The mood was sullen at the San Juan Arena late Monday night at the SEA Games 2019 Dota 2 Gold Medal Match. What was once an enthusiastic crowd had fallen deafeningly silent. They just saw their hometown heroes, Sibol-Dota 2, get clobbered by a resurgent Thai team in Game 4, forcing one final decisive game for the gold.
At the start of the clincher, Thailand continued their surgical decimation of Sibol, jumping out to a 7-0 kill streak in just the first 8 minutes of the match. Pretty soon the lead skyrocketed to 13-3 leaving Sibol searching for answers. Their draft with the core of Phantom Lancer, Legion Commander, and Razor favored the late game but it looked like it was never going to get there with Thailand’s team led by the early game beaters Drow Ranger, Tusk, and Centaur Warrunner exerting immense pressure.
Thailand was absolutely relentless picking off hero after hero and capitalizing on the slightest, solitary misstep. They had their foot on the Philippines’ throat and refused to ease off. Team Sibol on the other hand appeared to play on the ropes, dazed and scattered committing mistake after mistake. It was clear in the opening minutes that they weren’t playing their best Dota 2 and everyone knew it.
The air was completely sucked out of the building.
The crowd in attendance sat stunned in the bleachers. It felt like they were watching a car crash -incapable of speech but unable to look away. The silence was only broken by a few sporadic screams of horror as the carnage continued.
The lead was now 20-3.
From the stands near the team’s stations, I heard the tension in their voices. Frustration had set in and what little communication happened between the members had a sharper edge than usual. I saw one player let go of his mouse and keyboard in disgust after a devastating death.
As the situation worsened for Team Sibol, I saw a few people pack up and head to the exits. “Tapos ang boxing!” exclaimed one fan in the stands- a local expression meaning “That’s the end of the boxing match” usually said when the outcome of the match was a sure thing. A friend of mine told me that at home they turned off the stream at this point.
At that moment, they weren’t exactly wrong. With my 6-day deployment at the SEA Games, I developed a sense that told me when a game was nearing its closing moments to let me know that it’s time to move closer to the stage and get ready to take photos. This was that time. The game was about to end and I moved in.
Moving closer, I heard Sibol player John Anthony “Natsumi” Vargas on Phantom Lancer say “May Heart na, tara” (The Heart is here, let’s go.) as the Heart of Tarrasque, one of his character’s core items flashed on his screen.
Perhaps it was romantic in me, perhaps it was the fatigue of the whole week catching up, but I took this as an omen. My inner scribe raced to correlate this moment as the time Sibol found the heart to fight back.
And true enough, they started winning.
At a critical engagement in the Roshan Pit, Vargas announced his arrival to the tune of a triple kill on Thailand’s Tusk, Drow Ranger, and Lich while popping the Drow Ranger’s Aegis in the process. This marked the first team fight that the Philippines has won in over 28 minutes of play.
Sibol was not out of the water just yet though as Vargas’s PL would get caught by a returning Tusk, Viper and Centaur.
But at this point, the crowd had come alive.
They were cheering. They were clapping. They were shouting their absolute lungs out. All because of the same reason why they didn’t leave their seats like the others did: They believed.
The game stagnated after this with both teams focusing on farming. Vargas and the rest of Sibol gathered their late game items while Thailand, fearing the Phantom Lancer, gathered their countermeasures. All of 10 minutes passed without much action. A stark contrast to the explosive first part of the game.
On stream, veteran caster Jaz “HeneralTuna” Comoda said the words “…this Phantom Lancer might make it. It all comes down to the perfect Black Hole from Rushton [on Enigma].”
At 39 minutes and 50 seconds, when the two teams finally clashed again, Rushton would deliver.
At this point, the crowd at San Juan came unhinged, seemingly riding the same wave of energy and momentum that gave power to the team as Sibol pushed into the opponents base. One by one, Thailand’s structures fell and their heroes could do little to stop Vargas’ Phantom Lancer and the rest of Sibol as they took down the Ancient and took home the victory.
Off the cuff, as a photographer during the whole tournament, I had been a little frustrated with Sibol Dota 2 because they rarely pop off or celebrate at the end of their games. In fact, they rarely showed any emotion at all. They struck me as a team that has seen it all and done it all. Whether it’s a blowout or a tightly contested match they maintained their steely, poker-faced calm. I was lucky if I was able to catch a high five on camera.
At the end of this match however, this happened:
I had to cut it off here because I remembered I had to take photos. Truth be told, I was fighting back tears so I didn’t know if I even did that job right. I just kept my finger on the shutter button and kept shooting.
Against the opponent’s momentum, against the kill lead, against the gold lead, against all the odds, Team Sibol came back from brink of defeat to become the first-ever Gold Medal Winners in Dota 2 at the 2019 SEA Games.
“Tapos ang boxing.”
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