Making the Perfect DPC: A Retrospective into Valve’s Creation

Lawrence Phillips  | 
Though not always smooth sailing, Valve has slowly formed the DPC into what we know today (Photo via StarLadder)

Though not always smooth sailing, Valve has slowly formed the DPC into what we know today (Photo via StarLadder)

Valve have had to tinker with their professional Dota scene more than a few times. In fact, it’s only now that the Dota Major Championships enter their 5th year, that Dota 2’s developer Valve seems to have settled on a system that works for everyone. Roster locks, no roster locks, Valve Majors, no Valve Majors, DPC Points for players, DPC Points for teams. It’s been a long and winding road, but with the DPC looking better than ever, we reflect on Valve’s journey to get the professional scene to where it is today.

When and why did Valve get involved in the professional scene?

Ever since 2015, Dota 2’s developer Valve has been trying to create a solid structure for professional Dota 2 players to compete in, but it wasn’t always the case.

In the early years of the game, between 2011 and 2015, third party tournament organizers were able to host tournaments with little involvement from Valve.  There was no required format or duration for these tournaments, and rulesets varied between organizers in terms of dealing with conflicts. In fact outside of their annual extravaganza, The International, Valve were completely hands-off and left the community to monitor itself.

However, as the years went by it, became increasingly apparent that the rather chaotic nature of the professional scene was a detriment to the future of the game. Rosters were unstable and with no major focal points during the year, it was difficult to keep a solid and dedicated viewer base for their game, not to mention a player base.  If Dota 2 was to stand the test of time as a competitive title it would need structure.

At T5, Valve announced they would be helping organize three Major events the following summer (Photo via TI/Flickr)

At T5, Valve announced they would be helping organize three Major events the following summer (Photo via TI/Flickr)

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 Frankfurt Major was the first sponsored Dota Major Championship (Photo via ESL/Flickr)

The Frankfurt Major was the first sponsored Dota Major Championship (Photo via ESL/Flickr)

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.

The Shanghai Major is looked upon as one of the worst run events in Dota history (Photo via Team SPirit/Twitter)

The Shanghai Major is looked upon as one of the worst run events in Dota history (Photo via Team SPirit/Twitter)

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.

PGL hosted The Boston Major and the Kiev Major in the 2017-18 season (Photo via PGL/Flickr)

PGL hosted The Boston Major and the Kiev Major in the 2017-18 season (Photo via PGL/Flickr)

Hosting Dota 2 tournaments simply did not make logistical sense, especially considering Valve had removed the ability for TOs to crowdfund for their tournament by selling 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.

Unfortunately for TOs, with the arrival of the Valve Majors in 2015, came the arrival of seasonal Battle Passes, ushering in the end of third-party compendiums and in-game sales. For Dota fans the Battle Passes – initially called Season Compendiums – were a great addition, especially considering how popular Valve’s TI Compendiums had become. Just for reference, 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 for Valve to slowly take away their ability to crowdfund for their event. However, fast forward 2 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, but instead to back TOs already present in the space, “an organic approach” as Valve said. So ahead of the launch of the Dota Pro Circuit (DPC) in the fall of 2017, Valve extended an invitation to all tournament organizers to submit pitches for DPC events for the inaugural season.

The rules for the first DPC season (Image via Wykrhm Reddy/Twitter)

The rules for the first DPC season (Image via Wykrhm Reddy/Twitter)

DPC events were to be divided into two tiers; Majors and Minors. Majors would be required to have a prize pool of $500k, but would receive an additional $500K from Valve. Meanwhile, Minor TOs were only required to supply $150K of the prize pool with Valve accounting for the other $150K .  However, 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, and 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, which assisted in reducing growing tensions between competing TOs, and created a somewhat standardized format across all events. Third-party TOs leapt at the opportunity, and 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. As mentioned earlier, TI invites every year 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, and 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, with the bulk of the Majors scheduled for the latter part of the season in the run-up to The International 8.

Winning a Minor, for example, would net a team 150 DPC Points, which would be awarded to each player within that team. Winning a Major on the other hand was worth 750 DPC Points.

The system was relatively sound, but what Valve did not envision was that high profile teams would try to compete at every event. In theory, the Minors were designed for smaller teams, as a proving ground, but with no restrictions on who could qualify for the tournament, many of the Minors were dominated by big names, amassing the lion’s share of DPC Points. By the end of the season Virtus Pro alone had won 5 of the 9 Majors, and 1 Minor, equalling 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, as they tried to catch their breath from the relentless schedule. They were of course never expected to try to play every event, but 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.

While in the previous season Minors had dominated the first half of the season, and Majors the second, the new season would see Minors and Majors held in pairs. Direct invites to Minors and Majors were scrapped entirely, and Valve instead encouraged all slots to be earned through Qualifiers, perhaps influenced by the success of Open Qualifier team OG winning TI8 in the summer.

The MDL Disneyland Paris Major was one of the most highly anticipated of the second DPC season (Image via MDL)

The MDL Disneyland Paris Major was one of the most highly anticipated of the second DPC season (Image via MDL)

Overall Valve’s focus was making sure the Minors would not be over-run by high profile teams, while also ensuring equal opportunities across all six regions. To ensure that, Valve declared Major Qualifiers would run first, and only teams that did not qualify for the Major would be eligible to compete in the Minor Qualifiers. Valve also added a bonus incentive to excel at the Minors, by adding a rule that said Minor winners would automatically qualify themselves to play in the Major the following week.

To encourage equal opportunities for all six regions and to avoid organizer bias, Valve stated that all five Majors must have 16 teams, with at least two qualifier slots per region.

The result was a DPC season that allowed to Minors to serve as a proving ground for new talent, that for which they were originally intended. The removal of invites meant no team could qualify for a Major without being “in shape”, and the increase of direct TI invites at the end of DPC season from 8 to 12, ensured the season was competitive for far longer.

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 tweaked their DPC model to make it more water-tight, and less prone to abuse by players and teams. Big teams could win big by qualifying and competing in Majors, while small teams could still grind their way to success competing against teams of similar stature, before then getting a shot at the big guns.

2019 and beyond – Four years later and Valve has found the right recipe

Valve has historically been unafraid to experiment a little with their games, but it seems they have found a good balance for managing the DPC, not 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, except now the Major and Minor Qualifiers are combined in order to free up space for even more third-party tournaments to be held.

Over the last four years, Valve have learned a lot, and have tackled many of the issues they set out back when they launched the Dota Major Championships in 2015. Rosters are more stable, formats are standardized and 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. However, with the launch of a brand new patch at the end of November, the future still looks incredibly bright for Dota 2, and more importantly, the DPC.

Lawrence is an esports dinosaur that started back in 2004 and has been a full-time freelancer ever since. He has worked for the likes of SK Gaming, PGL, ESL, Razer, Monster Energy, GINXTV, Dexerto and Starladder as an editor, scriptwriter and content creator. He currently spends his days trying to own in Apex Legends and Fortnite, in a bid to make up for his lack of skills in his main game, Dota 2.