Jeremy Lin never got a chance to play basketball at the KeyArena. The Seattle SuperSonics left to become the Oklahoma City Thunder two years before Lin made his debut in the NBA in 2010. The KeyArena to him and many other esports fans and players now is best known as the home of The International, the annual Dota 2 tournament, which has been held in Seattle since 2011.
The prize pool for this year's tournament is just over $20 million, the biggest ever in esports history. It's a prize pool larger than that of the Masters, Tour de France or the Kentucky Derby. The winning team will walk away with a little over $9 million. To put that figure into context, Lin made $762,195 during the height of "Linsanity" while he was with the New York Knicks four years ago.
"There was a basketball tournament this year that had a $2 million cash prize, and people were saying how crazy that was, and this is 10 times that," Lin said. "It just shows that gaming is so much further along than people understand. If you look globally, gaming is huge, and it just shows there's significant interest and it's accessible. Anybody can play anytime, anywhere, as long as you have good internet."
Lin was one of the thousands of fans who packed the KeyArena for five days leading into Sunday's final. He has been playing Dota since he was 16 years old with his brothers Josh and Joseph. He says he still plays three to four times a week, even during the NBA season, especially on the road, when he's in his hotel room.
"They were playing and I started playing just because I wanted to hang out with them," Lin said of his brothers. "At first it was an awful game, because I was going 0 for 10 every single game with Bounty Hunter. How do you go 0 for 10 with Bounty Hunter? But eventually when I started to learn the game and get better, I started realizing this is like basketball. It's about having each other's back, being loyal, being at that right place at the right time, outsmarting the other team. And there's this huge mental component in this competition that I've always thrived off of. That's why I love playing it."
As he walked around the KeyArena, passing fans in costumes and hearing the roar of the sold-out crowd in the background, he said there isn't much of a difference between esports and traditional sports, even though traditional sports fans might be confused by the draw of watching two teams of five players, enclosed in soundproof glass cases, play on giant HD screens hanging above them.
"You get to see the best players, you get to experience the environment, and I'm just a fan of the game," Lin said. "It's like going to the NBA Finals and watching it. Any basketball fan would want to do that, so for me, I love coming here and experiencing it. It's not any different than traditional sports. When we come here and we watch these players playing in front of us, they're doing things we can't do, which is really the big draw.
"They're doing something that everyone loves doing, but they just do it at another level and they're extremely talented. That's why you have this fanaticism, and that's why you have people lined up at midnight asking for autographs."
"It's really not any different than sports," Lin continued, "except with sports there's more of a physical component of you doing it yourself, whereas in video games you're just controlling a hero that does the same thing. It's the unique talent of the players that is the draw."
The popularity of the game internationally and the accessibility of the game, which is free to play on your computer, lead Lin to believe that maybe Dota or esports, in general, could one day officially be part of the Olympics. If you're laughing, take a look at some of the sports currently in the Summer Games' rotation that have a fraction of the fan base and prize money currently involved in esports.
"It'll take a long time, but if it were up to me, I'd wish it were faster," Lin said. "If I'm guessing, it'll take five to 10 years."
"There's no ceiling in terms of how big it can get," he added. "I think e-gaming is going to follow the trends of society, when you look at Pokemon Go and how accessible iPhones and iPads are. Now everyone has access to iPhones and iPads around the world, and that's going to make e-gaming grow even more. Everyone is investing a lot of money in tech. I have no idea how big it's going to get, but I do know this is only the beginning."
Lin, who signed a three-year, $36 million deal with the Brooklyn Nets last month, is looking at getting more involved in esports by investing in an esports team. He wouldn't be the first athlete to do so, after Rick Fox founded Echo Fox last year. Shaquille O'Neal, Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins also teamed up to invest in NRG Esports.
"I'm looking into these opportunities, and it's authentic, because I play the game three to four times a week and I have since I was 16 years old," Lin said. "I've been playing for the last 11 years, every week, several times, so it's something I love doing. So I'm definitely trying to get into this space as much as I can.
"We're still talking about endorsements. I'm an NBA player, and I'm taken care of very well. When I endorse a team, I'll take care of the team very well. I hope to [take] my experience from the NBA and bring it to esports."
Despite the growing prize money and Lin's love for the game, however, don't look for Lin to make a run at a second career as a professional Dota player after he's done with basketball.
"I have too much respect for what they're doing, and I'm too old to do what they do," Lin said. "These are all young guys, and I'm going into the prime of my basketball career, so I'm going to stay in my lane."