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Going to an e-sport event is like traveling back to the time when people followed sports for the sport

The UK’s first Dota 2 Major event reminds one writer about the original wholesomeness of games

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Think about your favorite spectator sport. Do you remember a time when you were just into the game itself, without the complicating and exciting factor of having a team to root for? For most people, the experience of watching competitive sports is inherently connected to cheering for a particular team or player. In my case, that sport was basketball, and I literally can’t recall having any interest in it before the Michael Jordan Bulls captured my passion and attention. But when it comes to e-sports, a field very much in development, franchise loyalty remains secondary to the love of the game.

This past weekend, I attended the first big Dota 2 tournament held in the UK, the $1 million Birmingham Major hosted by ESL One, and I got to experience two uniquely pleasurable things. It was the first time I watched professionals play my favorite video game, and it was the first time I observed a sport, albeit an e-sport, being followed and supported purely for its own sake and not because of teams and players. More than 8,000 people gathered in Birmingham for a common cause: not to trade barbs and witless repartee, but to celebrate the game that they (we) all love.

My thoughts from the event are numerous and varied, so I decided to organize them into a set of similarities to and differences from the more familiar athletic sports gatherings.

The in-person experience

Right up until the kickoff, tip-off, face-off, first whistle or bell, you don’t need to give two hoots about the game itself to get into the excitement of a live event. Before the action starts, hype is blaring from every speaker and screen — you’ll learn the relatable underdog narratives, background about the players, and historical context that raises the stakes — and that stuff is universal. The Birmingham Arena where the Dota 2 event was held started off with a brilliant show of lights and sound, one whose base-heavy thumps could have been the buildup to anything: a concert, a boxing match, or even an especially lavish smartphone launch.

Players were introduced with much the same theatrical fanfare that you’d expect from something like a pro wrestling event: each team emerging from a puff of smoke punctuated by searching bright lights, and players walking through a human forest of enthusiastic high fives. This has become a fairly common aspect of live e-sports, not exclusive to Dota 2 or this particular event. The teams involved in e-sports are working hard to sow the seeds for a loyalty that transcends the individual game, and this sheen of hype is instrumental to that effort.

Despite the hype and energy that comes with experiencing a competitive event firsthand, I do find that both athletic contests and e-sports are better experienced at home. Granted, I haven’t had courtside seats at Wimbledon yet, but the vast majority of sports and games are presented much better in video format nowadays. It’s to the credit of the camera operators and sound engineers who make us feel like we’re right in the heart of live action while we’re sitting on our couches. And it’s doubly true for natively digital products like a Dota 2 game. As fans, we go to the arenas and stadiums primarily for the socialized excitement we can only feel in those places, the ability to get lost in the collective emotion for a few hours.

There’s one advantage that athletic sports will always have over e-sports

One compelling thing about traditional sports that e-sports haven’t been able to reproduce is the immediate connection between a player’s play and their emotional state. Thinking back to the ‘90s, I don’t remember score lines or win-loss records. I remember Jordan’s furrowed brows when losing, extended tongue when dunking, and perpetual gum-chewing in between. I remember John Stockton’s stoicism, Dennis Rodman’s tempestuousness, and Dikembe Mutombo’s big grin behind a wagging finger. In Dota, players can only really express their personality through their play.

Through the course of the three-day Birmingham Major weekend, I sat at every possible position in the arena, from the front row to the high seats on either side to all the way at the back. No matter where I was, I felt no direct connection to the players. Half the time, all I could see of the stage were the backs of the monitors the game was being played on. The Overwatch League tries to get around this issue by having a persistent display of the players, but even with that setup, looking at the players means not looking at the game, so they serve as more of a distraction than an integrated part of the spectator experience. And regardless, being a professional e-sports player requires the discipline to remain laser-focused on your screen until the end, which makes your physical self a profoundly unexciting sight.

The social connection

More than anything else, the lasting impression this Dota event left on me was one of community. The majority of tickets for the weekend were sold within the first half hour of availability, after the wily organizers at ESL One challenged UK Dota fans to demonstrate their passion for the sport. Eventually, the arena layout was even reconfigured to fit more seats and sell more tickets. People from across the UK, as well as many from outside its borders, flooded to this event because of their passion for the game.

On a personal level, it was absolutely alien (in a good way) to me to be able to discuss Dota with another real-world person without having to first explain or excuse my fandom of the game. I imagine this was the same sensation Christians feel when they go to church: I was in a crowd of strangers who didn’t feel like strangers because we had that one unifying thing about us. The crowd gave me license to indulge in the geekdom I would otherwise suppress. In that way, the event was as much a festival as it was a tournament.

This Dota 2 event was the most wholesome, enthusiastically geeky gathering I’ve ever been a part of

After attending the international editions of NBA and NFL games played in London, as well as a few Premier League matches, I can’t say that my favorite spectator sports offer anything remotely like an e-sport event in terms of social experience. An NFL match where you don’t care about who wins is a horrifyingly drab affair, mostly composed of oversized men in oversized pads ambling back and forth. Basketball is better, but in that case, I just get the itch to play instead of watch. And if you’ve ever sat among English football fans, you’ll know that they spend more time hating on the opposition and complaining about their own players’ supposed incompetence than they do celebrating good plays.

At the Birmingham Major, one fan brought a sign that read “I just hope both teams have fun.” Yes, that slogan’s enough of a meme nowadays that you can buy it on a T-shirt, but in the case of Dota, it’s genuinely true for the majority of fans. We were there to appreciate good Dota, and the universal fan-favorite team quickly became Pain Gaming, the Brazilian underdogs who outperformed all expectations.

The only booing was reserved for teams who chose boring or conservative heroes, and even that was mostly in jest. Fans roared in approval of good play on both sides, though their bias was consistently in favor of the losing team, whoever it was — in large part because they wanted the matches to go on as long as possible. Four hours of Dota per day is considered a light schedule, with many fans wanting, some expecting as many as eight hours of action each tournament day. This Dota 2 event was the most wholesome, unapologetically geeky and enthusiastic gathering I’ve ever experienced.

The commercial aspect

E-sports still have a long way to go to develop the pedigree and respect that athletic sports currently enjoy, but in terms of production values and corporate sponsorships, they’re already on a mature level, employing all the tropes of professional presentation. That includes men in sober suits and Sennheiser HD 25 headsets delivering real-time analysis, autograph signing sessions in between matches, and, of course, plenty of merchandise sales opportunities.

The modern, coliseum-sized Birmingham Arena was draped with the advertising slogans of a number of familiar brands. Intel, Alienware, and Red Bull were the predictable ones, but fellow big names Vodafone, Mercedes-Benz, and DHL were also title sponsors, alongside a service called paysafecard. Vodafone put its name to an analyst segment between matches called Vodafone View, while Mercedes-Benz decided to give away a car to the player deemed most valuable through the course of the tournament. That car became a talking point among the commentators during matches.

Both the broadcast and in-person experience of Dota 2 are becoming saturated with commercial messages. It’s not quite as extreme as the current NBA playoffs, where a basketball game occasionally breaks out in moments of respite between commercials, but it’s getting worse as Dota grows more popular. Red Bull had mini-fridges with cans of its energy drink positioned on the stage and among the floor-level seating, every match began with a “powered by Intel” video message, and each player was sat behind an Alienware monitor and an Alienware PC in an exhibition case.

In e-sports as in athletic sports, whoever loses, capitalism always wins

Importantly, as ESL’s UK manager James Dean pointed out to me, e-sports are developing into distinct and differentiated businesses, each with its own funding model tied to how the original game is managed by its creator. For Dota 2, which Valve prefers to be hands-off with, that means third parties like ESL One gather up the $1 million prize pool and cover the expense of hosting the event through ticket and merchandise sales along with more creative sponsorship engagement.

While Dota tends to have ad-hoc sponsors for each individual tournament, the more centrally organized League of Legends and Overwatch have title sponsors for their competitions: State Farm and Toyota, respectively. More conservative advertisers are still wary about investing too heavily into e-sports, as a recent SportsBusiness Journal report shows. However, the so-called e-sports economy is projected to nudge close to $1 billion this year, and it’s likely to surpass that mark in 2019 if its current double-digit growth continues apace.

Advertising and sponsorships make up the bulk of corporate spending on e-sports, but the Birmingham Arena was also outfitted exactly as you might expect for a night out at a sports event: umpteen varieties of junk food and fizzy drinks on offer, merchandise from all the most popular teams, and Intel and Alienware booths to show off the latest PC hardware. In e-sports as in athletic sports, whoever loses, capitalism always wins. This means that e-sports are on their way to becoming more economically sustainable — but also just as annoyingly infused with corporate messaging as traditional sports.

The future

It’s been four years since I wrote my in-depth report on what it’s like to be a professional e-sports player. In that time, Dota 2 has kept to the same trajectory of constant growth. Every year, the game’s marquee event, called The International, breaks the record for highest prize pool in e-sports history. Every month, new players join, and existing players remain as committed as ever. What’s different now is that Dota is starting to make increasing appearances in the mainstream even without the crutch of having the richest tournament in all of gaming.

Matches from the Birmingham Major were broadcast by the online-only BBC Three channel in the UK, and the very existence of the Valve-initiated Majors system means there’s a $1 million Dota 2 tournament happening almost every other week somewhere across the globe. The associated Dota Minor tournaments ensure that smaller markets and locations also get to enjoy professional matches live and in person. Dota remains an extremely complex game with a steep learning curve for newbies, but it’s gradually gaining in recognition, and tournaments like this one will help it prosper in the UK by letting attendees feel the validation and comradeship that come from meeting fellow enthusiasts.

For me, the event was a chance to better understand the fandom of my favorite game. It was a good look at what happens when a thing starts online and transitions to the real world — the reverse of the historical path of sports fandom — and what I found was that everyone was exceedingly pleasant and just happy to be there. Perhaps because we’d all grown exhausted of fractious and uncivil online debates, by the time we made it to the arena, we could only sustain friendly and positive interactions.

In any case, the future of Dota 2’s tournaments looks to be a bright one, on the evidence of the Birmingham Major. It was an event to celebrate the game, first and foremost, and the crowning of a winner felt more like a formality, giving us one final reason to cheer on our favorite pastime.

Photography by Vlad Savov