Day 4 at the International: So what happens when you win $5 million playing a videogame?

There is a specific feeling to the third act of a gaming binge. I associate it with the high school three-day weekend, holed up in my room, the shades drawn, pushing for 100% completion in Final Fantasy X. At some point your skin feels loose and your eyes get swollen and start to burn. There is a sheet of sweat and dust covering your face. When you start to twitch, it’s your metabolism turning on you from all the chips and fruit snacks and various sodas.

It’s a hard come down. It’s a young man’s game. And it’s how I feel sitting down for the Grand Finals at Key Arena.

Four days of this blitzkrieg. All the purple and blue light is sucking the melanin from my skin. When I close my eyes I see Enigma channeling a black hole and me being pulled toward it, closer and closer until I see the face of eternity. I am jumping at shadows. Battle horns ring perpetually in my ears.

And yet I am so excited to watch Vici Gaming take on NewBee in the championship best of five. So is the rest of the sold out crowd, because the wave finally starts. It’s a good one too. The four analysts at the booth are egging it on.

Let’s talk about the analysts for a moment. If there is anything that legitimizes this whole production, if anything justifies these games being broadcast on ESPN2, it’s the commentary crew. Presiding over everyone is James Harding, the sober, fatherly pro in total control of the conversation. Bruno Carlucci is the color guy and stat nerd who shows up every day sporting an increasingly flamboyant suit. Then there’s Jorien van der Heijden. I once watched her watching a match while not on camera and it was clear how much she loves the game. There are at least four other personalities rotating in and out of the analyst desk, and all of them are charming, insightful, and inclusive.

But the person with the hardest job is Kaci Aitchison, the field interviewer. Her task is to pluck strangers from the crowd (people who are not necessarily adept at public speaking, to say the least), put them in front of a camera, and make sure things don’t get awkward. At least a few times she had to interview someone who was underneath a mask. And she is always able to endear these people to the crowd.

The undercards have run their course. They were entertaining. There were moments of true exhilaration. But they weren’t why people flew from around the world to sit here and eat weird 10am stadium popcorn and watch jumbo screens for five hours. It’s time for the main event. 

Somewhere in the rafters of the arena, a maniacal old man sits in front of his control booth. He puts on sunglasses, tightens leather gloves, and smoothes out his beard. He rests his hand over a giant red button and says, “You’re welcome, Seattle.”

Towers of smoke erupt from the north and south sides of the stadium. Through them, both teams emerge, preceded by their respective color guard. They march through the floor, through the outstretched arms of people who just want to touch their favorite progamer’s tracksuit in hopes that it will grant them whatever killer instinct needed to play DOTA 2 for five million dollars. 

The teams line up on stage, the Aegis of Champions between them. It has sat on that pedestal throughout the tournament: a king maker, a mirage, tantalizingly close and yet impossible to possess by anyone but the truly superlative.

The stakes have never felt higher. One team will end the day as millionaires. The other will be tossed into a volcano. I am a believer.

Then, 90 minutes later, and just twelve minutes into game four, as NewBee is again steamrolling through the map, again leading VG in kills by double digits, the crowd starts to murmur and look to each other for some sort of answer. I too feel the panic. Is this it? This can’t be it. It’s not even lunch yet. Is someone going to become a millionaire before I’ve had my Trader Joe’s southwest chicken salad?

And it happens. VG throws their swords on the ground and cry out “GG” to whatever god is still listening. NewBee erupts from their seats. Explosions pepper the stadium from all directions. Purple confetti rains down on everyone. Streams of sparkling flame curtain the stage while NewBee embrace each other as one, a final gesture of the superb team synergy that just made them rich.

But underneath all the noise and lights, is the crowd even cheering? Politely, maybe. They start leaving, slowly making their way up the aisles and back onto planes to go home and continue whatever they put off in order to attend the event.

NewBee hoists the Aegis of Champions along with their Chinese flag and pose for pictures. They do this until the rock music stops. Then they talk amongst each other, not knowing what to do with their hands. Everyone in the entire stadium, the grand champions included, seem to be asking, “What now?”

Because there is another feeling that comes with the gaming binge. The final boss is beaten, the closing cut scenes run their course, and the credits roll. You watch the credits since maybe there is more to play. But there isn’t. The start screen returns, just as it was when you first started playing 200 hours ago. The satisfaction comes and then it goes. In the end, it’s just a videogame.

That’s not to say video games aren’t worth playing. If anything, what The International showed me is how worth it games are. For four days, Key Arena housed an entire civilization: a culture, an economy, a language and religion, acted out unapologetically, with confidence and sheer joy. How many misconceptions were squashed as too-cool arena employees suddenly pumped their fists when an Earthshaker teleported just in time to escape certain death?

As I walk out of Key Arena, a security guard stops a group of teenagers to ask who just won. I had seen this security guard the day before, wandering the aisles and yelling at loiterers. When the teenagers tell her, she throws her arms in the air and laughs. “NewBee? But VG was kicking so much butt!”

This whole to-do was worth it, yes. But if those teenagers get on the bus feeling just a little empty, it’s because in the end DOTA 2 is just a videogame. At least for now.

Header image by Jakob Wells