Valve must solve two Dota 2 Pro Circuit problems

The International 7: Grand Finals: Team Liquid v Newbee (3:39)

Team Liquid takes on Newbee in the Grand Finals. (3:39)

Following The International 2017, competitive Dota 2 began operating on a completely new system. For the previous two years, Dota 2 had revolved around two or three "Majors," which were organized by Dota 2 developer Valve. The prize pools in these events, at $3 million or more, were six times larger than the next closest tournaments and more than 10 times bigger than the average third-party LAN event during that period.

The new system, dubbed the Dota 2 Pro Circuit, works similarly to Valve's highly successful model for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. This season features 11 Majors with prize pools of at least $1 million and an even larger number of "Minors" with prize pools of $300,000 or more. Both types of tournaments are produced by third-party tournament organizers and must meet broad requirements: For example, the tournaments must feature qualifier slots for at least one team from each of the six major regions. In exchange, Valve contributes 50 percent of the tournament's prize pool and gives qualifying points to the top finishers. At the end of the season, the eight teams with the most qualifying points are directly invited to The International 2018, likely to once again feature a prize pool over $20 million.

The sky is not falling. The DPC was met with optimism from most fans and organizations. It can still represent a substantial step forward for the Dota 2 scene. However, at least two problems that are very much connected need to be addressed for that to happen.

More burden on lower-tier teams

Dota 2's previous Major system seemed to promote an increasing gap between a handful of top-tier teams and, well, everyone else. Teams that finished top-4 at a Major would often play only a handful of matches in the months that followed, due in part to substantial leverage in negotiating direct invites to third-party events. Direct invites made up half or more of the field at typical LAN events, leaving Tier 2 or 3 teams often competing across regions for two to four qualifier slots.

The DPC, however, was supposed to create opportunities for smaller teams. This didn't last long. Teams quickly realized that, partly due to economic constraints, the majority of tournaments, likely including Majors, would feature 8-10 teams instead of 12-16. The eight-team formats become particularly brutal with six of the eight slots reserved for qualifiers, one from each of six geographic regions.

Take ESL One Hamburg, the season's first Major, as an example. The eight-team field featured both TI7 grand finalists, Team Liquid and Newbee, as the direct invites. This left three of the top-6 finishers at TI7 competing in the Chinese qualifier -- and all three were left home after upstart Keen Gaming pulled a string of upsets. Five-time Major champions OG, who picked up probably the hottest free agent post-TI7 in Roman "Resolut1on" Fominok, lost to a revitalized Team Secret in the European Qualifier. For many top teams, this was a wakeup call.

By early October, teams had already adjusted to the realities of the new system. Some minor organizers, who had initially approached teams like Secret humbly inquiring about their interest, were inundated with calls from top teams asking about direct invites. No longer guaranteed direct invites and faced with increasingly competitive qualifiers, top teams like Evil Geniuses and Virtus.pro have responded by competing in nearly every DPC event. Yes, lower-tier teams now have many more chances at qualifying for the top tier of tournaments, but with top competition flooding lesser-known tournaments, it's not at all clear the chances of reaching prominent LANs has improved for small-money squads.

Revenue channels

Under the DPC, the thinking went, well-run third-party events like ESL One would flourish because they would no longer have to compete with much larger Valve-run tournaments. However, third party tournament organizers still face a very different set of economic realities.

The two years before TI5 (and the institution of the previous Valve-run Major system) saw explosive growth in third-party LANs. In part, this happened because third-party organizers had access to the same crowdfunding model that led to eight-figure prize pools at The International. Tournaments could monetize by selling tickets inside the Dota 2 client, which often came bundled with unique cosmetic items, with a percentage of sales going to the tournament's prize pool. A few were allowed limited versions of TI Compendiums, which unlocked fan features such as expanded info on teams and players and the ability to make predictions for games in-client. Multiple events, particularly those with unique features such as The Summit 2 or XMG Captain's Draft 2.0, saw their prize pools more than double.

As of now, DPC tournament organizers have not regained access to crowdfunding or other in-client features. This matters for more than prize pools. While Valve co-sponsors prize money for DPC LANs, third-party organizers can't use crowdfunding to offset other costs of producing events as Valve does for TI and did for its own Majors. This often means there's no room in the budget for amenities, such as upgraded travel and catered midnight snacks, that players have come to expect.

More importantly, this further increases pressure on events to limit the number of teams participating as well as to use single-elimination or similar abbreviated formats to save on the cost of LAN play days. At least one Major, a planned effort for 2018 between Beyond the Summit and Next Generation Esports, has already been cancelled outright due to financial concerns.

Possible solutions

All of the current concerns with the DPC are eminently solvable, most in many ways. At a bare minimum, Majors should be required to feature 12 or more teams at the LAN finals, and Minors strongly encouraged to have 10 or more. With more total teams, the strongest regions would be more likely to receive multiple qualifier slots, and bigger fields would also give up-and-coming teams a chance to shine. Look no further than the Perfect World Masters, a Chinese Minor that featured a 10-team field and saw Team Kinguin pull a string of upsets to finish at the top of a loaded group and fifth-sixth overall.

Tournament invites could also be more strongly connected; for example, Valve could stipulate that Minor winners receive guaranteed invites to the next (or a future) Major. This both removes some of the potential subjectivity in direct invites as well as guarantee that a single team like Mineski, which won the PGL Minor, won't always "block" the other teams in a single region. Another possibility is requiring 10-or-more-team tournaments to grant at least two qualifier slots to any of the four traditionally represented regions (China, Europe, Southeast Asia and North America) which are not represented in the direct invites.

Just as importantly, the economic model here needs tweaking. Despite the huge success of ESL's partnership with Mercedes-Benz at ESL One Hamburg, it's not reasonable to expect sponsorship sales to entirely bridge the financial gap between third-party tournaments and the Valve-run Majors of the past two years, at least not in the short term. While sticker sales in CS:GO remain a source of revenue for players and organizations who participate in Majors, in Dota 2, players, teams and organizers remain for the most part locked out of revenues generated inside the game client. For the DPC to reach its potential, Valve will need to share the love by either sharing costs, opening revenue channels or both.