As difficult as making games can be, founding an eSport is even harder. The game must be enjoyable, yet offer enough depth to its skill-based gameplay to make room for high-level competition.
And it’s not enough for the game to be fun for players. A good eSport needs to be a fun to watch, as well. That’s something even industry giants like Blizzard have struggled with. Even when it sat on a goldmine of a competitive eSport – Starcraft: Broodwar – its disinterest in fostering the scene led to it instead spending years pushing World of Warcraft as a competitive platform. And it’s just not much fun to watch.
Given the challenges, it’s no wonder that Valve has invested more than just time into its current flagship title, Dota 2. It’s been prompted heavily in Steam, it gave gamers the first taste of the long-awaited Source 2 engine and, most notably, Valve has thrown hoards of cash at the game’s tournaments in an attempt to attract high-profile players and teams.
King of the prize pools
Last year’s Dota 2 International prize pool was almost $11 million. This year, it’s already eclipsed $17 million (at the time of writing), and shows no sign that it will stop growing. To put that in perspective, League of Legends, the world’s most popular eSport, has an annual prize pool of just $2 million for its World Championships.
It’s not just the world’s biggest tournaments that attracts a lot of Dota 2 money though. Throughout the game’s short, but storied career, it’s allowed just over 1,100 players to earn $31 million, across 430 tournaments. League of Legends, on the other hand, has paid out $21 million, to over 3,200 players, across 1,465 tournaments, as per EsportsEarnings.com.
This year’s International tournament prize pool exceeds 17 million dollars.
Part of the reason that fewer people may have walked away with enough money to pay rent from Dota 2, is the way Valve structures payouts. Although all games operate in a pyramid structure, where the winners take home a substantially larger portion of the purse than those lower down, Dota 2’s tournaments, specifically The International, taper off much more quickly than others.
League of Legends’ developer, Riot, gives almost everyone that takes part in high-level competitive play a fair payout, regardless of placement. On top of that, it pays teams classed at the professional level a salary of $12,500 each per season-split, though that is based on the idea that they start every game.
That’s hardly a living wage, and the gamers will certainly be looking to augment it with streaming, sponsorship and, if all goes well, tournament prize money. But it provides a baseline level of funding that keeps the player pool fresh.
While Valve doesn’t have a salary system of its own, neither do any of the other major eSports, League of Legends excluded. Riot’s salary system is unique. When we asked Team Acer’s Will Judd why he thought that was, he said it’s down to the differing business strategies at the two developers.
“Riot intends to make a whole sports franchise out of LoL, where it owns everything — all the tournaments, all the teams, all the players, all the managers and coaches — whereas Valve is more open, offering one marquee tournament and otherwise concentrating its efforts on the game itself.”
That may be the case for the structure of the tournaments and the games themselves, but when it comes to the prizes it gives out, Valve is in the business of making millionaires. It makes a nice headline, after all. Dota 2 has been covered as much for the cash sums attached to it as the game itself. Having the biggest prize pool in the world is big news.
Does money bring in players?
But does a massive prize pool really bring in players? Or does it instead encourage the dominance of a few, elite teams?
To find out, we asked one of the world’s highest paid, and most well known professional eSports players — Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel. He took a moment out of promoting his new line of Monster-branded gaming products to speak to us about the cash-focused side of eSports play.
When we asked him if the money Valve was offering would be a draw for pro-players, he said it was hard to think otherwise.
“As a professional gamer, you can’t be picky on what game you want to play — if you want to truly be a professional,” he said. “For me personally, I went wherever to compete in the biggest tournaments and to win the most prize money possible.”
Although there are endless differences between games like LoL and Dota 2, perhaps they are close enough in genre that these big prizes will see better players move over, or at least tempt them when they’re are first starting out.
Indeed John’s own career saw companies trying to draw in the best players with big money. Back in 2005, the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) chose Painkiller as its official World Tour Game, despite the fact games like Quake III Arena and Counter-Strike were more popular.
Painkiller was chosen over more popular contenders because the developers fronted the prize money. John was a big fan of the game and was understandably happy to walk away with the grand prize of $150,000.
Valve is a scientist looking at a petri dish.
But not everyone agrees with Fatal1ty’s assessment. Richard Lewis, an eSports journalist, sees no evidence to suggest players move between (these two specific games at least) for money or any other reason. “While there are some similarities, they are too fundamentally different,” he said of League of Legends and Dota 2.
The same goes for the way that the games are managed. He echoed Judd’s sentiments about the management styles of the different market leaders, but suggested it wasn’t so much about Valve’s corporate structure that dictated its actions, but its approach to building communities.
“Valve is a scientist looking at a petri dish,” he said. “It likes to drop its essence, its primordial ooze into a test tube and then just take a step back and watch what comes out of it. It’s a hands off approach, that while frustrating when you want something specific fixed, empowers gaming communities to build themselves up and Dota 2 is a great example of that.”
Making eSports profitable
Valve’s money making approach is different than most companies, as well. It profits directly from the International tournament thanks to sales of its digital tournament booklet, known as the Compendium, of which it takes 75 percent. The other 25 percent aids the crowd-funding efforts for the tournament’s prize pool. Riot does things very differently, and may have a different stance on eSports because of it.
“The whole League of Legends Championship Series system is a loss leader,” Lewis said. “It creates this aspirational element and that makes players interested, but it doesn’t make Riot any money directly.”
It could. With a much larger community of players than Dota 2, League of Legends could have its own enormous crowd-funded prize pool if it wanted. When we asked Lewis why he thought that didn’t, he was somewhat unsure.
“If I had to guess,” he said, “it’s because if you use crowd funded money, you have to have a higher standard of product.”
Many gamers make next to nothing for the hours they put in to becoming the best players in the world
Some companies other than Valve are happy to take the risk, however. Hi-Rez, developer of Smite, launched the most successful initial prize pool of any game ever when it generated $2 million through crowd funding in its first year of release. While it is partially backed by Chinese investment firm Tencent, its not as financially solvent as Valve is, so crowd-funding was the only way for Hi-Rez to gather the money.
Valve, on the other hand, has no need to rely on crowd-funding. It could pay for a huge tournament prize all by itself, like Riot does, but it doesn’t want to. Perhaps it doesn’t want to be the overlord of Dota 2. It just wants to give the game an initial shove — and let the the community handle things from there.
It should be about the players
There’s a valid argument that The International is too big, in that it overshadows other tournaments throughout the year. Perhaps that will lessen as Valve introduces more of its own smaller competitions. That is something that Fatal1ty would certainly like to see.
“I would prefer to see more security for today’s players. I feel it is a real hustle to be a professional gamer in general,” he said.
A lot of gamers still make next to nothing for the sizeable hours they put in to being some of the best players in the world. Their careers shouldn’t hinge on the result of a single, annual tournament. Millionaire eSport athletes make for good headlines, but they don’t necessarily make for a well balanced, sustainable community.
Hopefully, Valve will learn to spread the wealth, but it’s hard to say for sure given the company’s characteristic silence about future plans. In the meantime, we’ll just need to keep watching streams and support our favorite players. Big payouts turn tournaments into lotteries, leaving professional gamers even more dependent on the support of fans.