With its shiny $20.7 million prize pool, this weekend's Dota 2 The International 6 was the largest professional esports events ever. Glory was on the line for the winning team, as well as $9.1 million and a legacy as one of the best Dota teams of all time. But the upside may have its downside, as many of the competitors have been outspoken about the immense pressure such a large prize pool focuses on players.
Earlier in the week, ESPN spoke with Evil Geniuses' Saahil "UNiVeRsE" Arora, who said that the prize pool difference between The International and the three Dota 2 Majors -- Frankfurt, Shanghai, and Manila -- has a telling impact on the competitive field (prize pools for the Majors were $3 million each). According to UNiVeRsE, teams change much more before TI than during the rest of the year, which negatively affects the stability of the scene.
Speaking with Fnatic's Adam "343" Erwann Shah, he echoed UNiVeRsE's sentiment:
"I do agree with [UNiVeRsE on] the prize pool; there's so much pressure on the teams, and you try not to think about it, but you're really just playing with that burden on your shoulders," he said during TI6. "It's really bad for everyone."
The pressure hurts some more than others. We asked if it gets to him and the Fnatic squad, but he reassures us that it doesn't affect them.
"For us, Fnatic, I don't think we really get affected by it anymore," he says. "We don't really care if we lose. If we lose, we lose. I think that's the best mindset to have going into it; it's what relieves you of all the pressure. There's no pressure that exists anymore; play to win, and if you don't win, whatever."
On the plus side, he says that TI-sized prize pools do facilitate interest in the game. While statistics for The International 6's viewer and engagement numbers have yet to be released, the grand finals for The International 5 attracted several million concurrent viewers.
"Competition-wise, by having such a big prize pool, no matter what you'll attract media, attention, [and] players. People will always want to come and be a part of something like this and participate in such a tournament," he explains. "More viewership will come with the prize pool growth. It's kind of a cycle. I think Dota 2 will last quite long."
Although the team exited the tournament earlier than it would have liked, taking fourth place, the squad conquered some giants that stood in its way. On Thursday, the team took down Team Liquid, who had stood victorious over them at both the Manila Major and ESL One Frankfurt in the past few months. Then, on Friday, the team defeated MVP Phoenix, who earlier on in the tournament looked like a dominant force and often faces Fnatic in their qualifiers in Southeast Asia.
Beating Liquid, who have been a bane to Fnatic's success, came after 343 says his team decided to "just YOLO it." He says the squad didn't overthink the series too much and picked heroes they felt confident and comfortable with and felt would play best versus Team Liquid.
But as 18,000 gathered to watch The International in Seattle, a similar -- albeit larger -- event was taking place in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Just as the Olympics are a celebration of international diversity in sporting events, teams and players from the United States, Germany, Ukraine, China, Korea, Malaysia, and more gathered to represent their country at The International. Fnatic, a mainly Malaysian team, represented their country proudly.
"It means a lot [to represent Southeast Asia], especially since a lot of the fans back home are rooting for us; the support is immense," 343 says. "Everyone in Southeast Asia is behind us and behind MVP Phoenix and while it feels good, it's a lot of pressure to be a representative for something. We're just playing, trying to win and trying to do our best. What happens, happens."
When asked to compare The International to the Olympics, 343's message was clear-cut and simple:
"I guess I'd say [it's like the Olympics], but if I was playing for a gold medal or for $9 million, I'd probably have more pressure playing for the $9 million."