Moscow-based Team Spirit claimed the crown at The International 2021 this weekend, earning a prize payout of more than $18 million in the process—the biggest in esports history. The team also got an official letter of congratulations from Russian president Vladimir Putin.
"Congratulations on your well-deserved victory at The International-2021—the Dota-2 World Championship," Putin wrote in a message posted at Kremlin.ru (opens in new tab) (via Google Translate). "For the first time in history, the Russian team of the Team Spirit club won these prestigious competitions. Well done!
"On the way to the final, you demonstrated outstanding leadership qualities and solidarity, and in the decisive duel, which became a real test of skill and character, you managed to concentrate and seize the initiative from strong opponents at the most crucial moment. They have proven in practice that our esportsmen are always goal-oriented and capable of conquering any peaks."
Team Spirit is the first team from Eastern Europe to win The International in a decade—since Ukrainian team Natus Vincere (Na'Vi) won the first-ever International in 2011, in fact. That makes the win a pretty big deal in its own right, but it was also a very hard-fought battle: Team Spirit blew a 2-0 lead over Chinese team PSG.LGD but pulled off a win in the fifth and final game to seal the victory.
Putin's public congratulations adds an example to the case that mainstream esports recognition is growing, and it's also part of a long history of major powers using sporting events to reflect national glory. The US and USSR were the biggest players of the 20th century—the 1972 Olympic basketball final between them remains one of the most infamous events in international sports history—but smaller nations play the game too: The Canada/Soviet hockey series that took place the same year is still treated with nearly religious reverence in my home country. (Of course, Americans have their own locally famous USSR hockey game, because they just have to have one of everything.) The International isn't quite as high up in the public consciousness as those events were, but a win is a win—and among younger, esports-savvy Russians especially, Team Spirit's victory was a big one.