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Valve CEO Gabe Newell addresses the crowd at The International on Monday.
Valve CEO Gabe Newell addresses the crowd at The International on Monday.

“Welcome to The International!”

Key Arena exploded with energy on Monday morning as Valve CEO Gabe Newell kicked off the one of the largest eSports tournaments worldwide, The International.

Newell, co-founder of Bellevue-based gaming giant Valve, appeared on stage in front of thousands who traveled to Seattle to watch the world’s top Dota 2 gamers compete for a record-breaking $20 million prize pool — that exceeds the purse of a number of major sporting events, including the Masters, the Tour de France and the Kentucky Derby.

“As always, this is really a high point of the year for everybody at Valve,” said Newell, who donned a black polo shirt, black pants, and black flip flops.

Newell said that this year’s tournament “looks to be very unpredictable.”

“Any team can beat any other team,” he said.

The Valve CEO also said for the past year, he’s spent most of his time with the company’s virtual reality team. He encouraged folks to try out the VR demos set up around Key Arena.

“I’m at gaben@valvesoftware.com — let me know what you think,” he told the crowd.

If you still aren’t convinced of eSports’ legitimacy, a few minutes inside and outside Key Arena this week should change your mind.

This is not your typical sporting event — at center court, there are two pits with glass windows, where the five-person teams play Dota 2.

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But everything else about The International has a sports-like feel, from the raucous crowd to the broadcast booths to the press rows to the festivities outside Key Arena. Valve streams the live action to four huge screens inside Key Arena, and any time there’s a heated battle, the crowd roars — the decibel level certainly matches, if not surpasses, what you’ll experience at any other sporting event.

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Before gates opened on Monday, a massive line wrapped around Seattle Center as fans anxiously waited to get inside the arena and watch professionals play video games. Red carpets awaited the players, who arrived via limousines to throngs of followers.

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After Newell spoke, popular violinist Lindsey Stirling came on stage wearing Windranger cosplay and amped up the crowd with 10-minute performance.

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For those that can’t be here in person, Valve is live-streaming the action here. You can also watch on Twitch and WatchESPN — yes, even ESPN is covering this event, as the sports media giant is investing in its eSports coverage.

Dota 2 is played by two opposing 5-person teams. Each player controls a hero, with a particular set of special abilities and statistics, which they can augment by purchasing items and leveling up during the game. The first team to use their combined powers to destroy an Ancient at the heart of their enemies’ base wins.

Valve, which is doubling its headquarters size in Bellevue, does something rather unique and innovative to raise money for The International’s prize pool by crowdfunding. After first contributing $1.6 million to the pool, it takes 25 percent of sales from digital programs and in-game Dota 2 purchases made by gamers, and adds that to The International pool.

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