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Valve's quest to take e-sports mainstream

Valve's quest to take e-sports mainstream


The 'Dota 2' version of the World Cup is bringing pro gaming to the fore

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The question "what is Dota 2" will be asked more times this month than at any other point in the game’s past or future. Valve is presently hosting the marquee Dota 2 tournament of the year, The International 4 (TI4), and its incredible $10.5 million prize pool has garnered attention from corners of the world that wouldn’t traditionally care about professional gaming. Whatever else happens at the event, its significance as a flagbearer and emissary for e-sports to a mainstream audience is already assured. But Valve won’t be satisfied if you just learn about this game’s existence. It wants to recruit you into its sphere of addictively intricate gameplay.

Money talks and $10.5 million dictates a lot of attention

At its most basic, Dota 2 is an online multiplayer game where two teams of five compete to siege and destroy each other’s base. The game’s built around an eccentric smorgasbord of modern and ancient mythology, but as with the checkerboard in chess, it only has one map and its appeal resides in trying to outthink and outmaneuver the enemy group. It’s team-based competitive thinking and it’s extraordinarily addictive. I picked it up as a way to kill time over the winter holidays last year and have since accumulated more than 1,000 hours of play — and even with all that experience, I hunger for more. The biggest hurdle to getting more people sucked into the same vortex of compulsive gaming is the vast amount of prior knowledge that’s required to understand and play Dota 2 well.

Valve is trying to tear down this barrier of entry to what is already its most popular game ever with the introduction of a new round of Newcomer’s Broadcasts at TI4. These video streams offer alternative commentary on the tournament’s matches, where the game’s jargon is either filtered out or explained so as to improve the spectating experience for the uninitiated. Alas, though the goal is noble, the execution has so far been uneven. The commentators come from the same roster that does the regular game broadcasts and they struggle between being overly simplistic — "the green bars above their heads" represent each hero’s health and LAN means Local Area Network — and utterly impenetrable with discussions of "ganking," "popping the Aegis," and being "blown up by the Dagon."

Making the game a friendlier place for beginners without dumbing it down

These early stumbles are to be expected and we’re only in the third day of a marathon tournament that won’t reach its climax for another week and a half. With so much on the line in every Dota 2 contest, Valve’s hands are pretty much tied in terms of changing the game’s mechanics to make it more accessible. So it’s down to the guys now broadcasting the games to make them relatable to regular humans.

Players of all creeds regularly clash with a sense of powerlessness when trying to convey the glory of their exploits to a person unfamiliar with their game of choice. Dota 2 has more than 100 playable heroes, just as many items, and countless possible permutations between them, making it one of the most challenging scenarios in which to try and develop a common language between the players and the viewers. Still, if Valve is able to correct its course and attune its broadcasts to a willing and curious (but not yet enlightened) audience, it could set the tone for the rest of the gaming industry.

It’s better to think of Valve as a great games custodian rather just a games maker. The company has buttressed thriving communities around fan-made mods like Counter-Strike and Dota itself — which started life as a custom map for Warcraft III — and developed in-game economies that the real world can only marvel at. Of the $10.5 million TI4 treasure chest, only $1.6 million comes directly from Valve, with the rest being made up of Dota 2 players spending money on in-game Compendiums that provide them with cosmetic enhancements and bonus rewards. The game also has a built-in spectator mode where tickets to watch online competitions contribute directly to the prize pools of those tournaments. That’s fueling a year-round schedule of smaller contests that sustains the pro teams now participating in The International.

Valve is a great games custodian as well as a great games maker

Valve knows its challenge lies not in appeasing those already inside the enchanted walls of Dota 2, but in bringing the outsiders in. It’s already done a lot to raise the profile of the game’s top players and teams with a feature-length documentary and regular interviews and featurettes from previous Internationals posted to its YouTube channel. It’s now stepping up its efforts by broadcasting all the games live and offering a spoiler-free catchup service alongside the newcomer streams. It’s all a bit wonky at the moment, with buffering issues and a highlights format that doesn’t feel properly suited to a game that’s better digested over longer periods of time than the usual four-second ESPN instant replay. But the fact that there even are instant replays in these game broadcasts shows an ambition to evolve and improve the presentation of e-sports to a level approaching that of mainstream sports on TV.

Valve has made a habit of stepping outside its original remit of game making and into uncertain experimentation, and the video streams it is hosting at TI4 are just the latest example. But the goal is still the same as it’s ever been: to make it easier and more attractive for people to pick up and play the company’s games. The only difference is that the task is now being conducted in the direct glare of the world’s attention, assigning Valve the role of primary evangelist for e-sports — even though the Dota 2 maker is only really interested in proselytizing for its own game.

E-sports already have their web streaming home on Twitch, which Valve collaborates with extensively, but The International 4 could set a new, more approachable template for their presentation. If it’s successful, it will spur many more visitors not just to Valve and Dota 2, but to e-sports as a whole. Let’s stay tuned.