State of the Game: Dota 2 at the Crossroads

It seems like every year someone predicts Dota 2 is in huge trouble and something needs to change, or else. Dota 2 is not a dead game by any means, and the level of competition internationally is the highest we’ve ever seen. Of course, no matter how well things are going, there will always be problems — big or small — and Dota has a few that need to be addressed relatively soon.

Sponsor fears

One of the problems that has been constant in Dota 2 for the last few years is the unreliability of organizations and sponsors. We’ve seen mousesports come and go from Dota seemingly dozens of times, among other notable organizations like Flipsid3, which just re-entered the scene. Dota 2 is so unstable that it makes organizations nervous. An organization like Ninjas in Pyjamas, for example, might scout for a promising team for months, invest resources and fail to meet expectations later down the road, leading them to disband the team. Promising new teams might not have the time to grow together under a new sponsor until poor results and a failing to qualify for big tournaments leads to being dropped from the organization. The constant fear makes second-tier tournament circuits incredibly important for these smaller teams with very little payoff. Of course it’s natural that any venture in esports would be involve high risk, but the point is that Dota 2 is high risk with very little reward for most new teams.

Irregular play schedules

One of the most rewarding things for fans is watching their favorite teams play. Obviously winning is a huge bonus, but being able to watch a team like Alliance play regularly is important not only to viewers, but also sponsors. The Na’Vi series against Alliance at the Manila Major was one of the most-watched games of the tournament so far, with hundreds of thousands of viewers coming to watch the two teams do battle. Regular, guaranteed viewership helps build the team’s brand, and good results solidify it. Unfortunately, the current system of Majors, The International and third-party tournaments giving out more and more invites to top teams means that there is little incentive for those teams to play regularly. Why would Alliance or Evil Geniuses need or want to play in a tournament if they don’t receive a direct invite? The current structure leads to long periods of time between games for fans of these teams to watch, and also means that analysts and fans are unsure about how those teams will perform heading into a Major because they’ve seen so little of them before that point.

There used to be a time when it seemed like there were too many qualifiers, which was obviously exhausting for teams who had to play in every one, sometimes consecutively. There has to be a healthy middle ground between too many games – the way it used to be – and too few, the way it is now. But the current trend seems to be that top teams would rather ignore playing in tournaments altogether unless they receive a direct invite.

Mo’ money, mo’ problems

Ironically, the biggest talking point when it comes to Dota 2 is actually kind of hurting the scene. Everyone loves to mention The International surpassing its crowdfunding goals every year, with last year’s prize pool going beyond $18 million. The supercharged prize pool fuels competition, but it also encourages teams to disband and start over if they don’t make it to the money. Teams that don’t make it to The International at all are considered to be dead teams walking, just waiting for more players to become single and ready to shuffle. This contributes heavily to the instability that Valve has tried to fix with roster lock periods, but teams have shown in this season that they would rather make changes instead of sticking together and trying to make things work. Most teams in the Americas and CIS regions have already made roster changes after failing to qualify for the Manila Major — including Thursday’s shocking news that Saahil “Universe” Arora is leaving Team Secret — so much so that Valve might not find enough good teams to invite to regional qualifiers. If anything, the roster lock periods have only made things worse than before.

10 years since ______ stream

If you like to keep up with your favorite players on Twitch when they aren’t playing official games, you might be aware of the lack of streams lately. Part of this is due to teams focusing more intensely on practice for Majors and bigger tournaments, which is fine, but the complete absence of professional players streaming has been sorely missed. Some, like Digital Chaos, either encouraged or left time for their players to stream, which was great. Regular streams help to not only build a player’s brand, but also provide an opportunity for team sponsors to put their branding up for thousands of viewers to see. The case used to be that some teams required streaming contracts, or a certain quota of hours spent streaming for their players. Those days seem long behind us, but it would still be nice if players had the time available to stream pubs or ranked games for their devoted fans. The lack of regular streams — besides a few notable players — combined with the lack of official games being played by some teams has distanced fans even farther from professional players. Some players might prefer it that way, but fans are certainly feeling the effects.

Valve, please…

If you visit the Dota 2 subreddit at all, you’re probably familiar with the massive amount of community demands made of Valve. Some are valid concerns, and the community has a duty to point out bugs and suggest how things could be improved. But the root cause behind the cries for attention from the community is simple: Valve does not communicate — and that goes beyond relaying the exact details of how a bug occurred and how it was fixed. Most analysts, teams, and avid viewers of Dota 2 as an esport really want to know specifics about how a team qualifies for an invitation to a Major or The International.

Wykrhm Reddy has begun interacting more and more with users on social media. It’s a start. To be fair, other esports companies are also lacking in the communication department. Riot routinely comes off as distant from players, removing features that players begged for like solo queue and five-man ranked parties from the game and replacing them with their dynamic queue system. Communicating regularly, clearly and effectively with such a large amount of players is incredibly difficult, but there are certainly areas in which Valve can improve.

League of Solutions

As painful as it might be to admit, there are some things to take note of at Riot and how it handles League of Legends as an esport. I still do and always will believe that Dota 2 is the better, more complex, and more complete game; but as an esport, it could stand to learn a few things. Please take note that I am not saying that the scene should copy Riot’s system entirely. Third party tournaments have and always will be a huge part of the Dota 2 esports ecosystem. Epicenter showed in May that new tournaments don’t have to be plagued with incompetence like WePlay or fail to pay out prize money on time – so far as we know – like WCA. One of the things that I love about Dota 2 is that there is usually a tournament featuring top teams from around the world every month. In League of Legends there are basically two or three international tournaments a year.

Regular regional leagues are sorely needed, though, for a few reasons. Regions such as Southeast Asia and South America that suffer from server problems and unstable internet connections would benefit from the centralization of the top teams in the region and provide a more equal platform for those teams to compete. Another benefit is that sponsors and organizers can rest easy in the knowledge that their branding will receive guaranteed airtime for the duration of the season, though they might be replaced by a “Challenger” level team if they place at the bottom of their group. This concept has also made its way from League of Legends to professional Counter-Strike with the introduction of the massively successful ELEAGUE, though it is on a smaller scale than Riot’s year-round operations.

Generally this means that there might be more opportunity for smaller teams to compete regularly against the most accomplished teams in their region and possibly cause upsets as they increase their level of play. Not only that, but a guaranteed paycheck for those players would also mean that they don’t have to worry about keeping the lights on as they pursue their professional Dota 2 career. A side benefit that I have observed in League of Legends is that top players have a lot of free time to stream between game days in the LCS. Not only is streaming incredibly important when it comes to growing a player and team’s fan base, but it can be lucrative for those who can dedicate the time to it. More guaranteed free time in between games could help standardize streaming schedules for professional players who want to stream but don’t have the time to do so because they want to spend what little free time they have practicing for bigger tournaments. To be clear, the point is to maximize the time available to stream for those who want to, not that it should be a requirement for all players.

Valve would have to get more involved to make this work. As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest gripes analysts have is trying to determine who will get invited to what. The process is totally unclear and not standardized at all, as evidenced by the 12 directly invited teams for the Manila Major instead of the usual eight. There must be set, public guidelines for how a team qualifies for The International or a Major instead of trying to guess the criteria are based on past decisions by Valve. By setting up some kind of league for each region and having teams play against each other regularly, it becomes easier to standardize the system of invites for Valve events.

For example: placing in the top two at the end of a league’s season earns you a spot at the next Valve event. Two teams from each major region (Americas, Europe, China and Southeast Asia) get their invitations, and teams that won a major LAN event recognized by Valve will also qualify. If the teams that placed in the top two for their league also won LAN events, the slot can go to the runner-up or the next highest team that was also not already guaranteed a spot. The remaining teams in each region that did not win a LAN or place top two in their region could play qualifiers in the studios to allow for fair playing conditions.

The system that I have proposed is certainly not perfect, and not nearly in-depth enough to be implemented as-is, but I wanted to give an example to show how a more structured approach to Dota 2’s competitive scene could be beneficial. I also recognize that there may be aspects of this approach that could be detrimental to the scene that I have not considered.

Cover image courtesy of Steffie Wunderl/ESL, eslgaming.com

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