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Watchlist: The International 2016 (Again)

Watchlist: The International 2016 (Again)

The pitch:

Professional Dota 2’s premier event, The International 6, the biggest tournament in the history of esports, comes to a close this weekend. Already, it’s being hailed as a classic thanks to a series of upsets that eliminated many of the teams expected to win it all. But the big story—or, at least, one of them—is just how international this International really is: no regional Dota 2 scene can claim more than one of the five teams still in contention. Simply put, not only has Dota 2 never been this competitive, it’s never been this global either.

How to watch:

Saturday, August 13, 10:30 AM – 4:30 PM PST
Free on: twitch.tv/dota2ti
Videos of every match played are available here.

The details:

It wasn’t all that long ago that The International didn’t really live up to its name. For the first few years of professional Dota 2 competition, China reigned supreme, and the rest of the world mostly showed up for scraps. There were exceptions, sure—the Ukrainian outfit Natus Vincere was uniquely capable of agitating the Chinese from 2011 to 2013, and the Malayisan team Orange Esports snuck third at The International 3—but, on the whole, the Chinese against the world was a relatively one-sided affair.

But hot damn, just look at the regional/national affiliations of the five teams still in contention at The International 2016: the Chinese team Wings Gaming is accompanied by Evil Geniuses (United States), Digital Chaos (Mostly European), MVP.Phoenix (South Korea), and Fnatic (Malaysian). Simply put, The International has never been, well, this international.

And that’s a good thing. One of the meta-narratives of professional Dota 2 has been the slow emergence of championship caliber teams from regions other than China, and, to a lesser degree, Europe. There’s plenty of reasons as to why teams from North America and Southeast Asia are now capable of competing at the highest levels of Dota 2, but the structural explanation is the most compelling: for years, China’s well-developed Dota 2 scene could afford to pay its players a living wage; in turn, they practiced more and formed better teams. It took a few years for the rest of the world’s esports infrastructure to catch up; it’s not coincidence that once it did, the international field got a whole lot more competitive. In 2013, the Swedish Alliance declared Europe’s supremacy; in 2015, at The International 5, Evil Geniuses did the same for North America.

This year, Southeast Asia looks to do the same. For years, elite players from the region had little choice but to relocate to China to pursue a career in professional Dota 2 (see: Chuan, iceiceice, and Mushi), or else tough it out in the poorly-funded regional leagues. But with Fnatic and MVP.Phoenix still in the running at The International 6, Southeast Asia increasingly looks like it’s ready to compete on an international scale (though I suspect many would say they have been ready for some time; invite-only tournaments by Western organizers tend to favor “local” teams, so Southeast Asian teams have had fewer opportunities to compete at top-tier competitions). To wit, until last night, a Filipino team (TNC Gaming) was plowing their way through the lower bracket in upset after upset; the geopolitics of Dota 2 are tricky, but we’ll just say that Filipino Dota 2 has not always, uh, been taken seriously.

Perhaps next year, we’ll see an even wider swath of the world on the stage in Key Arena. No Dota 2 team from Central or South America has yet made a serious run at a Valve-sponsored event, but if this master narrative holds true, it’s only a matter of time. Hell, even a Mongolian team managed to be invited to the qualifier for The International 6 this year. Of course, only one team can win this weekend (humbly, I hope it’s Evil Geniuses; they’re just too exciting not to root for), but no matter who takes home the $9 million grand prize, know this: The International lives up to its name more and more every year.

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