How Big Can ‘The International’ Get?

4 min

I had never seen a game of professional DOTA–heck, I had never played DOTA–until last week.  It is almost impossible to be in-tune with the video game community and not find someone who has gone through an addiction to the Valve developed MOBA, or who still logs in to play now and again.  For the most part, I attributed the DOTA fandom to just another cog in the giant machine that is Valve, spinning more millions into the already padded pockets of Gabe Newell.  There are a couple things that have kept me from experimenting with DOTA, the biggest probably being no one has ever tried to peer pressure me into the game, but DOTA comes with the reputation of a poisonous community and a large commitment.  While these factors have always kept me hesitant to hop into the game, I had always felt a curiosity to see this community at work, see what these games were all about.  This year’s international provided that perfect excuse to stand on the outside of the DOTA bubble and observe.

What stands out about The International and what lends itself to a mainstream audience is the professional nature with which its coverage was executed.  Sports (both physical and electronic) are difficult to comprehend for first time viewers and having color commentary and a post-game analysis team do wonders for people dipping their feet in the MOBA waters–like me.  Did it have all the pizazz and showmanship of a Super Bowl pre-game show? No, but it also didn’t have commercials relentlessly shoved between every lull in the action either.  Instead, it would fill its time with interviews of important people surrounding the DOTA scene, from voice actors to the show’s self-named “pit crew”.  You hardly needed to watch an hour to realize the love that so many fans have for the game, a passion that is contagious.  It never made me feel like I needed to download the game (which is free), but it made me appreciate the fans, who are often scoffed at by the more mainstream video game community.

There is a passion for this game that you would find with any other sport.  The commentary is specific and exciting, the game moves with a solid flow that allows you dive in and keeps you hooked.  The short game time–half an hour to about and hour and a half–means that watching a match does not require a large investment of time as opposed to many other sports.  The games quickly became interesting and while the specifics of it were a bit difficult to decipher, it was easy to pick up on the larger details.  These pros move about the board with such ease and precision that their skill is obvious. Very quickly I began to learn the names Puppey, Lod[a}, and Mushi, I began to have favorite teams and rooting interests. Over the last week, I learned that loving professional DOTA–and most other eSports–is not much different than loving the Pittsburgh Steelers or the New York Yankees.  Though, there are a few things that are different, some good and some not so much.

The strength behind DOTA, that makes it special, is the love that not only exists for the game, but that the game has for its fans. Many sports and games subsist on a fan base that comes back time and time again, refusing to acquiesce to any demands of their supporters.  However, DOTA seems to be a two way street where the people at Valve coexist with the community, offering tools like the Steam Workshop and other means to allows players to dig into the game and make it better.  The community loves the players and the players love the community.  Valve seems to be aware that the growth of DOTA is due to a symbiotic relationship between the community and developers.

What also works in DOTA’s favor is the internet compatibility of the game, built online and played online, DOTA becomes quickly and easily accessible to anyone.  Anyone can watch a game on Twitch, download Steam, and start playing themselves.  The synergy of the internet and eSports is powerful and intrinsic.  Slowly, as the entertainment staples of broadcast television and physical media give way to the internet and instantly accessible entertainment the ability to embed yourself online is pinnacle.

For as much as I became infatuated with the professional DOTA scene this weekend, there are flaws, things which keep DOTA as a niche element in the world of video games.  First off, the game is insanely deep.  That wouldn’t be so much of a hurdle if it was not so difficult to convey.  It is hard to distinguish the difference between characters, items, and players at times as there are so many nicknames and so much lingo it can be overwhelming.  Over the course of games I began to pick up on what was what, but only for the most commonly used characters and items.  Just when I thought I understood one aspect of the game, a curveball would come in and rock my world.  All competitive games have their quirks, someone reading this is probably telling me that they don’t understand “the pocket” in football.  However, most games have consistent rules that keep things fairly regular, DOTA has numerous variables between characters, items, and abilities that kept me in the dark.  I am sure it makes the game fun to play, but it also makes it hard to understand.

This issue becomes compounded when the commentary is moving at a breathless pace, disallowing time for explanation of the rules.  Most televised games/sports have a minute of downtime in the action for the analysts to go over the previous play that transpired and explain the small details.  DOTA may start slow, even end a little slow, but the action comes and goes with such a breathless pace that there is hardly a moment for any explanation.

Lastly, while the presentation of professional DOTA is spot on, the emotion is getting left on the wayside.  The reason that people watch sports or other competition is the emotion.  Even in a game a dull as golf, the highlights circle around players jubilantly fist bumping after making a clutch putt, or hugging their friends and family in the winner circle.  While watching The International, I always knew when exciting moments were happening due to the emphatic play-by-play, however I found myself wondering how the players were responding.  Were they yelling at each other, desperately trying to align their strategy?  Was the other team cheering?  Even better, were they continuing their intense ice-cold stares at the computer screen?  We feed off of human emotion and DOTA’s presentation needs to show its human side.

I am not confused, DOTA is a game first, sport second.  It is designed to be enjoyed by players of all sorts, before it should be thought of as something fun to watch.  However, in a world where NASCAR and poker have found a way to gain a more mainstream audience, it is a bit odd that eSports remain to distantly on the fringe of society.  Before, I thought it was easy to dismiss eSports as something that would never catch on because video games encourage involvement long before they consider spectating.  However, after spending a weekend dabbling in this passionate, engaging world I think there is a future for DOTA 2 on a larger scale.  I think that it is not hard to imagine teams from all over the world capturing the imagination of a more mainstream audience.  How big can The International get?  I think it can get huge.

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