International esports tournament leaves Seattle for Canada

The International 2014, the fourth annual eSports "Dota 2" championship tournament hosted by Valve Corporation at KeyArena. (Photo by Dota 2 The International via Flickr)
The International 2014, the fourth annual eSports “Dota 2” championship tournament hosted by Valve Corporation at KeyArena. (Photo by Dota 2 The International via Flickr)

The world’s largest esports tournament is moving from Seattle to Vancouver, one year after organizers raised concerns about international competitors being able to enter the United States.

The International — the premier esports tournament of the world — will take place in Vancouver, British Columbia at Rogers Arena on Monday, Aug. 20 through Saturday, Aug. 25.

The tournament, which last year had a crowd-sourced prize pool of $24 million and had participants from 25 countries, invites the best teams from around the world to compete in Dota 2, a multiplayer online battle arena video game.

Last year, 5 million concurrent viewers tuned in to watch the 18 teams compete for The International’s vast prize pool, which last year was higher than the Tour de France, Kentucky Derby and Super Bowl put together.

Bellevue-based video game company Valve told GeekWire that the move was due to an extensive renovation at KeyArena to accommodate an NHL team. The International had been held in Seattle for the past six years, after its first year in Germany. 

But Valve suggested last year that the tournament would move out of Seattle because its international players and participants have been having trouble entering the U.S. for the competition.

During last year’s tournament, game analyst Henrik “AdmiralBulldog” Ahnberg, was denied entry after he answered yes when asked whether he came to the U.S. to work.

Ahnberg expressed gratitude on Twitter following Valve’s announcement that this year’s tournament will be in Canada.

In early 2017, after the Trump administration imposed new restrictions on visitor visas from certain countries, Valve officials told reporters the new visa restrictions could push the company to relocate the tournament.

At the time, Valve’s Eric Johnson told reporters that any new visitor visa restrictions by the Trump Administration could have an adverse effect on the ability to hold the tournament in the U.S., according to Polygon. Gabe Newell, Valve’s co-founder and president, also said some employees who were born outside the U.S. were afraid of leaving the country and risking not being able to return.

The tournament has run into immigration issues since 2014, when two Asian teams, CIS-Gaming and Arrow Gaming, failed to secure visas to travel the U.S. for reasons that are unclear.

While the company this year attributed the move to Canada to KeyArena’s plans, fans recalled last year’s warnings.

With the event being moved, Seattle is not only losing the event and tourism, but also the experience of bringing together the game’s diverse and global fan base. Dota 2 averaged 400,000 players at any given point in the last month alone, and in the past, 25 percent of all in-game purchases went towards the tournament.

Carson Blinn, a fan who went to TI5 in 2015, said it was a gratifying experience to meet people from all around the world.

“[T]here are crazy amounts of people from around the world that come to this thing, you can see the tournament’s lanyards all over Seattle while the event is going on,” Blinn said.

The game’s international fan community on Reddit frequently voiced concerns over travel complications over the past year. Some suggested relocation outside the U.S. and others promoted White House petitions to legitimize esport-related visas. The U.S. started recognizing esports participants as athletes in 2013, but the process is still inconsistent.

The difficulty for participants and fans to get visas, particularly in a relatively new field like esports, poses a challenge for Valve if they want to bring the event back to Seattle and the U.S.

Tim Leiweke, the leader of Oak View Group spearheading the KeyArena renovations, told a GeekWire Sports Tech Summit, that he hoped the venue would host esports events in the future, according to GeekWire.

At least one fan also would like to see that happen.

“The only real reason I went to it was that it was in Seattle,” Blinn said. “I wanted to go again, but I’m on a college budget.”

“Hopefully it comes back,” Blinn said.