An Ocean of Noise: Dota 2's The International 2017 as Film Criticism

Photographer and esports enthusiast Eron Rauch takes a serious look at the aesthetics of Dota 2's biggest annual tournament.

Waiting. Waiting for players, waiting for statistics, waiting to hear more opinions, waiting for games to start. Restless cuts between moving cameras, new angels, and screens maximize the visual impact of this waiting. All the while, echoing voices, overlaid audio, and compounding numbers stacking on top of each other.

This is noisy waiting. It the ultimate physical condition of Dota 2’s massively hyped The International 7 (TI7) tournament between pro teams Newbie and Team Liquid.

Saying “physical condition” might seem a bit of an odd way to talk about an esports video stream. But when you walk into an ancient cathedral, you sense height, silence, shadowed statues, and the repetition of rigid rites. With Grand Central Station, you are thrust into a yellow-tiled sweaty churn packed low and tight, conversations blending together and flowing away all at once. Any room with The International 7 steam playing takes on a unique character similar to the way these locations immerse visitors. Here, it’s an oppressive maelstrom of echoes, neon blue, data windows, and constant cuts.

Because the effects of the TI7 stream were so disorienting, I went back and rewatched the event. My goal was not to relive the glory of the matches, but instead to explore the various parts of this spectral place that had projected itself into my living room.

The Analyst Desk

We start our tour in a room with four dudes standing behind a metal, glass, and LED desk. A pixelated screen shifts behind them. It feels like the home base, or at least the hotel lobby, for the broadcast.

This impression is borne out by doing some quick math. The total broadcast length is 4.5 hours (or 270 minutes). The games only take 107 minutes total, with the character pick/ban phase taking up another 34 minutes. This analyst desk, a place of cross talk and speculation, dominates the remaining two hours of the event.

Former StarCraft celebrity Sean “Day[9]” Plott presides here, animated, jovial, and looking nearly a foot taller than everyone else. The other three members are pro players. They swap out during games, and are always male. They wear an odd collection of t-shirts, hoodies, sport coats, pocket squares, and almost all have the same slicked, parted hair smashed under their bulky headsets. The pros stand with a rigid posture, but speak softly, as though their voices deafen them.

Despite Day[9]’s attempt to play advocate for the audience, the pros only talk amongst themselves, their conversations built almost exclusively from jargon. In this space, you’ll almost never hear any reference to real places or real people. The analysts use each other’s in-game handles. “Early” means “early game” and “a long time” means “after minute forty in a game.” Space itself gets folded together, where “here” doesn’t mean any physical site, but rather “this multimedia streaming event.”

Outside

We’re suddenly teleported to a bright space. Based on the ongoing conversation, I guess we’re on the lawn outside? The questionably tasteful court jester “SirActionSlacks” (Jake Kanner), is prone on a blanket surrounded by fans, talking to the invisible analyst desk. Apart from a quick opening pan down the Space Needle, our view is relentlessly forced toward the placeless ground. SirActionSlacks calls the crowd outside without tickets “freeloaders” and they joke about not getting enough sunlight. Gamers, amiright?

The oddest part about venturing outdoors is the growing realization that there is still, and has been, a booming echo. It was easy to ignore as some artifact of the building when we visited the caster desk, but here on the soft slope of the lawn it still sounds like were are inside a massive airplane hangar. This faux-architectural echo, severe audio compression squeezing the silences for maximum loudness, causes conversations to hiss and pop with trailing “sssssss” and “kkkkkkkkks.” This echo is the spatial unifier of all the shots, but it also fills any room where the TI7 stream plays. Talking to another person is a futile exercise in white-noise distraction. 

Hallway

After a quick check-in with the caster desk, we’re launched to the exterior hallways of the arena. Comedian Kaci Aitchison, the only woman on the broadcast staff to be featured on stream during the grand finals, fires up the crowd as they engage in one of the oddest traditions of TI: Once per event, the camera and microphone switch hands. For a few seconds, the cameraman who works with Kaci, Myron, gets to play host. He pretends to be pregnant, like Kaci, as the fans hoot. Alongside another fan they found with the name “Myron,” the two Myrons pretend to be Kaci and usher us back to the analyst desk.

This meta moment is so odd because it seems to be used to signal the official start of the grand finals. The future becomes the focus of conversation and building hype the goal.

Orchestra Pit

Suddenly we’re flying. We’re at an angle, drifting inward from high above the gulch that surrounds the stage. It now holds a teeming orchestra pit, barely lit in a dark blue. The tuxedo-clad conductor is singled out by a stark white spotlight that seems to illuminate his sheet music foremost. Everything else is so dark and obscured by smoke machines that even the camera operators are having a hard time figuring out what are bodies and what is furniture.

As the trombones are thrumming, a women in go-go boots and an electric cello is half-way lit by another weak spotlight. We seem to have switched to watching a rock band, jammed precariously at edge of the stage. The band is making those pained expressions that signifying serious rocking is happening. The orchestra seems to have an expression that says “paycheck,” but it could just be sinister wisps of smoke. The conductor tries to get the audience to clap.

Audience

Now we’re even higher than when we soared over the orchestra pit. We’ve ascended to the cheap seats. From this vantage point we get some semblance of how these various fragments of space are positioned in relationship to each other. The ambient echo and roar finally fits.

What’s odd is that despite the tens of thousands of fans here, we rarely see this indoor audience. It only appears in broken fragments, mostly out of focus, glimpsed in gaps in other spaces’ backgrounds.

Booth

After an inevitable return to the chattering analyst desk, lo, we have our first vision of our gladiators, Newbie and Team Liquid. The defining aspect of the booths is their thick, sound-proof plexiglass, spilling over with reflections and glare. We’re either far away, peeping in through a telescope trained on an apartment window, or we’re selfie-close, wrapped around their computer monitors like a cat trying to keep warm.

When we’re looking in from a distance, it looks quiet, almost cozy, in there. From inside the booth, we can feel the pressing clutter. Players huddle, leaning on chairs and tables, pointing at the screens during the draft. From our electromagnetic visitor’s inside vantage, these booth-spaces look like a hotel after a week’s stay, filled with empty water bottles, reams of crumbled paper, electronics, and discarded clothing.

There is branding on almost everything: shirts, monitors, seating, headsets, keyboards, lanyards. The light is cool, white, and matched evenly to the brightness of the screens. All around, pinpoints constellations of fans and lights reflect in the fishbowl warp.

Stage AR

Take a step outside of the booth, and you plunge into a computer rendered underwater zoo. Even though the physical stage is but two plexiglass lumps raised above a black grid, on the stream (as well as the looming monitors just overhead) this blank square is transformed into a kaleidoscopic sea floor through realtime augmented reality.

Occasionally clipping through nonexistent pillars worn by eons of simulated currents, neon eels swim past the booths thanks to complex computer compositing. Oversize digital visions of the cartoonish heroes from the game as they line up for battle. Sometimes they execute their emotes, dancing or raising their weapons, as a jellyfish photobombs the camera.

If we were actually underwater, we would mostly hear our heartbeat, air bubbles, and occasional low groans. The only pulse here is when the model of the character Earthshaker hits his drum. The audience slams their hands together in sharp time with the augmented reality beast they can only see on the overhead screens. 

Caster Desk

The digital menagerie vanishes as we sweep past a corner of the stage where the trophy, a real-life version of the in-game item called the Aegis, sits on a too-perfect faux-stone pedestal. Here we have the duo that announces the action in the game as it happens. Their desk looks identical to the analyst desk, but covered with computer monitors.

A vast white light slams down in a circle, illuminating the desk and the fans packed behind it. This subsection of the audience is unique because it is a packed wall of signs. Some are typical, if misspelled, sports signs, like “Lets go Liquid.” Everywhere else is memes, but in human-scale paper instead of rushing past in Twitch chat. Perhaps that’s all TI7 is: a fully audio-visual incarnation of the tirades, symbols, emotes, and copypasta of chat, upscaled to the size of one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The casters, despite their well-tailored button-up shirts, got started as streamers, and to streamers they will return.

Game

Everyone disappears. A flat land extends to the edges of our vision. Here in the game, time, space, and data hurtle ever faster toward an event horizon. Every eight minutes is a full day and night cycle in Dota2. The unseen sun waxes and wanes in fast-forward as blood is spilled, fortunes gained then lost, and human wrists are pushed to their limit. Little windows of the players are tucked in the far corners. It’s a bit voyeuristic, like watching someone having an argument out of the corner of your eye at a bar.

We look down at a map with 10 animated figures representing the players. As granular choices, and untold algorithms compound, production throws up window upon window of information to try to explain what we can’t see. Maps, bars, graphs, acronyms, announcements, and animated icons tell us about dozens of other simultaneous possibilities and rippling effects of past actions. The raw throughput of information in this space is staggering. (The above image is a composite of a few of the main windows they show the audience.)

107 minutes of game time is the exact duration of our passport to this place. In this land we spend thirteen nights and fourteen mornings, packed straight through with Powerpoint presentations and Excel spreadsheet demos on relentless fast forward. The baritone casters, a world away, are yelling themselves hoarse trying to make sense of it all. They fail, the players fail, we-the-audience fail, to understand this impossibly intricate digital contraption.

Backstage

We are teased with moments of industrial intimacy throughout the games, though they’re over so fast it’s easy to miss. Between games two and three, when Newbie are at their darkest moment, we are allowed to stand in the last huddle with them by a stairwell with dim fluorescent tubes. This is designated as an official, important, place by a small piece of paper reading “CHINA STAGE” taped to wall. As the analysis’s chatter desperately tries to fill even the tiniest breaks in action, can we hear whispers of tearse Chinese or is that just our brain making up patterns in the ringing room tone?

We only get our first sustained passport to the backstage of The International 7 grand finals after Team Liquid has won. On stage, each player touches the Aegis during a flurry of confetti that fries the stream’s algorithm into a neon static cloudburst before passing into the shelter of the heavy black drape. We inhabit this space as an awkwardly long, rough, series of tracking shots, positioning us low, lights beaming out from the cameras jostling around the victors like a Cops episode. Danger signs come and go through tight, curving cinderblock corridors. All of Liquid looks exhausted, but they have to keep walking, past photo ops, past black polo-shirted staff, hands extended.

As Team Liquid drags themselves out of the stadium, the physical toll of the tournament gives them the wracked posture of someone who has sailed across the Pacific solo—someone who has survived an immense and hostile geography—not someone who has vanquished their foe in a game of sport. They walk and walk more, with a worn gait that doesn’t say, “Play Dota2,” it says: “No one can play Dota2, you can only survive its onslaught. Any individual who tries to match themselves against this ocean of data, even as a spectator, will be dashed to pieces by forces unfathomable to your feeble human perception.”

The team trudges onward past donor names and slogans stenciled on the walls for various former and present professional sports tenants. The audio from the analysts hyping the moment is smashed on top of attempts by Kaci to talk to the weary team as they walk the inner passages of the arena.

Champagne

Everyone stops in a room with short, bright lights  and champagne. Liquid seems confused by the never-ending variety of rooms in this dungeon crawl. A pair of hands stretches from off screen to demonstrate how to shoot the positioned product. One player just uncorks the bottle. A few more players half-heartedly fail. One refuses to even try. After a few moments, they keep dragging the increasingly heavy-looking Aegis along.

The winners and dozens of camera crew leave us behind as they pack into an elevator. We are then summoned into the twilight hallways. Kaci is there, waiting, waiting, waiting for the elevator doors to open. Telling us she doesn’t know when the doors will open. Telling us she doesn’t know how long the elevator takes.

The logo-dense doors of the elevator open and spill out a clown-car tangle, blocking even our intimate view. And the victors keep walking to where they are led amidst clashing waves of audio. To a glass door. Outside onto a red carpet lined with selfie taking fans, stretching past the lawn where SirActionSlacks is probably still laying in his suit, sunburnt. But we digital visitors can’t see any further: the team’s gleaming black limo van blocks the rest of the world. They enter. The doors close. It’s over. The ringing silence sends us home.