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Dota 2

Opinion: Pros Need to Act Now to Save Dota 2 Esports

Patrick Bonifacio

On January 12th, 2022, Dota 2 publisher and developer Valve Corporation officially canceled what was supposed to be the Winter Major for the 2021-2022 Dota Pro Circuit (DPC) season. Citing mounting travel restrictions and the lightning-fast spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, Valve made the decision to ax the event on Wednesday.

Dota 2 Winter Major TI stage shot

Photo by Valve

As the Major is no longer happening, Valve announced that they would redistribute the DPC points that teams would have earned at the event, transferring the “lost” points over to the second and third Majors this season. This was, by their admission, in honor of keeping the “balance of points” across the six competitive regions equal even in the absence of the first Major.

Disappearing Act

But one thing was sorely missing from their announcement: the $500,000 prize pool that was supposed to feature at the event itself. Out of all 243 words in the announcement itself, not a single paragraph or sentence makes mention of the pot. This incensed both fans and pro players alike, as they wondered where the money seemingly disappeared to. North American regional league winner Remus “ponlo” Goh Zhi Xian, who placed first in the region alongside his teammates in Quincy Crew, put it best in his tweet responding to the situation:

The community as a whole is understandably enraged, as these teams work incredibly hard just to stay afloat in the cutthroat world of competitive Dota 2. It’s hard enough to survive as a professional player in this game; what more when the money you played your heart out just to have a shot at (not even winning it outright, as you have to win the Major first) vanishes overnight.

Valve could very well just distribute the prize money to the teams that would have qualified for the Major somehow, but it’s been radio silence on the topic since. It’s been days and Valve still have not provided teams with any sort of update on the prize pool in particular. They have since apologized for the cancellation of the Major, but did not make any mention of the missing cash in said apology.

In other words, teams are still in the dark about whether or not they’re going to make any money out of qualifying.

Global Silence

Once again, as if professional Dota 2 hasn’t already been in this spot many times in the past, Valve’s lack of communication is the crux of the matter here. For the most part, they just canceled the Winter Major with pretty much no fanfare, and without much in the way of compensation for the players involved. The teams basically found out one day that the Major they qualified for was no more, which Valve admitted in their apology tweet.

“We should have done a better job of keeping you all in the loop about the risks of the event,” they said. “We also should have been more willing to take a different approach earlier to find a way to conclude the first season.”

Dota 2 Winter Major TI stage shot

Photo by Valve

A measly blog post with almost nothing else after that is just pathetic, but sadly not surprising knowing Valve. As we said, this certainly isn’t the first time this has happened. They’re notoriously bad at communicating when it comes to pro Dota 2, especially during the ongoing pandemic. When COVID-19 first became a global crisis in 2020, it took Valve many months to find a new venue and schedule for The International 10.

Evil Geniuses manager Peter Anders alluded to all of this in a post on TwitLonger, published the very same day of the announcement. “There are lots of ideas on how the prize pool, DPC points, schedule, etc should be changed to make this whole issue more fair,” said Anders. “What I want to address though, is the larger issue at hand, which is the complete silence and lack of communication from Valve.”

Frustration Steadily Mounting

The silence contributes to an overall feeling of helplessness and frustration within the community, particularly when it comes to the players themselves. Wildcard Gaming’s Samuel “Sammyboy” Anderson, one of the most tenured active North American Dota 2 players, was one of the first to react as such when Valve dropped the news on the 12th.

His words tell a somber truth. Year in and year out, but especially during the pandemic era, Valve have consistently been awful at making Dota 2 stable when it comes to making a living out of being a professional player. Of course, it is true that holding a tournament with COVID numbers rising rapidly is a huge risk in and of itself. But refusing to say something about the prize money that basically just evaporated is another thing altogether.

Dota 2 pros can only take so much of this rollercoaster ride. Soon enough, we may see them look towards other titles in order to stay afloat in esports, or just stop trying in the professional scene entirely like what Sammyboy is thinking. And he’s not the only one โ€” even Team Tickles’ Miroslav “BOOM” Biฤan is now having second thoughts about going pro:

It’s incredibly sad to see, especially given the game’s rich competitive history and just how many lives it has changed over the years.

Merely a “Passion Project”

Unfortunately, with Valve’s seeming disinterest in exerting even the bare minimum in effort when it comes to Dota 2 esports and their overall control over the fate of the competitive scene, it’s difficult to get anything to change in a timely manner. Peter Anders alludes to these difficulties in the same TwitLonger post mentioned earlier in this article, citing the fact that Valve only sees The International (and presumably, the rest of Dota 2 as an esport) as a passion project.

“They donโ€™t gain much revenue from TI compared to the time in,” said Anders, recounting his experience in a meeting at TI10 between Valve and the participating teams. “[And] when teams go straight to public platforms to complain about issues, it makes Valve less motivated to keep running TI.”

He goes on to mention that Valve told teams at the meeting itself that if they are to air any grievances with the company, the teams should communicate directly instead of going to public channels like Twitter. But according to Anders, this point is basically moot, as Valve doesn’t answer such questions anyway. “In an ideal, and I believe achievable, world there is no problem with this,” he said. “Teams should be able to go directly to Valve with [any] problems that they have, [have] those problems be acknowledged, and either solved or managed in a way to create a harmonious relationship. However, there is still no way for teams to communicate directly with Valve, and no information being given to teams.”

Naturally, this causes much friction between players and Valve. Players just want open and consistent communication, while Valve just doesn’t seem to care enough to make it so. They seem to be quite brazen about it, too โ€” otherwise they wouldn’t call TI a passion project so openly in front of the organizations that compete in it every year. Quincy Crew team captain Maurice “KheZu” Gutmann said as much on the 12th:

Alliance Chief Strategy Officer and co-owner Kelly “kellymilkies” Ong Xiao Wei corroborated KheZu’s interpretation of Valve’s stance on the matter just two days later:

From these, it’s pretty clear that Valve truly doesn’t see the same kind of value in keeping Dota 2 esports healthy and stable, as compared to how the players and the community do. They don’t even think that the very organizations that participate in their so-called passion project bring any value whatsoever.

And it’s even more baffling given that the next Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Major is still set to take place in February anyway. Both Dota 2 and CS:GO are run by the same publisher and developer โ€” but it’s obvious which one they care about more.

Rock and a Hard Place… Or Is It?

This creates a veritable impasse for the professional scene where Valve just refuses to give them the time of day. The company doesn’t see a point in putting forth the effort required to keep things above water, even as The International continues to shatter esports prize money records every year. Heck, even TI itself is just a hobby for them. Just based off of this alone, it almost seems like there’s nothing that anyone can do to resolve any of this.

Former International champion Syed “SumaiL” Hassan has proposed something quite radical, though, and it just might be the true last resort in this case: boycott the DPC season.

It would be extremely difficult to convince every single team to just stop playing, of course, given that this is how they put food on the table throughout the year. But without Valve suddenly deciding to get off their butts, there doesn’t seem to be much else that players can do to help things along.

At this point, the players need to wake Valve up to the kind of value that they bring to the table. The company itself is playing blind to what the players mean to the competitive scene, and it’s obvious that they will remain in this stance for the foreseeable future. That is, unless, the players themselves threaten to either play other games from other developers instead, as well as bring their fans with them when they do switch.

While boycotting the season as such seems extreme, there’s just nowhere else to turn. Valve is actively (well, in this case, passively) killing its own game’s competitive scene โ€” and if the players don’t do something out of the ordinary soon, we could see Dota 2 as an esport die not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The Rest of the Dota World Will Keep Turning

There’s another possible roadblock to all of this, however: that being the fact that Dota 2 just as a multiplayer game will probably survive just fine without the help of its competitive scene. Dota 2 itself is one of the greatest games ever made, and with genius balance and design master IceFrog still at the helm, it’s going to be quite a while before the game falls out of popularity.

For as long as the game is still fun to pub players, Valve will likely see Dota 2 as a cash cow they don’t need to put much effort into. After all, even with all the problems that the competitive scene faces today, one thing is crystal clear: the player base will still spend exorbitant amounts of money on the annual TI Battle Passes.

While there isn’t any solid data backing this up, this behavior by the player base suggests that as long as there are shiny new hats for them to try on, Valve will make money off of The International anyway. There is not much that professional players can do about this, as Valve will just continue to see this as a sign that the core of their player base will readily hand money over to them regardless of the state of the pro scene.

Dota 2 Winter Major TI9 caster area

Photo by Valve

The only way this will change is if the player base as a whole votes with their wallets โ€” which is much, much easier said than done. There will always be whales ready to drop tons of cash on skins, and this isn’t exclusive to Dota 2. Nevertheless, this will likely be a deciding factor in whether or not Valve actually bothers with the competitive scene from here on out.

Until then, the pros should use their leverage as influencers and inspirations to the player base at large in order to enact change. And they need to do this as soon as possible, or accept that the abusive relationship between them and Valve will just continue in perpetuity.