Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na'Vi's Dendi at a dessert buffet cart.
Just prior to The International 4 one of the professional teams – Fnatic – was engaged in a frantic back-and-forth with Valve. The discussion (and thus, this week's column) centred on team substitutions. Specifically whether Fnatic was allowed to compete at TI4 with Steve 'Excalibur' Ye taking the place of their invited carry player Adrian 'Era' Kryeziu. The swap was being pursued by Fnatic because Era's recent health concerns, including panic attacks, had put his ability to travel to Seattle and compete in doubt. Valve's response was unequivocal. Fnatic had to attend with their invited lineup or they couldn't compete.
I've read through the email chain which Valve posted online several times since then. It was clearly a difficult situation for both parties. Valve had received an email from Era himself saying he was ready to compete but that his team thought they would do better with a substitute and so it would be reasonable to worry about a player being pushed out of a roster thanks to internal politicking. It's an email which Era later describes as having been written in a "very frustrated and confused mental state" and "without first considering my actual condition, whether or not I’d be physically capable of traveling and playing by July."
Another problem was that Fnatic's concerns about Era being fit to play were brought to Valve's attention after the European qualifiers for TI4 had taken place. That's significant because the previous year a Chinese team called LGD Gaming had made some roster changes. As a result they lost their direct invite to TI3 but LGD were allowed to compete in their region's qualifiers to earn a spot in Seattle with the altered fivesome.
This is because the direct invites to The International are based on Valve's opinion of the current team lineup. You can see that clearly in another situation from earlier in 2014 which was referenced frequently in the comments and discussion about the Fnatic case. The North American team Evil Geniuses replaced Clinton 'Fear' Loomis with Mason 'mason' Venne after an elbow injury stopped Fear from competing. They were allowed to switch Fear's invite for mason's because EG had been playing with mason on their team for a while before The International. Because Valve were familiar with both versions of EG, the company decided they were okay with either one of them attending TI4.
It's now an old situation – part of TI history – but in the post-TI landscape teams are in a state of flux and the scene feels particularly volatile. It's not surprising then that I keep circling back to what the Era/Excalibur situation reveals of the way Valve thinks of a Dota 2 team. I'm increasingly inclined to say it would be healthier to take a lead from another eSport. This is the part where I mention League of Legends and I'm not sure if you'll go with me (you totally should!) or GASP theatrically and close the browser window.
League of Legends takes a lot of its cues from traditional sports – it has seasons, relegations and promotions. That traditional sports mentality extends to the rosters. If you're like me and have sat down with the LCS official rules document [PDF] and a cup of tea you'll know that a team requires a general manager, five players who constitute the starting lineup, and between two and five reserve players. There are also transfer window deadlines like you'll find in professional football, rules about how many players you can pick up from another team from your lineup and so on.
Riot's rules about what constitutes the active roster are set up to avoid a scenario where illness or accident completely derailing a team's performance but combined with the other strictures they speak to a definition of a team which goes beyond five main players. It's no doubt a product of the need for stability when you're trying to run a league rather than a one-off annual event but it contains the idea that the League of Legends Fnatic team can sometimes not be exactly xPeke, sOAZ, Cyanide, Rekkles and YellOwStaR and that's maybe not ideal but it's not an emotional catastrophe. Emotional catastrophe is very much the feeling you get from the Era/Excalibur TI4 email chain.
As an aside: this is not to say Riot's system can cope with all situations. Earlier in the year the company decided to put on a London Roadshow at Wembley which it joyfully announced, only to discover it hadn't given Gambit Gaming enough time to get visas for travel to the UK for four of the main players and that if they tried to get emergency visas they would have to forfeit two weeks of LCS matches on account of not having passports for that period of time. The team ended up fielding the one remaining player from their starting lineup and four free agents (one of whom is now listed on Gambit's official team page as a substitute support player). Not ideal as situations go, but also a thankfully rare one.
Could you apply the League of Legends approach to TI4? Well, as I mentioned earlier, LoL has more of an interest in cultivating that sense of a team as a continuous entity, existing slightly beyond its current constituent players. It needs the stability so it can run the months-long LCS and the Challenger Series leagues. The International is about finding out who's the best Dota 2 team in the world at a given point. I say that because it's the response I've been given by Valve's Erik Johnson at two separate Internationals, once in answer to a general "Why do you International?" question and the other time in response to Alliance being knocked out of the competition before the main event.
When that's the aim of the contest you might not feel the need to consider substitutes because they're not a known quantity. The hope is that there isn't a situation where they would need to step in and play so Valve's direct invite system wouldn't be able to take them into account. mason was a known quantity and thus he was invited. What of the invisible understudies?
In response to the Era/Excalibur situation Valve also said in their response: "At the point where there appears to be other agendas in play, our default position will always be to protect the individual players' ability to compete in the tournament they were invited to." It's a point which acknowledges that when large amounts of money are at stake individual players might be at risk of unfair treatment. That risk wouldn't vanish with the addition of substitutes, but it might become less visible to tournament administrators.
Lastly, adding reserve player spots to The International could have a knock-on effect on other tournaments. These third-party events may end up needing to change their rules and procedures to either take account of these extra potential players or to forbid them.
It's a situation with no ideal solution. But reading through that email chain again last night and watching as team lineups shudder and convulse I feel like giving teams the ability to make substitutions and to exist beyond a five-person stack would be a far healthier option.