I am keeping tabs on The International, VALVe Corporation’s world championship event for their mega-hit MOBA, Defense of the Ancients 2 (commonly known as Dota 2). I noticed that their playoff style works in a series of phases. First off, eleven teams are invited to the event after giving outstanding performances in events around the world. After regional qualifiers are held, the regional winners go to the tournament while the runners-up have a small playoff for the Wildcard spot. This is known as Phase One.
Phase Two of The International is the playoff stage where the fifteen teams play in a round robin setting in a single “mini-league,” if you will. The top two teams at the end of fourteen played matches advance to what is known as the Upper Bracket and are guaranteed a chance to play for a spot in the Grand Final. The middle eight teams advance to the next stage of the competition, while the bottom six go home empty-handed.
Phase Three is the playoff stage for the middle eight teams from Phase Two. They’re seeded and placed in the bracket according to their playoff placement from the previous phase. In two separate brackets, the eight teams fight for the final two spots in the Upper Bracket to play against the leaders from Phase Two. The first two teams to lose in both halves are eliminated and awarded cash prizes for their placement in the tournament. The other four are dropped to the Lower Bracket, where the rest of the teams play
In the Main Event, the Phase Two leaders and the playoff winners in Phase Three have a small playoff in the Upper Bracket. The winner of the Upper Bracket moves on to the Grand Final while the other three are dropped into the Lower Bracket. The first two teams eliminated from the Upper Bracket are inserted into Round Two of the Lower Bracket, while the loser of the final game in the Upper Bracket earns a second chance at the Grand Final by securing one of two berths in Round Four. The Lower Bracket is where most of the Main Event happens. The remaining seven teams play in four rounds to determine the second challenger at the Grand Final.
This playoff format looks and sounds complicated, but I personally think it’s brilliant. This is probably one of the fairest tournament setups I’ve seen. I like how VALVe gives the regional runners-up a second chance to fight for the right to enter the tournament and see how they fare against the world’s best players. This year, Team Liquid won the Wildcard race and fared well in Phase Two, joining seven other teams in Phase Three, where they were eliminated together with Titan in the first round of Phase Three. The amazing thing about Liquid is that they advanced where veterans failed, including defending champions Alliance, who got eliminated at the end of Phase Two after being found among the bottom six teams.
Probably the most surprising performance at this year’s International comes from Newbee. After splitting even in Phase Two with a record of 7-7 and a seed of eighth place with Titan, Newbee headed into Phase Three with a vengeance. They swept their Phase Three bracket, eliminating Titan and sending Invictus Gaming into the Lower Bracket with 2012 champions Natus Vincere (also known as Na’Vi). Newbee continued their dominating performance, rolling past Phase Two leaders ViCi Gaming and Evil Geniuses (EG) in the Upper Bracket to secure their chance at the world title, playing on Monday against the eventual winner of the Lower Bracket after tomorrow’s conclusion of the Lower Bracket playoffs. Being the runner-up of the Upper Bracket, EG guaranteed a second chance at the Grand Final by getting placed as an automatic finalist of the Lower Bracket.
This is an excellent playoff model in the professional gaming scene, one that I believe other MOBAs ought to follow (yes, this includes the World Championship of League of Legends). As an additional marketing move, VALVe has also partnered with ESPN to broadcast the Main Event games on ESPN3 while the preview show for the Grand Final will be broadcast on ESPN2. This brings eSports more into the mainstream light, closer to being shown alongside physical sports like soccer (or football, if you’re outside of North America) and basketball. I firmly believe that The International sets a playoff standard that best gives pro teams the chance to earn that world champion title. Way to go, VALVe!