From the game’s origins as a Starcraft mod, to its sale to Valve, to the release of its official sequel, DOTA 2’s rise to e-sports darling has been as fast as its breakneck paced action. The International, a yearly tournament of professionally organized teams, has only been held since 2011, but with its $20 million dollar grand prize, you would guess it’s been around far longer. Teams assembled around the world come together for this event for a chance at wealth and videogame glory, and thousands fill out Seattle’s Key Arena to watch them.
As a resident in the neighborhood where The International is held, I’ve been generally aware of the event’s presence. Lacking a specific interest in MOBA games, though, I’ve never took the extra step of covering it as a reporter. But with the International’s growing popularity and success, the phenomenon of e-sports is becoming harder to ignore, as are the huge crowds meandering to and from Seattle Center each day of the tournament. This year, curious as both a reporter and local, I reached out to Valve to obtain a pass. What makes videogame exhibition appealing? Why watch someone else play a game when you could play one yourself? I hoped to find the answers.
By sheer luck of timing I arrive just before the start of a match set between Fnactic and Team Liquid, making my way to the press section at the base of the stairs. Moments before heading to Key Arena I’d been watching the Olympics on TV, and the sudden shift from screen to stadium spectator is surreal. It’s not the manufactured tension per se; the flashy editing and imagined rivalries are cheesy but not unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever watched ESPN. But what is unfamiliar, jarring even, is to see these same production techniques applied to e-sports:the bold lighting gels aimed at improbable angles, the gigantic and intimidatingly expensive HD cameras, the news desks and big screens. The nerds and geeks in my peer group grew up on the outside looking in. Now we are the in. As mainstream as games have become, it’s an inevitable second generation shift that I have yet to process.
Above, a video segment airs, highlighting one of the players. It’s crafted with all the serious sentimentality of a human interest piece on Sportscenter. Shortly after it finishes the teams are escorted onto the stage, TV cameras hovering inches from the player’s faces while nearby lights dart dramatically across the arena. Ascending the platform stairs to stuff themselves in the tiny glass boxes on the competition floor, they seem immune to the noise of the crowds.
This is my first time watching DOTA and I’m not sure what to expect. My only experience with MOBAs is the brief month I spent with Battleborn, and I tend to need a lot of private warm-up time with a fast-paced game before I can adapt to its speed. MOBAs are hard to watch for the same reason they’re hard to play. There’s an overwhelming amount of activity to process. But, also like playing a MOBA, it gets easier to parse the on-screen elements once you’ve had a little time.
Time. The top player of DOTA 2 on Steam has played the game for almost 9000 cumulative hours. The greatest athletes in history can only give a rough estimate of the many hours they’ve poured into training. Under a veil of privacy, they prepare in secret, gaining a strategic edge over their opponents. But DOTA 2 players get no such advantage. Their training hours are visually quantified, leaving a digital footprint for all the world to see. To verify. To aspire to. To conquer.
As the team begins to scatter across the virtual battlefield, I settle in to watch and learn. Even with only a rudimentary understanding of the game, the energy of the other spectators is infectious. With no loyalty to one team or the other, I am free to enjoy the action on a play by play basis, and with the commentary of the announcers (known as “casters” in e-sports jargon) on the stadium floor I quickly catch on. Each burst of impassioned, tangled clusterfuck is like watching a fight break out in a henhouse. You don’t know how it started or who’s winning, but it sure is entertaining while it lasts.
Once the first match is over, I get up to stretch and take a small walk. Seattle has been experiencing a streak of lovely weather this summer, and the sprawling lawns of Seattle Center are home to a huge TV screen broadcasting the tournament. Combined with food and drinks from the Armory Square and the picture-perfect Space Needle in the near background, I am tempted to stop and watch from the shade of the nearby trees. But it seems like a waste of a perfectly good media pass so I continue on, returning to the press entrance. A steely cage door normally reserved for athletes and performers arriving at Key Arena, I pass it every day on my way to the Monorail. And yet, today is my first time using it.
Just beyond, to my left, stretches another of the event’s obnoxious affectations of manufactured drama, a long red carpet leading from the street to the competitor’s luxury suite. I think about the many evenings I spend on my condo’s roof, watching the nightly migrations of the seagulls as they leave the beach for their roost on Key Arena. The carpeting was an optimistic, if not absorbent, choice.
Settling in for the next match, I feel less like a fraud. The other spectators in the stadium are intimidating in their enthusiasm, but many seem to come and go as they please, getting food or taking a break outside to smoke cigarettes while playing Pokemon GO. With the projection screen on the lawn and literally dozens of hours of competition over the course of several days, it makes sense that they don’t feel chained to their seats. As I watch them it occurs to me that The International is really no different than PAX Prime or Twitch or any of the other events or excuses that gamers use to rally and gather around. The sheer amount of interested participants make it seem worthy of endless thinkpieces pontificating on the state of The Next Big Thing, but really, it’s just a place to hang out. It’s a big deal but at the same time… it’s really not that big of a deal. Up until this point I hadn’t figured out how to process the phenomenon of e-sports; on one hand it brings people happiness and doesn’t harm me personally, on the other it’s hard not to resent formalized competition in virtual spaces. For a lot of us, that’s what we pursued videogames to avoid. But when that same competition, as divisive as it may seem, brings together so many people, it becomes hard to argue that e-sports are pointless or doing harm.
I spend the rest of the day more comfortable in my skin, enjoying the small bursts of excitement and adrenaline whether or not I understand what’s happening on-screen. Even as I sit alone, I feel the camaraderie that comes of being surrounded by people all at once, making the same wish as I am.
Holly Green is a reporter, editor, and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gameranx, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.