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Scenes from The International event last year in Seattle. (GeekWire photos / Kevin Lisota)

If you need another reminder of the massive growth of esports, head down to KeyArena in Seattle this week for The International.

That’s where the most lucrative esports event of all time kicks off Monday, with the world’s top professional Dota 2 gamers duking it out in front of thousands of fans packed into a stadium more typically known for hosting traditional sporting events like basketball.

But this is 2017, and professional video gaming has surged into relevance — both from a popularity and financial perspective.

[Follow-up: Why people love esports: Scenes from Valve’s huge $24M Dota 2 tournament]

The prize pool at The International, the premiere annual Dota 2 tournament hosted by Bellevue, Wash.-based video game giant Valve Software, will hit another record this year at nearly $24 million. That’s up $3 million from last year and is comparable the purse of main events in sports like golf or tennis. It’s the richest esports tournament pool of all time, according to ESPN. The winning 5-person team will take home more than $10 million.

Valve creates The International’s prize pool through crowdfunding. After first contributing to the pool itself, the company takes 25 percent of sales from digital programs and in-game Dota 2 purchases made by gamers, and adds that to the pool.

The company also sells out KeyArena to spectators who watch the professionals battle out at center court, where the teams compete in two pits with glass windows. The International has a sports-like feel, from the raucous crowd to the broadcast booths to the press rows to the festivities outside KeyArena. Valve streams the live action to four huge screens inside KeyArena, 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.

Gabe Newell welcomes the crowd at The International 2016.

Dota 2, one of Valve’s most popular games, 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.

Polygon has a good primer on how to watch Dota 2 here.

The teams themselves hail from all over the world and the gamers are treated much like high-profile athletes, red carpet and all.

After four days of group stage, the 16-team main event kicks off Monday morning, with a best-of-five Grand final on August 12. Last year’s winning team, Wings, disbanded and will not return to defend its title. Other competing teams include top esports organizations like Evil Geniuses, Team Liquid, Newbee, and more.

If you don’t make it out to Seattle this week, there are other ways to tune in to The International. Valve is live-streaming the action on Twitch, the top game streaming site owned by Amazon, and its own website. It is also hosting a “newcomer stream” for those that aren’t up to speed about how Dota 2 works — perfect for people that want to learn more about what makes this game so popular and exciting.

If you have a Steam VR-capable headset, you can also watch the tournament in virtual reality. GeekWire will be at the opening ceremony at KeyArena this morning, so check back for updates later today.

(Valve Image)

Valve is looking to grow the Dota 2 competitive ecosystem, with potential third-party tournaments in addition to the three major events the company already puts on each year. Creating something like a global league is similar to what Blizzard is doing with Overwatch, which just created its own league with regulations for player salaries, signings, and more.

These are all continued signs of esports’ growth; total revenue from the industry is expected to reach nearly $700 million this year, and $1.5 billion by 2020.

Look for Valve to make continued investments in esports, with its own games like Dota 2, Counter Strike, and Team Fortress 2. The game company, one of several based in the Seattle region, is also growing its Steam digital distribution platform while investing in hardware and artificial intelligence technology.

Also keeping an eye on esports are traditional sports leagues, which already see the value of gaming’s growth and are getting involved. For example, the NBA is creating the first-ever NBA esports league in partnership with Take-Two, makers of the popular NBA 2K series. NFL teams, meanwhile, are partnering with EA Sports to host Madden tournaments across the nation. Traditional sports team owners are also investing in esports franchises.

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