To wit: I didn’t plan to watch an Israeli Jew and a Syrian Muslim locked in mortal combat this past Sunday, but G-d likes to remind us that our games are only subroutines. That His is the only real game in town.
Terrorists have been attacking Jews in Israel lately. The knives are out, the guns are firing, and the bullets have Hebrew names on them. Some people deal with this trauma by making rallies, or taking out New York Times ads, or campaigning on social media, or asking tough questions. Some people are even doing extra mitzvot.
I am far too confused, cowardly, and unfeeling to do any of those things. So I run away.
Now where “normal” people might find some escapist pleasure in the ongoing rugby world cup or the baseball postseason, I, the gigantic nerd, enjoyed watching the playoffs of the Major League Gaming World Finals. Four teams competed for over $200,000 in a glorious all-day Dota 2 exhibition.
What is Dota 2? Imagine a combination of chess, soccer, and capture the flag. The goal of each team is to destroy a building called the Ancient in the other team’s base. The game is played 5 v 5, with each player controlling their own character, each with their own unique powers. It’s extremely complex and victory comes through mechanical dexterity, intuitive game sense, teamwork, and strategy. But the most important thing you need to know about Dota is that it’s competitive. How competitive? Just this summer a team of five players (one of them sixteen years old) each became millionaires after winning its biggest annual tournament. And the game is only growing, with a $3 million tournament coming up in November. The joke that has been e-sports has turned very, very serious. The time has come for the kids in the basement to dream like the kids playing ball in the driveway.
An Uncomfortable Thought
So there I am on Sunday morning, listening to the analysis of the game draft between two relatively news lineups, (monkey) Business and team Secret. MB is a brand new team, whereas Secret has been famous for some time. Both teams have seasoned professionals and hot, young players relatively new to the pro scene, and both teams have been playing like real contenders for the “best-in-the-world” title.
The draft begins, where each team picks the “heroes,” or characters, they want their five players to use from a pool of over a hundred. They have cameras pointed at the players and you can see their lips move as they discuss their strategy.
And that’s when I realized.
Well, let me first defend myself. I was instantly repulsed by my realization. I didn’t want it to exist. I didn’t want to care. There is nothing worse than bringing politics into video games. It takes one of the ever-narrowing areas of the human condition that is purely inconsequential and makes it into yet another Facebook rant or angry Twitter mob. It exchanges personal skill, flair, and joy for public confusion, divisiveness, and cynicism. That’s not to say that Dota is a particularly serene pass time; on the contrary, it throws many of its players into a rage on a regular basis. They are angry because they lose. If you’re angry because you lose, that means the game is important to you. If you’re angry because the game is sexist or racist or promotes violence, then your politics are important to you, and the game is just a means for advancing your goals. Making games political is like making the child the center of the divorce; what makes the child so special to those fighting to keep her is often lost in the midst of the fighting.
So — I am against mixing games and politics.
Which is why I groaned when I realized that the (monkey) Business captain, Tal “Fly” Aizik, is the only professional Dota player from Israel. Because as a Jew, there is no going back. There is no pretending that the game is just a game and that the team I support I support for silly reasons and it’s all just a good time. No.
Now I had family in the game.
Then, on quite the other uncomfortable hand, there are the Muslims. In fact, those two teams in particular, MB and Secret, each have an incredibly talented young Muslim player on their mid lane, a core position expected to make big plays throughout the game. On MB is Amer “Miracle” al-Barqawi, of dual Polish and Jordanian citizenship; on Secret is Aliwi “w33” Omar, Syrian/Romanian. They are two of the best players in the world by MMR (match making rank), the number that Dota uses to keep track of how well you play.
Suddenly it is all here in this world of bright colors and great skill: the fear of my friends, walking the streets of Jerusalem with exposed backs. The refugees of war-torn Syria and elsewhere, washing into Europe. ISIS videos and campus advocacy videos and UN General Assembly videos and East videos and West videos and tournament live streams, no Kappa, all in my browser. Browser, as if I’m window shopping, as if my life isn’t caught up in this contradictory data, as if I’m some stoic observer. Tal Aizik might give me someone to root for, but he also collapses my telescope, puts in my face the pain I’d rather put away.
I’m Jewish, and my people are bleeding.
I feel an irrational need to support the Israeli against the world.
Games – An Opportunity For Camaraderie?
Why must I dichotomize? Maybe, on the contrary, competitions like this are the place to find good will between all people, like the Olympics. Perhaps sports are like the subway, the great equalizer, where everyone from the bodega clerk to the investment banker ride as one. After all, if I root for the Israeli player, I root for his Jordanian teammate. The team I usually back, Evil Geniuses, the great American hope, have that aforementioned sixteen-year-old, who lives in Illinois but hails from Pakistan. This never made me uncomfortable. I believe in America. I believe that if five guys get together and want to show the world they’re the best at something, and that’s what’s important to them, then their race, nationality, or religion ought to make no difference.
And even further: I usually support Evil Geniuses (Jews: 0 Muslims: 1) not just because they’re the best American team, but because I favor their play style. (monkey) Business and their Israeli captain play quintessentially European Dota: Chaotic, unpredictable, flashy. They are not afraid to try new things, and their raw talent often turns those risks into successes. If Fly is an Israeli, then he and his team don’t play new-millennium Israeli startup Dota. They play Ben Gurion Dota, kibbutz Dota, Eastern Bloc Dota. Evil Geniuses, on the other hand, are brilliant strategists and excellent players but approach the game with a workmanlike efficiency. They’re not quite machines like the German team but not wild and stylish like the rest of Europe. They do the right thing and do the right thing and do the right thing and in the end, the game has been won. They measure a hundred times before they cut once. They play a tight, procedural game, and that appeals to me.
The point is, I have more to me than my Jewish identity. I play this game, I understand it to some extent, and with mind and heart I prefer the non-Jewish choice, just like in music and in books. The game presents an opportunity to think with that part of me, to run away from political and religious obligations. It would be stupid to choose a Dota team based on my religion.
Sports Make No Sense And That’s What We Need
I think it’s wrong to paint games, even games that are pure fun, as an escape from life’s real tensions. On the contrary, games are the best way to face those tensions.
For American Jews, a lot of the stress surrounding the Middle East comes from self-doubt. Because the fact is, most of us are not warriors, most of us abhor violence, and most of us genuinely wish no pain or suffering on any human being. So when we see that our country uses violence and martial control, no matter how justified or morally sound, a lot of us don’t like it. When we find out that there are people on the other side who are suffering, we really don’t like it. And we always have a voice in the back of our head that says, “Perhaps this is all our fault.” And I propose that the only secular way to answer that voice is with sports.
I don’t mean Jewish/Muslim pickup basketball games, though that happens.
Rather, in our analytical modern society, sports are one area where we allow ourselves to feel irrational love.
Growing up, I thought I was beyond the excitement of sports. Rationally considered, spectating a sport is a completely arbitrary reality in which we decide to emotionally invest for no reason whatsoever. I would roll my eyes at my friends with their basketball and football. The truth is, I just needed the advent of professional video games to find my sort of sport. In my rejection of sports I was, in fact, an idiot. And that idiocy is widespread. It says that everything we support we support for rational reasons, that our decisions are all based on some deterministic web of pros and cons, and if they aren’t, they should be.
Of course, in situations that require objective reasoning, say, a court case, rational evidence is the only type that ought to be permitted. If Clinton takes the stand and says “Artour didn’t do the crime,” and the prosecutor responds with, “Of course you’d say that; you’re his father,” we would all understand that Clinton’s testimony is invalid. His judgment is impaired. But if you tell Clinton, “You should disown your son, he’s terrible at Dota,” he’d tell you the obvious: He’s my son. I love him. End of story.
It would be the same as going to a Mets game and trying to convince the fans that they should support the Yankees because the Yankees win more games. Expect violence. “But why do you support the Mets?” you would ask patiently. And there would never be an entirely rational answer to that question. They could say something about liking underdogs. They could say something about going to Shea stadium with their parents as kids. They might say something like what I said earlier, about the play style suiting their personality or their outlook on life. One thing is certain: The answer will never be entirely rational. There will always be some reference to history or inexplicable personal preference. In this sense, sports defy analysis.
Even further: the entire concept of a sport is irrational. After all, why would anyone gain satisfaction from winning a game with rules that someone made up, that has no grounding in reality? What worth is there to a world where 17% doesn’t mean 17%, where very few victories are “moral” victories in any way?
So while it’s true that sports are an escape from reality, a glorious realm where we can just play to win and not worry about things like global politics, national guilt, and personal morality, I would argue that sports are, in a way, more real than any of those things. In a way, sports are like family. They are an area of life where we are involved, connected, and biased, simply because we are. Of course, sports are chosen while a family is more or less assigned. One might argue that sports are sub-rational whereas familial connection is super-rational. But the essential point still holds — in a world where we are all busy debating this and debating that, it is awfully refreshing to say “I support the Red Sox just because.”
This is why sports are the place for symbolic victories. What cannot be won in war may be won within the confines of the game. While life is complicated and brutal, sports allow us to craft a fake environment for competition with clear conditions for victory. This makes it a compelling medium for fighting out the battles of the age, where the winners and losers are definitive and nobody loses their lives. The importance of fake sports battles in the very real wars gave us the miracle on ice, Jesse Owens in Berlin, and the Jew René Dreyfus in his French Delahaye defeating the Nazis’ Mercedes-Benzes.
Some think that these victories were important because they affected geopolitics. But the opposite is true. The miracle on ice was important because it did not effect geopolitics. It was not about whether capitalism is evil or whether the Soviets should be in Afghanistan. It was a hockey game, and no amount of political argument can win a game of hockey. When team USA won, they electrified the country because at that moment, Americans could love America, because it reminded them that despite all the flaws, despite politics, despite the whirlwind of distraction and confusion that is the new cycle, this is who they were. Americans supported America. Naturally. And it was that transcendence of the rational that made it one of the greatest moments in the history of athletics.
In the exact same way, I can support one’s fellow Jews (or, for that matter, fellow Palestinians) based not on some argument but on irrational, familial connection. This is real love. Unreasoning. Unity that simply is. And it is the ultimate escape.
Love Your Brother
Dota is not just a place where a Jew and a Muslim can band together to achieve a goal. It is not an interfaith conference. It is not about a Jew ceasing to be a Jew and a Muslim ceasing to be a Muslim and each of them becoming sportsmen. It is much deeper than that. It is about a Jew being a Jew and a Muslim being a Muslim, and that being okay.
When EG played Team Secret in the final series on Sunday, a Secret fan and I would understand each other perfectly. He supports his team with irrational zeal, and he expects no less from me. We are both irrational, we are both loyal, and in that, we are the same; we understand each other.
When I support the Israeli just because I am Jewish, it is no different from supporting EG because I like them. Tal Aizik is a member of my family. None of the other players are. I am not supporting him as some political statement, or for any reason at all. In some mysterious sense, we are united. And that is enough.
Perhaps humans originally began to play games in order to run away from reality, to run away from who they were. But by fate or providence games and sports lead us back to the very essence of what it means to be human, our ability to connect without reason or precondition.
I say to fate: gg wp.
Featured image is of the Dota logo, a stylized representation of the game map that looks suspiciously like the Hebrew letter א.