The significance of 'el clásico'
Most recently, Natus Vincere and Alliance faced off in the Dota 2 Champions League playoffs, a very spectacular best-of-five series casted by Tobiwan, who despite major casting competition is argued to still be the voice of Dota. Every time these two specific teams meet up to exchange last hits and nukes, the fans gather up, cancel their other plans to just embark in the match. Some people holds the single match-up as an event of its own, which as of recent commonly is summed up as “el clásico”.
Definition and cultural poaching
The phrase “el clásico” is Spanish and means “the classic” and originally refers to the encounter between two football clubs in the Spanish La Liga, namely FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. The original requirement for the match to occur in La Liga is no longer relevant; the phrase is now used for matches between the two clubs in any context.
Given the rich history of the Spanish clubs, where Madrid and Barcelona are the two largest cities in Spain and their football clubs the richest and most prestigious, the expression holds no depth or cultural value within Dota. While the football clubs have been locking horns with one another for a century, the two Dota teams have only been at it for a year. The two cities of Spain commonly stands for different political ideologies, tracking back all the way to the Spanish civil wars where the regional rivalry was present in form of Catalonia (Barcelona) and the royalists (Madrid).
The rivalry between the Dota teams is of more fictional values. The phrase have thus been poached from a context wherein it actually does make sense given the cultural and historical ground, and is instead applied in the world of eSports between two successful teams where there are no real rivalries outside the realms of the ongoing game.
Nevertheless, it is an expression for the masses to relate to, whether they know of the depth and rich roots of the football term. People know what kind of match it is a symbol for, just from hearing the phrased used to label it.
What is the recipe for a classic?
Then again, if there is no history or context to Dota's el clásico, how can it possibly have the effect it has? How come it has to be Natus Vincere and Alliance and not just the two current top performing teams going up against each other? For instance, Team Empire is dominating the Western scene for the time being, would not Empire versus either of Na`Vi or Alliance make do instead?
Obviously that particular match-up would be highly interesting and anticipated but in order to put the classic in el clásico, it is a necessity for both participating teams to have a lengthy history of encounters. It is not the only requirement however, as Fnatic being another top performing team, has played more matches with Alliance and Natus Vincere than the two have played each other.
What puts the extra juice into the hyped event is that both Na`Vi and Alliance have been excelling both region-wised and on an International scale. Furthermore they have done so for a long time. Well, a long time as a relative saying as the scene is still young and teams have been going up and down. Na`Vi and Alliance have always been top contenders, finishing at the very top of most competitions. Naturally, both have been undergoing slumps at various times but they have proven time after time that they are top notch. Ultimately, what mostly comes into play is the fact that both teams have won The International, a major factor when it comes to calculating the success of a Dota 2 team.
Other candidates for such an eventful match were Na`Vi versus Empire back in 2012 when Empire was the only team to challenge the dominion of Na`Vi. However, Empire lost most of their strength due to roster issues and were not able to bite back until recently, as a result of the players acquired after The International last year. Another candidate would be Fnatic versus Alliance but despite the hordes of encounters the teams between as well as the overall quality of both parts, their rivalry comes across as such of two sparring partners. The recent Eastern version is when Team DK goes up against Invictus Gaming but due to roster changes on both teams, their history is still young. It is however, definitely a candidate for the future.
Paul F. Diehl, professor of political science, states that rivalries are most likely to evolve between two states of similar capabilities and even more likely if those equal states also are of major power rather than minor. This model can be applied within competition and eSports where the two most pre-eminent teams are bound to develop a rivalry at some level, given enough time pass. Diehl further clarifies that a rivalry does not disappear because one of the sides increases in strength, the roots of rivalry established at this point are not that easily dispatched of.
The standings so far
The graphs above depicts how the victories have progressed between the two teams. The values used are games won (also commonly referred to as maps) and not matches. For instance, the recent Dota 2 Champions League best-of-five, pushed Na`Vi's graph up three points and Alliance's two points (since the final result was 3-2 for Na`Vi). The games are counted all the way since the teams faced up for the first team in November 2012, Alliance then known as NoTidehunter. According to GosuGamers' database, the all-time score is currently 31 - 31 in terms of games won. Last year, Alliance came ahead quite early and kept building the lead but recently Na`Vi have been winning most of the games between the teams. At the end of the article, there is a complete list of matches between the two teams, click on the box to unveil the table. Links to drafts and VODs are provided.
The DotA Legacy
Dendi and Kuroky, ESWC 2010
The evolution of the eventful match is of course further assisted by the fact that both teams are front-lined by some of the most iconic faces of Dota. On the one side, we have Kuroky and Puppey, two players who have have been part of the scene since basically before anyone can even remember. They have followed each other into multiple teams throughout the WarCraft 3 DotA era (Kingsurf International, Nirvana International, Team Home, New World Order, Team GosuGamers) before ending up together in Natus Vincere in February 2013 (Puppey was already part of the team since almost two years back at this point), which was the first time their paths enterwined in competitive Dota 2.
Na`Vi were already iconic by the time, having dominated the Western scene since the dawn of Dota 2 with other colorful characters on their roster. One of them being Dendi, the Ukrainian mid player who was a crucial part of DTS.Chatrix, arguably one of the most impactful western teams of the DotA days.
On the other side, there is Loda and Akke, the everlasting bromance story about two real life friends who ventured into competitive gaming together and have not left it since, despite a few shorter breaks and some time spent separately in different teams. They started out together in Team Team and later SK-Gaming eight years ago, transitioned into HoN before making their return to Dota with The Experience (later Counter Logic Gaming).
All these names, Dendi, Puppey, Kuroky, Loda, Akke, were always meant for great things as far as Dota goes. They have always been part of the scene, they were successful then and they are successful now. In terms of history, with these players, it is actually enriching the term “el clásico” since the faces and handles on their own have become icons over the years.
What effects does the match hold on the community then? All the things mentioned in above paragraphs build up tension as some of the most iconic players come together, being parts of teams that have been more or less steady rocks at the top of the charts for a lengthy period. The two teams’ separate matches are already hyped so the effect is multiplied when they go up against each other. But in addition to those aspects, similar to the real el clásico (Barcalona vs Real Madrid), the fans of the two teams are remarkably divided.
Be it because of the two teams’ differences in play style, attitude, general appearances or because of their mirrored successes, the fans of one team is often seen disliking the other team. That obviously does not apply to every fan but still to a substantial amount. In a way it is natural to develop a feeling of rivalry towards the one team that represents the biggest threat towards the team you are a supporting. After all, attaining a goal in a competition is of negative relation with the goal attainment of a competitor or a rival; the success of one team comes at the failure of the other.
Rivalry between the fans rather than the players
It is worth pointing out that hype and rivalry is mostly seen amongst the fans rather than with the players. When asked if there is a rivalry between the two teams, Alliance carry player Jonathan 'Loda' Berg says "When playing Na`Vi we have to give it our everything, and I think they feel the same way. Its exciting for us as players to play eachother, because it usually ends up in a good game. I wouldn't say we have a different mentality than when playing other opponents though but there will always be some kind of rivalry between our two teams. That is how it goes when you face each other in semi-finals and finals as often as we do."
The two teams are friends otherwise though, do not wish misery upon one another and can laugh alongside each other, not only outside the game but also as seen before, inside the game. He continues; "That doesn't stop us from being friendly though. Everyone in Na`Vi is a cool guy, and we often end up partying a bit together at events."
This rivalry causes for a more intense atmosphere amongst the fans, the match becomes an obvious crowd favorite, an event in itself. It becomes ever so important that the specific match at hand is won, more so than with other matches, the feeling of elation is more palpable than with other victories. Naturally, the sense of defeat and disappointment is also escalated further than with the loss to a different team. Even viewers who are fans of neither team can still feel the greatness of the match and the tension of the crowd.
For instance, following ice hockey as a Swedish person there has always been a great sense of rivalry between the nation of Sweden and the nation of Finland. It is a friendly rivalry albeit still dead serious. Taking into account the history of the nations, where Finland was once a part of Sweden, there is still a bit of superior/inferior complex that needs to be either proven right or wrong (depending on what side you are on). Given as both countries developed into great hockey nations, the World Championship and Olympic Games matches between the two are always extra tense. If your nation loses the encounter, you would then be mocked by supporters or natives of the other nation and you would have no worthy comeback other than perhaps arguing whether the referees were actually watching the match or not. But you would still be defeated, and the mockery you were receiving was valid. You could only hope that next time it would be the other way around and you could end up doing the mockery.
Why we need it, why we crave it
In the case of Sweden versus Finland in ice-hockey, for the native hockey-enthusiasts of either country, the specific match can often be bigger to the crowd than the actual tournament. And this is where the event of a specific match holds so much meaning, where an “el clásico” fills a void unable to be filled with anything else. With the close to oversaturation of ongoing events, there is always a constant stream of matches. For the casual Dota 2 follower, it all ends up being a buzz of long-lasting tournaments where the overview is lost, the ability to follow them separately is getting harder. All that is seen is “a bunch of matches”. But a match being an event in itself is able to break through the buzz, able to shine some extra light on what to watch for someone who can not commit very much time to following Dota. In a lack of important LAN matches standing out, the “el clásico” will work as a supplement.
It is something to engage the community, engage the fans, like a mid-season holiday. And then of course, if the mid-season holiday happens to occur at an actual holiday (such as The International grand finals finals), it is truly one of the most glorious events in eSports. The specific match between Na`Vi and Alliance might be losing some of it's glory due to Alliance falling behind a bit but there is no other yet to replace it. Even though strapping the title "el clásico" across it is a bit too strong and perhaps an act of jealousy towards the grand context of the original football version, the concept of a classic match is very attractive and explains why multiple sports have claimed their own equivalent to it.
Diehl, Paul F – The Dynamics of Enduring Rivalries, 1998
Berg, Jonathan - primary source
Wikipedia - El clásico information (football)
GosuGamers - photos and database