The trouble with transparency in Valve's Dota 2 invites

Ivan "Artstyle" Antonov, captain of Na`Vi, gets high-fives from the crowd at ESL One Frankfurt 2016. Provided by Helena Kristiansson/ESL

The International 2016's qualifiers are over. The 18 teams who will travel to Seattle are set. At this time of the year, the building anticipation has the power to stall all other discussions in the Dota 2 world. Unfortunately, that includes the discussion of how we got here: How Valve determined who was invited to its tournament and who would have to compete in qualifiers.

All this has happened before and all this will happen again. Every time Valve announces invites to one of its majors, complaints arise about how its team determined who to invite. And, every time, the dust settles after a few weeks and we move on to other topics. Until the next major. It's time for a proper investigation into Valve's operating procedures with respect to its Dota 2 events to determine whether there is room for improvement.

Scrutinizing Valve's process immediately presents itself as tricky because the process is opaque to us. How do we judge if Valve is making the best decisions possible if we don't have access to its decision-making process? It seems that Valve feels it is unnecessary for other stakeholders to be able to inspect its processes, provided it offers satisfactory outcomes. As a private company, this sort of thinking is not unusual. But as a regulatory body dictating the workings of a competitive industry, questions need to be asked and answered.

The role of direct invites

The place to start would be to ask what exactly "direct invites" are. Does Valve hand out direct invites to particular teams because of some measure of objective merit, or is the decision completely at Valve's discretion? The latter option allows for arbitrary judgement, which is obviously unwanted in a competitive field. Thankfully, all evidence suggests that the truth is the former, that Valve does have reasons for who it invites to its events.

Indeed, in the past year, some patterns in Valve's invites have even become so consistent that we've come to treat them as norms, despite never being confirmed by the company itself. For example, the top four teams of the previous major have always been invited to the next one. Furthermore, there has always been at least one team invited primarily due to its achievements in non-Valve events.

So, it is clear that Valve does have an internal qualification process for "direct invites." If you are directly invited to a major, it isn't like getting a lucky invite to a cool party. It's recognition that you've done something that qualified you to be at the event. What have you done? We don't know. But Valve does. The question then becomes why the developer feels uncomfortable sharing its reasoning with us.

This question was actually answered within the Manila Major invites announcement from Valve:

Deciding on how to handle the direct invites to our four tournaments is a difficult process, and we don't take a specific formulaic approach to which teams are invited or how many we invite.

In other words, even though the process of deciding who to invite is a thoroughly reasoned one, the reasoning used from event to event might actually change. This is because the problem being solved is a complex one and, thus, might requires a fresh and dynamic approach to solving it each time.

A player's perspective from Loda

This really gets to the bottom of the discussion at hand. Valve could create a set of criteria known to the public for how to qualify for it's events. But then it'd have to stick to them. And right now the Dota 2 team appears to be concerned that the esports scene presents too many exceptional considerations to justify risking a commitment to one way of doing things.

While this is a clever strategy for sustaining decision-making power, thus potentially improving individual decisions, there are questions about how this affects the overall ecosystem. Jonathan "Loda" Berg, captain of Alliance, shared his thoughts on the matter.

"I kind of understand why they have a hidden system, but at this point I feel it's a bit flawed. The majors were, and are, a great thing for Dota, but at the moment we don't even know in what way they matter until the next round of invites are sent out. I think it has to be more open for sure.

"I think it adds an immense kind of pressure on players and teams to not know. You can win a tournament right before a major and still not actually know if you will get invited or not. I believe LAN wins should matter a lot, but I'm obviously biased. Perhaps placing top-four continuously is more impressive than actually getting first once.

"I think like I said before that something has to change. I can feel a different kind of stress from teams and players nowadays, and I believe it's because they do not even know what they are aiming for. To be tier-one, -two? To win a major or actually practice to play a qualifier?

I mean in some cases it's better to take one month off to practice for an important qualifier such as the majors rather than partake in other tournaments, just due to the value of reaching majors and placing top 8 there. The teams and the fans need to know what we are playing for to give it any worth."

Loda's comments make two very important points. First, Valve's lack of transparency puts enormous strain on players. This strain seems comparable to a person constantly having to worry if they'll "get the job" or "get the promotion." The traditional sporting world lacks examples of this. You know well in advance how you might qualify for the World Cup or the Champions League. Even if esports are different from traditional sports, other competitive games also only utilize transparent qualification processes. Magic: The Gathering, a competitive game, which functions much like an esport but also predates the field, follows the same route as sports: premier events offer various routes for qualification but all are known openly and in advance. Indeed, even Counter-Strike, an esport also administered by Valve, uses an entirely transparent qualification process.

That other competitions do things that way perhaps suggests that Dota 2 could too, but it is not an argument for why it should. Loda's second key point, however, does present such an argument. Knowledge of qualification criteria can play a role in the decisions teams make during the year, so Valve's choice to protect its own authority actually deprives teams of the ability to make informed decisions.

Transparency is necessary for a legitimate competitive environment

Teams should be able to navigate the major system by making decisions about how to prioritize their time, which events to go to, and which is the best route to try to qualify. With an unknown rule set, this isn't possible; the only winning strategy is "attend everything, win everything." But this is not a reasonable principle. There are real trade-offs, in terms of time and other resources, when it comes to deciding when and how to train and which events to attend during the year.

Valve has done a reasonably good job producing desirable outcomes with its invites. But the process also matters, and not just as a means to an end. In order to be a fair and competitive system, those participating in it need to know how it works.

Imagine if a patch were launched without any patch notes. Imagine if a tournament were hosted without any information about its format. Both examples are clearly not conducive to a fair and competitive environment. Thankfully, these things don't happen. Valve supplies full information to teams about how its game works, how their tournaments work, and updates when changes are made. Yet somehow the process that underpins the esports ecosystem -- tournament qualification for Valve events -- has thus far escaped the same standard. This is the case despite the fact that Dota 2 is still a game, and the rules for games need to be clear if participants are expected to reasonably compete in it.

It might be that the competitive scene in Dota 2 is sufficiently complex such that it is not comparable to other games and sports that use transparent qualification systems. However, Valve's comments imply a false dichotomy. It is not the case that the system needs to be either entirely formulaic or entirely hidden. It is possible to provide some key information about the process through guidelines that express roughly which achievements are relevant, leaving room for Valve's discretion.