On a blisteringly hot Saturday morning, as I made my way up the stairs to the Singapore Indoor Stadium, I heard one of the world’s largest esports events before I saw it.
As I walked inside, a thunderous roar of “oohs” and “whoas” greeted me, and the momentary darkness gave way to a sea of red and blue lights, and gigantic screens suspended above the main stage in the centre, each the size of a double-decker bus.
The International (TI), the annual flagship tournament for the multiplayer online battle arena video game Dota 2, had begun its final weekend. It was also being held in Singapore for the first time, with the finals taking place on October 29 and 30.
For a game titled Defence of the Ancients 2, it seemed entirely appropriate to feel as if I’d walked into a Roman Colosseum full of ecstatic spectators. Highlights from previous editions flashed on the screens, eliciting throaty cheers from the 12,000 people who had gathered to witness the highest level of Dota 2 gameplay.
And this year has been particularly memorable for those who live in this part of the world. Since its inception in 2011, previous TIs have mostly taken place in North America or Europe. The closest it had gotten here was in 2019, when Shanghai hosted.
It was enough to entice at least one fan to purchase a ticket here right away. “It’s like, ‘Oh sh*t, I can actually go there,'” Leonides Balauitan, 25, who flew in from the Philippines, said.
“It’s like a dream come true.”
For the uninitiated, massive esports tournaments like TI can be difficult to understand, let alone follow. Fortunately, this Dota 2 noob was accompanied by David, a friend who patiently served as a personal commentator/guide/translator as we settled into our seats in the upper gallery.
So here’s what I discovered: Dota 2 is essentially two teams battling it out on a virtual battlefield. Each side has five “heroes,” and the goal is to destroy your opponent’s base before they can do the same to yours. People came here for the spectacle of a fight between the teams, I surmised. As previously stated, the Roman Colosseum.
The prospect of a virtual bloodbath drew a crescendo of cheers as the first two teams of the day, Team Aster from China and Team Liquid, comprised of four Swedes and a Finnish player, entered the stage area.
The first of three games began with Team Liquid drawing first blood after they took their seats and checked their equipment (much like pilots completing a pre-flight checklist). The crowd erupts in a deafening roar.
Team Aster was eventually eliminated, and we moved on to the next matchup, which was between Team Secret and Tundra Esports, who I was told was one of the favourites to win this year.
And I didn’t need David to tell me how good they were. During the matches, statistics would appear on the screen, indicating the chances of each team winning.
Earlier, I spoke with Thomas Esser, SAP SE’s director of Global Sponsorships. The German software company collaborated with Valve, the creators of Dota 2 and The International, to provide real-time analytics on matches, teams, and players.
In recent years, data and analytics have become even more integral to the esports viewing experience, allowing fans (and newcomers like me) to better appreciate the game.
“Those insights bring the game to life and deliver a compelling experience to fans around the world,” Esser explained.
I’m not sure how much of an impact this had on Team Secret’s morale, but Tundra Esports was given a “99%” chance of winning this game.
Fans will be fans, regardless of the statistical improbability of an upset. And there was one Team Secret supporter in the back who refused to give up, shouting his lungs out even as his team was dismantled.
“I’ve supported Puppey (a Team Secret player) since TI1,” Lin Tun, 28, from Myanmar, said, a little breathless. These players have been a part of his and other fans’ lives for more than a decade.
Tundra Esports won after three intense games, bringing the day to a close. And I was itching for more.
“THE BATTLEFIELD WAR”
The next day, Sunday, felt different. The crowd’s energy was still present, but there was a palpable sense of unease. It was do or die for the teams competing today.
First up, Team Secret returned to take on Team Liquid. The former eventually won two games to one, and the camera zoomed in on one of the latter’s players, Lasse “MATUMBAMAN” Urpalainen, who was wiping away tears.
Chants of “MATUM” rang out throughout the stadium for the Finnish player, a fan favourite with a nine-year career. The defeat marked the end of his professional career, and he will retire following the tournament.
“I feel like I’ve been in a war on the battlefield of Dota 2. “I think I just need to relax a little bit,” he said following the game. “Dota brought me nothing but joy. It gave me a sense of purpose and defined who I am.”
It served as a reminder that there is more to the game than just playing it every day. For some fans, this meant expressing their enthusiasm in other ways, such as by dressing up.
Yip Sze Yan, a 36-year-old Malaysian dressed as the character Crystal Maiden, was among the many cosplayers at TI.
“I think she’s the most beautiful hero,” Yip, who has been playing Dota for nearly 18 years, said. Attending her first TI in person was something she wanted to do. “Dota is a very nostalgic thing for me, and it will be very close to my heart for a long time.”
THE FINAL FIGHT
We finally arrived at the weekend’s highlight, a best-of-five match between Team Secret and Tundra Esports, with the winner taking home a little more than US$8.5 million (S$12 million) in prize money.
It was payback time for Team Secret after their defeat the day before. It was an opportunity for the crowd to do a, ahem, Kallang wave. You couldn’t help but join in as it echoed throughout the stadium. It was so contagious that even those who were new to the game were caught up in it.
“The entire crowd and the atmosphere are really good,” said Crystal Dang, 25, who doesn’t play Dota 2 but joined her boyfriend, Daniel Tu, 26, who does. “Even if I didn’t know what was going on, the energy around me amplified everything.”
Tu, an Australian, joked that the tournament had inspired Dang to learn more about the game. “I asked her to name ten heroes, and she could do it,” he joked.
Given their previous close encounter, Team Secret appeared to be the only team in the tournament with a chance of defeating Tundra Esports. However, it became clear rather quickly that this would not be the case.
The latter delivered a clinical masterclass in Dota 2, thwarting the former’s attempts to claw their way ahead. The dreaded (or otherwise) graphic reappears during the third game. Team Secret had a 34% chance of winning, their best in the entire series.
That was all they were going to get as Tundra Esports easily dispatched their opponents. The stadium erupted when the winners delivered the decisive blow to win the series 3-0.
Tundra Esports players walked forward to lift the Aegis trophy, and fans erupted. Sparklers, almost blinding, popped up from the floor, and confetti rained down from the ceiling.
Tundra Esports would go down in history not only as the winners of this year’s TI, but also as one of the best teams to ever play the game.
And after a two-day crash course in Dota 2 and discovering how much it meant to so many people, this noob didn’t need a friend to explain it to me.