'What's so great about watching pro Dota in person?'
By the end of the second day of The International 2017, I wanted to go home. I missed my cats. I missed my bed. I loathed the one-hour bus ride I had to take every morning between my AirBnB and KeyArena, where the yearly Dota 2 championships are held (thanks for that, exploding Seattle rent prices). That was day two. I still had four more days of viewing to go.
Despite all that, and with the benefit of about a week between me and my six-day ordeal, I already count it as one of my favorite experiences in esports viewing.
With more esports than ever to watch, actually showing up someplace and physically sitting through it seems like the worst possible way to enjoy a tournament. When I tell my friends just how much I love it, year after year, I'm usually met with the same question: why go in person when you need to watch it on a screen regardless?
Esports are tricky that way. Technically, you get the same two-dimensional shot of the five-on-five battles whether it's in a stadium, on a laptop, or through my iPhone. There's no way to share the same air and space with the heroes that stomp and magic missile each other into dust. In fact, you lose the modern amenities that makes modern streaming and VOD so appealing. There's no pause or rewind to overanalyze every facet of the action. Depending on the whims of the building's wifi, you might not even be able to check tournament stats and standings on Liquipedia while you watch.
But that's precisely what's so appealing about it to me. The International is a singular experience. Starting next year, it'll be the only truly Valve-run annual event in Dota 2. Meanwhile, its $24+ million prize pool attracts a degree of hype, player determination, and mainstream attention you can't get anywhere else. It should stand separate from the rest of the noise that consumes my day-to-day.
Yet I know myself. I know that if I just watched The International at home, I'd pause it. I'd rewind it. I'd let it run in the background on Twitch while I baked biscuits or chewed through my endless backlog of comic books. The world doesn't consume media the same way it once did. For better or worse, ease of access has made us all into de facto multi-taskers.
The size and scope of The International deserves my full attention, given how many thousands of hours I've spent playing and watching Dota 2. I've made more friends and memories with this all-encompassing game than in pretty much any other solitary hobby in my life. The ritual of the game is as important for me as chess is for someone who plays in the park on weekends, or the gym is for someone who works out every night (although those hobbies arguably have better lateral benefits).
But unless I push myself, I won't give it that kind of commitment. Esports are funny like that, too. Twitch and the Dota 2 client, which lets you stream Dota 2 matches for little or no cost, have almost no barriers to entry. I don't spend a hilarious amount of money every month for cable TV and sports packages the way someone that enjoys basketball might. I'm committed to the game, in a general sense, sure, but not to the singular "event" that modern media has trained my brain to see as just one more sound in the cacophony of daily life.
So I commit. I book a flight and the cheapest room I can find that's at least in the right state. I hook up with those Dota 2 friends (there are a lot of us at this point) and we commandeer the same section of KeyArena that we've colonized for nearly half a decade. After 12 hours of watching teenagers vie for more money than I'll make in my entire life, we pillage one of the same two bars we do every year. We bolt sub-traditions and side-rituals on top of this thing that, like most games these days, is designed to be the one and only hobby we'll ever need.
Valve, for its part, recognizes that same need to make The International stand apart — whether that's just good PR, or to placate fans over rising ticket costs. The International is bursting with flashy presentation that's literally impossible to get from a stream.
Pyrotechnics flare and several hundred birthdays' worth of confetti spew out of the ceiling when the champion team is decided. Last year, Valve initiated a system where being physically present in the arena makes you eligible for an exclusive lottery of in-game items. They go for close to $200 on the Steam marketplace, meaning you have a legitimate, tangible excuse to lock yourself into your seat and stay there.
This year's new addition were LED wristbands that flashed with appropriate colors when important skills or kills were fired mid-match. My favorite feature, however, is an oldie. It's the augmented reality stage every best-of-three series is played on. The main stage projects its own thematically appropriate glow over an approximation of Dota 2's one and only map. At times, the heroes selected in every match even appear on-screen as if they were standing just outside the players' soundproof booths.
The crowd clapped in unison whenever Earthshaker, the popular totem-wielding hero, slapped his weapon on the AR display. We might not have been sharing space with the wizards and warriors of Dota 2, but we shared it with each other. The energy in the room is no less infectious than if we were watching "real" competitors duke it out live. Meaning those of-the-moment rituals aren't just locked to groups of people that already know each other. They ripple through the crowd on the shared understanding of "Dota 2."
Even the players treat the tournament like its own, self-contained moment. The International has its own meta, commentators are fond of saying, and they're right. Captains reveal pocket strategies, opposing teams develop counters, and pros watching and waiting in the wings soon spring counter-counters in the space of a few matches.
Every series of games won is the difference between hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars. With that much on the line, there's no shame in using one-time tricks — trotting out your unpopular, signature hero, or unveiling counter-picks you could have used days ago — that completely change what's "acceptable" strategy. The surprised "oohs" and "aahs" of the crowd are heightened by my inability to think about it too deeply, before the next trick supersedes the last one.
This year's International was, by most measures, demonstrably worse than last 2016's. Tickets were pricier, the Secret Shop (a time-limited store that sells TI exclusive merchandise) had a slimmer selection, and the grand finals didn't have the same underdog energy as Wings Gaming versus Digital Chaos had in 2016. Despite that, I still had a blast. Going to The International isn't just about Dota 2 anymore. It started there, but now it's just as much about the small, shared, physical comforts of the rituals my friends and I (not to mention the other 17,000-ish viewers at KeyArena) have built around it.
People like to hem and haw, or outright deny that esports are as "real" as physical ones. There are differences, sure, but when it comes to screaming fans building their own language and subculture around the complexities of games that are as much about math as skill, esports have hooked me in a way that millions of other people are hooked by football and soccer.
We're all just a bunch of big nerds, flashing our shared bona fides by speaking different dialects of Klingon. For some people, it's scream-singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" at a Liverpool match. For me, it's clapping in rhythm with a magical, hairy dog man. I can't wait to do it again next year.
All photos via Dota 2's official Twitter.