DOTA2 – The International 6– Key Arena – 8-11-16


The Hopeful Homie View on the Rise of eSports

For people who’ve got a lot of type-A in their personality, literally anything can become a competitive event.  Unlike the physical sports world, where new sports are relatively rare, the digital sports frontier is unveiling new competitive platforms on a regular basis through the medium of videogames. The debate around the validity of eSports can sometimes lead to heated discussions, especially with sport purists, so it’s best to identify from the top that evaughn and Tom feel eSports can possess much of the intensity and competitive spirit of non-digital individual and team sports, despite their inherent lack of certain types of physicality.

Despite evaughn following professional and MLG Halo, SSBM, plus beginning to grow stock in the Overwatch scene, and Tom’s insatiable blood lust for all physical sports and a couple quick trips to The International in smaller venues, neither of us had significant exposure to prior eSports events. Even though neither of us had even a beginner’s knowledge about DOTA2 mechanics, gameplay, and meta-game, we both strolled with heads held high and mouths agape at the wonder of The International DOTA2 Championship held in Key Arena and put on by Valve.


Can I get a “holy-hot-DAMN, son!!”

The International, and everything we started to learn about DOTA2 blew us AWAY!

  • Are you aware that DOTA2 is one of the biggest eSports in the world and growing constantly?
  • Do you know that the MOBA genre (Massive Online Battle Arena) uses a high permutation count to influence the 5 versus 5 team composition due to its 110+ characters? That results in over a quadrillion different team compositions for the two teams.
  • Did you know that the Bellevue, WA-based Valve makes DOTA2 and is in a constant flux of balancing characters with powers, adjusting the meta-game significantly, while marketing the free-to-play game to new players?
  • Did you know that the prize pool for this particular championship was 20 MILLION dollars? Can you comprehend 20 Million dollars?
    • Sure, sure, this is where some folks will goad “$20 mill just for sitting around playing a videogame?!” while others might reply “$100 mill just for shooting a basket?!?”
    • Can you imagine the growth of something in just a matter of years happening so quickly that it warrants paying out top-teams 5-9 million dollars when they win?
    • Did you know that the majority of The International’s payout comes from in-game purchases even when the game itself is free-to-play?

This stuff is nuts! The whole production was straight-up nuts. I mean like jaw-droppingly impressive, nuts.


A fan celebrates an epic moment, with bracelets lighting up around the arena and impressive effects taking place

When Tom and I walked up to Key Arena, we immediately snagged our free swag bags that were included with the tickets. These were a high-quality drawstring bag with the Dota symbol, stuffed with a t-shirt, a journal, some pendants, a rubber bracelet commemorating a type of hero (evaughn got “disabler”), and some other goodies. We walked past several statues, cosplayers, and international broadcasters analyzing the footage live and in different languages. Evaughn stopped to listen to the Russian commentators for a bit, but despite being fluent had a bit of trouble deciphering the vernacular – something we later realized would happen in English as well. We went up to our suite viewing spot where we snagged a redbull or two, some pop chips, and beer.

Looking out over the balcony, we could see that the entire venue was packed. The lights in the arena were dim, but there was a magnificent glow from the 4 MASSIVE LED screens that were erected around the normal-sized video monitor.  These were almost hilariously large screens.  Smaller screens protruded from the massive display for additional emphasis and visual effects.  On the floor the arena, two sound proof pods faced each other and housed the 5-member teams.  

The floor itself was an LED screen that mirrored on-screen special moves by the Heroes. Giant blue sphere that trapped Heroes and brought utter doom in the gameplay?  It also showed up on the floor.  In case all of that wasn’t cool enough, Valve was sprinkling magical augmented reality throughout its broadcasts to bring the Heroes to life on camera with real-life talent.  The entire place felt like your dream gaming setup.

To add to the crazy effects, it seemed like every single ticket holder had an LED bracelet that flashed in sync dynamically to the actions on-stage. When a huge play happened, the entire arena lit up flashing yellow lights, or blues, or greens. The audience itself led to much of the excitement, as the energy in the room was palpable. Cheers erupted frequently from the audience, even before commentators described the events on-stage. Clearly, most ticket holders had a hefty knowledge base about the game. No wonder that the tickets reportedly sold out in a matter of minutes!

Backstage Production

Before we sat down to dig into the first match (we were watching DC vs. Fnatic as our first game), Tom’s Valve connection came through to see how we were doing. While we were still slackjawed at the grandeur, he had offered to tour us around the venue. Taking the freight elevator downstairs, we passed even more international commentators, constant live streams, and what seemed like countless monitors broadcasting the footage to various sites across the web.

At one point we entered a room that had about 100 monitors picking and choosing the footage to focus on in real-time. Folks sat behind each station actively flipping between angles and cameras, piecing together a narrative that may have coincided with the American commentators.


The production setup was intense, and this was just a fraction of the equipment housed beneath the stands in Key Arena

So many sites and organizations overlapping in one space made it nearly impossible to conceptualize exactly how this all came together – and it’s insane to remember that this has all grown to its current state over just 6 years.  The production crew were hired from the same companies that put on local physical sporting events including MLS and NFL – and we wondered about how their experiences differ and if their instincts still work to help them produce the best action-based streams and television.  But their presence alone speaks to the legitimacy of the event and esports on the whole.  We even got to check out the area where teams do interviews post-game with the on-air host.


More of the production area backstage

We walked out to the stage, near the ground floor to see the action and marvel at the height of the main screens. From ground level, the soundproof booths that housed the dueling teams were even more impressive, and in front of each player was the character hero they had chosen for that particular game. So much detail went into making this digital battleground come to life, and it really increased the awe of the event.


The view from the floor and from our suite area

After munching on some catered salmon, prime rib, and red velvet cupcakes, we went back to our suite to watch the second round between DC and Fnatic.

DOTA Gameplay as Interpreted by Noobs

Having never really played DOTA2 or LOL, the gameplay wasn’t immediately clear. While the most obvious score present on screen was the kill count, the game was not Deathmatch. evaughn had come into the tournament with no DOTA2 experience and no significant time spent actually attempting to understand the game (Though we had been advised to check out Purge and his ‘Welcome to Dota2, you suck’ guides). This was, obviously, about to change. Pouring all attention into the next full game from start to finish, things started to fall together.  

Much praise goes out to the English commentators, as their excellent narration, hype, analysis, and even live replays helped to identify what was going on. Commentators had a spectator view that could allow them to bounce between each player on the fly with a button press, or by clicking around the minimap. It wasn’t always clear how much limited visibility the enemy team had, as players often successfully hid in trees, but the gameplay became more and more fun to watch and easier to understand due to all of the statistics and information thrown at the audience.

Commentators would at times pull up the game stats, or the stats of a recent battle (players don’t engage all the time, and often would attack AI enemies instead of the opposing team to gather resources and power up their heroes) and display damage output, gold exchanged, and more. To us novice viewers, this was all mostly a bit over our heads, but it seemed like important jigsaw pieces that started to flesh out the interactions between teams and how the competition was unfolding. 

Due to the opposing teams being selective with their combat engagements, their decision to sometimes focus on the AI or go attack a majorly important Ancient, there were sometimes lulls in the action. Impressively, the commentators also would perform live replays during the match to showcase some spectacular combat exchange or something along those lines. Compared to the fast-paced nature of say, a Halo championship, this is less likely to be an effective technique in FPS competitions, although the use of secondary screens could be particularly awesome in that setting (or really, any setting).

An additionally superior element in DOTA2 commentating was the hosts’ ability to float about as a spectating player. This may be due to the top-down perspective of the game, but in Halo most of the footage takes the form of a players POV. This inhibits a bit of the overarching map awareness for new players, though it’s interesting that Halo does have a fly-cam and a spectating mode that can be utilized, as well as a sort of x-ray vision combat mode. As a newcomer to DOTA2, the intricacies of watching a game unfold make it hard to distinguish, but perhaps the various forms of spectating work to both uphold the game informationally and also provide a much needed transparency for more advanced players to analyze.

One really fascinating thing that Halo occasionally does in its esports realm is hand the commentating over to the team channel and the audience is given a direct scoop into the team talk that is pivotal in highly competitive play. While the Halo teamtalk might sound like a garbled mess of call-outs and positioning, to an experienced ear it’s quite fascinating to hear how teammates support one another. We didn’t witness this in the DOTA2 tournament, but I’d be very curious about how that sounds. Tom was wondering if they would ever do something similar to the ‘mic’d up’ production that the NFL throws together at the end of the year, or if we’d hear some trash talk between teams if they knew the crowd was listening in. 

Regardless of the challenges a total noob might experience in the witnessing a high-level of play, the game is no doubt a phenomenon. Perhaps some of it is because of just how excellent the spectating and commentary is?  For this tournament, there were also massive outdoor screens setup in Seattle Center’s International Fountain plaza (not named for the tournament, but it might as well have been).  There were tons of fans taking a break from the interior action, but Valve was making a play at the casual Seattleite who is interested in esports, but not about to buy a ticket.  It’d be awesome to hear from some folks who just happened to wander by and see the commotion. 

All in all…

The tournament provided us with swag, a sense of awe, inspiration, and of course a respect for the sport. It’s a mind-bending experience to soak in a new culture and identify its appeal, especially when presented with a mechanically foreign, fast-paced gameplay style and machine-gun speed commentary. Quite impressive is the DOTA2 realm, and hear hear to Valve’s commitment to DOTA2’s continued growth and exposure into the non-gaming mainstream.

Tournament Design Worth Advocating For:

  • Full autonomy of spectating mode so the commentators can pick and choose their perspective, player POV, or a third-person camera position allowed for an awesome fan experience that transcended actually playing the game. 
  • Complex and intricate stats presented on screen begin to flesh out just how one team won out over another team… even if it is a bit much for the novices to understand, this is a great analog to physical sports and modern day media coverage.
  • Ability to throw out a replay during lulls in the action is highly entertaining, allows for additional analysis and recap, and becomes more reminiscent of the breaks inherent in physical sports.
  • Pulling out stops to expand focus and interest beyond the target audience, or rather, expanding that target audience to include casual fans and those that don’t even know they’re interested yet.  Valve did so by erecting massive screens out in one of the tourist destinations of a major city – a more subtle way might just be some advertising or good old social media marketing, but damn it was fun the way The International did it!
  • The International was full of other surprises and fan engagement throughout the week.  A cosplay contest with huge payout inspired creativity, the reveal of a new Hero was a massive crowd-pleaser.  Making it about more than just the gaming adds to the already impressive spectacle of the event.