By my watch, the main event of Valve's $10 million Dota 2 tournament The International kicks off oooooh right about now in front of a sold-out crowd in Seattle. Gabe Newell will take to the stage and someone will yell out something trite about Half-Life 3. You should watch it. Not just because I think Dota 2's one of the finest video games, but to see Valve's pageantry. Big-money digital sport competitions in arenas will be A Thing for quite some time, it seems, and The International so far has put on the best show. With decent presenters, a solid between-game show, different ways to watch, and a general hum of excitement, it's the event other games should be cribbing from.
Look, if you play Dota 2 you probably already know this stuff, but I'll explain for everyone else.
The International 2014's prize pool is sitting at $10,848,057 as I write this, and still growing with thanks to sales of The International's sticker album thing The Compendium. The winning team of 5 will get $4,990,106 of that, and even eighth place offers half a million dollars.
Each game sees two teams of five wizards running around and duffing each other up for about 25-60 minutes. Best-of-3 matches start today, will run all weekend, then conclude with the best-of-5 grand finals on Monday. An all-star game is on Saturday too.
A video stream will show every match, along with the grand opening ceremony going on oooooh now, interviews, between-match analysis, and all that. The presenter team is informative and pleasant, including a stat specialists with a real flair for flamboyant suits, and a real gem in Kaci Aitchison. A local news presenter wholly new to Dota but used to interviewing people about their weird interests, she was excellent last year as a friendly entry point for this baffling world.
Some of the in-game commentators are, unfortunately, That Sort of Awful Video Game Person. This year's new 'newcomer' commentary may help you avoid them. It's intended for people not versed in the arcane mysteries of Doting, with friendly presenters who won't get overexcited and scream or casually say horrible things. If you're new to Dota, definitely go for that commentary.
The best way to watch matches is definitely the in-game spectator system, which includes several commentary streams and options to pause and rewind live games, and lets you mouse over tooltips explaining skills, items, and Dota 2's many, many numbers. Past games can be watched through it too. Dota 2's a free download on Steam so hop to it.
Organised 'Pubstomps' are bringing the stream to pubs around the world too, so people can come together to celebrate their mutual fondness for getting drunk and yelling at wizards.
Crumbs, it's even going to be covered on ESPN 2 and 3, actual sports channels. ESPN do like to dabble in these things occasionally, having shown Magic: The Gathering championships before.
Valve are on top of merchandise, a sports essential, with a huge catalogue of shirts, plushie dolls, posters, badges and so on, many coming with in-game items too. What makes it more than just flogging merch is that Valve are also selling items designed by Dota 2 fans, offering a revenue share. My chum Robin Wild has a shirt and mousepad in there, the clever sausage.
All of this bluster isn't to say that The International is perfect. It won't be. There's still lots to improve.
As our wizard expert Phillipa noted in her Dote Night column, Valve haven't quite cracked camera views for spectators. Analogue sports rely heavily on slow-motion replays, picture-in-picture, and all that. These would help so much for those times when 10 wizards cast all their spells at once and the screen is covered in explosions, arrows, ghosts, and spectral horses for ten seconds, then only one wizard's left standing when the smoke clears. Better commentators really would be appreciated, and people who don't do stuff like this.
However, Valve have put an awful lot of thought into packing digital sports up as actual things for people to actually follow and watch and enjoy. TI4 will probably be a great glimpse at the direction arena digital sports will follow over the next few years. And some cracking digital sports too.