In just a few days, the most important event on the Dota 2 calendar will be upon us. It's The International season once again, and this year, 18 teams are headed to Seattle for the chance to hoist the Aegis of Champions and etch their names among the greats of the world's oldest MOBA title.
Thousands of fans will head to Key Arena for the main event, beginning Monday, and millions more will ready their nests at home to tune in and watch the action on stream.
To say that this event is momentous is an understatement. As the keystone to a year of professional Dota 2, every team, player and fan has eyes set on the matches and the stories coming out of Seattle this year. Let's take a look at some of the most important points of the tournament.
The stakes rise ever higher
Another year, another prize pool milestone. For TI 7, the total purse sits at an astounding $23 million, beating last year's record-setting $20.7 million by a healthy margin.
Whoever hoists the shiny Aegis this year will go home with a cool $10 million, and players from the winning team are looking at a $2 million payday -- each.
Of course, while the money is a large factor into making The International the most important tournament of the year, to the players participating, the cash remains an attractive bonus. Teams such as the Evil Geniuses are still looking at a shot at securing their place in history as the only team to have won the title twice in the history of Dota 2.
A vacated title
Speaking of titles, this year marks the first time since The International's inception that the Aegis of Champions will go undefended by the previous winners.
While Evil Geniuses did not end up with direct invitation to TI 6 last year, the North American organization did manage to get back into the event through the qualifiers. It ultimately lost in the top-8 to runner-up Digital Chaos.
Wings Gaming, the team that won TI 6, has since fallen on hard times. It is not uncommon for the winning team to experience a post-TI slump -- a trend that began in 2012 with Invictus Gaming -- but Wings Gaming suffered in ways that would make one believe in superstition.
Wings struggled to gain any traction in LAN events in the 2017 season, and that led to a collapse of morale within the team. Coupled with reported friction with the Wings Gaming organization, the players left en masse and formed Team Random to compete at the Kiev Major in April of this year.
But that decision proved to haunt the team. As a result of the players' decision to leave Wings Gaming, all five were reportedly banned by the Chinese esports regulatory body, ACE (Association of Chinese Esports). Although the ban would later be overturned and ruled a misunderstanding, ACE-member teams allegedly refused to scrim with the former Wings players, leading to Zhang "faith_bian" Ruida and Zhang "'y" Yiping to move to EHOME and dispersing the rest of the players such as Chu "shadow" Zeyu to lesser-known teams such as Eclipse.
All told, none of the players succeeded in returning to Seattle this year, kicking off TI on a somber note for one of the most beloved TI winners in recent memory.
West vs. East
If you believe the traditions of Dota 2, then it should be the West's turn to take home Aegis.
OG, the most successful Valve-event team in the game, won the past two majors in 2017. Evil Geniuses, despite a relatively slow start, has been a perennial contender, winning the Manila Masters in the spring, thanks to the patch neatly complementing the monstrous talent of their midlaner, Syed Sumail "SumaiL" Hassan.
Virtus Pro is quickly shaping up to be the lovable heel that every competitive discipline needs. The Summit winners and Kiev Major runner-ups enjoy flexing their muscles in any event they enter, frequently supplying viewers with jaw-dropping plays backed by the kind of cocky attitude reserved for Hollywood bad boys. When you have a team that thrives on picture-perfect team fight execution that also routinely picks whatever hero it pleases, you have a powerhouse team ready to take down championships.
And of course there's Liquid, led by veteran Kuro "KuroKy" Salehi Takhasomi. The two-time EPICENTER winners looked dysfunctional earlier in the season, experimenting with multiple role swaps between midlane ace Amer "Miracle-" Al-Barqawi and pubstar-turned-support Marou "GH" Merhej. But since the team has found its stride -- one that involves giving an objective-taker hero to Lasse "MATUMBAMAN" Urpalainen and leaving him to his own devices while enabling the mid lane for Miracle -- the team has found a scary amount of consistency in the lead-up to The International.
Of course, the Eastern teams and the Southeast Asian teams aren't ready to allow the West to run roughshod over them in the tournament. Despite Newbee not being able to close big tournaments expected of it, the team has dominated its Chinese compatriots and has routinely secured high placings in multiple tournaments. For all intents and purposes, mid laner Song "SCCC" Chun has an ax to grind and a title to claim.
Invictus Gaming has been on the decline since winning the Dota Asian Championships earlier in April, but with Vici Gaming.J player Bai "RoTK" Fan coaching his best friend, legendary carry player Xu "BurNIng" Zhilei into the event, the team might just cobble together a comeback in the most important event of the calendar year.