Three Lane Highway
Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.
The International is less than six months away. That doesn't feel quite right—I'm pretty sure last year's tournament was two weeks ago, but whatever. It's coming in August, it's very likely to be back at KeyArena in Seattle, and a lot of fans, myself included, will be looking for the event to recapture a bit of the spirit that was lost in 2014.
That's not to say that TI4 was a bad event—not at all. It felt like a much bigger deal than the Benaroya Hall Internationals did. The scope of everything involved was larger, from the prize pool to the merchandise. But it was also a colder event, less intimate, which perhaps goes with the increase in size but does not necessarily need to. Having more fans in the building should make for a more energetic show, but TI4 moved in the opposite direction.
With that in mind, there are a few changes I'd like to see this year. The key thing, though, is that the Valve need to re-establish an understanding of what type of event The International is. Esports tournaments traditionally fall somewhere on a spectrum between 'fan convention' and 'sporting event', and Dota 2 has been no exception to that. In the main, however, it comes down closer to 'sporting event', with less emphasis on things like cosplay competitions and, over time, a reduced focus on the Steam Workshop or voice actor meet-and-greets.
TI4's biggest problems emerged when the 'convention' part of the equation started to intrude upon the 'sport' part. That's where I'd start.
Rethink the Secret Shop
If you needed any more evidence that cosmetic items have a strange, powerfully detrimental affect on esports, look at last year's International. The Secret Shop was a very slick, efficient operation with a two part ordering system designed to move people in with their money and back out with their stuff as fast as possible.
Even this, however, was not enough to prevent the line for the Secret Shop from occupying most of KeyArena's mezzanine for the full duration of every day. When huge chunks of your audience are standing in line for hats (actual hats, this time) rather than watching the sport they came to see, something has gone wrong. Unless you're trying to create a live-action version of the Year Beast event, in which case good job.
The issue is ultimately that the Secret Shop will always draw people away from the main event regardless of how efficient it becomes. The lure of hats is like a gas; it expands to fill the available space. The only answer, I think, is to turn the Secret Shop into a mail order service. You should order and pay for goods online and, in the case of International-specific items, be given a collection time at the event when you can go and pick up your stuff. If you miss it, have general 'free for all' periods at the end of the day when all of the games have been played.
The Secret Shop needs to become something that you jump up from your seat and do in 20 minutes between games, not something you commit an afternoon to. And that means giving Valve as much control as possible over how many people arrive and when. Ultimately, it'd be awesome if they looked into something like Disney's MagicBand. They have the resources for it, after all.
Every team plays on the main stage
I hope that this one is already in the bag: after all, this year's event will run for a full six days. The problem with 2014's structure was that it underestimated the value of pre-existing narratives to sport. They can be limiting, sometimes: teams, scenes and metagames change, and fans should be encouraged to change along with them and not expect the same 'el clasico' matches every year.
On the other hand, those events have a unifying effect that helps the community cohere. Even if it takes place in the opening stages of a long bracket, people will pack the stands to watch EG vs. Secret as they would have packed the stands for Na'Vi vs. Alliance last year. You need those moments, and you can't reliably get them if the majority of the tournament happens in a hotel a week before the live event.
Having a structure that guarantees at least one main stage game for every team vastly reduces the risk involved. Functionally, it insures the tournament against sudden changes—which is exactly what happened in 2014, when the competitive meta shifted a few times and left fan-favourite teams behind. I'd say that was less likely this year, but it's never off the table and the event needs to account for it.
Figure out how to make All Star matches work
They're such a no-brainer on paper, but it's weird how often just-for-fun 'All Star' matches fall flat. There's a lot to account for: players not being invested in the games, the audience feeling disconnected from whatever is going on in the booths, the games running too long, the games running too short, the showrunners having a particular gag in mind, and so on.
There are two I can think of has having worked well: The International 2013 and The Summit 2. In both cases it's because there's a strong link between the teams and the audience—either directly, in TI3's case, or implied by BTS' 'this could be happening in your house' deal.
That's harder to achieve in a larger arena, and it can be a real energy-sapper if the match enters a slow midgame—which is what happened last year. Nontheless, I don't think gimmicks are the solution—the solution is ensuring that the players are into it and that the audience get a sense of that. Part of that is down to the selection of players (which may well be down to a Compendium vote) and part of it is down to timing. If there isn't a time when it makes sense to have an All Star event without eating into players' schedules, it might not be worth doing.
All Star matches are, ultimately, part of the 'fan convention' part of the equation—and you can tell when it's being treated like an obligation rather than a fun diversion. Like The International as a whole, what I'd like to see in 2015 is an approach that identifies what makes these events special and makes a concerted effort to not only capture that spirit, but ultimately exceed it. The odd slightly-flat event is fine, but two in a row signifies a troubling loss of momentum.
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