The International 2017: What it was like attending the biggest gaming tournament. Ever.

I attended the largest computer game tournament in history to watch professional gamers (read: 17-25 year olds) compete for a $24 million dollar prize pool.

What is this tournament?

I’ve written about Dota before, so instead of writing an intro about the game, will jump straight into tournament details.

Every year, the largest Dota tournament called The International (TI). The tournament’s first year offered a prize pool of $1.6 million, smashing the record books of video game tournament payouts at that time.

This year, the total prize pool was $24,787,916.  While the initial prize pool started at $1.6 million, players and fans around the world crowdfunded the remaining amount. Players have essentially sponsored a tournament that makes the top performing teams millionaires. Who would have thought!

Where is it held?

There’s no better place to host the tournament than in Seattle, Valve’s headquarters. The International has been held in the 17,000-person stadium KeyArena since 2014.

Tickets sold out within 15 minutes of the day they became available. I was lucky enough to purchase tickets ($230 each), and my friends eventually got tickets from resellers at a higher price. Again, who would have ever thought tickets to watch people play computer games would cost as much as Hamilton live performance!

Planning the event.

I began playing Dota with a group of Canadian guys last year. Four of us decided to go together.

Like Wildlings, they crossed the wall to the north via land (a Honda) and sea (the Victoria ferry) and entered Westeros (Washington). Like Daenarys, I rode my dragon (Alaska Airlines) and met them in our castle, a nice Airbnb rental.

Our castle.

We feasted together and avoided any red or purple wedding.

A feast.

What was the whole event like?

Spectacular. Where do I even start?

World class production quality. The ground floor of the stadium comprised of two large booths. Each booth contained five players from opposing teams. Four giant TV screens made viewing easy for everyone around the stadium.

Situated around the arena were broadcasters providing commentary in English, Russian, Chinese, and more.

Each game started with hero drafting. Both teams took turns picking five of 120 heroes they wanted to play, and banned heroes they didn’t want the opposing team to play. As heroes were picked, their portraits rendered in CGI between the booths in real time. One of the most picked heroes of this tournament was Earthshaker, a humanoid that carries large drums on his back. Each time the big screen TV focused on this hero banging on the drums, the entire crowd clapped in unison.

There were numerous things that kept the crowd entertained in between games.

People dressed up in self-made costumes of Dota heroes. The top 20 contestants were brought on stage, and the winner won $4,000.

There were two 20-minute concerts with a full symphony that played Dota songs. Each of us were given electronic armbands. The production lights and the armbands synced up with the beats and immersed the crowd in the music. It was just as good as the Hans Zimmer concert, albeit much shorter in duration.

The excitement wasn’t confined to just within the arena. Immediately outside the arena was a grassy field where fans could also watch the event on a giant screen. Spectating out here was free, thereby allowing new and casual fans to experience the game at no cost. There were many groups picnicking while watching the game. Great vibes considering the great weather.

Adjacent to the screen was the gift shop gift shop where fans could buy plush toys, stick figures, posters, and other typical goodies. Each attendant was given a goodie bag that contained a random mix of these gifts, and there was even an area designated for people to trade or buy/sell these goods.

I opened my goodie bag in that area and ended up getting $20 and two plush toys, for three plush toys. The guy said “My girlfriend would think these are cute. I’ll give you $20 for it.” Easiest negotiation of my life, I had no interest in any of it!


What were the games like?

The week leading up to the semi finals was rough. In tournament-style fashion, teams played in a double elimination bracket. Teams that lost in the upper bracket were pushed into the lower bracket, and losing in the lower bracket results in being knocked out of the tournament.

The team I was rooting for, Evil Geniuses (EG), got knocked down, then knocked out in the first round. Chinese teams were coming out ahead and crushing every other team in the world.

The only teams that remained in the quarter finals were four Chinese and four European teams. Since I’m most familiar with players from western teams, I cheered for the European powerhouse Team Liquid.

Similar to EG, Team Liquid got pushed into the lower bracket in the first round. However, against all odds, they defeated team after team and pushed their way into the semi finals. Liquid was the only non-Chinese team remaining by then, and they faced three teams that looked invincible.

This was all I could have hoped for. Past attendees of the tournament have said that East vs. West finals were more exciting, as it made for better a better experience when there’s a hometown team to cheer for.

Against all odds, Liquid managed to defeat all of them! Like winning the NBA finals, confetti was released onto the whole stadium upon victory. Even better than the NBA finals (just kidding, I’ve never attended), an impressive firework show spurred on the ground floor.

Liquid picked up the trophy, took pictures, gave awkward interviews (a trend in the industry), and left the ground floor to thundering chants of “Liquid! Liquid! Liquid!” and hailing their teary-eyed captain “Kuroky! Kuroky! Kuroky!”

Final thoughts

What an awesome event. The production quality and overall experience surpassed my expectations.

It’s quite evident that Valve has successfully curated an entire community based around the game. All these cool little things like a mini concert, cosplay competitions, outdoor viewing areas, and trading areas makes for a fantastic experience. With these gimmicks, I believe even people without familiarity to the game would enjoy the whole experience. The only other gaming tournament I had attended was the MLG 2012 Pro Circuit, and all there was to do was watch the professionals play Starcraft. Such a stark contrast.

Valve is setting the bar for the future of eSports. In the grand final, 4.7 million viewers watched worldwide. The prize pool this year was over double that of the Professional Golf Association tour.

I am optimistic about a future where events like these become common across different genre of games, and hopeful for the day when we get to essentially witness the minds of the world’s quickest thinkers in video game form.

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