When and why did Valve get involved in the professional scene?
Dota 2’s developer Valve has been trying to create a solid structure for professional Dota 2 players since 2015. Their pivot to a DPC format came years after experimenting with competitive formats.
Between 2011 and 2015, the early years of the game, third party tournament organizers hosted the tournaments with little involvement from Valve. There was no required format or duration for these tournaments, and rulesets varied between organizers. There was always issues with conflicts but it was always solved by the organizers, not Valve. In fact outside of their annual extravaganza, The International, Valve was completely hands-off. They left the community to monitor itself.
As the years went by it, became increasingly apparent that the chaotic nature of the professional scene was a detriment to the future of the game. Rosters were unstable which meant that teams were entering and exiting the scene which reflected poorly on Valve. It was difficult to keep a solid and dedicated viewer base for their game with no major focal points during the year. If Dota 2 was to stand the test of time as a competitive title, it would need structure.
Therefore, at their $18 million TI5 event in Seattle, Valve announced they would be stepping in to help organize three Major events in the run-up to The International 6 the following summer. Valve enlisted the services of three established tournament organizers to host these Majors. ESL hosted the Frankfurt Major in Germany, Perfect World hosted the Shanghai Major in China, and PGL hosted the Manila Major in the Philippines. Each Major boasted a $3 million prize pool, a figure which dwarfed the prize pool of even League of Legends’ biggest annual event Worlds at the time ($2.1 million in 2015).
The Dota Major Championships – A reasonable start
The Dota Major Championships from 2015 to 2016 was Valve’s first stab at creating some order in the professional scene, and it marked the introduction of roster locks. In a bid to create more stable rosters, teams wishing to receive invites to Majors or Regionals, were required to submit their roster to Valve, and stick with it for 3-4 months at a time. Once one Major was completed, teams had a brief period to reshuffle, before being locked again. The scheme’s goal was to encourage players to stick together longer, by introducing a consequence, and as a result, the Dota pro scene did stabilize.
However, a few cracks appeared in the system, ones that Valve realized they would have to address. The first problem was that the Majors simply became too important in the eyes of the teams. Competing too much in the run-up to a Major could be detrimental to their success, and teams that did attend the Majors often took time off afterward to relax or to find themselves a new team. The result was that although the Majors only lasted 10 days, they essentially made an entire month a no-go zone for third party tournament organizers, and securing the prime dates right bang between two Majors became a point of contention between TOs.
The second issue that needed addressing was the roster lock. Although it did ultimately bring stability, it originally only had a deadline to join a team. This meant players had the power to leave their organization in the lurch by not committing early, and use the impending deadline as a bargaining chip to negotiate a better deal. Likewise, organizations could delay recruiting players as they deliberately try to wait to see if there is a better option out there. Overall, drama was commonplace during the reshuffle periods, and late additions or departures led to teams being created out of desperation, only to implode several weeks down the line.
For the second Dota Major Championships from 2016 to 2017, Valve attempted to address both these issues.
2016-2017 – Valve tinkers and fixes a few holes
The first change for the new season was that the roster reshuffle now had a drop date, a deadline by which organizations had to publicly declare which players they would not be keeping – although there were cases where players rejoined even after being dropped. Overall this made the reshuffle far less chaotic, and also drummed up interest from fans as they awaited to see who will be the new faces in their favorite organizations.
Valve also reduced the number of Majors from 3 to 2, giving third-party tournament organizers more room to operate outside of the Majors. In the first season, the Shanghai Major organized by Perfect World had ended a complete disaster, with the host James “2GD” Harding fired by Valve before the end of Day One, along with the entire production company charged with broadcasting the event. Two pieces of news that were announced by Valve’s founder Gabe Newell himself, on Reddit of all places.
Unfortunately the Shanghai Major became the yardstick by which all other supposedly “awful” events were measured, and for the second season Valve – looking to rebuild the image of the Majors – trusted PGL to host both of the Majors, following their success hosting the Manila Major and handling the production for Valve’s The International 6.
It was a glorious season, particularly because of the teams, as Valve’s goal of roster stability was finally becoming a reality. TI6 winners Wings would fade into obscurity almost immediately, and the 2016-2017 season saw Team Liquid, Virtus Pro and Newbee all form incredibly successful and – more importantly – stable teams. In fact, Team Liquid and Newbee would go on to keep the same rosters for TWO entire years, and both would end up gracing the TI7 Grand Finals. Virtus Pro, also became a pillar of stability, making just one player change in the next three years.
Although the season had seen the birth of new rivalries and superpowers, the Valve Majors still felt like isolated events and didn’t necessarily encourage the growth of the Dota ecosystem as a whole. There was also confusion over how much results at Majors should count towards invites to TI, when compared to results at third-party tournaments. How much were the Majors actually “worth”? Valve, however, were on the ball and had already brewed a plan.
2017-2018 – Valve changes approach to embrace third-party TOs
The 2017-2018 season was a huge turning point for Valve in terms of their approach to the professional Dota 2 scene. In the first year, Valve had entrusted three TOs to host a Major each, with very different end results. ESL’s Frankfurt Major was a clinical, no-nonsense production. Professional, but at times lifeless. PGL’s Manila Major was the polar opposite, a fiesta of Dota, inside a packed stadium with a roaring crowd. And then, of course, there was the Shanghai Major. The lack of consistency was evident.
For the second season Valve had left nothing to chance, with PGL putting on two white-label Majors for them. The Boston and Kiev Major were incredibly memorable, and viewership was high. However, the rest of the ecosystem was at risk of stagnation. The number of tournament organizers involved in the space was not increasing, and neither was the number or scale of events.
Hosting Dota 2 tournaments simply did not make logistical sense. Especially considering Valve had removed the ability for TOs to crowdfund for their tournament. They disallowed TOs to sell in-game bundles and/or Compendiums through the Dota 2 client.
Back in 2014, BeyondtheSummit managed to increase the prize pool of the Summit 2 from $100,000 to $313,589 thanks to in-game sales, and they weren’t the only success story. DotaCinema’s XMG Captain’s Draft Season 2 event, also in 2014, started out with a $50,000 prize pool, but ended up with $276,742. A fact which is even more impressive considering the tournament was online only. However, the most ludicrous example of the benefits of in-game sales is i-League Season 1. The Chinese tournament’s base prize pool was a meager $16,000, a prize pool that skyrocketed to $311,655 through in-game ticket sales alone, an increase of 18 fold.
The arrival of the Valve Majors in 2015 ushered in the end of third-party compendiums and in-game sales. As Valve introduced seasonal Battle Passes, they phased out the ability for third-party TO’s to host their own. For Dota fans, and Valve, the Battle Passes – initially called Season Compendiums – were a great addition. The 25% of Compendium sales for TI5 surpassed $16 million, still as astonishing today as it was then. For tournament organizers, however, it was a crippling and seemingly unnecessary blow from Valve. Valve essentially took all the ability for tournament organizers to crowdfund for their event. However, fast forward two years to 2017, and Valve was once again about to lend a helping hand to third-party TOs.
2017-2018 – The DPC is born, Valve opens the checkbook
For the 2017-2018 season – or Dota Pro Circuit Season 1 – Valve came to the conclusion that the best way to help the scene grow was not to organize more Valve events. Instead, they wanted to bring back TOs already present in the space. They called it “an organic approach”. Valve extended an invitation to all tournament organizers ahead of the launch of the Dota Pro Circuit (DPC) in 2017. They asked everyone to submit pitches for DPC events for the inaugural season. Finally, Valve started to support third-party TOs once again.
DPC events were to be divided into two tiers; Majors and Minors. Majors were required to have a prize pool of $500k and would be supplemented by Valve for an additional $500k. Meanwhile, Minor TOs were only required to supply $150K of the prize pool with Valve accounting for the other $150K . The prize pool was not the only requirement Valve had for DPC events.
All Minors and Majors were required to have a LAN finals component. They also had to hold at least one qualifier for all of the “primary regions” (NA, SA, SEA, CN, EU and CIS). The schedule of Majors and Minors was to be directly managed by Valve. This helped to reduce growing tensions between competing TOs, and created a somewhat standardized format across all events. Third-party TOs leapt at the opportunity to host tournaments once again. The first DPC season from 2017-2018 had 9 Majors and 13 Minors, a combined prize pool of… $13 million.
2017-2018 – Qualifying Points are introduced to DPC
The second massive change with the introduction of the DPC was Qualifying Points, or DPC Points as they’re commonly referred to. Every year TI invites were a mystery to fans and teams alike. And Valve never disclosed the criteria they used to choose who would get the golden tickets. However, now with a standardized tournament format across the entire season, Valve had the perfect platform to finally create team and player standings.
The plan was simple, teams would earn DPC Points based on their placement at DPC events. At the end of the season, the eight teams with the most points received a direct invite to TI8. No room for debate. Aside from two exceptions, Minors were worth 300 DPC Points and Majors were worth 1,500. Valve arranged for the bulk of the Majors to be scheduled for the latter part of the season. This was a way to hype up the end of season into The International 8.
For example, winning a Minor would net a team 150 DPC Points. The points were awarded to each player within that team. Winning a Major, on the other hand, was worth 750 DPC Points.
The system was relatively sound, on paper. What Valve did not envision was that high profile teams would try to compete at every single event. In theory, the Minors were designed for smaller teams. They were meant as a proving ground. There were no restrictions on who could qualify for the tournament which mean Minors had all the big names. The Minors being dominated by big names meant they amassed the lion’s share of DPC Points. By the end of the season Virtus Pro alone had won 5 Majors and 1 Minor. This equaled to a total of 12,372 points, 14% of the total Points available across the entire season. What is more a result of early success, six teams were already guaranteed a top 8 finish in the DPC with 5 events still to go, four of which were Majors.
The result was a far less compelling finale to the DPC than Valve had probably imagined. Fortunately, fans were happy with plenty of Dota to watch, and OG’s mind-blowing underdog story to win TI8 in Vancouver in the summer, was an epic end to the season. Change for the DPC however, was inevitable. The blistering pace of the 22 event Circuit was clearly not feasible.
2018-2019 – Valve dials it back & finds a good balance
For the Dota Pro Circuit Season 2, 2018-2019, Valve dialed back the number of events, reducing it from 22 to just 10. Burnout had become a real problem in the previous season, with teams ended up playing with stand-ins or even their coaches. Most players were unable to catch their breath from the relentless schedule. Teams were never expected to try to play every event, but that was the end result. Teams were concerned that skipping a chance to compete could see them lose their edge. So for the majority of top teams, there was no break, just one year of non-stop Dota. They were grinding themselves to the bone, and it wasn’t good for them, or for the fans.
In the previous season, Minors dominated the first half of the season and Majors the second. The new season would see Minors and Majors held together in pairs. The direct invites to the Minors and Majors were scrapped entirely. Instead Valve encouraged all slots to be earned through Qualifiers. This feels to have been influenced by the success of Open Qualifier team OG winning TI8 in the summer.
Valve’s overall focus was making sure the Minors would not be over-run by high profile teams. They needed to ensure that there was equal opportunities for teams across all six regions. Valve ensured that by declaring that Major Qualifiers would run first. Following the Major Qualifiers, only teams that didn’t qualify for the Major could compete in the Minor Qualifiers. Valve also added a bonus incentive to excel at the Minors. They added a rule that stipulated that Minor winners would automatically qualify to play in the Major the following week.
Valve made it a rule that all five Majors must have 16 teams with minimum two qualifier slots per region. This was all done to encourage equal opportunities for the six regions and to avoid organizer bias.
The result was a DPC season that allowed to Minors to serve as a proving ground for new talent. The Minors were originally intended to be a proving ground but that intention was lost along the way. The removal of invites meant no team could qualify for a Major without being “in shape”. Valve then increased the competitive season by increasing the number of direct TI from 8 to 12.
Interestingly for the 2018-2019 season, Valve abolished the roster lock, and now awarded DPC points to teams instead of players. This put a stop to the loop-hole where trailing teams would attempt to recruit players from higher-ranked teams in order to boost their DPC Points. Overall, Valve successfully modified the DPC to make it more secure and less prone to abuse by players and teams. Big teams could win big by qualifying and competing in Majors which meant bigger prizes and more viewers. Smaller teams could still grind their way to success competing in the hopes of some day getting to a Major.
2019 and beyond – Four years later and Valve has found the right recipe
Valve has historically been unafraid to experiment with their games, sometimes good but sometimes bad. It seems they have found a good balance for managing the DPC. They aren’t too overbearing but also not too hands-off.
The 2019-2020 format is very similar to that of the previous DPC season. 10 events, five Majors and five Minors. The Major and Minor Qualifiers are now combined. This was done to free up space for even more third-party tournaments to be held.
Over the last four years, Valve have learned a lot. They’ve tackled many of the issues that they set out back to solve after they launched the Dota Major Championships in 2015. The rosters are more stable now and formats are standardized. And honestly, the number of DPC events is just right.
Valve’s biggest threat now remains viewership and active player base, with both noticeably dropping since the end of TI9. The future still looks incredibly bright for Dota 2 and the DPC, especially with the launch of a brand new patch in November.