After a game that was much closer than its scoreline suggests, Digital Chaos beat Team Freedom and will be the last North American team to attend The International 2017.
Not all that long ago the story of Dota 2 in North America was the unquestioned rule of Evil Geniuses, followed by a mad scramble for second among a volatile wash of rowdy semi-professional teams. But last year, at The International 6, an earlier incarnation of Digital Chaos made a credible claim that North America wasn’t an absolute monarchy anymore. Time has only made this more true. These days, though no one will seriously argue that Evil Geniuses aren’t the best on the continent—and maybe in the world—a surprising number of North American teams have performed admirably in international competition.
As if to underscore the growth of North American Dota 2 Valve bestowed two qualifier slots, as well as a direct invite for Evil Geniuses, on the region. Earlier this week, Team NP won the first of these slots in a best-of-one tiebreaker match against none other than Team Freedom, whose unexpectedly high performance has been one of the qualifiers’ better story lines. Very few thought that the squad—a band of misfits in a region full of them—would make it out of the group stages. And yet they did, and more.
Did the matchup between Digital Chaos and Team Freedom suggest TI-caliber play? Probably not, though both teams had their moments. Lee “Forev” Sang Don’s Enigma in game two laid down some truly supermassive Black Holes, while Mason Venne’s mastery of Bristleback proved to be an obstacle that Team Freedom had no way around. Not everything was great of course—there was an ugly moment in game two when Forev blew Black Hole on a solo Lina, only to have her slip away under cover of Shadowblade when Digital Chaos realized that it didn’t have detection. A few minutes later, Mason inexplicably threw a godlike streak into the hands of Team Freedom—but greatness is not a prerequisite for winning. Beating your opponent is, and Team Freedom stumbled when it mattered most.
Team Freedom, who already missed one chance to score a spot at The International 7 during these qualifiers, now finds themselves having blown a second. If there’s any consolation for the squad, it’s exclusively in the fact that they exceeded everyone’s expectations, including quite possibly their own. By morning, there will be plentiful Reddit threads congratulating them on what they did achieve. But “moral victories,” as Jay-Z once put it, “is for minor league coaches.” With no new tournaments to qualify for until the fall, Team Freedom will have little opportunity to do anything with their newfound status as a serious contender.
But that’s Dota 2. It’s a game that rewards its winners with riches, and punishes everyone else. No other esport has quite so much distance between the haves and the have-nots. Tonight, that distinction was balanced on a single best-of-five that felt, at points, a lot more evenly matched than most 3-0 sweeps. But in the end, the facts are the facts: Three games in a row, Digital Chaos was the better team. For that, they’ve been rewarded for a chance to compete on Dota 2’s biggest stage for what will probably be the biggest prize in esports history. Team Freedom, on the other hand, gets nothing. Winning is only worth it if someone else loses, and nothing casts that truth into sharper relief than a series like this, where the difference between first and second is the difference between Seattle and home.
No doubt there’s a certain pleasure for Digital Chaos in knowing that the squad that preceded them in their organization—ex-Thunderbirds, now Planet Odd—will not be at The International, and they will. Now, with barely over a month until eighteen teams gather under the swirling lights of KeyArena, the real work for Digital Chaos begins.