The Festival That Is The International

BY Andrew Miesner / August 15, 2016

by Sören ‘Fantasy’ Vendsahm

With compLexity Gaming out of the big competition that is the International 2016, I have the unique opportunity to observe the spectacle that is Valve’s masterpiece. Originally I was flown to Seattle to once more provide a behind-the-scenes look at the Dota 2 team around Kyle ‘swindlezz’ Freedman and the rest of the boys. With their early exit from the competition, I am now just a fan with a laptop and a passion for writing about the industry that I love so much.

Being around events in both sports and eSports for over a decade now, starting with the humble beginnings of the Intel Friday Night Games hosted in 200-people venues all over Germany, the journey that eSports has taken from a niche interest to a global phenomenon might be best described by the International. Often referred to as the World Championships of Dota 2, the sixth edition of the tournament is once more the biggest eSports tournament ever hosted. With a prize pool of over 20 million USD, the tournament is not just big, but life changing for the players. As the Valve documentary about the first TI in Cologne puts it – the game might be Free To Play, but the players are sacrificing everything, putting in hours of practice each day and dedicating their entire life to the pursuit of excellence and the Aegis – the coveted trophy of the International. From people like Johan ‘n0tail’ Sundstein, who has not yet been able to secure that illustrious victory, to legendary veterans like Dendi, Puppey, xiao8, or s4, players unite to chase history and hoist the Aegis for the first – or second – time. They have made their sacrifices and have risen from beginnings with LAN pictures of clunky CRT monitors and ethernet cords tangles, to an event on TV stations worldwide that has reached a production value almost unrivaled by any other eSports event before.

Crowds gather in the halls of Key Arena.

The players of TI are the centerpiece that holds everything together, but unlike any other event on the eSports circuit, they are not the only focus. While tournaments like the League of Legends World Championships praise their event and the players competing as “warriors,” or the big heroes as attractions, the International is more a celebration of the community and the hype around the event. It starts with a massive crowd-funding effort to push the prize pool over the edge every year, and concludes with the surroundings of KeyArena transformed into a Dota 2 Mecca for a week. Everyone is friendly, patient, and there for the same reason – the passionate love of the game that is Dota 2. People arrive from all parts of the world, spending immense sums of money on travel, accommodation, and tickets just to be a part of the event. And the brilliant thing about it? Valve is doing a great job of paying them back. It’s not just details like the in-game items or the free goodies that you can get for just buying a ticket, it’s the atmosphere.  Life-sized statues of heroes, the real life version of the secret shop, high-quality cosplay, like-minded people, and the best Dota 2 in the entire world. Everywhere near the KeyArena the focus is on Dota 2, whether you wait in line at the concession stands, you relax on the lawn outside in front of the big screen, or just walk through the outer ring of the venue – everything is Dota, everyone loves Dota, and every single person is ready to talk Dota with you at any given time.

The other thing that make the International unique in itself is the “World Cup” effect, comparable with the ongoing Rio Olympic Games. From all parts of the world, passionate fans come together in celebration of their game. What I mean by the “World Cup effect” is exactly that. We’ve seen it just the other month in France for the European Championship, with great stories of fans from Iceland or Wales making positive headlines, we see it now with the flavor that the Brazilian mentality is providing to the athletes at the Olympic Games – everything comes together under the umbrella of Dota 2 and enhances the tournament.  You see people hoisting the Chinese flag when Wings or LGD are taking the stage, you see a Jordanian flag for MMR sensation Miracle-, DC memes, or just random cheers for personalities and jokes. Everyone might have different favorite players or aspects of the game and the tournament they love, but in the end everyone cheers for some of the best Dota 2 they can see.

Even through the chaos of it all, beautiful things can happen.

The enhancement is especially noticeable in the heart of the arena, during the moments Dota 2 is on the screen. You can feel the passion oozing out of the crowd and fueling an arena filled by crazed fans. During the opening ceremony the cheers are bigger for fan favorites like Secret, Alliance, or hometown heroes Evil Geniuses, but new teams, rising stars like Escape Gaming, TNC, or Wings receive their fair share of love from the crowd. Not only during that presentation is the energy insane, but it reaches even higher during the day. Never before have I experienced cheers as loud as today when the Top 10 plays were shown, and the sheer anticipation of Moonmeander stealing the Gem from the opposing fountain as an Axe was sending tense waves through the crowd. Jerax on Rubick stealing the zip of Storm Spirit and making a flashy escape might have gotten more cheers on a highlight clip than some of the plays of the following games.

With so much knowledge and love for the game in the arena, great moves and initiations get instantly rewarded by crowd reactions, cheers, claps, or sighs of desperation. On the first days, nothing could beat the Pudge-into-Techies pick by Wings in Game 2 of the Upper Bracket Round 1 though, but plays like the great Chronosphere into Vac/Wall by MVP.Phoenix or various crits by QO on Phantom Assassin came close. Even wards and counter-wards got a reactionfrom the crowd, as they paid their respect to players like Moon or Fly doing their homework and knowing their opponents preferences in warding, rotations, and movements.

The stage during the final day at The International 2016

The atmosphere builds over the days, and whoever thought the peak of fan interaction and noise was reached when EG made the incredible comeback against EHOME didn’t make that bet with Digital Chaos in mind. The cinderella story of the tournament certainly got the biggest ovations and cheers with their great performances. From the “Mooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo”s, to the crowd going nuts with “Let’s Go, DC” chants during the EG match and the Grand Finals with Wings was louder than some football stadiums around this country. What was special about this Grand Finals was the fact that it was the International – the one tournament that transcends borders from the regions and gets people to travel to support their favorite teams. What that meant was shattering noise throughout the opening moments of the first draft with “Wings, Wings, Wings” chants from fans gathering themselves behind the Chinese caster desk, responded to by the entire arena with “Let’s go, DC”. It was an awe-inspiring moment that topped the goosebumps experienced earlier when the Philharmonic serenaded the Dota 2 tunes to get everyone in the mood.

It was the perfect ending to a near-perfect event – a great production, a lot of good and thought out ideas, well-made panels, and a surrounding environment that placed each and everyone in the mood for Dota 2. Personal photobooth opportunities with players, some of the fan favorites like Bruno, Dendi, and others roaming around KeyArena accessible to fans, hundreds and hundreds of giveaways, in-depth Dota conversations – the International not only delivered on the servers, but it also delivered a great deal for everyone in attendance. Hyped for next year.