Valve's documentary series sometimes does its job a little too well
On May 19, Valve Software released the third episode of True Sight, the company's seasonal documentary series about professional Dota 2. As its name suggests, True Sight – a reference to the game's Gem of True Sight, which reveals invisible heroes and wards – is billed as an all-access pass into the inner workings of a top Dota 2 team. Initially, the series followed two fan-favorite teams, Evil Geniuses and Fnatic, during the months-long leadup to the Boston Major in December. True Sight, for the most part, has been well-received by the Dota 2 community, which is often starved of this kind of behind-the-scenes content.
But in some ways, True Sight did its job too well. The second episode captured the collapse of Fnatic's Dota 2 team, which failed to qualify for the Boston Major and disbanded shortly thereafter. True Sight captured the team's slow decline with surprising candor, laying bare the increasingly tense relationship between Fnatic's players. Fairly or unfairly, based on the conversations depicted in True Sight, many Dota 2 fans ultimately blamed the team's breakdown on Chai "Mushi" Yee Fung's harsh style of leadership. It wasn't the whole story, of course, but it was enough to tarnish Mushi's reputation.
Later, when Valve began searching for a team to replace Fnatic in True Sight, they found that top teams were no longer willing to participate. They feared, not without reason, that True Sight would display the in-fighting that is part and parcel of any team-based competitive venture to a world thirsty for drama. Whatever publicity True Sight might offer wasn't worth the risk of the kind of public outcry episode two generated. As a result, True Sight went dormant, and after months without any mention of a third episode, many thought that Valve had put the series on ice.
It's out of this thorny history that the third episode suddenly emerged. This time, the subject is the grand finals of the Kiev Major between fan favorites OG and the pugnacious Russian-Ukrainian team, Virtus Pro. Episode three has all the markings of True Sight – the standard-issue taunts, backstage conversations, words of encouragement (or not) among teammates – but it's obvious that its scope has been pared back. Whereas the first two episodes of True Sight employed two dedicated camera crews following Fnatic and Evil Geniuses for several days at a time, episode three covers only a single series.
It's an old cliché in the Dota 2 world that Russian teams are impetuous and prone to in-fighting, a stereotype that True Sight does little to dispel
As it turns out, that's less a creative choice than a necessity, a clever way for Valve to sidestep the skepticism many teams had about the series after the fallout from episode two. According to sources close to the matter, Valve more or less mandated that whatever teams reached the grand finals of the Kiev Major would have to agree to be fitted with microphones before, during, and after the series, guaranteeing Valve's filmmaking team the material needed to craft a third episode of True Sight. Given that the Kiev Major was an official Valve event, it's hard to imagine any team having much of a basis to decline.
Now, whether or not you think that's fair play by Valve, it's hard to deny that True Sight manages to conjure plenty of dramatic storylines from just a few hours of raw material. Through some clever editing and juxtaposition, True Sight has the machinations, subplots, and drama that you might expect to see in a more elaborate production.
On Virtus Pro's side, True Sight emphasizes the discord sown among the players after losing a large lead in game one, portending both the 2-1 lead in games that VP will eventually squander and the even bigger throw to come in the series' climactic final game. At the same time, True Sight gives special attention to OG's youngest member, the 17-year-old Anathan "Ana" Phan, who loses confidence at several points in the series. Ultimately, through spirited words of encouragement from his teammates (or maybe just playing well), Ana ultimately carries OG in the ace match against VP.
For Dota 2 fans, it's fascinating how simple, even anodyne, communication between top players can be. "Don't be afraid to go with what you think is good," OG's leader Johan "Notail" Sundstein tells Ana as the team prepares to go on stage before the ace match. Many of VP and OG's phatic utterances could be grafted onto any other game because they're the things that teammates have told themselves for as long as there have been team sports.
On that point: if there's one thing that unites all of True Sight, it's the series' emphasis on the contrasting styles of in-game and out-of-game communication that top teams develop. It's an old cliché in the Dota 2 world that Russian teams are impetuous and prone to in-fighting, a stereotype that True Sight does little to dispel. Whereas OG is instead cast as a mutually supportive unit, animated by genuine affection for one another, Virtus Pro comes across as a maelstrom of emotion, mistrustful of each other's capabilities and downright dismissive of OG.
"I fucked them! I fucked them with Ursa! Me!," exclaims Virtus Pro's Vladimir "No[o]ne" Minenko during one postgame celebration.
"Don't force the late game, they suck!," VP's frustrated coach Ivan "ArtStyle" Antonov yells after losing to OG in the late game.
In their haste to generate a compelling contrast between the two teams, many think that Virtus Pro have been cast in an unfavorable light, including the team itself
Of course that isn't true in a narrow sense – OG is a fearsome opponent under any circumstances, and VP knows it – but it is a window into something a bit more complicated and rewarding. As far as I can tell, the insight True Sight offers has very little to do with Dota 2 as such – watching True Sight will in no way help you win your lane – but how top players approach the psychological pressures of playing elite Dota 2 under conditions of maximum pressure and exposure. And this process has as much to do with saying what they want to be true ("OG's late game sucks") as what is true. Whatever else it is, True Sight episode three is a dual psychological portrait into how two teams construct a competitive environment in which they think they can succeed, a process that might entail a little bit of selective, but tactical, deceit. In that sense at least, True Sight isn't about Truth at all.
Still, familiar problems haunt the latest True Sight. In their haste to generate a compelling contrast between the two teams, many think that Virtus Pro have been cast in an unfavorable light, including the team itself. Speaking to Cybersport.ru, one of Russia's largest competitive gaming websites, shortly after the episode's debut, Ilya "lil" Ilyuk expressed "mixed feelings" about the episode. "Out of about eight hours of conversation, they managed to pull out the most absurd and antagonistic things we said."
"It's a shame," LiL continued, "because after watching this video, 'young people passionate about Dota 2' and fans in general may draw the wrong conclusions. Or, what's worse, they may become disappointed in their idols."
It's hard not to empathize at least a little with LiL and his concerns, even if don't identify with his team's way of doing things. But let's be clear about one thing – there is no one "right" way to communicate, and what separated victory and defeat for Virtus Pro was not the words they exchanged between matches, but the simple fact that, on that day, they were not the better team. OG was, and they were rewarded for it. And because OG ultimately wins, it's tempting to think that the message of True Sight is that OG's congenial atmosphere – the good guys – is inherently better. Making that point requires making an example of its opposite. No wonder VP objects; it's a slight at them not just as people, but competitors.
The truth is that we like storytelling a lot more than we like becoming a story, in part because we always know that our own lives are more complex than any storytelling, let alone a 30 minute mini-doc produced in barely two weeks, allows for. Esports, and the stories we tell about it, cast this tension between the messiness of human life and the neat arcs of storytelling into sharp relief. True Sight is good on its own terms, but, in this sense, it's also telling. And, as far as I'm concerned, that's the series’s promise, fulfilled.