For the world-class players competing at KeyArena this week, video gaming is more than play. It’s a sport where they can win almost $9 million. But the biggest winner may just be Bellevue gaming giant Valve.

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The team of five digital heroes — among them, an archer, a shape-shifter and a bat-riding imp — vanquished the last of their foes. A roar went up from the crowd of a few thousand spectators.

The virtual gladiators’ human pilotshigh-fived and hugged in a soundproof booth. The team, members of a video-gaming squad from the Philippines called TNC, stepped out onto the stage of Seattle’s Key­Arena to acknowledge their fans.

Their victory Thursday morning kept TNC alive for the $9 million top prize on the biggest stage in e-sports, as competitive video gaming is known. Picked to finish last in this week’s professional “Dota 2” video-gaming tournament, TNC instead became a crowd favorite during an improbable run that included an upset of the tournament favorites.

The International Dota 2 Championships

When: Semifinals Friday, finals on Saturday

Where: KeyArena, Seattle

Prize pool: $20.4 million (first place wins $8.9 million)

Format: 16-team tournament

Remaining teams: Evil Geniuses (U.S.), Fnatic (U.K.), MVP Phoenix (South Korea), Wings Gaming (China), Digital Chaos (U.S.)

Source: Valve

Along with 15 other teams, TNC came to this week’s “The International” tournament in search of a share of a $20 million prize pool, the largest in the history of e-sports.

The weeklong annual tournament, which continues through Saturday, draws thousands of fans live, and hundreds of thousands more online, a marquee event in an increasingly popular spectator sport for the generation raised on high-definition video games and the internet.

Game-maker’s gold mine

For Valve, the quiet, Bellevue-based giant of video gaming, “Dota 2” is a gold mine.

Founded by a pair of ex-Microsoft executives in 1996, Valve is behind touchstone franchises of “Half Life” and “Portal,” as well as Steam, the de-facto online storefront for computer games.

Apart from its commercial success, Valve is known for a corporate culture that eschews hierarchy.

According to an employee handbook Valve posted online in 2012, the company has no management structure. Employees are free to propose projects or set out on their own, and collaborate on whatever effort they feel is the best use of their time.

Gabe Newell, a Valve co-founder, said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek that the inspiration for Valve’s structure came while he was at Microsoft, working on the Windows operating system.

Newell was struck that Windows, the work of hundreds of engineers and a vast marketing department, was less popular among PC users than “Doom,” a first-person shooter video game created by a motley crew of a dozen developers in Texas.

“To me, that was a lightning bolt,” Newell said.

Labor of love

“Dota” has a similar creation story.

The game started in the mid-2000s as a labor of love led by three developers who made a multiplayer-focused modification of “Warcraft III.”

“Dota” — short for Defense of the Ancients — plays out with teams of up to five players piloting fantasy hero characters around a tabletoplike map.

The overhead view of the action, with teams competing to destroy the opposition’s base, is a familiar setup in P.C. gaming, resembling classics such as “Starcraft” and “Age of Empires.” Unlike those games, which require players to manage a mini-economy of resources and buildings, “Dota’s” focus lives in combat and teamwork.

The game’s style was a hit in the then-nascent world of competitive online video gaming, and was featured in tournaments as early as 2005.

Some Valve employees took interest, and the company in 2009 hired away the lead developer on the game and began work on a polished sequel. “Dota 2” was released in 2013.

The game’s secret sauce, players and game-industry analysts say, is a system that rewards players for knowing their heroes’ strengths and weaknesses, and the creatures they can summon.

“It’s simple to pick up and play, but there’s so much depth to the strategy and skills,” said Sartori Bernbeck, a senior manager with EEDAR, a San Diego video-game research firm. “It can be fun to put hundreds of hours into it.”

Free to play

The game also has role-playing and collection elements, which helps make it a moneymaker for Valve.

Technically, “Dota 2” is free to play. Customizing the look of your heroes, however, comes at a small cost.

Players can also purchase, for $10, a package pegged to the annual tournament that unlocks access to special in-game features.

Three-fourths of that cash goes to Valve. The rest goes into the prize pool for the tournament.

The commercialization doesn’t stop there.

Some spectators wandering Seattle Center this week carried bags full of “Dota 2” swag, and companies from hardware makers to Seattle craft brewer Two Beers -— which made specially branded “Dota 2” taps for the occasion — advertise their wares in the arena.

Tickets to the tournament cost between $75 and $100.

All told, “Dota 2” likely generates more than $200 million a year in revenue for Valve, according to EEDAR estimates.

“It’s just remarkable that they convince players to throw more and more money in every single year,” Bernbeck said. “They’ve really built this out to be a very remarkable product.”

Postgame analysis

For underdogs TNC, the fairy tale came to an end Thursday afternoon. After a dominant win in the first of their best-of-three series, the team dropped the next two matches to U.S.-based team Digital Chaos, falling out of the tournament.

A suit-clad crew of postgame analysts broadcasting online, in a production with all the trappings of an NFL television broadcast (others were broadcasting live in Russian, Chinese and other languages), attributed TNC’s loss to predictability in their strategy.

“They fought a hard one, there’s no doubt about that,” one commentator said. “TNC’s games in the last couple of rounds have just been inspiring.”

The games roll on.

Still alive is Evil Geniuses, the victor in last year’s tournament.


Related video: The 2015 International Dota 2 Championships

Sights and sounds from the International Dota 2 Championships at KeyArena in Seattle taken on August 6, 2015. Read more. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)    

EG, as the team is known, is managed full time by Phil Aram, a 26-year-old University of Washington graduate who tried his hand at political campaign management before jumping into e-sports.

The team is owned by Twitch, the popular video-game streaming service that bought for $1 billion in 2014. Twitch, which controls several e-sports squads, is relatively hands-off, leaving Aram as day-to-day business manager, adviser and agent for his crew of American, Pakistani and Swedish players.

“We have a really good chance,” he said Thursday during a break in the action, with his team bouncing from autograph sessions to game film viewing and practice. “We’ve been in this spot before; we feel pretty good to be here.”