2015 saw unprecedented growth throughout the year for the Dota 2 competitive scene, and all of it culminated in a record-breaking $18.4 million prize pool at The International 5, the world championships for Dota 2.
By winning TI5, Evil Geniuses collected more than $6.6 million of the prize money. With that kind of cash on the line, the attention of many mass-media giants was inevitable. That contingent included ESPN, which streamed live coverage of the event on ESPN3 and aired highlights of the final game of the World Championships on SportsCenter -- an event now known simply as "the $6 million Echo Slam."
TI5 had the largest prize pool of any esports tournament by far. Each member of Evil Geniuses became one of the top five highest-earning players of all time, across all games, and collected the Aegis of Champions championship trophy. Newbee previously won TI4, which had a comparatively small, but still quite massive, first place prize of $5 million (part of a $10.9 million prize pool). As a general barometer, esportsearnings.com reports Dota players currently occupy the top 31 spots on the all-time esports money list - with the 32nd spot taken by Starcraft II legend Jaedong.
The explosion of prize money can largely be attributed to the Dota 2 player base itself. While Valve has offered the same $1.6 million prize pool for each iteration of The International, everything changed with TI3. Players can now contribute to the prize pool themselves by purchasing a compendium within the game, with 25 percent of their purchase of the compendium going directly into The International prize pool.
Purchasing the compendium allows players to feel more connected to the tournament by allowing them to make predictions and vote on player awards -- and it also makes them eligible to receive special items that are triggered during key moments of tournament matches.
While the amount of money up for grabs is attractive to players, the structure essentially led to an imbalanced schedule. With the vast majority of the year's prize money concentrated in one event, teams could focus the entirety of their attention on performing well at TI. Other tournaments throughout the season simply did not matter in the overall outlook of the season - which kept Dota truly relevant for only a few months out of the year. As a result, teams that didn't perform well at TI were forced to wait a full year for another shot at life-changing money.
Insert Valve. In an effort to make the game more consistently competitive throughout the course of the year, Valve introduced sweeping changes to its tournament and prize structures. With an eye toward improving fan engagement and competitive stability, the 2016 season features four major tournaments spread out over the course of the year, culminating in the International.
This setup has proved successful for tournament-based sports such as golf and tennis, and should keep things interesting over the course of the entire season. Each major tournament this season will start at a base of $3 million -- the highest baseline prize pool Valve has ever offered.
While the most obvious impact of the announcement has to do with the prize pools, it's also interesting to note how the new structure affects roster construction. Instead of the anything-goes style of roster movements in past years, the new structure forces teams to lock in their rosters months before an upcoming major. Once that date hits, teams are not allowed to make any changes until after that major is over. This essentially creates a series of "trade windows" over the course of the season during certain stretches between majors.
With only one major already in the books this season, it's difficult to measure the impact these changes will have on the competitive Dota scene. With another major right around the corner in Shanghai, however, we should get a clearer picture of how things will shape up this season in a hurry.
Teams will have decisions to make after the Shanghai major, which will be the last chance to make roster changes before the recently announced Manila major and the much-anticipated TI6. Whether or not overall gameplay will improve is yet to be seen, but teams are now measuring their success based on a series of impactful, officially sanctioned tournaments rather than just one massive event - which can be only a positive for Dota 2 and Valve moving forward.
Will Cohen also helped contribute to this article.