The International: A Primer on Dota 2 and the biggest single-game tournament in eSports history

Dota 2: The International
Dota is a Big Deal. The original Defense of the Ancients, which was nothing more than a mod for Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, became a core pillar of the competitive online gaming scene thanks to its tight balance and deep strategy. It was played by millions and showcased at tournaments across the globe. Dota is considered one of the primary influences on the now booming genre of games that we refer to as MOBAs; League of Legends is supposedly the biggest game in the world, but without Dota, it would have never existed.

When Valve snagged the mod's developer, known as IceFrog, and charged him with making a sequel, expectations were high. Dota is a game celebrated for its intricate design, complex metagame, and robust character roster -- the pressure to improve on this formula without losing the basics was immense. It took over two years of somewhat closed beta testing to get everything right, and changes rolled out every week like Clockwerk.

But that's all history. Dota 2 launched last month, finally. For better or worse, the game is considered complete (minus a few heroes). And what better way to celebrate the launch of a hotly anticipated title than by throwing one of the biggest tournaments in all of competitive gaming?

Welcome to The International.

What is The International?

Put simply: The International is the Dota 2 world championship, hosted by Valve at Benaroyal Hall in Seattle, Washington. During the event, sixteen of Dota 2's must cunning teams square off for a chance to be named the best on the planet. The International began with a wild card match for the sixteenth tournament slot on August 2nd, and it will run through the final day of main event matches on August 10th. This is the third time Valve has held the tournament; Dota 2 was unveiled to the public at the first International way back in 2011.

Dota 2 International Banner
At stake is $2.8 million, the biggest single-game tournament prize pool in the history of eSports. The first-place team will walk away with $1,406,388, second place with $618,811, and third place with $281,278. Any team placing in the top eight contenders will earn prize money, with the smallest prize amount sitting at $42,192. Not a small chunk of change, even split five ways. Teams have flown in from around the world for a piece of the action and there is no telling who might walk away with the win.

The prize pool for The International is something of a unique story. Valve offered up $1.6 million of its own cash as a starting point, and then asked Dota 2 fans to contribute to the overall total by purchasing a digital guide known as the Interactive Compendium. The Compendium is an interactive companion to The International that unlocked functionalities and rewards as the prize pool grew, similar in many ways to a Kickstarter campaign.

International Compendium
Owners of the Compendium vote on All-Star and Solo Championship participants, play "fantasy football" with Dota 2 players and teams, receive Dota 2 item drops for watching matches, and track the performance of every team and player in the tournament. Twenty-five percent of every $9.99 Compendium purchase went directly into the prize pool, and viewers bought enough to generate an extra $1.1 million to toss in the bucket.

It's not just about the money, of course. This is a video game tournament, and The International serves as the most prominent place for Valve to hold Dota 2 up to the world and say, "It's finished."

Understanding Dota 2

MOBAs are by nature complex thanks to their vast character rosters, intricate strategies, and steep learning curves. It is difficult for a newcomer to the genre or even to a particular game to stare at all the action on the screen and tell when something is going right or wrong. Dota 2 is especially complex thanks to relying on some systems not found in other MOBAs.

If you've never seen Dota 2 before but are curious about The International, here are some basics that should help you know when to cheer and when to boo (skip to Winning and Losing for a very barebones view):

The Objective: Dota 2 matches consist of two five-player teams. Each team has a base, or Ancient. The goal is to knock down the opposing team's Ancient while protecting your own. There is no other way to win a Dota 2 match than by destroying an Ancient (unless the entire other team logs off).

Dota 2 Map
The Layout: Ancients are situated at opposite corners of a square map. Three lanes run from Ancient to Ancient; top (the left), middle (the center), and bottom (the right). A river cuts through the middle, and jungle areas fill in the rest. The map is more or less symmetrical, though each team has a hard and easy lane based on the layout of the map. This interactive map should help explain further.

The Strategy: Each lane is protected by three sentry towers (per team). To move down a lane, a team must first destroy the opposing team's tower; towers must be downed from front to back in any given lane. A team does not have to destroy all towers to win, but must destroy all towers in at least one lane before the Ancient will be vulnerable to attack. Each Ancient is further protected by two additional towers at its front.

The Creeps: Creeps are non-playable characters that spawn every 30 seconds from barracks located at the start of each lane and charge up the lane to fight. Creeps, when left alone, will meet at the center of a lane and end up in a stalemate unless helped along by players. If a barracks is destroyed, the team that destroys it receives buffed creeps in that lane. Creeps can kill players early in the game, but become easier to dispatch as players grow in strength. Managing creeps is a critical component of early-game Dota 2 strategy.

Dota 2 Hero
The Heroes: There are over 100 heroes from which to choose in Dota 2, and every hero has his or her own specific strengths and weaknesses. Most fit into one of three roles: Carry, Support, or Jungler. Carries are designed to kill other heroes and knock down towers, Supports buff, slow, stun, and initiate, and Junglers build strength by fighting creeps in the woods in lieu of in the lanes. Heroes have three primary abilities and one ultimate, some of which are passive and some of which are incredibly devastating. No one player can win a Dota 2 match; it has to be a team effort.

The Setup: In The International, teams choose heroes via Captain's Mode, which allows for alternate turns of banning a hero from selection and selecting a hero for play. Choosing which heroes to ban, which to play, and adjusting to those banned and chosen by the other team is incredibly difficult and requires vast knowledge of every possible team setup. Many tournament matches are won or lost based on decisions made during character selection.

The Phases: Generally speaking, a Dota 2 match is split into three main phases: Laning, Ganking, and Pushing. The Laning phase is simply heroes hanging out in lanes attempting to earn experience and gold by farming creeps, and attempting to deny experience and gold to the other team by harassing its heroes and forcing them out of the lane. In the Ganking phase, powerful heroes roam the map looking for opportunities to kill players on the opposing team. Successful ganks win gold for the team and experience for its heroes, along with setting the other team at a disadvantage due to losing a hero on the map for the duration of his or her respawn. In the Push phase, players work together to knock down towers or barracks and win the match. Note that the Ganking phase is ongoing -- there is always opportunity for knocking out heroes and team fights are common in the late minutes of a match.

Dota 2 Tidehunter
Winning and Losing: Dota 2 is complicated, so it's hard to set one specific bar to determine if a team is winning or losing. Most of the time, though, a team is considered to be winning if it has more towers standing than the opposing team, its heroes are higher levels and better geared, or it has a better flow of gold and experience. Commentators on matches will talk about XP and gold farm; the team with the most efficient mechanism for generating XP and gold without giving up kills will almost always win the match. Dota 2 highlights focus on action, but the true strategy is in the economy.

These are broad strokes, of course. There are dozens of tiny details you will pick up as you go, such as the importance of last-hitting, the necessity of denying, the complexity of item selection, and the value of a perfectly timed Roshan. Do not get overloaded -- these things will make sense eventually.

How to watch

When it comes to The International, you have your share of ways to watch. Twitch.tv is streaming the entire tournament if that's your thing, or you can view matches directly from the Dota 2 game client or at the official Dota 2 website. There's also an opportunity to watch parts of the tournament with other Dota 2 fans via a local Pubstomp; Valve has a nice big list of all the official ones on record.

The International is an all-day thing. Matches begin at 12 p.m. EDT or 3 p.m. EDT (9 a.m. PDT/12 p.m. PDT) depending on the day, and run well into the night. Chances are good that there's a match going on right now, as you are reading this.

Dota 2 is still early in its lifespan and growing in its popularity. July brought five million unique players; League of Legends reportedly has that in raw concurrency. But The International is the largest single-game tournament in the world, and no bigger platform exists for Valve to show off its latest actual release and offer it up to the MOBA masses.

Time will tell if Dota 2 becomes the new arena darling. In the meantime, The International promises to be packed with intense, competitive action that can only occur when there are millions on the line.

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This article was originally published on Massively.