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A Team Won Dota 2's International, Plus Misc. Thoughts

A fine feat of fandom

So, The International 2014 is over. Newbee gave fellow Chinese team ViCi Gaming quite the drubbing on Monday to win $5,028,174. Competitive Dota 2 was broadcast on the ESPN cable sports network. Are digital sports now mainstream? Is this It, is this The Moment? No, of course not.

This year's International has widespread attention because of that honking great prize pool of $10,930,814, the spectacle, and the novelty. Minor details like who won only matter on the day to most. So today, any old Tuesday, why post about it? The International 2014 will still matter in days, weeks, or months because of where loads of that moolah came from: fans. Valve are crowdfunding arena-filling tournaments and gamifying fandom. And somehow making that not awful?

Valve put the first $1.6 million into the prize pool, but the remaining $9,330,817 came from sales of Compendiums, a sort of Dota 2 virtual sticker album and activity book. It cost $9.99 (£5.99) and 25% of that went to the prize fund, so a few quick sums shows fans spent $37,323,268 in total. Off this (and its own untold squillions of dollars, of course), Valve offered the biggest prize in digital sports history without sponsors or publishers or any of that.

I don't expect everyone to care about digital sports, but you needn't to find this interesting. Dota 2 is one of the few games to do free-to-play well and The International wouldn't even be possible with a regular retail game. It couldn't be justified. I've said before that Dota 2 monetises personal expression. The International works because it encourages players to behave like fans through the Compendium, which lets them express themselves with new wizard hats. The pageantry of the event only amplifies all this.

The Compendium draws people into the International spirit with activities like declaring a favourite team and player, predicting results and stats, challenges to play randomly-selected characters, collecting player cards, and so on. It builds anticipation. It's also a cheap way to get cosmetic items for your wizards. See, buying the book gives a few trinkets, but owners get more--and fancier--items for 'levelling it up' by completing activities or spending money. As Compendium sales boosted the prize pool, it also passed stretch goals giving Compendium owners more shiny things and binding Valve to adding new modes and features I suspect they had planned anyway (bit cheeky, that).

And all this was entirely optional. Valve got $37 million dollars from something which has no effect upon the game itself, but makes people feel part of it all and gives them pleasant baubles and wizard hats. Digital sports are fast and lean and can play freely with ideas like this. More should.

Dota 2 won't break the mainstream, nor will any digital sport for some time. These sums make people sit up and take notice, but more for the novelty of "Gosh, and they win all this money just playing video games?" That's fine. Video games have never needed mainstream approval to be great. And, as boldly claimed, Valve have the best show around.

In all honesty, I missed a lot of The International because I spent Sunday in Oxford, drinking cocktails and swimming in the Thames. What I did see was the best-presented digital sports yet. A hollering crowd and colourful lights filled Seattle's KeyArena. Valve had a good lineup of presenters and interviewers, though sections could run long and dry with all the time they tried to fill. The Dota 2 in-game spectator system is still the best way to watch any video game, with integrated commentary, oodles of camera options, and live pause and rewind. The 'newcomer' commentary stream was a fine addition. Valve put on a great show.

They can improve. Valve might want to consider moving further away from the in-game view, stripping down and reformatting the UI (LoL tries this but adds a horrible mess of numbers) and curating the view more. As Philippa noted, Dota 2 could benefit hugely from building in features like picture-in-picture and slow-motion replays. Discussions could drag. The end of it all was awfully abrupt, with short interviews then a casual sloping off home. And it is a shame that so few players have big fun media personalities, but that's a toughie.

As for the actual finals? ViCi's win in the first game seemed to set the pace for an astonishing series, then Newbee crushed them in the next three. The longest game was 26 minutes (well, sort of--the timer doesn't include the draft or setup time, which are are awfully important too). Newbee were far better than ViCi. It was a sterling display of skill but lacking in drama. Even the most one-sided World Cup final guarantees 90 minutes of possibilities. But didn't they Dote well?

Observe, the newbie stream of the grand finals (skip to 1:48:00 for the first game):

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