To his detractors, he's well past his prime, but his sense of mission won't let him quit
To his detractors, he's well past his prime, but his sense of mission won't let him quit
Twelve months shy of his 30th birthday, calls for the retirement of Jonathan "LodA" Berg – one of Dota 2's oldest players and captain of the Swedish team, Alliance – follow him like a ghost.
Not long ago, those calls came infrequently, but now they've converged into a vicious drone. Twitch chat, the mercurial peanut gallery that accompanies esports broadcasts, isn't known for magnanimity under the best of circumstance, but the vitriol it reserves for LodA is unparalleled. "Retire already loda cucklord" and "legends never die, they just become trash" were just two of the barbs directed at him during a recent loss.
Berg ignores this bullshit – what other choice does he have? He knows that retirement is inevitable, and maybe even near. But to retire now would be to give in to disgrace, and to return to the top of the game would be a bigger coup than ever before. When Berg goes, it's going to be on his terms.
In many ways, that drive has been with Berg his entire life. Talking over Skype on a recent weekday afternoon, one of the first things that LodA tells me is that his family briefly lived in the Congo as a child. Though he mostly grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden, Berg suggests that Africa left his family with a fondness for unconventional goals.
"We're not scared of doing something that people see as different," Berg tells me.
Today, two of Berg's siblings are pastors in Sweden, one of the least religious countries in the world. And Berg himself is among the most decorated Swedish DotA players in history. Now in his 11th year of professional competition – two lifetimes in esports years – he is the only player from the first generation of Western DotA players who still competes at the highest levels of the game.
Once asked if he had a message for the DotA community, Berg replied: "haters, go fuck yourselves.
Still, the majority of Dota 2 fans have never known a LodA whose trajectory hasn't been on a downward trend. The high point of LodA's career, Alliance's magnificent triumph at The International 3 in 2013, coincided with a period of explosive growth for Dota 2. For fans who began following the game then or after – i.e. most of them – LodA has never come close to recapturing that unbeatable aura, despite occasional moments of brilliance and tenacity.
Lost on these latecomers is the LodA who came before and may yet come again. When LodA's career began in the mid 2000s, professional DotA, then merely a mod to WarCraft III, was an oxymoron. Salaries for players were non-existent, and tournament winnings were pathetic by today's standards. The payout for his first championship, Dreamhack Winter 2006, was 1,000 Swedish Kronor – about $160. It was the only money he won that year.
Between 2007 and 2010, though, LodA was one of the best DotA players in the world. He continually reinvented how the game was played, finding new ways to play that put him ahead of his competitors. As his longtime rival Jacob "Maelk" Toft-Andersen put it in one interview, "it's LodA's world; we're just lucky to live in it."
Alongside his prodigious talent as a player, LodA's looks and braggadocio afforded him a kind of celebrity that was largely new to the world of DotA. "I get my fair share of ladies," he boasted in one 2008 interview, mostly unprompted. "I'll be a playboy and spend a little time with one girl after another."
Once asked if he had a message for the DotA community, Berg replied: "haters, go fuck yourselves."
Professional gamers are often shy, but LodA's bravado was key to his appeal in those days. Not only did he challenge players to rethink what was possible in DotA, he also helped create a new model for what professional gamers could be.
These days, you could be forgiven for thinking that LodA has lost his edge. He lives in downtown Gothenburg, a small city on Sweden's west coast, with his girlfriend of four years, Kelly Ong, who once managed Alliance (in Dota 2, players' girlfriends always become managers). Though he's always been an avid reader of sci-fi and fantasy – LodA is an acronym for "Lord of dol Amroth," a reference to a location from Return of the King – Berg says that he's since switched to more "serious" literature.
On a typical day, Berg rises around 8 or 9, and spends the morning walking around Gothenburg. In public, he almost always wears a flat-billed baseball cap to cover up his hairline, which began receding in his mid-twenties and is a constant source of derision in the esports blogosphere. In Sweden, Berg has a niché kind of fame – large enough to have recently been mentioned in a clue on the Swedish version of Jeopardy, and small enough that he can go an entire day outside without being recognized. In the afternoon, he'll head either to Alliance's training facility, where the rest of the team lives and plays, or back to his and Ong's apartment, and scrimmage with other teams from 2:00 PM to 8:00 PM. Then, dinner, television, and one or two casual games of Dota 2 before bed.
It's hard to reconcile this Berg with the boisterous jackanape from nearly a decade ago. In conversation, Berg is introspective and polite. At one point, I have to ask him to turn his microphone up. Though we're scheduled to speak for 30 minutes, we end up talking for three times that. Only once in our conversation does he show any flash of annoyance (when I ask what frustrates him most, he jabs at Dota 2 commentators who, in his view, don't understand the game well enough to comment on players' "mistakes").
But when it comes to Dota 2, don't confuse his apparent domestication for complacency. If anything, with LodA, it's just the opposite. "For better or worse, I think everything affects you as a player," Berg says, when I ask if living in Gothenburg has changed how he thinks about Dota 2.
This is something of a mantra for LodA: "Real life" and Dota 2 are not entirely distinct. When I ask him to recount the itinerary of his career – Stockholm, Dublin, Singapore, and more – he extracts a koan of wisdom about playing DotA from each city. Singapore taught him that Chinese teams, once thought by Westerners to be undefeatable, were more vulnerable than anyone knew, and that near-telepathic communication between players was what set truly great teams apart.
In Fall 2012, Berg took this insight back to Europe and vowed to make an all-Swedish team. Even a split second of hesitation from speaking and thinking in translation is enough to lose a game, he reasoned.
It paid off. That team became Alliance. Between March and August 2013, it was the most dominant team in the history of Dota 2, winning nearly every tournament it entered, culminating in its victory at The International 3. After that, LodA, flush with cash and at the top of the world, moved to Gothenburg. It's a tidy, picturesque port town, laid out in the 17th century by the Dutch East India Company. Neoclassical facades flank serene canals; on a warm day, it feels like a more intimate Amsterdam.
"When I was younger," Berg explains. "I was tired of the city because it was so small, and there wasn't a ton to do." But Gothenburg has grown on him. As Ong tells me, "we've talked about moving to a more urban place like Stockholm or America. But this is his city. He wants to play with a Swedish team, and he's committed to that."
For Berg, everything comes down to the question of motivation: what is it, how do you find it, and how you keep it? "You always have to be finding new motivations," he says. "...you have to be in a good place."
Berg moved to Gothenburg, where he was raised and where he speaks the language, because that is where believes he can construct an environment rich in motivation. To do great things, you need both a plan and the will to complete that plan. Playing Dota 2 is hard work, of course, but Berg believes that the challenge isn't just about that – it's finding, again and again, the motivation to make the hard work feel easy.
A NEW MOTIVATION
On Alliance and even before, Berg has spent his career playing the role of what's known in Dota 2 as the "carry." At its core, Dota 2 is a game about resource management under extreme conditions. Elite Dota 2 entails not only the efficient acquisition of resources, but also distributing them optimally.
But "optimal" in Dota 2 does not mean "equal." By design, certain heroes get more value out of gold if (and only if) they acquire a lot of it. They're called carries because they're supposed to eventually "carry" the team to victory. As a result, carries are often the flashiest position in Dota 2, dishing out the most damage, getting the most kills, and receiving disproportionate amounts of attention in post-game highlight reels.
It's not quite right to say that the carry is the most important role on the team, though. In fact, a carry's success is built on a foundation that their teammates build. Like defensive linemen, a team's supporting players work to construct the safest, most resource-rich environment they can for the carry. There's no 1:1 metaphor, but watching a good carry is a bit like watching a surfer on a sea of gold; they don't makes the waves, sure, but damn can they ride them. To trained eyes, when a Dota 2 team is in sync, its movements are as intricate as a Rube-Goldberg machine. But when a team is out of alignment, their struggles are often magnified in their impoverished and impotent carry.
Though there are exceptions, carries are often the public face of a Dota 2 team. This would be true of Berg and Alliance even if he didn't have a significant financial investment in the brand. Many fans suspect that the only reason Berg still has a spot on Alliance is because he's an iconic player (Alliance's COO Erik Barge sharply rebukes this suggestion; "There's always pressure to replace a player if the team isn't doing well, but it comes from other sources, such as the community.").
"It's hard not to respect LodA," says another professional player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He's definitely still a good player, but Dota 2 is just a hard competitive game [and] people try harder every year ... I respect that LodA keeps playing."
But the fact of the matter is Berg has only won two offline tournaments since the summer of 2014 when the organization's classic lineup disbanded after a spectacular collapse at The International 4. In the eyes of Dota 2 fans, a carnivorous bunch under the best of circumstances, the bulk of the blame for the team's misfortunes since then has fallen on the shoulders of LodA, fairly or not.
Where did it go wrong? For Berg, it all comes back to motivation.
"Winning stopped feeling like an achievement," he explains . "We would just be sad if we lost, and not happy if we won. We lost our identity somewhere along the way as a team."
...if there were a team that would do better without me, it would be a lot easier for me to retire.
"We were content to be at the top," LodA recalls of Alliance in the months after The International 3. "But what did we have to prove?"
LodA is a victim of his victories. In his mind, winning and success diverged at some point. In some ways, it's a nice problem to have – it's hard to make this distinction until winning has become familiar. After that, though, winning isn't enough. You need something more.
"I like building things from the bottom up," Berg explains of Alliance's post-TI4 lineups; when possible, he prefers younger players and happily takes the role of underdog. "I've never liked being part of an all-star team and I haven't been part of one for many many years."
"Ever since The International 3, it's the team aspect that matters," he continues. "It used to be 'I want to be the best player in the world,' but now it's "I want [my teammate] to become the best player in the world with me."
Increasingly, Berg is interested in Alliance's future, and not only because he is now part owner of the team. The longevity of his career is explained, in part, because his legacy is intertwined with the fate of Alliance, and maybe even Swedish esports as a whole. "I want Sweden to have another top team," he says, "a team we can be proud of."
"It would be very rewarding to be part of building the next Alliance ... In my plans, I'm always there. But if there were a team that would do better without me, it would be a lot easier for me to retire. But I think that there are things that I can contribute. When I feel like I can't, I'll give up."
For Berg, Dota 2 now means far more than destroying the enemy's Ancient. Everything affects you as a player, sure, but lately, Berg is realizing that the opposite is also true – as a player, you can affect everything. Alliance, Dota 2, Sweden itself...
But before any of that can happen, Alliance – and Berg – need to start winning again. There's a problem, though, an invisible wall set between Berg and those receding summits: winning might not be up to him at all.
CHASING THE META
Dota 2 is played with the expectation that the rules of the game will be updated every few months to ensure that it remains fresh for players and viewers alike. When a new version is released, weak heroes are strengthened while powerful ones are neutered. As a result, the metagame of Dota 2 – the array of strategies considered optimal – changes frequently.
This stands in stark contrast to traditional sports. In tennis, it took years for today's power baseline game to supplant the serve and volley style that dominated competition for decades. Major strategic shifts in sports tend to be generational, meaning that a young player can be reasonably certain that the game will not become unfamiliar overnight.
Dota 2 players have no such security, and Berg knows this more than most. In 2013, during the "summer of Alliance," the team had an inimitable strategy that paired unconventional heroes with an unorthodox distribution of resources (for an exhaustive examination, see Bob "Ver" Ekkebus's "Alliance Ascendant"). At The International 3, Alliance's opponents were crushed by the Swedes' mastery of a metagame that played to their strengths.
So far ahead of other teams was Alliance that icefrog, Dota 2's reclusive, pseudonymous designer, was more or less forced to alter the rules of the game to bring Alliance back down to earth.
"Pretty much everything we used was changed or nerfed," Berg recalls. "The game got a lot worse for us, because our players were hugely affected by heroes getting worse."
The obvious response is that these kinds of shifts shouldn't matter to a truly great player, and the ability to thrive in any strategic environment is what makes a player great in the first place. But that just isn't feasible – it's not possible to be the best at everything. The inescapable conclusion is that success in Dota 2 is as much up to the game's invisible hand as it is up to the dedication its players. You can adapt, of course, but you can never adapt enough, and the long term trend in Dota 2 is away from the styles of play in which LodA was most successful. Berg acknowledges this point, but quickly moves to disagree. "If we had the same motivation," Berg says, "we could have found a style even if the patch right after TI3 was not for us. It's impossible to know how much is up to the game itself."
I suspect that every other professional player would say the same, which isn't surprising. Berg is a competitor, and how could anyone with a competitor's mentality accept this? Why should fate control a player's fortunes? There has to be a way to bend the shape of things. To admit that you are not the captain of your fate is to expose the paradox of motivation – it's something you make, not something you have, and to acknowledge that is to see its fragility.
I want someone to take over the flame, so I can go die with the other Dota 2 legends.
The same day Berg and I spoke, Alliance was eliminated from qualifiers for StarLadder, one of Dota 2's longest-running tournaments. A few days later, Alliance also failed to qualify for the Dota 2 Asia Championships, one of the year's largest tournaments.
In Dota 2, failing to qualify for offline tournaments often puts a team on a downward spiral. Not only do most Dota 2 pros depend mostly on tournament winnings rather than salary for their livelihood, but Valve, the game's publisher, emphasizes in-person LAN events when determining what teams receive a direct invitation to The International. Even if Alliance improves in the coming weeks, the team might not have many chances to show that improvement in the venues that matter most. Barring a remarkable turn of events, Alliance's only viable option will be to fight it out in the infamously fickle qualifiers for The International.
Alliance can be great again, but it's probably not going to happen this spring.
Somehow, Berg isn't discouraged. He believes in his teammates, he tells me, and he believes they can win together. "If I didn't feel like I had a shot, I'd stop playing," he says. "I'm motivated to achieve things in a way that others don't do. I'd rather be the underdog team. That's the motivation. Being one of the oldest players around." He pauses, before admitting "I want someone to take over the flame, so I can go die with the other Dota 2 legends."
THE WAY FORWARD
Because Alliance won't be traveling to StarLadder and DAC, Berg will have a lot of free time in the coming weeks to think about what's between him and his goals. He'll still scrimmage with Alliance play pickup games on his own. But he'll also read, watch television, and walk along the canals of Gothenburg.
Mostly, though, Berg will listen to music; if he hadn't become a pro gamer, he mentions, he probably would have become a musician. Lately, thanks to Ong's influence, Berg has been listening to Chinese rock. For the moment, his favorite song is "Spring," a power ballad by Wang Feng. "Spring" is transparently an aging man's lament for youth; Feng, in the song's opening verse, croons "remember a spring many years ago / back then, when I still had my long hair / I was so happy with my shabby guitar / if one day I'm old and unwanted, please leave me there."
It's more poetic in Chinese, I'm told. But Berg sees a kindred spirit in Wang Feng, who was once a violin prodigy but later switched to electric guitar. In "Spring," Berg hears the voice of someone with the courage to go their own way, for the right reasons and the right regrets.
"Back when I started playing [DotA], for the first few years, there was only one focus," Berg explains, "it was very pure."
That's a fiction, of course, but an indelible one. The universe slouches toward chaos, and if we are to move with it, our past must seem simpler than our futures. Tomorrow, LodA will rise once more, and summon the will to go in search of the game. It's a moving target, but maybe soon, it will find him too.