Spectator Sport, Part II

As one World Cup ends and the other begins, I’m wondering how I managed to cope with The International 2014 Playoffs, where 123 games of Dota 2 were played over four days, starting at 2am our time and going for a solid 12 hours.

It was pretty mad.

Alright, so it’s not exactly the FIFA World Cup. But it might as well be: the total prize pool for this year’s The International Dota 2 tournament is going to get pretty close to US $11 million, making it bigger than the Tour de France ($3 million) and the US Masters ($9 million)1. Not bad for a game that’s free to play — and especially so considering everything bar the original $1.6 million has been contributed by players, representing a quarter of their total contributions to the game since May this year. To be fair, Dota 2 is the most played game on Steam by a long shot, but make no mistake — it’s making money, hand over fist, for Valve.

Ever since I started playing Dota 2, I wasn’t really sure what Valve were doing putting an emphasis on watching the game being played, as much as they did on actually playing the game. I’ll probably never understand why random pub matches can have hundreds of spectators, unless there’s some kind of video-game watching club on the internet somewhere that I’m not privy to. But after watching The International playoffs and soon, the main event, I now know that it’s about watching as much as it is about playing.

Which is kind of funny, seeing as the last sporting event I watched live and in colour was a game of domestic cricket, back in 2012. All the sport I’ve seen since then (including the FIFA World Cup) has been streamed online, where I can watch other people run and sweat outside without having to get out of my pyjamas. The internet has made everything more accessible, and the hundreds of thousands of spectators I see in every Dota 2 match can’t be wrong, can it?

In terms of improving my own game, I’d often wondered how much watching I should have been doing. Playing is obviously important to getting better at the game, but watching others play and pointing out where they could do better or asking myself why they’re doing what they’re doing keeps me on my toes and involves in the metagame. Analysing picks and bans for overall team synergy makes me a better drafter, and coming up with my own teams for specific strategies either gives us the chance to fail spectacularly (and find a team combination that doesn’t work, or we just couldn’t execute on), or find some measure of success (if we all manage to get our combos off).

But then again, the other side of the coin is that spectating pro games only tells me so much. I can’t see which keys the players are pressing, how exactly they’re bottle-crowing, or how they managed to pull off their combo perfectly. The player-perspective is useful, to a degree — it’s usually so hectic that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. And at times I have enough trouble with that as it is — I’ve lost my hero in a big teamfight more times than I care to admit.

I didn’t put that much stock into the spectator gems you get with stamping player cards into this year’s compendium. After all, I didn’t think there was much point in adding them to an item so I could track the number of games I had watched of a particular team. But like everything, I eventually came to the conclusion there was a point: besides showing your support for a particular team/player, spectator gems tell you how much you’re involved in the other part of Dota, the other 40% of the game: the part where do you nothing but watch people control fantasy world avatars in an attempt to win one of the most complex objective-based multiplayer online battle arena games around.

Steam says I’ve spent 1,251 hours in Dota 2 so far, and there’s plenty more where that came from.

Further reading:

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