The Seattle Supersonics played their last game at Key Arena on May 13th, 2009. An acquaintance of mine was at the game and would later reflect on the arena’s uncertain future. What would happen to it after the beloved but long-defunct Sonics up and left? The answer would play out over the next five years, as the modest home for the Storm, Seattle’s WNBA team, and the occasional Radiohead and Lady Gaga concert. But it was impossible to look at the adorably outdated building and not feel the sad tinge of a time long gone.
Then yesterday I pull up to Key Arena to find that the future has beat me there, that the internet has come alive and multiplied. It is 9am on a weekday and there are thousands of young people running around in matching backpacks and enormous bags of swag and other god-knows-what, pulsing like a purple phosphorescent tide, under giant purple banners that evoke a little bit Soviet Russia and a little bit Lord of the Rings.
Fleets of limos pull up along the courtside entrance and these kids step out. Not sexualized 12-year-olds or a gosling row of haircuts and electric guitars. Just kids. Shy kids and stoked kids and kids trying to look hard. They wear big headphones and matching hoodies and track jackets. And when they arrive it’s like the thousands lined up around the block collectively decide to become jacked up preteens at a Justin Bieber nude unplugged set. The crowd is so happy to see them. They just want to get inside and watch teams who are really, really good at playing Defense of the Ancients 2–until one of these teams wins five million dollars.
Five. Million. Dollars.
The International is straight up crazy.
I’ve never been to an esports event and know as much about DOTA 2 gameplay strategies as I do about tree frogs. But I desperately want to be here because it feels like a big deal. They sold out Key Arena so quickly, and hundreds of thousands of people are going to be watching online. Even my friends who haven’t picked up a controller since their NES days know The International is in town without knowing what that means. Also: five million dollars.
The fact that The International is being played in an arena instead of a convention center changes everything. It is impossible to walk around and not feel like you are in some mid-80s vision of our future, to pin what we know of sport against this new sport.
Instead of a shoot around hoop game where you can test your free throw skills against those of Gary Peyton, the halls of Key Arena are filled with workshops and kiosks offering to teach you how to become a better Carry or Support. Instead of aggrandizing portraits of former athletes, there are aggrandizing portraits of mer-people and demons with flaming, disembodied heads. The elderly stadium employee doesn’t break up groups of drunk frat dudes. He shoos away cosplayers in gold and blue armor blocking all the important entrances. I took a picture of a girl taking a picture in front of a statue of a guy with a huge sword and a rock for a face.
What’s more surprising is how The International is not different from, say, a Sonics home game. I paid five dollars for a cup of room temperature coffee. There are guys standing around bar tables with light beer watching the action on a near-by screen, just like I end up doing at most baseball games. The kids at concessions look exhausted and jaded. You walk the halls and there are shouts in the arena and you run in to see what you are missing.
As I said, I’ve never been to a live esports tournament. But once you’re there in the arena it’s hard not to feel like every other event is just talking shit. Valve has really outdone itself in terms of production and pageantry. This is not off-brand. This is the progamer tournament. Turns out, it has more in common with WWE than any pro sport. When Gabe Newell takes the stage to kick off the event, he steps through smoke and spotlights and may as well stop to flex. He speaks with the full-throated confidence of a wrestler at the peak of his narrative arch, bringing the crowd to a fever pitch in their reverence. This is Valve’s behemoth on Valve’s home turf.
And it’s such great spectacle, even for someone like me who only knows something good has happened when the rest of the stadium shouts “Ohhhhh!” and all but rip each other’s shirts off. During game three of Vici Gaming versus NewBee, when a projectile flew across the map for a direct hit on its intended target, the remainder of NewBee’s heroes descending on Vici’s from all directions, even I stood up and started screaming. Because what’s not to love here? Thousands of people collectively participating in public, unhinged joy.