It’s the Super Bowl of eSports.
As ridiculous as that may sound, considering the ongoing argument over what constitutes a sport, Seattle’s week-long “The International” tournament for competitive online game Dota 2 fits the bill.
But for an outsider, the culture can be daunting. The game itself is a complex strategy game which – like chess – can be over long before it’s actually over. Early mistakes can cost dearly in the endgame, and clashes between teams can be over in seconds.
Dipping your toes into eSports with little prior knowledge can feel like the first time you entered a highfalutin beer bar with dozens of offerings or walked into a particularly cliquey taproom. The people there know what brings them there… and you’re not sure what compelled you to come.
Or so it seems.
Day 0: Pre-gaming expectations
A neophyte might walk into a conversation about the virtues of West Coast IPAs as compared to New England-style IPAs. You might know what an IPA is, that’s it’s known for hoppiness and maybe even what the letters stand for. Just as with Dota 2, when dedicated players discuss the attributes of one hero over another with such fervor it can seem more daunting than it should
It’s only afterward, once you understand a little more of the culture, that you can look objectively and say “wow, those jabronis were full of shit.” If my experience with too many beers and too many hours of gaming are to be trusted, drink what you like and play what you like, the opinions of random chucklefucks be damned.
The International, in its seventh year, is the largest competitive gaming tournament in the world.”
And that was the mentality of thousands of gamers and fans, who filled the Seattle Center and Key Arena in early August as The International 7 took over much of Lower Queen Anne for the Dota 2 World Championships.
The unfortunate stereotype of the basement dweller is alive and well, with smatterings of poorly chosen facial hair and paunches everywhere at the event, but what was more interesting was the otherwise diverse group in attendance. I’ll admit, I expected a crowd of almost-entirely white men, and while that was probably majority, there were people of all colors and body types, and a surprising number of women – surprising because the Dota 2 community is known for being toxic to new players and those who dare to be a woman online. Fans in elaborate cosplay costumes and men in button down shirts mingled with the graphic-tee, cargo-short crowd.
The tournament featured players from Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East, with European squad Team Liquid winning the championship pot of $10,806,301 after sweeping Chinese team Newbee. The week featured the world’s 16 best teams competing, getting placed into brackets and facing off on Key Arena’s main stage. Team Liquid fought its way up from the losers bracket to take the crown. More than $23 million was on the table at the event.
Dota 2 is a free-to-play multiplayer online battle arena (also known by the acronym MOBA) created by Bellevue-based Valve Corp. The International, in its seventh year, is the largest competitive gaming tournament in the world.
I went to the event for four days, learned way too much about the strengths and weaknesses of various heroes and drank far too much beer.
Day 1: The first sip
Even blocks away from the event, the scope of how large this thing is comes into view. I’ve seen Seahawks games with less of a presence in Seattle than this.
I beeline to the beer garden. It’s noon on a Monday, so I’m one of maybe 10 people there. Beers and ciders are just $5 in the garden, meaning I’ll be posting up here most of the week.
Two Beers Brewing Company and Seattle Cider created several Dota-themed brews for the event, including the Crystal Maiden Frostbite Lager.
It’s a crisp American lager “ice-filtered” and “brewed in Blueheart” in keeping with the Dota hero theme. Beer in hand, it’s time to figure out what the hell people are cheering for.
After 30 minutes of watching the game and being as lost as I’ve ever been, I realize it’s time to just ask.
There are almost infinite possibilities to how you can play the game and think about the game.”
Mike Stuart, from Calgary, came to Seattle for the entire week-long event. He has been playing Dota for six years. He said that in past years, there was a clear favorite team to win the top prize. This year, however, it’s a crapshoot.
The game consists of two teams of five players “drafting” a hero from a 108-strong set of radiant champions. Dota, which is sometimes stylized as DOTA, stands for Defense of the Ancients. The original game debuted in 2003 as part of Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft series. Valve purchased the rights to the series and created Dota 2 in 2013.
The team’s heroes then attempt to destroy the other side’s towers and base. It’s kind of like capture the flag mixed with chess, mixed with Lord of the Rings. Each hero has a different move set and can behave differently in the arena around other heroes.
“There are almost infinite possibilities to how you can play the game and think about the game,” Stuart said.
I snag an Invokation Waning Alacricity IPA, from the beer garden as the game begins to make more sense. Teams “push lanes” to get to the other team’s base. While doing so, they fight creeps to gain experience and level up, which makes heroes strong and unlock other abilities. The game really becomes exciting when the two teams clash in the middle of the map.
Inside Key Arena, be sure to dodge the ghosts of the Seattle Supersonics and find a seat at the beginning of a match. Teams play best-of-three and each game lasts approximately 30 minutes. The arena is packed with fans, and this is just for the prelims. A roar goes up when players get killed or one goes on a hot streak.
I watch Virtus Pro win, and decide two hours of confusion watching Dota 2 is enough for one day, so I head home to do some research on how exactly this Dota thing works.
Day 2: Cashing in
Many spectators of the world’s number one eSport traveled to Seattle from another country, and a significant number were rooting for a certain nationality rather than a certain team.
Teams LGD Forever Young, Virtus.pro, Invictus Gaming, and several others all hailed from China and Russia, and the decidedly North American crowd had a distinct cheering bias. After Team Liquid, the next four teams were from China. The first American team, Digital Chaos, finished ninth in the tournament.
Rooting against the teams with fat corporate sponsorships is admittedly kind of fun, and similar to rooting against macros dominating the market. I mean would you rather your bar dedicated a tap to Blue Moon or to Crooked Stave? To Bud Light Lime or to Crux? The majority of consumers won’t care, but for the nerds like me, it’s essential.
All the digital jingoism works up a thirst, so it’s into the Key for an $11 Red Hook Longhammer IPA and more screen time.
The prize pool for the tournament is funded by in-game purchases players make. A quarter of all purchases in a certain time period went toward the pool. The last-place teams in the tournament walked away with $61,000 and the top six teams left with more than $1 million.
Previous iterations of The International took place in Cologne, Germany and in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall before moving to Key Arena and Seattle Center in 2014.
According to Rebecca Kaldor, who came to the International with her step-son and previously knew nothing about the game, it’s the fastest growing sporting event in the world.
Bryant Kaldor, the step-son in question, was getting nachos at Key Arena’s full-fledged bar section, where you can pay way too much for some mediocre beer and talk to journalists about why this game is so appealing.
“It’s got a much steeper skill curve to it than League of Legends ,” Kaldor said, comparing it to a similar popular MOBA-style game. “It’s like Forza to League of Legends’ Mario Kart.”
Day 3 and Day 4: Comfortably numb
The heroes make sense to me now, and how they interact with each other is starting to click. Every team uses an Earthshaker, Bristleback, or a Nyx Assassin for some reason. Most of the heroes I see all week come from the same pool of 20 or so, despite there being more than 100 to choose from. It’s like going to a bar with 50 taps and always getting a Bell’s Two Hearted Ale or a Half Acre Daisy Cutter. You know it’s good, you know it gets the job done.
I watch lanes pushed, teams battle over who can kill Roshan the Immortal to gain his aegis and players solo ganked. After my initial skepticism, the game is surprisingly fun to watch. I watch LGD Gaming sweep OG in the loser’s bracket and know when to cheer and when the momentum shifts. It’s the equivalent of being able to identify beer styles and what makes a “good” beer and a “bad” beer.
Frankly, it’s concerning how much I was beginning to enjoy the game, even while sober. But all weird things must come to an end, so I continue drinking into the night, bidding adieu to The International.
Hopefully I forget the word “ganking” sometime soon.
Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.