How The International became a global 'Super Bowl for nerds'

The International 7: Grand Finals: Team Liquid v Newbee (3:39)

Team Liquid takes on Newbee in the Grand Finals. (3:39)

SEATTLE -- When he's not writing columns about the local music scene, Paul Rauch works in guest services at KeyArena, the venue for last week's overflowing crowd at The International 7 Dota 2 Championships.

His assessment of the richest event in esports history -- the prize pool eclipsed $24 million, more than double the payout at last weekend's PGA Championship -- and the tens of thousands of fans it drew from around the globe for the weeklong spectacle?

"Like a Grateful Dead concert for nerds," Rauch said by way of compliment. Despite the high-energy crowd, there were no fights, no taunting, no drunks, no rude behavior. "It's been amazing."

Kayla Battleson of Great Falls, Montana, who was honeymooning at The International, had a minor objection to Rauch's assessment. Not to the term "nerds," with which many fans of pro gaming self-identify. Battleson simply believed the event was much more significant than a concert.

"I'd say it's a lot more like a Super Bowl for nerds," she said.

The Super Bowl comparison is understandable given the frenzied environment inside the arena during competitions, which felt like one of those highly produced halftime extravaganzas. Except instead of 20 minutes, it went on for six days.

Tickets -- $100 for midweek, $200 for Friday and Saturday -- for the six sessions at the 17,000-seat KeyArena sold out in minutes, and a few thousand other fans watched for free on giant displays outside on the Seattle Center grounds.

The scene inside: pulsing lights panning the darkened arena, brilliant video action over the giant screens and real-time commentary over the PA at auctioneer tempo. Those new to the game see a phantasmagorical world of death and destruction. At any change in team fortunes, though, the initiated understand the action and cheer like the ghosts of the abandoned fans of the Seattle SuperSonics who used to fill this arena.

The game: complex tactical interactions with heroes of extraordinary capabilities that each team drafts to battle with. There is abundant strategy, hair-trigger actions and reactions. It's a coordinated effort of five players on each team in soundproof glass booths, working their keyboards and wearing headsets. It looks like the most impatient and frantic call center in the world.

In Saturday's best-of-five Grand Final, Europe-based Team Liquid swept China-based Newbee 3-0 to bring a stunning end to a fight through the losers' bracket to the title -- worth $10.8 million. Liquid captain Kuro "KuroKy" Salehi Takhasomi held aloft the winners' Aegis of Champions, a shield described on the Dota 2 website as "the ultimate symbol of victory in the epic struggle between Dire and Radiant."

WAYNE LIU develops video games in China, so this, his second trip to The International, was mostly for business. Although he had a ticket to be inside, he sat on the grass outside KeyArena during the semifinals to enjoy the sunshine after a week of heavy smog created by wild fires burning in Canada. The gray Seattle air, he said, "was very much like Beijing, my home."

"In China, it is a cultural phenomenon," Liu said of Dota 2's popularity in a country that provided five of the 18 teams at The International. "The first generation of Dota was very popular on campuses; they had no way to connect on-line otherwise."

Qian Chu wore the red flag of the People's Republic of China around his shoulders like a cape. Of course, he was rooting for Newbee in the final match. He came from "the middle part of China," he said, where "we don't have too many things to do." University students, he explained, used video games as one of their main social outlets. "I played this game almost 14 years, back to Dota 1."

Like many in attendance, Australian James Tibbitts wore a costume of one of the hero characters, Puck. "He's a faerie dragon," Tibbitts said of his alter ego. His hair was dyed a pastel lavender to match the color theme of his diaphanous wings. Tibbitts, who came from Melbourne with three friends, works for an internet service provider. "I would say that's probably pretty typical [of Dota 2 fans]," Tibbitts said of his IT background.

Lisa Su, of Redmond, Washington, has tried playing Dota 2 but found "it's just not quite my thing; I'm very bad at real-time games." But she's a champion at costume-making, attending the final match dressed as the Shifty Minnow mythical ward. "It's a fishing lure, basically," she explained.

More to the point, she was able to explain the lure of these video games.

"There are so many outlets for other sports," she said. "But for those of us who are a little more introverted and love their computers, those in my generation (under 30), we grew up with computer games as our staples. We've known them since we were born. Finally, there's an outlet for us."

Battleson, the newlywed bakery manager from Montana, said she and her husband both play the game, but she heard the complaints that of the 90 pro games competing at The International, none was a female.

"I was surprised how many women were here, though, and so many in cosplay, which I really appreciate," she said.

Ted Kosmatka was one of three main writers of dialog and lore for Dota 2 (with Marc Laidlaw and Kris Katz), developed by Bellevue, Washington-based game company Valve Corp. He cited the game's limitless complexity and its reliance on teamwork for its appeal. Its global reach is a "testament to all the dedicated people who worked on it, and the fans who have helped push the game forward," he said.

Kosmatka now focuses on writing science fiction books, but he looks back at the genesis of Dota 2 and sees senses a connection to something deeper in fans: "I think the game taps into something really ancient in human nature -- the urge to compete and test your limits."

INTERVIEWS OF many who traveled to Seattle for The International reveal that "nerd" is not a pejorative. They take proud ownership. What better place than Seattle, then, for the massive event? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is just a few blocks away from KeyArena, as is Paul Allen's Museum of Pop Culture and his Allen Institute for Brain Science. Amazon's urban campus is a short walk.

The thoughtful nature of those in attendance contributed to making it such a successful gathering.

"Of all the crowds we have at KeyArena, the Dota crowd is the very best," said Rena Wynkoop of guest services. "I've worked every one of these, and it's always the same. All of these nice people are from different countries, and they all get along and are polite and wonderful. Really, to tell the truth, it gives you hope for the world."

Really? International harmony through esports?

"Well, a lot of us are nerds," said Andrew Obertas of Surrey, British Columbia, "so we're not really prone to physicality. It would disrupt the fun spirit of things if anybody tried to be too aggressive."

But Dota 2 involves pretty much constant death and destruction, right?

"Well, yes," Obertas said. "But we're all here for a good time."