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Dota vu: Valve’s world cup of e-sports is having another moment in the spotlight

Dota vu: Valve’s world cup of e-sports is having another moment in the spotlight


With great money comes great hype, but Valve still doesn’t know how to escape its niche

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The Dota 2 Aegis of Champions
The Dota 2 Aegis of Champions
Photo: Valve

Every year for the past half decade, like clockwork, Valve’s Dota 2 tournament has broken the record for biggest prize pool in e-sports history. Dubbed The International (TI), this competition started off with $1.6 million of Valve’s own money in 2011 before adding a gamer-funded component that accelerated it north of $10 million by 2014, past $20 million last year, and close to $25 million for The International 7 that just concluded. These eight-figure prizes have attracted the eye of mainstream media, and Dota made it to the front page of The New York Times after TI4, but the frisson of popular excitement never seems to last.

As a devoted Dota fan, the way I see the game being perceived by the wider public is similar to the way I see Americans approaching football, the sport they call soccer. Outside of a passionate niche audience, football is mostly neglected in the US until the quadrennial FIFA World Cup brings 32 national teams (soon to be 48) together for a grand exhibition of The Beautiful Game. So it is with the Dota International: its bountiful prize pool attracts attention from people outside the Dota sphere, but much as with football after the WC is over, most of that intrigue fades away as soon as the championship confetti is cleared away.

The International 7
The International 7
Photo: Valve

Why doesn’t Dota recruit more long-term converts with its annual grand event? I’d put it down to three things: the game’s inherent complexity, the consequent visual busyness and difficulty of following what’s happening on screen, and Valve’s presentation style. I also think that the economics of the Dota 2 pro scene present a missed opportunity: Valve could do more to support teams building up brand recognition and a legacy that people would follow even without their favorite player on the squad.

Valve has proven itself a real alchemist in stirring up its dedicated base of a few million Dota players to spend more on the game and its pro scene. But to avoid a case of Dota vu, where another big TI makes a splash that doesn’t last, here are some suggestions to bolster this juggernaut of an online game. (Credit goes to my colleagues TC Sottek, a fellow Dota fanatic, who brainstormed these with me).


There’s little that Valve can do to simplify the game of Dota itself, and I wouldn’t want to see the gameplay watered down just to make it more appealing to the masses. But there’s plenty of improvement that can be made to the way the game is packaged up as a visual spectacle.

  • Provide a real spectator view that replaces the in-game UI. At present, the person watching a game of Dota looks at it through the same lens as the person playing it. That includes an information-dense overlay enumerating a ton of information that’s not immediately material to the fight or confrontation on screen. It’s a lot like watching an NFL or NBA broadcast with all the raw data that TV networks keep track of behind the scenes being constantly on screen. Stats are cool, but so is curation.
  • A spectator-friendly view would start with a truly clean slate, no interface at all, and then it would steadily add and take away information as it’s contextually relevant. Some of the heroes in Dota rely on major game-altering ultimate abilities with long cooldowns — would it not be much more exciting to see a nice clear countdown to the next time that an earthshaking skill is available to use? The standard Dota interface is universal; I’m saying tinker with it and tailor it to specific circumstances within a match to enhance viewer immersion.
  • Have professional analysts doing the analysis. I know athletic sports have established the precedent of having former players delivering their special insights as analysts during matches, but anyone who’s watched Thierry Henry speak about football will tell you that he’s much better at playing it. TI7 was an epic bore for me between matches as a parade of fresh-faced men in their early 20s — many of them current players — grappled with the increased exposure and the uncomfortable fit of suits they’re unlikely to wear until the next TI. Many of the best Dota analysts are indeed former players, but there’s also a wealth of talent from groups like Beyond The Summit that was left watching instead of participating in the broadcast of the game that they love.
  • Valve knows exactly what I’m talking about, because it featured the awesomely informative and amiable Jack “KBBQ” Chen on a side desk to break down the Chinese teams. Jack is the perfect analyst: deeply knowledgeable about both the game and the teams playing it, enlightening even seasoned Dota enthusiasts with tiny snippets about the culture and language surrounding the game in China.
  • Women make up a substantial proportion of the wider gaming market, and many of them play Dota too, but they remain woefully underrepresented in the Dota pro scene. An easy solution to help re-balance that situation is to give more screen and commentary time to Jorien "Sheever" van der Heijden. She was part of some of the most fun group-stage broadcasts at TI7, and she’s as well informed and qualified as any of her male counterparts — having her actually visible during the main event would have gone a long way to making Dota feel more accessible to other women and to validating the geekery of those who are already into it.


Valve makes a lot of money out of Dota, which is a golden egg-laying goose when it comes to in-game cosmetics and other digital goods with zero marginal cost. The company has demonstrated a godlike skill for maintaining an undying thirst among Dota players for more hats and fancier lances, daggers, and sniper rifles. But Valve hasn’t exactly proven itself an oracle with its foresight about how the Dota 2 competitive community would evolve.

  • This week, I spoke with Victor Goossens, the co-CEO of Team Liquid, the group that won TI7 and collected a prize of $10,862,683. Not every team operates like Liquid, which is a pro organization with investor funding and e-sports teams represented in League of Legends and Counter-Strike. It covers the expenses of its five Dota players and provides them with training facilities, all the PC hardware they could ever want, and support services like a mental coach. Oh, and an annual salary that ranges between $100,000 and $200,000. At the conclusion of TI, the $10 million was split eight ways between the organization, the five players, and the dedicated manager and coach. Goossens tells me that winning TI was “the biggest day in Team Liquid history,” which I’m inclined to read was as important economically as competitively. How does a team like Liquid survive without winning TI?
  • An important first step to sustaining teams over the long term might be to revise the prize distribution of TI. Compare the epic kitty handed out to the TI7 winner with the comparatively measly $61,720 given to the 17th and 18th best Dota teams in the world. Did they not entertain us? Did they not compete as fiercely? It seems to me that Valve could reward each team with a more equitable financial outcome (with some incremental bonus for winning, to be sure) and it’d still have the same high level of competition.
  • Another important step to creating a thriving Dota pro scene for the whole year round is to have more competitions like The International. Valve is tackling that issue by axing its old system of three $3 million tournaments per year and replacing it with a new system of Majors and Minors, which starts after TI. It’ll feature tournaments organized by third parties, but Valve will contribute to ensuring consistent standards and will incentivize compliance by matching a portion of the prize pool on offer. The hope is that this method will lead to more opportunities for teams to profit directly from their competitive Dota play.
  • At present, Dota fandom is a player-driven affair, with young superstars like SumaiL from Evil Geniuses and Miracle- from Team Liquid providing the biggest attraction. But is it an accident that both of them are thriving on teams that are run by established e-sports organizations? Valve needs more highly structured teams like EG and Liquid — and fewer ragtag collections of hyper-talented but disorganized players — if it’s going to establish Dota 2 as a more attractive spectator sport. This year’s TI7 peaked at 5 million concurrent viewers, so Dota is indeed growing, but it’s still far behind the 14.7 million that competitor League of Legends pulls in. Riot’s competitive structure for League is much more hands-on than Valve is probably ever willing to be.

I don’t want to overstate the things that are wrong with Dota. This is still one of the best balanced, most deeply engaging mind games I’ve ever played, and I love its gameplay. That said, like most online venues, Dota has a few problems with trolls and edgelords, which are things I haven’t really addressed here, but which could well be another drag on wider adoption of the game. If they’re at all useful, my ideas here are about how to make a good thing better, how to refine a niche taste into a more widely palatable flavor.