It was pilot error that sent the Titan-class ship into enemy territory. But it was a cascade of alliances and grudges that turned the incident into a space battle involving almost 3,000 ships, one of EVE Online's largest conflicts ever.
There are several large player alliances in EVE Online, and they gather into larger alliances that can assert control over the game's economy. Such was the case with the TEST Alliance and Goonswarm, two groups that collaborated to control the flow of one of EVE's most valuable resources. They became rich like drug lords. And like drug lords, they had a falling out.
A tenuous peace was in place, with the groups occasionally raiding each other's ships, but agreeing not to make any large-scale attacks on the mining infrastructure that underpins both alliances' wealth. So it was not out of the ordinary for Goonswarm to be planning a military incursion using one of their Titans in a purely logistical role -– it has the ability to act as a warp bridge, sending other ships to the battlefront. What was unusual was the pilot accidentally warping the Titan itself into a TEST formation. Loose clicks sink ships.
Goonswarm's activities had not gone unnoticed, and nearby groups had called upon one another to offer support if and when the attack came. The following explanation from an EVE blog may be incomprehensible, yet it's awesome in that it sounds exactly like a news clipping from the future:
A Gallente Militia that was attacking said moon reached out to Pandemic Legion. DnD asked PL if they would be on standby if the CFC dropped capitals or supercapitals, offering to have a large number of heavy interdictors (HIC), the only ships that can warp scramble a supercapital in lowsec, on standby. PL agreed.
When the Goonswarm ship fell under attack, they called for reinforcements. So did everyone else. Goonswarm is part of a larger umbrella group called the Cluster Fuck Coalition (the only drawback to the coolness of this story is the juvenile names some of the groups have), and the battle soon became CFC against pretty much everyone else. Soon, the battle was so enormous it actually caused time to slow down.
EVE Online has had trouble with large battles in the past (in fact, one slightly larger than the Battle of Asakai happened in October 2012) – server lag can destroy the experience. To help, they use something called Time Dilation. When the server load gets too high, the star system where the battle is occurring is slowed down to as little as 10 percent of real-time. It's basically intentional lag. Battle slows down, but all commands and events are processed properly and in order, unlike the chaos of true lag. Because systems outside the battle are not affected by Time Dilation, it allowed lots of time for reinforcements to arrive in-system and join the fight.
This video of part of the battle is pretty amazing — it feels like you're listening in on military radio transmissions (it does contain strong language).
In the end, the CFC was soundly defeated, losing 44 Dreadnoughts, 29 Carriers, five Supercarriers, and three Titans to TEST's six Dreadnoughts, 11 Carriers, and one Supercarrier. The Titan that started it all survived. Total losses are estimated at 700 billion ISK (EVE's in-game currency). What's really interesting is that EVE allows ISK to be bought and sold freely, so those losses can be translated into real-world amounts. In this case, estimates suggest losses of about $15,000.
What's even more interesting is the capacity for open-ended games like EVE Online to create emergent stories. Nothing was prescripted about the storylines that lead to the battle -– not the alliances, the mining conglomerate, the bad blood between the groups, or the events of the battle itself. EVE creates a set of economic and military factors and lets the players run loose. The stories (and battles) occur organically. Similar things have happened with other sandbox style games, such as Day Z, where your struggles to survive among ravenous zombies and hostile players can lead to bizarre, thrilling or even emotionally resonant stories.