In February this year, international eSports organisation ESL made a surprise announcement. In May, the UK would host its first ever Dota 2 Major. Demand for tickets was phenomenal; such was the appetite for a big Dota event on our great isle. When the first batch of tickets sold out within six hours, ESL proclaimed that this was their fastest-ever selling Dota event.
In the past, London has played host to major League of Legends and Counterstrike tournaments; but Dota fans have had to travel to mainland Europe, typically Sweden or Germany, to show support for their favourite teams.
I’ve been to past ESL events in Frankfurt and Hamburg; and I feel Birmingham maintained the high standard that I’ve come to expect. By bringing this event to our shores, ESL was taking a chance on the UK fan base. At a conference ahead of the tournament, their UK Managing Director James Dean revealed that his colleagues at ESL HQ were initially underwhelmed at the prospect of a tournament in Birmingham. I hope the success of the event has changed their minds.
This was a significant tournament in the annual Dota 2 calendar. The 12 participating teams shared a $1m prize pool, with the winners, Virtus.pro, taking home $500k. Also up for grabs were crucial pro-circuit qualification points that help move teams closer to a place at The International (Dota’s upcoming annual world championship).
The teams comprised direct invites alongside winners of regional and open qualifiers. Around 200 teams from around the world were whittled down to the dozen that took part in the LAN event at Arena Birmingham across five days from 23–27 May.
Going into the tournament, some teams had already secured a place in the pro-circuit top eight; guaranteeing them a direct invite to The International. For others, this was make or break — and defeat might mean a gruelling and unpredictable slog through more rounds of qualifiers.
During the first two days, teams participated in a closed-door group stage; streamed on Twitch, Facebook, and via the Dota 2 game client. At the end of this, six teams left the competition and the remaining six were seeded into a double elimination bracket. Days three to five took place in front of a live arena audience, made up of nearly 10,000 fans. The finals were even streamed on BBC iPlayer.
The production quality throughout the weekend was of the usual high standard that we’ve come to expect from ESL; supported by a lineup of the very best hosts, analysts and commentators that Dota 2 has to offer. Whilst the UK can’t boast any homegrown players in the world’s top teams; we do supply the cream of the crop when it comes to broadcasting talent. Amongst them, veteran broadcaster and host Paul ‘Redeye’ Chaloner; who opened the tournament with a respectful tribute to John Bain, who had passed away the day before. It was a touching, sombre moment that I won’t forget any time soon.
If you’ve never been to an eSports event, you might be wondering what the appeal is. You could watch all the action at home; in the comfort of your favourite chair, without spending a penny on entry, travel or accommodation. You’d probably get a better view of the actual games too; with less chance of an excitable Virtus.pro fan knocking over your pint.
But, to watch events like ESL One: Birmingham from your lounge, is to miss the incredible atmosphere; the sense of belonging; and the very spirit of the event. Home fans brought the venue to life; determined to show that professional Dota is not only welcome in the UK, but very much appreciated. And with several fan-favourite teams out of the running, we directed our support to the underdogs; up-and-coming South American team, Pain Gaming, who seemed almost overwhelmed at the thunderous cheers that greeted them as they entered the arena.
The message to the organisers was clear: we want more!
Overall, I had a great experience at ESL One Birmingham. There were a few small improvements I’d like to see; and if I had to level one criticism at the event, it would be the lack of diversity in the talent pool. It’s an industry-wide issue and one that I know ESL are keen to tackle.
Assuming Valve don’t make any significant changes to how the pro-circuit operates next year, I am looking forward to seeing more Dota in the UK in the future. Until then, The International is just around the corner, and I can’t wait!