The International 2016, or TI6, has started today with the Wild Card round in Seattle. I’m excited.
Coverage of DOTA 2 becomes more accessible every year, but the core experience still feels centered on Twitch, Twitter and various forums across the Internet. More than ever, it feels like a good thing; Valve’s increasingly professional studio setup embraces online handles, an approach common throughout eSports that makes it relatively straightforward to follow interesting analysts and casters (announcers). ESports, at least for this observer, seems closer than ever to finding its own groove.
Legitimacy helps. The prize pool for TI6 is currently drawing in on US$20 million, and ESPN continues to invest significant energies into eSports as a whole, with TI6 airing on its online channel ESPN3 and its eSports hub already one of the most welcoming places online for curious would-be fans. Recognition as a “sport” (whatever the heck that means at this point) has been the holy grail for a while across various eSports games and ESPN is offering it, sometimes spurring predictable huffing and puffing from disingenuous gadflies. Momentum is clearly gathering however, and with it more and more sports personalities are willing to talk up the concept of competitive video game competition. Sure, part of this is the ongoing and long since worn out “it’s cool to be a nerd” zeitgeist, but scoffing at people watching eSports is fast becoming about as productive as pretending expensive cable subscriptions are going to make a comeback.
Not that things are perfect just yet. Chinese team LGD Gaming have to do without support player Xue “September” Zhichuan after repeatedly having applications for a visa for entry to the United States denied, Xue’s case the most high profile of several leading up to the event. Visa issues are common across various games in the eSports world, quite possibly a symptom of the currently wide open environment of team organization and ownership. Any kind of overarching international body a la FIFA or the IOC seems a long way off. Not that those organizations offer particularly positive examples, of course.
I find myself in an interesting spot with eSports, my interests driving me to learn as much as I can but the practicality of other obligations (not least among them a toddler) enforcing a continued familiarity with a more “casual” perspective. The International does feel like an important moment in the culture as a whole each year, though. The tournament garners broad attention, it is in my opinion the most fun tournament to watch, and the last few years as each Grand Final has come to a close, I’ve found myself thinking: “that was great. What about next year?”