Doting on Sports: An Eighteen Million Dollar Video Game Tournament

American Champions

Cheers erupted in The Key Arena, as five pros representing America claimed millions of dollars and first place. Fans applauded and screamed for minutes, before the players were escorted to their green rooms and world-known performer deadmau5 began to play a set for the wild crowd. What sport could have possibly awarded so much money, so much excitement, and garner the attention of an internationally recognized musician? Dota 2, a PC game released by Valve Software for free in July 2013.

This was just one of the many video game tournaments that have earned various titles such as “eSports”, “competitive gaming”, and “digital sports”. However, the methodology behind these tournaments isn’t too far removed from a traditional sporting event like the World Cup: get the best teams in the world together for a massive, heart-wrenching, and brutal tournament. This tournament was “The International 5”, the highest paying competitive gaming competition ever — the prize pool was over 18 million dollars. If the first place team divided their money evenly they’d all be millionaires.

A confusing array of colors to a casual spectator, this was the one of the most exciting moments from the tournament.

How can so much money filter into a tournament for playing a video game? Even normal sports have trouble matching that prize pool for a single event. In golf, The Master’s prize pool was only $10 million, and in the 2000's million dollar prize pools were almost unheard of in gaming. Part of it is the promotional aspect, like how Major League Baseball holds a million dollar contest for pitching in its video games. Cash prizes are one of the main reasons shows like Deal or No Deal are so exciting, there’s a cerain novelty to watching someone win it big. It works well for Dota 2, where casual observers get hit with the financial pizzazz and might get more invested.

There’s also the hats. While Valve makes most of its income off of its digital games platform “Steam”, they also sell cosmetic items for Dota 2. These can have different effects such as changing the appearance of playable characters, providing new in-game music, or a wide variety of digital services that don’t affect competitive balance. For The International 5, Valve sold digital compendiums. These compendiums cost $10, could be upgraded by playing in-game or spending more money, and 25% of the revenue from compendium sales went directly to the prize pool. So while Valve may have put forth a 1.6 million dollar prize pool themselves, the community raised the next 16.8 million dollars through the purchase of digital items. Additionally, this meant Valve had about 50 million dollars of revenue to use as they please, much of which went into the production of The International 5.

The International 5's Venue.

While the funding may be different, these battles between digital representations are surprisingly similar to modern sports. The International 5 ended when the American organization Evil Geniuses made a comeback against the breakout Chinese dark horse CDEC. CDEC had dominated their way through the upper bracket of the tournament after barely qualifying via a wildcard slot. They’d already defeated Evil Geniuses prior to the grand finals in a convincing 2–0 sweep that made them look unstoppable. In the end Evil Geniuses would claim the finals after recuperating and smashing through the loser’s bracket. This was a storyline of East versus West that seemingly had its plot ripped from decades of Olympic Games, and patriotism sang strong when the US organization secured first place.

The individuals that make up these tournaments have their own unique stories as well. The star player for Evil Geniuses is a Pakistani teen that goes under the handle “Sumail.” Prior to his gaming career Sumail lived with extended family in a small apartment in Pakistan, and he’d share a bike with friends to make his way to gaming cafes — he didn’t have his own PC. Sumail is now a millionaire.

Curious youths catch an outside tournament display while scooting by.

We’ve all been part of a transition to digital mediums in a number of ways. For example, this website is a much more accessible than traditional print and opens an avenue for writing. Or similarly, YouTube and Netflix have taken the role of television for many. Sports have been slowly growing in this digital main stage for quite some time, and while physical sports will never be replaced, digital sports aren’t going to keep quiet.

Oh, and those cheering fans? They’re are just as crazy as any traditional sports fan.