The International is the Super Bowl of e-sports. The event is the annual culmination for Valve’s competitive online game Dota 2, attracting the sort of buzz and hype that's helped the game transcend its niche status and rise to the front page of The New York Times. This year’s TI, as it’s affectionately known, is expected to raise more than $15 million in prizes, which will comfortably eclipse even last year’s eye-popping $11 million prize pool.
But if I were to show you an electrocardiogram with one massive spike in the middle and a series of irregular beats around it, you’d quickly declare the patient ill and advise urgent medical attention. That's the state of Dota 2. While TI shines like a beacon for everything good and glamorous about competitive gaming, it only lasts for a few halcyon days in the summer. Once its bright lights have been shut down and the massive Seattle venue has been emptied out, players are left to their own devices for the rest of the year. So yes, it’s like the Super Bowl, but without the NFL regular season, or perhaps it's more akin to the World Cup without the accompanying pro leagues. Outside of TI, Dota 2 professional play is a mess that leaves many people unhappy.
This past week, I talked with two of the most prominent figures in the Dota community: David "LD" Gorman, a commentator from the Beyond The Summit studio, and Clement "Puppey" Ivanov, the captain of Team Secret. LD has become one of the signature voices of Dota 2, having served as the play-by-play announcer at multiple TI finals, while Puppey was part of the Na’Vi squad that won the inaugural International in 2011. They both love the game (and have benefited from it) as much as anyone can, but they also share deep concerns about the way it’s organized in the vast stretches of time between Internationals.
Because Valve only takes responsibility for organizing TI, the rest of the yearly competitive schedule has to be cobbled together by grassroots efforts or, more commonly, sponsor-driven events. LD has been part of both. His studio runs The Summit, an intriguing mix of house party and LAN event, which raises its prize pool primarily through an in-game ticket that fans can purchase, though it also relies on the help of sponsors to cover its costs. Then there’s the Red Bull Battlegrounds event that was just completed this weekend, where LD was the lead commentator. That was run chiefly by Red Bull’s e-sports division, which is working on establishing itself as a major promoter of professional Dota 2 play.
The Red Bull event has been great, says LD, but it’s the exception to the rule. "The vast majority of events do a pretty poor job of taking care of players," he laments, noting that some lack even the most basic facilities like a diversity of food and spare computers for training. There’s also "not much advance notice or a show plan," which affects casters like him as much as it does the players. The typical modus operandi for tournament coverage is to "fly over to the event, go in blind, and just hope the setup’s going to work."
"Fly over to the event, go in blind, and just hope the setup’s going to work."
Many prominent tech and lifestyle brands have wised up to the value of presenting their gear in front of a deeply engaged gaming audience, which has led to an abundance of sponsored tournaments happening throughout the year. At any one time, there’s some competition happening somewhere: all the way from the Alienware Cup in China to the Zotac Starleague in Brazil. This can be fun from a fan’s perspective, but it’s exasperating for the players because of how chaotic it all is.
Puppey tells me that sometimes tournaments will pop up with less than a month’s notice, and echoes LD in saying that "the human aspect is completely gone. I don’t want to earn money as much as I want to have a good time. And the good time is lost if I can’t have access to a bathroom." As one of the more mature members of the Dota 2 pro scene, Puppey typically refrains from voicing his concerns publicly, but he’s frustrated that there’s no way to "punish" maltreatment when players encounter it. "You can’t punish anything, if they lack computers for training, for example. There’s no entity behind the players that can punish poor tournament organizers."
Unlike Red Bull’s most recent effort, which LD is full of praise for, most events are done haphazardly and with little expertise — and what’s worse, the lessons learned by the people who organize the Eizo Cup, for example, are not transferred to those running the Gigabyte Challenge, because there’s no communication or coordination between them.
Even when a tournament is run perfectly, the lack of a centralized Dota 2 competition schedule means that sometimes the top teams in the world will be competing in overlapping grand finals. This weekend, while Puppey and Secret were taking on China’s Invictus Gaming in San Francisco for the Battlegrounds crown, Vici Gaming and Team Empire were contesting the Dota 2 Champions League title over in Berlin. That may seem like a boon for fans until you realize that having all four teams competing in both contests might have made for an even more exciting time.
Valve has held true to its laissez-faire principles, but, much as with Google’s experience with Android, it’s finally felt the need to rein in the fragmentation of its self-organizing competitive scene. In April, the company announced plans for a new series of Dota Major Championships, which are intended to establish a set of minimum standards for Dota 2 tournaments. They’ll add three more marquee tournaments, alongside The International, to the yearly list of Valve-endorsed events, and "teams that participate in these events will be required to adhere to limited roster trade periods during the year." Puppey likes the initiative already, saying it’s good to have an annual process, more rigorous structure, and a consistent calendar that gives people something to look forward to outside of TI.
This intervention appears overdue, but its effect remains uncertain. LD worries that the Majors will be damaging to smaller-scale independent competitions, which will likely struggle to attract the top teams. Amid the chaos of the current scene, there’s still a strong feeling of connection between amateur and professional players, and some of that may be lost if the pros decide that only Majors will be worth their time. The tension between keeping the game and its players accessible and, at the same time, satisfying their requirements seems like a chronic issue that won’t be resolved any time soon.
"Valve does not want to be the nanny."
The one thing we’ll never see, according to LD, is Valve adopting a system like that of League of Legends, where Riot Games pays salaries to the players and runs a year-round schedule of LAN tournaments. "Valve does not want to be the nanny," he says, "they believe much more in the free market." E-sports journalist Rod Breslau tells me that the League system has been hugely successful, as evidenced by the fact that "LoL gets the most viewership — especially in the US and Canada — the most comments, the most fan interaction, etc." and it has a much bigger army of players than Dota 2. But it’s just not the Valve way. Valve’s entire business philosophy is about being hands-off and unstructured, and the action it’s taking now is a very cagey effort to just even out the spikes in its ECG. Dota 2 won’t ever have the regular rhythm of League of Legends, and that’s pretty much by design.
Dota 2 has grown into a unique online gaming phenomenon by turning a narcotically addictive five-on-five battle game into a lucrative spectator sport. The money earned during last year’s TI dwarfed anything else that e-sports had previously achieved, with the winning Team Newbee collecting a $5 million prize. Yes, League of Legends has a similar format and a lot more players, but it doesn’t have that crazy spike in its annual calendar of events that Dota has. Valve’s game is sick, in both the positive and negative senses of the word.
Valve is also unmatched in the way it raises the funds fueling The International’s popular notoriety. Remember, Dota 2 is entirely free to play and compete in, and yet it’s somehow producing eight-figure prize funds. The key to this is fan engagement, as Valve sells a $10 Compendium of in-game loot and cosmetics to raise most of the prize pool for The International. In the beginning, Valve’s own contribution of $1.6 million made up the lion’s share of prizes, but its proportion of the total has shrunken dramatically as the number of Dota players and their willingness to support the game have increased. A quarter of the money spent on Compendiums goes directly into the TI prize fund, which for last year’s $11 million International meant Valve had to receive over $40 million in purchases of Compendiums and related loot. Valve’s ability to galvanize (or, to put it more bluntly, monetize) its user base is remarkable, and it’s at least partly down to the sense of ownership that the company bestows to its players by being as hands-off as it is.
Dota 2 is a game beloved by many despite, and perhaps partially because, of its chaotic nature. Valve has acknowledged a responsibility to do more to ensure consistency for the game’s competitive scene, but it will have to strike a tricky balance between its present hands-off approach and the unfamiliar need for top-down regulation. In an ideal world, events like Red Bull Battlegrounds would be the norm rather than the exception, but as fantastic as Dota may be, it’s played in our flawed and messy universe — and that’s where Valve needs to step in and make things better.