MANILA, Philippines -- The mood at TNC Pro Team's home base, the Highgrounds Cafe, was solemn. The energy that crackled with electricity dissipated into somberness as fans could do nothing but give a respectful round of applause to Faceless, the team that had just taken down TNC at the Kiev Major.
Prior to this, Faceless and TNC have met in three best-of-three matches on patch 7.00 onwards. Each time, Faceless has gotten the better of TNC. And with TNC's round of 16 exit at the hands of its regional rivals at the Major, the score line between the two extended to four.
It's a scene that's familiar to followers of the Southeast Asian (SEA) region of Dota 2. Faceless has held the title of regional end boss for months now. It's the best team in the region and the gatekeeper to international events. Kiev might have ended with another expected score line, but the bittersweet rivalry between Faceless and TNC will continue.
The scene has changed since 2013, when the competition between Na'Vi and Alliance took center stage. The rise of their rivalry, on one hand, is due to the larger than life personalities of the players involved, but more importantly because their "El Classico" matchup was forged in many, many engagements leading up to The International. Prior to that, Alliance and Na'Vi clashed in nine matches in both online and offline events. By the end of the 2013 championship season, Alliance stood victorious with 13 wins against Na'Vi's five.
Their matches were highly spectated and highly discussed. The two clubs would fight over the qualifiers in Europe week in and week out. There were many more games then, with 29 premier tournaments leading up to The International 2014.
In 2017, the number of premier events shrunk to just 13. Today, the top teams of the west barely see each other in qualifiers. That means when any of the top teams meet each other in the Majors, their storylines are sparse and often forced.
Faceless vs. TNC is a far cry from the mystique of the rivalries of old, but it is a real rivalry bitterly contested in every qualifier and offline event.
It all began at the SL i-League StarSeries Season 3 SEA Qualifier in January, where despite winning the qualifier slot, TNC's only loss of the tournament came at the hands of Faceless. Up until that point, Faceless had already cemented its place as the top team in the SEA region, with an appearance at the Boston Major.
Since October 2016, Faceless successfully played goalkeeper against the rest of SEA region for qualifier spots at Major events. By contrast, TNC won the WESG world title in January, but had many fans and analysts downplay the achievement because of the low level of competition at the event.
Over the months, the two teams would form their identities. The final bosses, Faceless, did best against SEA teams but struggled against other international regions. Meanwhile, TNC, the unexpected underdogs, made a name for itself against international squads thanks to its 4th place finish at SL i-League, defeating Secret and IG.Vitality in the group stages.
The Kiev Major only reinforced that notion, as Faceless ended the group stage with a 1-3 record. Before the playoffs, Faceless' only best-of-three win in a LAN since its formation came from their victory against SG e-sports. Meanwhile, TNC stuck to the script and put up numbers with a 3-1 group stage finish that saw it pick up important wins against the likes of Evil Geniuses, Thunderbirds and Digital Chaos.
"For this tournament, we really decided to get a good European analyst [Murielle "Kipspul" Huisman] to help us figure out the European and American teams," said Eric Redulfin, TNC owner. "We felt confident about our Chinese team matchups and we know Faceless enough."
The game plan was clear. TNC wanted to do well in the group stage to take advantage of Faceless' recent string of poor LAN performances. Had everything gone its way, TNC would have avoided Faceless altogether and left the job of knocking them out to another team. After all, TNC's stellar 3-1 record should have placed it in a position of comfort and security.
But then the deck flipped and it ended up staring down its eternal rivals once more.
By the end of the series, Redulfin had a tight smile on his face. He joined the crowd with respectful applause before heading out the door.
"I want to congratulate Faceless for winning this battle against our team. Maybe this isn't our time yet," Redulfin said. "See you in the next event."