As the name implies, and as I’ve mentioned previously, this is the 5th annual TI. Each year it has taken on more or less the same format with slight changes year on year to how to get involved with the tournament and the first TI being rather a surprise to the Dota 2 scene and esports as a whole.
Valve released a free documentary called “Free to play” which follows three players during the first International. I think it’s rather entertaining and, to a certain extent, shows how unexpected The International was. You can watch it here. Basically, the surprise was the amount of money on offer. Suddenly, by offering a $1 million grand prize and a $1.6 million prize pool, Valve almost singlehandedly legitimised esports as a career choice, albeit a difficult one. It helped, of course, that the eventual winners of TI1 stuck together, performed very well for a number of years and, overall, were very personable, almost becoming the face of the Dota 2 pro-scene.
It took a few years to really start raking up the tempo but in 2013, after TI3, Dota 2 was suddenly a much bigger business than it had been during TI1, and many other esports were aided by this. Before 2011 esports, in the west at least, revolved around LAN finals and the people that paid the price of admission to watch in person were your audience. Streaming services like Twitch and Valve’s own service in the Dota 2 client greatly increased the number of people able to watch and, since Valve was more than just Dota 2, they could advertise their competition a whole lot more than the esports organisations could do on their own, thereby getting more people to watch and be interested in Dota 2 and substantially increasing a players ability to do this as their full time job.
Now we come to this, a $17 million prize pool at present and Valve announcing The Majors a few months ago, which are going to be seasonal competitions run by Valve, though less big than TI. Valve, with TI1, greatly increased the interest in esports and, I would argue that, without something like this, esports in the west would have floundered and very slowly ramped up, but it is because of this that Valve and Dota 2 got on mainstream news sights and TV stations. Suddenly esports and MOBAs weren’t something for shut-ins and nerds but were mainstream, with real people behind the screens and competitions with the scale of the World Cup.
However, the unfortunate thing is that games don’t last forever. While I think both LoL and Dota 2 have a lot of mileage left in them, especially since Riot completely control their pro-scene and so are much more capable to react to fan requests, I think there will eventually be a decline in interest, very similar to how we see WoW’s playerbase slowly slipping off with peaks and troughs surrounding the expansions. I worry that, with The Majors, Valve with oversaturate the Dota 2 market and people, like myself, who watch a lot of esports, just won’t have time to keep track of it all. There are also many pro-gamers who simply can’t make a living from it because their games aren’t widely watched. Call of Duty and World of Warcraft leap to mind, both having pro-scenes watched by a handful of people but with nothing like the money that Dota 2 and LoL have behind them.
Blizzard said that they wanted WoW to develop a bigger pro-scene but, unfortunately, WoW just wasn’t interesting to watch. Dota 2 and LoL, while much more complex and deep than CoD or WoW or any fighting game that you can name, are far more watchable because of a number of reasons. Firstly, that they have spectator-mechanics built in. Spectators can see things the players can’t like how much money everyone has, where everyone is on the map, where both teams are focused etc. I tried to use examples that meant you didn’t have to play Dota to understand them, but there are much more. Moreover, you can see a lot of the map in spectator mode, unlike in CoD where you have to look through the eyes of one of the players. Also, if you are unfamiliar with Dota, the casters help provide an insight into how it is played. I watched TI3 while knowing almost nothing about Dota 2 but thoroughly enjoyed myself watching it in the early hours of the morning. It also helps that every hero, ability and item in Dota 2 have very recognisable and unique designs.
TI5 itself is obviously going to be big. It features almost double the prize pool of The Masters, one of the four big golf tournaments, which awards $9 million in prizes. The winner will get more than Australian Cricket team got for winning the World Cup and what’s more important is that 90% of the prize money came from the community. It tells the world at large that esports is thriving, perhaps more so than more mainstream sports. It also tells the gaming industry that people want more of these kinds of games. Not MOBAs especially, but competitive focused games, and we can already see signs of this with the release of games like HotS and Smite. While Dota 2 will have its day, esports will continue to thrive for at least the foreseeable future.