The International 2019 in my view

Back in 2012 when I first stepped foot in the live environment of a TI, there was a small seed planted, a dream of what it’d be like to see an International held in China. 2019 saw that unfold, and in ways that I could have never imagined back then.

Shanghai, China

I’ve been here for months prior to this TI, working directly on the planning and execution of the event. It’s yet another different way that I’ve had the privilege of experiencing TI. It has been really challenging to say the least – cultural and institutional differences, and then also the fact that this is again the largest TI to date leads expectations to grow accordingly. Interfacing with different interests and entities, working out the logistics of hundreds of different parts, and trying to make sure everyone is taken care of, it’s been exhausting. Still, there’s a magic in combining this mega tournament with the megalopolis that is Shanghai, where even despite the sheer size of the setting, TI9 managed to fully envelop my impressions of 2019 in its purple and violet hues.

I guess I’ll be writing this from a Chinese point of view. Well, I’ve typically leaned in that direction in writing these, simply due to the nature of the scope that I tend to cover during these events, but for TI9 since I’ve been on the ground in Shanghai for months leading up… it becomes even more natural to have that point of view. I mean, even some of my dreams, in between increasingly busy days full of emails, spreadsheets, and early morning cross-Pacific calls, had begun to develop a particular shade of purple.

May 2019

Looking down from the sky at Mercedes-Benz Arena

I won’t burden you with all the details of the hundreds of hours of meetings I sat in on discussing everything from hotel arrangements, to production equipment shipment timings, to helping review Secret Shop merchandise, to testing internet for the event, and more, but by May 2019 it’s clear that the scale of this operation is far beyond any other event I’ve helped with. The closest analog, for me, is DAC 2018 where I also had a very wide scope, but even then I was only in Shanghai for something around 2.5 months. By May of 2019, I’ve been in Shanghai for 5 months purely working on TI9 already, and we’re still a little less than three months out from the event.

Of course, there are many site visits to ground zero itself, the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai. I’ve now seen this venue from pretty much every angle possible, including up in the catwalks above the venue seating.

August 7 2019

This is the first day I am on-site at the hotel where group stage will be held, and the first things that need handling are truckloads of shipments for tournament gear. Midnight deliveries. We are expecting five large trucks worth of gear to the hotel. This is the first time I’ve been really involved in pre-production work with TI. We work out new and creative ways to get gear and crates, on pallets, into and through narrow hallways at the hotel. By the end of the night, we have our first batch of gear and equipment on site for TI-sponsored chairs, PCs, monitors, and some other production-related equipment. It’s all starting to feel more real than emails on a screen and diagrams on paper. Since this is the first TI in China, and indeed the first in Asia, some of us had doubts regarding whether we would smoothly get our hands on all of the gear due to customs and other logistical roadblocks. But credit to all those working on various parts of the equation, plus probably some amount of good fortune, and everything has gone succesfully thus far.

Gear and things beginning to take shape for the production at the hotel

August 8 2019

Speaking of luck, most of the PGL crew for TI9 arrive today – and they are most fortunate to have arrived this day, as a typhoon is brewing. Many familiar faces amongst them, my esports allies. I show them around the ballroom floor where they will be mainly operating, where their spaces are, we get them their STAFF t-shirts, and off they go to the 3rd floor outdoor platform at the hotel which at this point I’ve nicknamed “PGL Shanghai Headquarters.” It’s the outdoor patio where people smoke and catch some sunshine, but every night it becomes a lighthearted center of refuge with music and beers. Having just landed in Shanghai that evening, the PGL guys spend a few hours unraveling from their long flights and I spend some time catching up with them as well. I haven’t seen most of them since TI8, almost a year ago, but it really feels like yesterday.

Are we truly about to put on TI9?

August 9 2019

Typhoon days

Some other equipment and items for the the tournament arrive, including around midnight the Aegis, in a rather nondescript case. We spend some minutes digging around for it in various crates and locate it, and briefly reflect on how we hold so much power over the entire tournament at this moment. Like, if this Aegis gets lost then this event is probably in trouble. I briefly wonder if there’s a backup Aegis somewhere as we lock it back up in its case after confirming that the contents of the case are, in fact, the venerable Aegis of Champions.

Outside, the typhoon is swirling and its energies grow as the night darkens. Wind and rain, and scores of crew and staff are delayed or otherwise have their flights cancelled. So it’s just PGL, a few of Valve, and some Perfect World staff on-site awaiting the onrush of activity that is the opening days of every TI with its arrivals, check-ins, media days, and so on. But first, a typhoon must pass.

August 10 2019

Darkness before the light

The typhoon continues all day. Rain is coming down in sheets, literally sideways at times, and though the area around our hotel is mostly fine as it’s a newer part of Shanghai, I see videos of other parts of Shanghai flooding. There’s a citywide alert to shut things down, basically, and the streets are all pretty much empty, as in the background, the Huangpu River flows – and overflows – angrily. The usually bright skyline is dark, and what I typically feel is the calm before TI is already enraptured by the overtures of this summer storm. For the event, this means that some crew are delayed in arriving, some of our logistical preparations are impacted, and stress levels are a bit high. Talking to some of Newbee a few days later, there’s an image emerging of a bare-chested (or was it soaked?) Jack using buckets and towels to try and stay the flow of water leaking into their teamhouse during a past storm. I forget if the storm in question was this particular typhoon, but let’s not get carried away with details. “He comes downstairs and yells, we need more towels!!” CCnC describes.

Indeed, the rain during this typhoon is so torrential that even a few windows at the hotel are leaking drips of water into the rooms, and we also need more towels.

August 11 2019

A TI9 team practice room

The morning heralds a bright blue sky; it’s calm outside, the typhoon has passed and we’re ready to really get the show going. PGL are rushing around getting the practice rooms set up, I’m running around helping whereever possible, and teams are slated to arrive the next morning. The PCs have i9-9900k and I think the 2080ti in them, the monitors are Asus 244hz gaming monitors, the chairs are these custom purple Secretlab ones straight from the source, and things are looking good.

(I’ve survived my first ever typhoon, but will we get through the upcoming storm that is TI9? Find out on the next episode of…)

August 12 2019

Teams begin arriving. LaNm sees me at the hospitality desk area where I’m chilling on a couch and comes over… “Waow, you’re getting younger!” he exclaims. It’s like the kind of greeting that two old friends share when they see each other again after a while, and aren’t yet quite sure what to say to each other in that moment. LaNm is hitting the gym a bit these days and somehow he’s gotten even skinnier, but looks a bit more vibrant. Various other teams arrive, then check-in, then are off to their practice rooms. It’s all routine at this point, except for the teams with players that have never been to TI before. In general, the atmosphere is pretty laid-back, which somehow feels in contrast to TI8 and other TIs prior.

RNG

August 13 2019

Downstairs I run into RNG waiting for their media day, and their coach, Super of former VG and LGD fame, notices me first. We start chatting, him, flyby, Nicolas… at one point Super starts talking about what it’s like to try and fall asleep with certain players. Specifically, the ones that snore. “You have to fall asleep before them, otherwise you’re fucked. Like teamfights, it’s all about initiation. If they fall asleep before you then you just got initiated on,” he concludes. The sleep meta.

The topic of past TIs comes up, and everyone is in agreement that finishing second is so painful at TI that probably finishing anywhere else is preferable in terms of how you remember it. In an interview sometime before TI, I recall someone saying the same, that at TI9 as long as they don’t finish second, they can accept pretty much anything else. I don’t know if that’s a way of taking pressure off oneself, but looking back now, it’s like if our world is a storybook, then that was some foreshadowing.

Blurry welcome dinner pic

Around the hotel, I run into various other familiar faces: Liquid, the Secret guys, LGD, and so on. It’s such a busy day that it seems no one has any time or energy to really stop and talk, and as is my general policy I don’t really engage anyone in conversation beyond the basic greetings.

Tonight is the welcome dinner, and perhaps the one with the most players present that I’ve seen. Almost everyone comes down and grabs food at some point, and I just sit to the side and allow conversations to wash around me – I’m too tired to really engage in anything, but I’m happy to see that people are enjoying themselves before things really begin.

VP at media day, TI9

August 14 2019

It’s the second day of media days. This year they’ve done a lot more of the ‘funny poses’ thing with players at their respective photo shoots. After so many years, it’s nice to see that almost all players are pretty much on board with loosening up and expressing themselves somewhat. I’m suddenly reminded of moments back to TI4, where I’d literally have to stand next to the players to show them how to pose for media day shots. Nowadays, these are almost self-executing and pretty much every team and player is able to handle themselves with minimal guidance from the rest of us.

August 15 2019

First day of group stage. The matches are delayed by an hour, but overall everything goes smoothly. Once games begin, it’s like every other recent TI – a massive din of noise, teamfights, and hero abilities mashing together into an orchestra of action down on the hotel 3rd floor where there are TVs set up so that talents and teams can track every stream all simultaneously. It all happens on the same floor as the actual production for the group stage, and so casters come in and out of the area in between games as well. This year’s Chinese talent lineup is the flashiest it has ever been, and the largest contingent for any TI as well. In some ways, it holds more weight than the actual players competing – something like six or more TI winners on the Chinese talent lineup, along with various other big names and stalwarts. It’s in stark contrast to the Western scene who field the only remaining all-TI veterans in Puppey and Kuroky, as well as multiple past TI winners still fighting on the battlefield for their next shot at the Aegis. It’s not that I want to debate the merits and health of the Chinese scene as a whole here, but it is some kind of indicator, I think, that while the rest of the world continues, the Chinese scene increasingly sees its past winners burning out or chosing other paths, losing in terms of both longevity and competitiveness.

At night, after the first day’s matches conclude, somewhere in the background, “Cheap Thrills” by Sia is playing. I don’t need no moneeyyyyy, as long as I can feel the beeaaat… Some of the casters are debating where to go for dinner.

It’s been three years since a China TI winner, and it is in that context that TI9 has kicked off.

430, ddc, xiao8, and Sansheng casting group stage

August 16 2019

It’s day two of group stage. VG and LGD lead the pack for Chinese teams, in a way that maybe simultaneously adds to and subtracts from the formidable amount of pressure that is on them. From the moment TI8 ended, the calls for LGD to redeem themselves, to win back what they should’ve had (with that 17k gold lead in game 4 of TI8 Grand Finals), and to keep the Aegis in China this year have been deafening. In every piece of social media, every promotional activity, every step throughout the DPC that LGD took in the past year, the underlying current has always been in a steady march onwards to that ultimate goal here at TI9. And so their group stage performances, just short of dominant but exceptionally solid, serve to both vindicate the expectations that fans and the community at large have held for them, as well as perhaps show themselves that they do have it within themselves to once again truly challenge on this stage.

As many players always say, it’s TI and you never know until you’re playing, but having a good start can go a long way towards calming nerves.

As for KG and RNG, they’re struggling a bit in results, but their team atmospheres seem decent. LaNm still walks around with a smile, calmly, perhaps only possible after being a veteran of so many high pressure tournaments. A true veteran presence, and the type of presence that is getting increasingly rare on Chinese teams… Old chicken and eLeVeN are practically inseperable, coming down in between series to smoke, talking only strategy for the next series or reviewing what happened in their last series. Sometimes they nod in greeting, other times too engrossed in discussion to notice even the outside world, which still flutters on-and-off with drizzling rain; such are summers in Shanghai.

Keen Gaming (pic BLKcross on Weibo)

August 17 2019

Partway through build at the Mercedes-Benz Arena

Having touched on the planning of most TI9 elements, I was aware there was still an undercurrent of worry for progress at the arena. Those worries, after a few visits over there throughout group stage, gradually went away as progress came along. Being stationed at the hotel throughout group stage to ensure the success of the group stage production and the experience of teams, here I salute the crews working tirelessly to put things together on the Arena side in preparation for the main event. This was one aspect in which I learned the most this event, and the one aspect where there is no chance it could’ve happened without the massive team efforts that took place. The processes and work that went into any one element of the production at the Mercedes-Benz Arena were all massive, from the player booths (newly custom-built), to the stage design (lots of iterations), to the sound and lighting design, to all the hand-detailed and hand-painted elements decorating the stage itself – this was a cross-cultural, international effort more than perhaps any International has ever been.

Downstairs after the day’s matches, all of VG are gathering to go out of the hotel for a dinner. Everyone’s there, except rOtK. Yang is exasperated, “Of course he’s late again, when is he not late?” Shortly afterwards, the big man shows up, the rest of the team gives him some shit for being late, and they head out to dinner.

Happy birthdays…

In the days immediately before, during, and after the 17th, there are multiple TI birthdays.  Popular Chinese caster AMS, Sccc, and Purge’s, along with production leads at ImbaTV as well as PGL. So there’s a giant cake, with a similarly giant knife for cutting it. A sword, really. A note is sent out on the talent chats for both English and Chinese to come down and have cake, everyone sings happy birthday, we all have cake… and the night ends. It’s a simple moment, but one that stands out for me this TI. At this point it really begins to feel like a family; a slightly dysfunctional one that changes a bit every year, one that even after seven years I still sometimes wonder how to fit in with. Faith_bian helps cut some cake and also helps distribute a bit. For Sccc, he’s just coming off his final cast of the night, dressed impeccably with his hair crisp and sharp, but a bit tired. I wave him over, tell him happy birthday, and that there are quite a few birthdays to celebrate so he should join in and have some cake too. “This is the first time this many people have celebrated my birthday with me,” he says. I don’t know how that can be true for such a popular and incandescent person like Sccc, but I hand him a piece of cake and we eat cake for a few minutes before he goes up to bed.

Thinking about it now, I suppose I can understand why Sccc wouldn’t have had tons of opportunity to celebrate his birthday with many people in the past: being a ‘TI birthday’, in recent years he would’ve been in the midst of preparing or competing at TI, which leaves no room or time for actual celebrating.

August 18 2019

There’s a LAN room this year, with gaming laptops provided by Asus. It’s free for anyone to use to just play games, hang out, or otherwise, and through the period of the event it becomes just that – a hangout room. Late one night, I’m walking by so I poke my head in and notice none other than Dendi. So I go and say hi. I say hey, you’re here! Like it’s meant to be. But Dendi at TI does indeed feel right, and he smiles in that warm way that he has. I ask him a few questions, how his flight was (not too bad, he says), and how he’s feeling (a bit cold! The air conditioning in Shanghai summer can get insanely powerful indoors). He asks me how I’m doing, and I’m tired, but things are going well – so far anyway – so it’s all good.

August 19 2019

Press day again. This year, the space is a lot tighter, and there are far more press organizations present. Perhaps it’s the China effect, or perhaps it’s just the fact that TI is growing every year. Probably, it’s a combination of the two factors. I’m not really on deck to help with interviews this year at press day, but I hang around to help make sure things go smoothly for part of the day anyway before I have to head to the Arena for rehearsals in the afternoon.

At the Arena, the orchestra and dance troupe are running through their full rehearsal process for the next day as we are explaining to the team managers gathered what will be needed of their teams for the TI9 opening ceremony. Some people are taking pictures while others are just looking around, but for everyone it’s evident that the spectacle of the TI9 stage is starting to become a reality.

In the Chinese talent green room, ZSMJ and 430 are messing about with their latest Secret Shop hauls. First, 430 is taking a picture of ZSMJ at his request, and then ZSMJ thinks about it a bit and decides “I think you’ll look better with this stuff,” takes the phone, and has 430 pose for him with some of the merchandise.

August 20 2019

Back when ticket sales were first on-going, I wasn’t sure of what my actual involvement at the event itself would look like in August. So I managed to buy two tickets via Damai with my own access code. My original plan was to give these tickets to friends and family – especially family, as they’d never really understood what I do (though in recent years, after a period of being opposed to gaming in general, they have typically been either indifferent or supportive). In the end, those plans fell through as they visited me in Shanghai a week prior to TI9, and I had an extra ticket on my hands. I ended up giving my day 1 ticket away via Weibo – before going to bed for all of two hours before day 1 of the main event, I posted a thing at 4am asking for fans to attach a picture and some text about why I should choose them, then at 6am chose a guy that wrote he’d flown in from across the country to Shanghai just to be able to watch TI in the same city. He didn’t have any tickets; he’d planned on going to the VG official pubstomp, and he’d never been to any TI before. So I met him at the front gate around 9am, gave him the ticket, practically begged him to not resell it, and asked that he take lots of pictures and experience TI9 for me from the perspective of a normal fan.

Thanks!

It’s a perspective I haven’t really been able to have at a TI for years now – and I’m not complaining, but once in a while I do wish I could just sit in the stands with a friend or two, plan out which series to watch, when to go to the Secret Shop, fiend social media a bit, and well… actually watch a full series at a TI. The last time I’ve watched a full series at TI was TI3, when all Chinese teams had been knocked out before the final day. This year, I didn’t even get to watch a single game in a series in full from draft to the throne falling. And yet it all swirls around, leaving me to pick up the pieces after the fact. Perhaps this is part of the magic that is TI, where no matter what your experience of it is, or how complete it may be, it’s still more than worth it. Maybe this is what drives those people without tickets to still come forth, and so I can relate with those people – because if it were me, I’d probably be doing the same.

So anyway, the guy had a blast, sent me pictures along the way, and I think this ended up being one of the most meaningful things I’ve done at a TI. Not nearly the biggest, or even something I had to put a lot of effort into, but it was nice.

The Opening Ceremony happened, after the traditional red carpet segment. Having been involved in some of the planning of these elements, I both knew what would happen and didn’t have the chance to watch them actually happen. Gabe Newell gave his speech, which was done in his usual understated fashion, but to Chinese fans this was perhaps the most important part of the TI9 opening. If Icefrog is the god of Dota, an unknowable and untouchable presence, somehow Gabe Newell has become the face in making any TI feel ‘official’.

“Welcome to the International!”

I heard fans saying that his presence really cemented the fact that, wow, this is a TI! In China! And I think fans here truly appreciated that he made the long trip out, because to be able to hear those words on their home stage is really something else.

The grand stage

It’s more than emotion
I feel I’m never gonna stop

The first day of Main Event went unbelievably smoothly, though if you were backstage you wouldn’t have believed it could’ve been that smooth as stress levels were high. It was a long day, with six series and four teams going home, but a strong start for the Chinese side as both LGD and VG went through in their respective upper bracket matches. Afterwards, LGD looked confident and calm, and you’d almost think that there was no pressure on them here. After all, there are still three other Chinese teams in the tournament for fans to also cheer for. Because expectations, support, and just the general fan sentiment can all become pressure, but if the support is split between various teams then the pressure is also somewhat shared.

The player entrance floors were hand-painted in fluorescent paint

August 21 2019

Day 2 of main event. I see BurNIng backstage. He’s eating, I say hello, and he says hello. It is really cold in the venue all day long and hospitality has bought blankets for people to use. I see other people in actual winter jackets while it is August outside in Shanghai. I also meet Mara and his friend Kazu, from the Mara Cup. We exchange contacts, I show them around a bit. They’re here as invites of Valve’s and are basically watching all the games as fans. I ask if they’ll appear on stream and they’re just like, maybe. They are super chill, and I find out they’ll be at Tokyo Game Show which I’m going to after TI as well, so we agree to try and meet up there as well where Mara will be part of a Dota 2 tournament hosted by the Japan Esports Union.

RNG goodies

I briefly meet LaNm’s two little daughters at the entrance as they and their accompanying adults needed some help getting into the venue, and later I tell LaNm that now that I’ve finally met them in person, they are every bit as cute as he used to always tell me when he showed me on his phone. This would be back in 2017 or so, when every time he saw me he would show me their newest pictures, and after tournaments in the US, ask me to go with him to buy them baby formula. “When are you gonna have kids?” he asked, and I told him that’s not in my plans. The other day, I also met Fy’s kids who were with their grandparents in support of Fy. With True Sight this year, and looking on stage at the victors this year and last, and even back to 2017, families of players have increasingly showed up at TIs in support of the players. They may not understand what is going on in-game, but it is endearing to see, and such a huge contrast to the stories of parents not supporting what kids are doing. We’ve come a long way from those days.

We’re speaking a language
That no one understands

Around the area, various Chinese teams have shown their investment into the scene as they are each hosting pubstomp events. RNG have rented out an entire restaurant next to the Arena, where they are handing out RNG t-shirts, banners, and posters. VG have rented a theatre in downtown Shanghai, and of course LGD have their self-owned arena in Hangzhou.

Outside of the Arena this year, there is a massive plaza that has been taken over by everything TI9 related. There’s a Will Call area for picking up tickets, of course, and the Secret Shop with all kinds of new and exclusive merchandise. But there’s also a team-specific merchandise tent that’s never been done at past TIs, where teams could sign up for timeslots and sell their own team-specific merchandise. Off the top of my head, VG, KG, RNG, LGD, Secret, Alliance, VP, Liquid, and Newbee all took advantage of it and it felt like something that teams have been asking about at tournaments for some period of time already. Additionally on the Plaza, there was a massive wall structure with all team flags in front of it, and paired with purple thematic lighting as well as a large beam next to the Plaza, I think the outdoors element of this TI was one of the most impressive, visually anyway.

Panorama

August 22 2019

After not really having any opportunity to catch up with anyone thus far or really even seeing people much, I finally see Iceiceice at the venue as he’s come to check out the Secret Shop. I have a few minutes so I walk him over, showing him the route that best avoids outdoors paths as it is seriously hot these couple days. On the way, he asks a random security guy “Are you from Shanghai?” Before the guy really knows what’s going on, “Oh, okay, cool… bye!”

iceiceice, Sccc, and Faith_bian

Back at the venue, Sccc faith_bian iceice and blink are coming in for their casting assignment. Jokes are exchanged while iceiceice is backstage waiting for his ride back to the hotel after having gone to the Secret Shop. As the Sccc group heads into the elevator, iceiceice is like “good luck” and “see you next year!”. The Wings guys return the greeting and as the door closes, Sccc jokes “and I’ll keep watching you guys compete!” and everyone just laughs. On social media now, fans are asking Sccc to think about playing carry, or at least carry on competing, and I think he really should keep fighting on.

Halfway into the event now, and things feel like they’ve finally settled a bit. There are some differences but a lot of things are still similar. The silly jokes, the camraderie shared between players who are otherwise competitors, the general laid-back approach to an event that is extremely high stakes…

Faith_bian signing a Wings shirt

I at last find some time to hang around in the Chinese casters room, where they watch the games. Chatter ebbs and flows. Sccc looks tired – he’s put his head down on a table in the back to try and catch a nap before his next panel. Faith_bian is attentively learning a new stats system, a kind of successor to the fingerworks of the past, all wrapped up in some integrated stats that I don’t know the first thing about. But it’s a testament to his attitude towards things that he’s always looking to learn and improve. One of the other casters has brought an old Wings t-shirt for Faith_bian to sign: on one side, there are the signatures of the Wings players from back in 2016, and on the other side, their new signatures. Faith_bian remarks that his old autograph wasn’t that good looking, signs a new one that satisfies him much more and admires his work, “That looks much better, eh?”

I’m reminded of Boboka practicing his autographs for nearly half an hour at TI7.

In the Chinese talents chat group for TI9, someone mentions that they came across a fan crying almost hysterically in the hotel elevator. An EG fan apparently, who is devastated that EG lost tonight despite SumaiL’s best efforts. Fandom is an interesting thing, and despite the overwhelming majority of Chinese fans outwardly supporting Chinese teams, I find increasing numbers who latch onto and support major Western teams. EG, Secret, and Liquid are obvious candidates as SumaiL, Puppey, and Miracle- have fanbases rivalling any popular Chinese pro.

Autograph session with Faith_bian, iceice, Blink, and Sccc

August 23 2019

After a panel, Faith_bian again is modest: he remarks that he’s got a lot of improvement to do and points out things that he thinks he could’ve done better. Faith_bian continues his efforts on the new stats system, and in between teamfights he’s scrolling around on a touchscreen and gathering moments and clips for analysis. Always studious, always eager to learn, those are my impressions of the TI6 champion, and this is one player that is not content with just staying still.

Later on, BurNIng and Sylar finish a cast and need to head to the Intercontinental hotel for their Late Game segment, but not before Sylar goes upstairs to suite level to pick up his girlfriend. On the way, of course, the two of them are waylaid by starstruck fans. BurNIng especially, and true to his self he takes pictures and signs autographs for every one of them. For a few of the fans who look intimidated, he looks directly at them and goes “So, want a picture?” It’s not that BurNIng has gotten smoother or more into the life of being a celebrity, but it’s like he’s deceptively down to earth for someone who is amongst the most popular figures for people in this generation in China.

BurNIng 2019

On the way back downstairs, they start talking about the Aegis. “Have you even touched it before?” asks BurNIng. “No, in 2014 they put it right next to us the night before, and some others touched it but I decided not to…” You can’t, it’s superstition. BurNIng laughs a bit, tells him that doesn’t count and that the both of them are officially non-TI winners, and Sylar scoffs, like “At least I’ve gotten near to an Aegis!” “我好歹是近距离见过冠军盾的男人好吧!” TI4 seems like a distant memory, enough that they can joke about it.

I put them on a van to the Intercontinental hotel where their Late Game segment is held, they wave before climbing in, and off they go into the evening. Sometimes it’s hard for me to place together the fact that these are essentially superstars in their realm because the way they are is just so normal. Sometimes, fans are smoother than they are in holding a conversation, at other times they just want to do the things that everyone else wants to do – eat, sleep, hang out, whatever… and yet that fact only serves to add to their allure. In traditional sports there’s a hero-making tendency for fans and media alike, and in esports it’s kind of the same, but also a bit different. Our heroes are the ones that we can most relate to first and foremost, and then we come to love everything else about them. Results matter, but more and more in the Chinese scene, there are fandoms growing around personalities.

The scene at Late Game

Back at the venue break room, I sit down for a sip of water by myself. Dendi walks in, also by himself, and begins to make some coffee. He turns to me after a moment of silence and says hi, how are you? We chat a bit, and I ask him what’s up for him next year? “I am going to play!” he declares. Making a fist, he says “I’m going to find some new guys, and I’m going to destroy everyone!” in that whimsical Dendi way. “Good,” I respond, “My favorite version of Dendi is player Dendi!” His coffee is ready, he cups it in his hands and blows on it lightly to cool it off, winks, and heads off.

The night ends with the All-star match and raucous cheers of for Dendi and his cheese-stealing antics.

Back at the main hotel where players and casters are staying, and it is a scene. Probably a hundred or so fans have gathered in the lobby and swarm around anyone known. It’s a bit disorganized, the sudden crush of action is a bit troubling to some teams, but such is the situation in China: esports is exceptionally mainstream and those involved in esports are essentially mainstream public figures, and with a TI9 magnifying glass applied to the scene during these few days, some teams and talents are finding it hard to handle. I think this is the future if we truly develop as an esport, and it would behoove teams, players, and talents alike to become more prepared for these things – actively avoiding fan interaction isn’t the way forward, but rather being able to expect and manage such situations is.

This has become a passion
That is changing me

All-star night

August 24 2019

In the morning, I wake to people sending me screenshots of me making it into the compendium. It’s the most different TI experience I’ve had thus far, but at that moment it begins to again resemble TIs of past, at least for me. On stage and on stream, the results are also strikingly similar to one other TI, that one from 2018, and I find myself adding on-screen interviews to my mental book of things to think about for these last two days of TI.

Here I am, there you are
Don’t wanna stop
I know you know it, I can feel it

VG lose and it is the most heartbreaking thing I have ever personally experienced. My strongest memory from TI is still DK losing at 2014, but DK losing wasn’t a personal experience. Today, I was on deck for an exit interview with VG and it’s Fade who comes. Before acknowledging the camera, or Sheever (who was amazingly understanding), he walks straight to me and says hey Josh. I ask him if he wants to do this in English as the broadcast hopes he would be able to, he nods and he’s barely keeping it together. I tell him, look, I’m here if you need any help with this.

It’s a one answer interview and once it cuts, Fade glances around, then comes straight to me, grabs me and breaks down. I tried my best to give him a brief refuge from the bright lights, the cameras, and the growing crowds gathering around the spot on the suite level where that interview took place. I don’t think he came to me because it was me, but because he was looking for anyone familiar in that sea of faces in this moment. So I’ll be that familiar presence, if nothing else.

I’m reminded of his sad “Josh, we lost” from TI8, but it’s even more poignant. Waiting for the elevator to take him back to his team, he tries to brighten the atmosphere a bit: “I wanted to keep fighting. But… that’s Dota.” As if to cheer himself up a bit, he adds “That’s life.” And a small smile.

Well… that’s Dota, and today, it was painful.
I glance outside the window –
It’s raining again.

It always rains during the last two days of TI.

Red carpet entry

‘Cause I’m falling deep
I guess the pressure’s built right up

In the upper bracket finals, in a mirror result from 2018, OG beat LGD and an interview with Ceb shows that they are ultimately confident. Perhaps one of the best – and rarest – traits in Dota: true confidence. Or perhaps, an ability to ignore any outside doubts. They are similar, but not quite the same, I think. And then, Liquid defeat Secret and there’s an interview with Miracle, who has become much more well-spoken over the years in comparison to the version of his self back when he’d just made his debut. As time passes, I’ve literally watched players grow from teenagers into adults. I’ve spent more time with some of these people than members of my own family in recent years, and I guess it’s no wonder when a TI starts feeling like a family reunion of sorts. I mean, it’s not that, because I barely have time to talk with anyone or hang out anymore, but at least knowing everyone is in the same place, doing the same things for a period of time, it feels like a reunion.

Later at the hotel I run into Fade again in the lobby. I give him a hug, and he’s saying thanks for giving me a shoulder back at the venue. “I just saw all the fans there, and I…” his smile belied the obviously still fresh sadness of the day’s events. In view of recent events post-TI, I fail to believe that this is someone who doesn’t care, or doesn’t truly want to compete. This is someone who cares, perhaps too much, but that’s not an indictment. That’s just how this game is sometimes, and I think giving people room to grow and make mistakes is one of the best things a community can do for its players.

Going upstairs after finishing dinner, all of Secret invade what was previously an empty elevator. “This is our elevator now,” someone declares. I exchange greetings with the Secret guys. “An elevator for losers,” one of them jokes. But they seem to be in decent spirits despite what must be a somewhat disappointing end to TI.

First blood, last word

August 25 2019

Once VG finally lost, there was only one Chinese team remaining. Having been the most successful Chinese DPC team this year, expectations were strong for VG, and them losing shifted another wave of support – and pressure – onto LGD. History seemed to be repeating itself, and on social media there is a narrative of changing fates. Dueling timelines. Reversing history.

In a coach interview after the draft, 357 answered how he felt about the draft the same way as he had been asked last year, and his answer was the same as last year: “50/50”. In my mind, a little voice said that if you want to change a timeline, if you want a different result, you should take a different process. Well, I’m superstitious too. If you do the same thing, you’ll get the same result, generally. So in that corner of my mind, I thought maybe 357 should’ve said “We will crush them”. Maybe do some jumping jacks, punch the air a few times on stream.

With all this desire
I’ve been carrying around
I’m feeling elated
I don’t wanna come back down

Amidst the hopes and dreams, the thundering cheers of “LGD” from thousands of home fans, LGD made it to the final day of TI9, but their stay on the grand stage this day was short and ultimately ill-fated. The venue was lightning, booming, and then… it wasn’t as much anymore. Was it the pressure of expectations, their own desires, the hopes and dreams of so many others that they couldn’t bear anymore? Or were their opponents just too strong? Nonetheless, as LGD leave the stage for the last time at TI9, there are still cheers of “LGD, LGD” – or am I just imagining it? Last year and this year echo together, and reluctantly, the energies of the crowd dissipate with LGD’s hopes.

Despite stating in past interviews that any placement apart from 2nd place would be acceptable at TI9, LGD’s third place finish seems to cast a cloud over the entire venue and the entire event. As if on cue, after LGD lost and Liquid were confirmed as the other Grand Finalists, denying LGD a chance at changing their timelines, the skies opened up. In that hour in between lower bracket finals and the TI9 Grand Finals, I took a few minutes to walk around outside the venue. A final feel of this TI9 atmosphere, and the masses of LGD jerseys out in the crowds – quiet.

All the tension rising up
So much it hurts

I hear fans lamenting Fy. One more TI, one more legendary Rubick performance. Second, second, third. His TI is over, and for many Chinese fans, theirs is as well. I see tears in some fans’ eyes, but I can only imagine what Fy is feeling.

It’s not about nationalistic pride, and it’s not about disrespecting the other teams. A year of expectations, built on hopes, built on dreams of redeeming that disappointing ending – for them – at TI8, dreams of seeing their heroes stand on that stage.

It’s more than emotion
I feel I’m never gonna stop

It’s about what fans can best relate to. These players are the ones that they watch the most, they’re the ones that they can understand, and relate to. Yes, it’s also about what they represent – LGD being the last Chinese team, but is it so wrong to have a hometown affinity in competitive sport? So some people left the Mercedes-Benz Arena, and some never came back. If social media is to be believed, some may never come back to Dota. The Dota playerbase is an aging one, and the beauty and danger of this game is that it truly drives people to the very extremes of emotional investment – either you love it, or you hate everything about it. The investment has been there from the fans and community into this long-awaited China TI; to want to see their own home heroes hoist the Aegis in the end was a dream, and when reality clashes with dreams, often the result is detachment. We are all only but human.

Backstage, it’s quiet, calm. It’s cold. People are beginning to take down non-essential equipment to get ready for the overnight operations of vacating the venue. Even as the Grand Finals are taking place, the event is winding down. Having finished their panel, Sccc and Faith_bian are gathering their belongings, ready to head home. “What happened?” is a question that rings in the room. “What happened?” the question repeats. But the answer is probably a simple one, and it’s one that the community perhaps already expected, even before today: this year, the other teams are too strong.

I do wonder what it would’ve been like if LGD, or VG perhaps, had been the ones standing up there at the end of TI9 in Shanghai.

For me, I would’ve been on the English panel instead, giving a simultaneous interpretation for the English audience of a home-language stage winners’ interview. It would’ve been a lot more difficult for me than finding and briefly interviewing an exuberant NOtail ended up being at the close of TI9. Perhaps that did happen on a different timeline, but in this one despite the short – and somewhat chaotic – final interview sequence, the scene was there for all to see. It didn’t need explaining, or more words than necessary, really. The first ever two-time TI winners, successfully defending their title: unprecedented, nearly unimaginable, but by the last two days, not unexpected.

We’re saying more than words
More than words

August 26 2019

At the Afterparty

I only get to the Afterparty around midnight, so it’s technically the 26th already. I finally get a chance to say hi, and really, bye, to a bunch of people that I’d been meaning to greet this entire TI. This TI has gone by way too quickly, and too slowly at the same time. Puppey, Ramzes666, Bulba, I catch Jerax and congratulate him on the second win. Unbelievable, and the guy looks like he’s still in a bit of shock. Various people at Valve, some of whom I’ve been working with more closely than at any other TI ever. “We made it!” is the shared sentiment. Drinks, handshakes, and laughs are shared, but like me, everyone has their goodbyes to say and time just isn’t enough.

They’re belting out karaoke in a room at the Afterparty, there’s a dj playing slightly too loud music, some of the Chinese talents are hanging out. I meet xiao8’s kid for the first time. He’s two years old and though it’s midnight, he’s still full of energy, and xiao8 really looks like a dad with his somewhat exasperated yet proud face while watching his son bounce around. A far cry from the xiao8 I watched go undefeated on-stage at TI2, the one that raised the Aegis at TI4, but somehow it all feels like a natural progression in the TI timeline. Stoic and stalwart Dota captain becomes a responsible and steady father to his own child.

At the Afterparty

After the Afterparty, I go and find some other people who are doing their own karaoke downstairs: iceiceice, xNova, some of their friends, Helen, and then a bunch of English talents show up right around when Zai, Misery and a few others poke their heads in. There’s a questionable rendition of something by Eminem. I can’t say I enjoyed the level of musical ability on display that night, but the company was excellent, and Fade and I lounged in a corner chattering about random things – life overseas, healthy approaches to competing in esport, and just general talk as it gets to 3am, then 4am. In conversation, there are questions about the wisdom in essentially locking players in for pre-TI bootcamps by taking away their phones and forcing long daily practice schedules. Are we burning the players out before they’re even set to compete? Later in a separate conversation, I hear that LGD and VG were nearly immaculate in pre-TI scrims. Did they peak too early?

Not quite ready for the night to end though the karaoke place has closed up, the night lingers on. Before leaving, Zai questions who’s going to pay for the karaoke room? Like, we can’t just leave the bill with someone, right? He’s thoughtful. Someone declares that xNova has got it covered, and iceiceice goes “TI third place!” Indeed, he’s the highest placing and has made the most money out of this TI, and with that settled, we all trickle out.

It’s carefree, and topics range from going to find some food to what are people’s next steps after TI (xNova’s family is in Shanghai so he’ll be spending some time with them, iceiceice and I have made plans to meet up in Tokyo in September). After a while, Zai heads up to bed, but at the same time we see Puppey and Kuroky walking through the lobby, and they join us shortly. These are some of my favorite moments at TI, after all the action has settled, but before everyone’s gone their separate ways.

In the afternoon, after finally getting some sleep, I’m back on the practice room floor at the hotel. As I’m helping clear out some gear, Dendi shows up off the elevator and hands a small gift to each of our hospitality staff at the hospitality table. Some chocolates that he’s brought from Ukraine, and it’s such a thoughtful gesture that no one would’ve known about had I not been there at that same exact moment as well. It’s fifteen seconds at most before he’s waving goodbye at us as he steps back onto the elevator.

I come across Kuroky, Miracle, and Liquid’s manager Morad one last time before they’re also all headed home. Handshakes, goodbyes. Kuro is jokingly accusing me of not talking to him at all during the event, and I’m acting hurt and saying come on man, you know I have a policy of trying not to disturb anyone who is still competing. And you made it to the final day! “This TI went a bit better than I expected,” he says with that light smile of his.

Kuro, I know you hate pictures but thank you for humoring us.

August 27 2019

As everyone leaves the hotel, I am amongst the last, just as I was amongst the first there in the beginning of August. There’s a quietness about the lobby, yet in the shadows there’s still some lingering energy. This has been an extraordinarily difficult, challenging, yet rewarding experience. Looking back, I can basically say that I gave my entire year to TI9, and I hope it has been a fulfilling and enjoyable experience for everyone watching and participating.

Far from the surface
I know this will never end

This year, especially to those teams and partners that I’ve had the opportunity to learn from and collaborate deeply with, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for just how much goes into an event like this. Thank you to everyone for being a part of this experience and these memories. As always, to fans, players, everyone behind the scenes, crews and staff, and definitely Perfect World – thank you. Lastly, to Valve, thank you for the understandings and strides you guys made in bridging this gap in bringing a TI to China. From that little dream I had back in 2012 to standing on an actual TI stage in 2019 in Shanghai, it’s been unreal. This was, undoubtedly, hard-fought and the success of this event hard-earned, but from my single point of view hopefully worth all the literal sweat and tears that went into it. Thank you.

My dreams have been colored purple for months, and perhaps my entire 2019 will be remembered in that light. Farewell, TI9.

You can follow me:

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13 thoughts on “The International 2019 in my view

    • Chinese production IMBATV brings a stylist/makeup artist and her team to most of their events – so I’ve gone with her most of the time and apparently it’s worked out well :p

  1. TI never really feels like it has ended until I’ve read Josh’s post-TI blog post 😉 How fantastic it is that you’ve seen a dream of 2012 achieved with TI in Shanghai this year, and got to work in helping with planning and behind the scenes of the event too.

    I have to agree with you re: the aging Chinese dota scene, had some friends in Shanghai express similar sentiment that they may not return to Dota as its been a 3 (long) years since they’ve seen a CN team lift the shield and they are getting tired of being disappointed; hopefully these are merely words spoken out of sadness. Last year, I met fy and 357 outside the Vancouver arena mid week and got to speak with them a bit, they were both really kind to me.. really wanted to see fy hoist the shield, but maybe next year!

    Thank you for taking the time to give us your perspective and the behind the scenes of the event. The little tid bits of Dendi bringing gifts, Zai being concerned about the KTV bill and xNova ultimately covering it really add to us getting to know the players outside of the game we all play and love. Such a nice group photo from the after party with Kuro, xNova and the others, everyone looks so bright. Especially insightful to hear of your interactions with the Chinese players and casting crew, and really happy that it seems like more families are in attendance, and the player’s kids too!

    Cheers Josh, here’s to TI10!

  2. Thank you Josh for bringing us the insights to TI. I’m always looking forward to your blog post after each TI because TI is not complete without it. It’s cool to learn that you worked a ton behind the scene this year, and I think your on-stage translation has gotten better and better each year. I really enjoyed watching you on stream! I can’t wait for TI10 and hope I can get a chance to meet you. 谢谢Josh哥,加油!

  3. The definitive recap of TI that I’ve put on hold to read and digest, thank you for sharing as always. No one else does anything remotely like this (not that I blame them, it must take a long time to put this together).

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