Esports have drawn interest from heavyweights in traditional media, including Turner Sports, which has a camera crew in Seattle to wrap up their four-episode documentary series “Road to the International.”
Ben Winter positioned his two camera crews strategically.
One took up a position high in the concourse of KeyArena to get an angle on the team’s entrance, the reaction from the crowd of several thousand fans and the scene on stage.
The other, close to the floor, would try to get close-ups of players at their bank of computers.
OG, the European team that Winter’s crews had been filming, faced a sudden-death game Monday night and the prospect that it would be knocked out of competitive video-gaming’s biggest tournament on its first day.
“We were expecting this to be a march to the finals,” Winter said. “If they lose today, it’s going to be rough.”
Following two teams
Winter, a producer for cable-television’s Turner Sports, came to Seattle to wrap up a documentary series.
His eight-person crew, backed by more than 30 people in Atlanta, had spent weeks following two esports squads who had their sights on The International, the “Dota 2” tournament taking place this week at KeyArena. In the game, each player on the two five-person teams selects a fantasy-world hero character, and the teams face off in a battle for control of the game world’s map.
The tournament — hosted by Bellevue-based Valve, which created “Dota 2” — pits 16 teams against each other for $24 million (and counting) in prize money. That pool is a record for esports, part of the $696 million in revenue that researcher Newzoo expects competitive video gaming to generate globally this year.
Growth in esports has boosted game developer Valve and created its own juggernauts, like Amazon-owned streaming service Twitch. It’s also drawn interest from heavyweights in traditional media.
Turner, the Time Warner company that owns CNN, TNT, TBS and other cable channels, dived into esports in 2016 with ELeague, a series of its own competitive tournaments, broadcast on TBS, and streamed online through Twitch and YouTube.
Aiming for the mainstream
This year ELeague expanded into episodic content with: “Road to the International Dota 2 Championships,” Winter’s four-episode arc tracking two teams from their training through this week’s tournament. The series aims to be an easier entry point for viewers who aren’t already obsessed with competitive video gaming.
“Mainstream consumers need to have something that’s a little more digestible,” said Rahul Sood, who leads Seattle esports startup Unikrn. “The key to creating (esports) content for television is to make it understandable for regular joes.”
“Road to the International” tries to strike that balance. Its first episode, which aired on Friday on TBS, barely showed “Dota 2” gameplay in its first few minutes, instead explaining the phenomenon of esports and the tournament.
The episode went on to follow CompLexity, a longshot American team with some well-known players, as it hunkered down in a five-bedroom house in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to train and compete in qualifiers.
An ELeague crew essentially lived with the team for two weeks, gathering reality-TV staples like candid scenes interspersed with one-on-one interviews.
But after a marathon qualifying run that included a series of online tiebreaker games that stretched overnight, CompLexity fell short.
The episode that airs this Friday — spoiler alert — ends with a team member breaking down in his backyard after the team is knocked out of contention for a spot in Seattle.
“That’s a different story than we wanted to tell,” Winter said. “We were all rooting for them.”
Competing in Seattle
Early Monday, Winter’s team was waiting for the other squad it been following, OG, to arrive at the red carpet outside KeyArena for the main event. Fans, smartphones in hand, lined barricades, yelling out the names of their favorite players as they walked up.
“I worked in Hollywood, I worked in sports,” Winter said. “This is a red carpet for a major premier.”
Winter, who grew up playing traditional sports and video games, moved to Los Angeles for college and work in the movie business. Instead, he built a career in television that straddled sports and video-gaming media, from baseball and football broadcasts for Fox Sports to X-Play, the seminal video game series.
He went on to produce a weekly series for Riot Games, the Los Angeles company that makes popular esports title “League of Legends,” and traveled around the world following their tournaments. (“The crowds in Paris were nuts,” he said.)
In November, Turner called, and asked him to help build out its own esports coverage.
After the red carpet, the ELeague crews gave OG some space to huddle alone in its team room before the 8 p.m. game. “You have to find the balance between telling the story and not betraying their trust,” Winter said. “It’s a documentary series, but it’s not real life.”
OG is a heavyweight in “Dota 2,” winning four major tournaments. But the team has never won the big one in Seattle. It was a top-seeded team a year ago, but washed out on the second day.
This year, the team seemed set for a repeat performance, stumbling in qualifiers and entering the main event in the lower bracket, where an opening loss meant elimination. It wouldn’t doom ELeague’s TV series, but it would give Winter far less material to work with.
He wouldn’t have to face that.
Competing against Infamous, a team of Peruvian upstarts, OG’s Johan “N0tail” Sundstein got his team off to a hot start, and OG won in dominant fashion. Afterward, the Eleague crews raced to beat the team to the backstage elevators to capture footage of members walking off victorious.
Winter left KeyArena at 10 p.m., 14 hours into his day and “a very happy man,” he said. Winter’s team, and OG, would be back.