'Dota 2' Owes Its Success to Fans, Not Investors and Owners, and That's Okay

Nice esport you got there, shame if something were to happen to it.

by Rob Zacny
May 2 2017, 8:00pm

Above: photo of The International courtesy Valve

One of the striking things about Dota 2 is that, although its rise coincided with the explosion of interest and audience for esports, it's remained almost entirely immune—or perhaps aloof—from the trends that have largely shaped professional gaming since 2011. Where other competitive communities and organizations have at least attempted (with varying levels of success) to impose some kind of governance structure on esports, Dota 2 remains almost gleefully chaotic. While outside investors have come pouring into other esports, and made established esports brands increasingly ubiquitous and well-financed, pro Dota 2 is largely dominated by rosters and individual captains and players that change teams almost at-will. Dota 2 has rejected just about everything that esports supposedly need: Continuity, stability, structure, organization, and (especially) media training.

Now, over at Glixel, Will Partin has asked whether that's a good thing for the game, and whether Dota is in danger of being left behind by a rapidly growing and evolving esports industry.

But Partin's piece is largely written from the perspective of the Cloud9 organization's own mixed experiences with Dota 2, which is a perspective that definitely comes loaded with agenda-driven baggage.

It's entirely possible that the much of the esports economy beyond LoL is more bubble than bedrock.

From the perspective of a Dota die-hard, teams like Cloud9 and owners like Jack Etienne are hardly disinterested observers, and they represent less an inevitable evolution for competitive gaming than a corporate vision that lots of monied investors and hopeful team owners want to bring to fruition. Conflating the arrival of venture capital investment and sponsor-friendly esports with progress is an easy way to turn-off a lot of esports devotees —and Dota fans in particular, whose enthusiasm for in-app esports purchases like Compendiums and spectator passes has given Dota a unique, fan-supported business model. That is probably one reason why response to Partin's piece has been so cool from many of the people who closely follow the game.

The argument that Dota 2 is headed for "niche" status seems to rest on three indicators: First, it's not attracting investment from established teams or outside investors. Second, the number of major tournaments on the Dota calendar is in decline. Third, the player base is starting to contract.

But only the last of those issues seems like an unequivocal indicator of trouble on the horizon for Dota. The other two could be taken as the unique character traits of Dota's esports ecosystem, and maybe even arguments for its overall health. It's not dependent on the interest of monied outsiders, and players are making more money playing in fewer, higher-profile tournaments.

To Partin's credit, his article doesn't try to hide any of the complicating or contradictory information that might undercut his thesis: He's frank about the other ways you could interpret the same evidence. He's not just throwing a couple hyperlinks into an article and praying nobody clicks. But Partin sees a grim trajectory ahead for Dota:

Without the exposure offered by major broadcast deals, it's unlikely that Dota 2 will benefit much from the new audiences eSports will reach in the coming years. This is a future for Dota 2 in which small, but dedicated, community of spectators still find meaning in watching Dota 2, and professionals play not for money or fame, but because they love the game. This is not necessarily a bad thing; a fantasy of "pure" competition, unsullied by greed, is alluring indeed.

What seems more likely is that in 2020, Dota 2 will look a lot more like today's fighting games circuit than the LCS [League of Legends Championship Series]. In contrast to the vast apparatus of sponsors, media rights, and franchises that make up LCS and will make up Overwatch League, Dota 2 will mainly be built on the passion of fans who are willing to share their eyes (and, of course, their wallets). As long as this is the case, then there will be professional Dota 2, but it will be increasingly isolated from the rest of esports.

What this argument seems to assume, however, is that the LCS is both a successful model and a readily replicable one, and that efforts like Overwatch League will prove both to be sustainable and meaningful avenues for the growth of their respective games. By refusing to invest the money and resources into making Dota 2 a similarly attractive proposition, Partin argues, Valve are essentially guaranteeing that Dota gets left behind by an industry that's poised to become the next NBA.

That last part is where I probably have the most trouble with this argument. Certainly all the incoming investment in esports stems from the hope that it can grow to become an incredibly valuable mass-market media product. But that's by no means assured. League of Legends LCS might have an easy time moving to a franchise model because of its popularity and increasing infrastructure, but it's entirely possible that the much of the esports economy beyond LoL is more bubble than bedrock. Certainly that's the fear attending some of Blizzard's astronomical ambitions for Overwatch esports.

screenshot courtesy Valve

There's danger as well as opportunity for esports in an environment like this one. If a game or a competitive scene stakes its future on the success of a massively expensive, uncertain venture financed largely on spec, failure can be enormously destructive. Indeed, the present moment in esports seems to resemble nothing so much as the kind of giddy excitement and curiosity that attended the launch of DirecTV's Championship Gaming Series, an odd attempt to turn Counter-Strike into a franchised sports league for broadcast TV. When CGS collapsed, the North American Counter-Strike community that had become so invested in it was practically collateral damage.

Dota 2 might be on an island, but it's an island that largely enjoys a self-contained and sustainable economy. As Partin points out, prize money payouts have gone up despite there being fewer tournaments than there used to be, which seems at least to be somewhat by Valve's design. The players and the competition quality are doing fine. The problem, then, seems to be that there's not enough room for team owners and event organizers to make their business models workable. That's a problem for them, not a problem for Dota itself. It is a leap to argue that the interests of owners and investors will necessarily lead to a healthier game overall.

Looking at traditional sports leagues—and plans for the future of Overwatch and League of Legends—the problems that owners, organizers, and sponsors have with Dota 2 seem less about the game's future and more about who that future will belong to.