stake isn’t the money or the glory but their soul.
Competition is a rite, an elongated ritual to ferret out the best. It could be considered the purest meritocracy in the world (if we ignore all externalities). The game doesn’t care about desire, personality, or your familiarity with moral turpitude. Competition ranks and distinguishes how good you are at the task at hand. It is the purest way of proving you are the best at what you do, at proving your existence to the world and to yourself.
Win and you will have achieved the one thing for which you have bet your entire life; lose and everything comes tumbling down like an avalanche. The casual watcher will watch a game, and the panel or commentator will say that the game means everything for the players. It does, but many don’t properly realize what “everything” entails.
Imagine BuLba’s situation for a moment. He is a talented player — but so are all of the other pros. Many outstrip him in terms of mechanics, applied game knowledge, emotional resilience, composure under pressure. BuLba spends countless hours practicing and studying the game, the same level of commitment embraced by other teams. He is considered one of the great minds of Dota 2, but he is merely one out of many in that department; some of them will understand the current meta on a deeper level than him and profit greatly from the advantage. And even if BuLba knew the current meta better than all others, he probably lacks the right players or organization that can act upon his knowledge. On top of all of that, every day more teams and more players are picking up Dota and rising up in the ranks. He played two of those rising upstarts in his elimination game at TI7: Wang “Ame” Chunyu and Chen “Victoria” Guanhong are both players who have just started professional careers within the last two years.
When you consider the obstacles in his path, his dreams feel hopeless. Perhaps they are. Out of hundreds of pro players, only a handful have ever touched the Aegis. So the question is why try, why keep going? The odds are stacked so high against him and the cost is so painful each time he falls. Every time BuLba lost at The International, he was heartbroken. We saw only a glimpse of it in that recent interview. Imagine holding onto that pain for the rest of your career. Why continue struggling?
Because that is who he is. All competitors love the struggle itself and rely on faraway goals to keep them hungry. BuLba is a Dota 2 player, and he has staked his identity to being the best Dota 2 player he can be. And there is no greater validation of existence than winning TI. Regardless of the odds, regardless of how many times it takes, he must challenge for the crown again and again and again.
It might seem hopeless if you could only get one opportunity, but the great thing about competition is that you get as many chances as you are willing to take. For the vast majority of players, their career will not end so long as they keep their heads afloat. They can fight again and again for however long it takes until they succeed. I once saw this perseverance pay off in a different game. There was once a Korean player named Kim “duckdeok” Kyeong Deok in StarCraft 2. Overall, he was a mediocre player. He struggled for years without results, years without fame, and had no money or success to show for it. No one knew him — in fact, most people derided him—but he grinded away for three years in the shadows without recognition. But when he finally won his first and only championship at the WCS EU finals, he was overcome with joy and broke down in tears.
At TI7, we saw the exact same thing happen. Once Kuro “KuroKy” Salehi Takhasomi finally won the Aegis after all of his years of hard work, he cried. It was a shocking moment for those who have followed him over the years: KuroKy is normally an extremely calm and taciturn individual. But in that moment, all those years of dedication and grit were validated, and even he could not keep the relief back.
Players like KuroKy, BuLba or duckdeok are unique, but their archetypes are not. Every pro player you have seen at TI, at the League of Legends World Championship, at CS:GO Majors, at GSLs, at EVOs, at OSLs — all of them go through this struggle. All of them want to win. The fact that you have so many players and teams fighting for the trophy, each one knowing how painful failure is and still electing to get up again, is what makes competition riveting.
No matter how painful the loss, the trophy is too enticing to forget. Already, the players who have failed to win The International this year will try once again to scale the mountain. Jacky “EternaLEnVy” Mao said it best: “I am not gonna quit, no matter what.”