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The International 2017, held at KeyArena in Seattle, is the largest Dota 2 tournament in the world. This year, the prize pool reached a record $23.9 million. (GeekWire photos / Kevin Lisota)

Why do people spend their hard-earned cash and travel from all around the world to Seattle, just to watch other people play video games?

It’s been a question on my mind ever since I first attended The International in 2015. The annual Dota 2 tournament hosted by Bellevue, Wash.-based gaming giant Valve draws in thousands from across the globe who pack KeyArena and cheer on their favorite professional gamers who are competing for a $23.9 million prize pool, the largest ever in esports history.

I get why people pay big bucks to attend the Super Bowl or the World Cup. I know why folks shell out the benjamins to buy season-long tickets to NFL games, or purchase courtside seats to watch their favorite NBA team.

And now I understand how the core tenets of what makes traditional sports so engaging — relating to the players; learning from the best; cheering on your favorite team; feeling that emotion — is entirely applicable to the growing world of esports, which also has a few unique aspects that make for something special.

“We are watching them play games,” said J.R. Austria, who traveled to Seattle this week from Atlanta. “The only difference is that this is electronic, and traditional sport is more physical.”

I felt the energy and the buzz inside KeyArena on Monday as the opening ceremony kicked off and fans — mostly younger and male — cheered on pro gamers as they emerged from the tunnels. I was at the WNBA All-Star Game at KeyArena a few weeks ago — The International crowd was way, way more hyped.

The production level is quite high at these events, from the music to the analyst commentary to the replays to the two pits with glass windows where the professionals battle out at center court. When you mix in the raucous crowd, broadcast booths, concession stand food, press rows, sponsors, and festivities outside KeyArena, it’s very much a sporting event — just one played digitally and on high-powered computers.

Tickets range from $100 for the first four days of the event, and $200 for the final two days.

The event’s production is managed by The Production Network, a Seattle-based firm that also works with Microsoft, Boeing, Samsung, TUNE, and others. It takes nine days to set-up for The International, with 300 crew members, 60 trucks, and 5,000 hours of pre planning.

“The International stacks up as one the largest events we’re involved with,” TPN President Allison DeLeone said.

For some Dota 2 players, attending The International can be a life-changing experience. That’s what happened to Kyra Slovacek, who came back to Seattle from her hometown of Boulder, Colo., after checking out the event last year for the first time.

“It was the best trip I ever went on,” she said. “I really had no idea how big the Dota 2 community was until I came to The International and saw the line wrapped all around Seattle Center and sat in the arena. It was unbelievable.”

Kyra Slovacek came back to The International from her hometown of Boulder, Colo.

For others, the reasons for attending are more simple.

“I came to see my favorite team, Evil Geniuses, play and win,” said Zac Mishler, who hails from Bloomington, Minn.

Mishler also made a key point: Watching esports is much more accessible than catching an NBA or NFL game. For example, Valve streams The International on Twitch, the top game streaming site owned by Amazon, and its own website, to millions of people worldwide.

“You can watch from pretty much anywhere,” Mishler said. “You don’t need a TV subscription. It’s more convenient.”

Eric Mishler, from Bloomington, Minnesota.

Daphne Shie, who traveled from Singapore and was attending The International for the first time, said that Dota 2 is a “very complex” game and she likes seeing how professionals play.

“You can learn from them,” she noted.

Shie said she’ll watch the occasional soccer match, but “it gets boring after a while.” Watching Dota 2 is “way better,” she said.

Daphne Shie traveled from Singapore.

Chris Matthews, who lives in the Seattle area, is an amateur game designer and explained why people like to watch professionals play Dota 2. He said “competency is a huge part of it.”

“People get to see, extensively, the most competent Dota players in the world and what their strategies are, and how they make plays,” Matthews noted.

He said that while esports is not as physically demanding as football or basketball, there are still qualities like actions per minute — APM, or how much a player can complete in one minute — that measure dexterity and help distinguish the best gamers from one another.

Matthews also described Dota as a “team sport,” much like one would talk about a traditional sport.

“It requires a lot of coordination and people knowing their roles,” he explained.

This is also very much a worldwide event, with the teams, attendees, sponsors, and more all coming from across the globe. In addition to English analysts, there were also Chinese and Russian broadcast teams with full-on sets at KeyArena.

So what’s next? This seems like just the beginning, particularly as technology helps these game companies grow their games and expand their audience. Valve is looking to build up the Dota 2 competitive ecosystem, with potential third-party tournaments in addition to the three major events the company already puts on each year for the game. 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.

Much like the U.S. has the NFL, NBA, MLS, NHL, and other pro sports leagues, you can expect the same to emerge from the biggest players in esports, particularly when total revenue from the industry is expected to reach nearly $700 million this year and $1.5 billion by 2020.

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There is crossover the other way, too, as traditional leagues themselves also 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.

“People from the traditional sports space are starting to take notice of esports and they are buying in,” said Bryce Blum, an esports guru and lawyer who spoke at our recent GeekWire Sports Tech Summit.

Blum encouraged the crowd at the Sports Tech Summit to attend an esports event, and I agree — it will help you understand this new phenomenon.

“Even if you think this is not your thing, even if you think you hate video games, you have to go, if only for 20 minutes,” Blum said. “You won’t get what’s going on on the screen— that won’t matter. You’ll hear the color commentary and the play-by-play; you’ll see the instant replay analysis; you’ll hear the fans screaming around you; you will see the pre-match commentary and the in-between games commentary; you’ll see the merchandise everywhere. You’ll think: ‘This is traditional sports. They’re just playing video games.'”

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