When a friend asked me to come support her team at “The International” in Seattle, I was embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of the event. Turns out, The International (TI) is a multi-day championship tournament for DOTA 2, a free-to-play multi-player online battle game. In recent years, TI has drawn over 20 million online views and this year had a prize pool of $25 million. To put that in perspective, the prize pool for The Masters 2016 golf tournament was $10 million. I was a total noob (as they say) when it came to online gaming and the world of esports but I was excited to learn more.
Hosted at Key Arena, the scene inside TI was exactly what you’d expect from any traditional sporting event. People dressed in jerseys and t-shirts supporting their team of choice. Sharply dressed commentators analyzing various moves and plays by each team. The crowds in the arena cheering for their favorite player after an exceptional play. What the teams were doing on stage was foreign to me, but the energy in the sold-out stadium felt familiar. Like traditional sports, you don’t have to play the game to be a fan. The enthusiasm in the arena was contagious and I was soon hooked and cheering along.
TI employed amazing storytelling to get someone like me excited about individual players. Between matches, humorous video clips played highlighting players from various teams. In two-minute videos I learned what players would bring to a deserted island (a PC and a girlfriend) or whether they were cat or dog people (cats were the clear crowd favorite). I can now see why esports has such a strong and growing fan base.
Esports brought in over $493 million in 2016, a growth of 51.7% from 2015, and is expected to reach $1.5 billion by 2020. A game you can play at home by yourself could translate to a real-life experience with thousands, bolstered by individual players stories and journeys. To make the event even sweeter, my friend’s team, Team Liquid, made it to the finals and won! They received an impressive first place prize of $10.8 million to be split amongst the gamers. While I started out not understanding the allure of esports, I’m a believer now.