Year after year, Valve manages to surpass their own levels of prestige via their TI tournaments. TI9’s prize pool doesn’t only surpass that of previous years TI’s, or that of other games, but sets a benchmark for the industry as a whole. Has Valve perfected the formula? Far from it, but they’re getting pretty damn close. Today, we’ll be looking at just how Valve was able to make the $30 Million pipe dream into reality, and what it means for them as esports moguls in the future.
Ever since the dawn of Dota 2’s introduction into professional esports, Valve has continued to be able to set amicably high standards for the whole industry. To refresh your memory’s, TI1’s prize pool was around $1.6 million, a figure almost unheard of at the time. For reference, the prize pool’s of some of the most decorated Starcraft tournaments at the time peaked at around $20,000. The $1 million mark was not just a benchmark for Dota, or Valve, it was a message to every single gamer in the world; “if you’re good enough, you can make it big.”
That’s not to say that some of the industries best weren’t already making it big. Many household names like ESL were around before TI, and are still thriving today. The same goes for any top player in their respective esports. Although gaming wasn’t as established as it is today, it was still a somewhat viable career choice if you were good enough. However, these entities relied on third parties for support, via sponsorships and brand deals. The International from it’s fruition in 2011, eliminated the need of 3rd parties and any middle man, with all winnings going from Valve to players pockets.
— Wykrhm Reddy (@wykrhm) July 21, 2019
Why Do Players Pay?
These numbers are incredibly daunting to the average Joe, and even to esports fanatics from other games. How on earth does a video game give you access to millions of dollars? In order to keep things sweet and simple, we’ll be looking at Dota 2 and TI exclusively. In short, Valve have come up with a clever marketing plan to feed the goliath that is Dota 2’s casual player base, as well as its professional mavericks. Every year, Valve publishes a Battle Pass and Compendium to not only celebrate TI season, but to fund the tournament itself. Contrary to other developers of Free to Play games, Valve have made a conscious choice to allow a significant portion of the money raised to be put into the tournament’s organization, and prize pool, rather than keep all the profits to themselves.
Although Valve keeps a majority percentage of all the funds generated, TI’s quality year after year is no less than extraordinary. Viewers are treated to musical performances by well-known figures, ranging from the orchestral to the pop side of things. Without even mentioning the annual new hero reveals themselves, the idea of a new hero is enough to keep everyone glued to their seats. As well as the announcement of the Arcana Vote winners, cosplay competition, fantasy league, All Stars Match, the Main Event itself, TI really has something for everyone. Many of you now have a good idea of how the system works as a whole, but at the heart; the Battle Pass, is where everything happens.
TI9 Battle Pass
This year’s Battle Pass is truly something special. Weeks ago I gave my review of it, and was thoroughly impressed with the content it had to offer. Without getting into too much detail, Valve have shook up how the Battle Pass was handled this year. They added an obscene amount of exclusive content that was not insanely difficult to get, but not something you could just play your way towards. Let’s take a quick look at the different exclusive rewards that are purely in-game and cosmetic (not accounting for treasures and consumables). Overgrown Empire (custom map), Custom Creeps (coming soon), Tiny Prestige Item (coming soon), Kid Invoker, Custom Towers, Earthshaker Arcana, and Axe Unleashed. All of these items are obtainable if you get your Battle Pass up to level 425, which will net you around $100 to $300, depending on if you purchased it from the get-go, or grinded out a few levels in between.
The aforementioned list is very extensive, but they do not bring down the quality of their contents whatsoever. Since the dawn of the DPC, Valve has been able to set their whole focus on the TI Battle Pass, since they no longer publish battle passes for majors. This means that they’ve likely been planning and working on this battle pass for the past year. In the past, netting $200 into the battle pass gave you a wide array of treasures containing items that would be incredibly prevalent in the coming months, making them redundant. If you wanted to get the good stuff, which was usually either exclusive couriers or physical rewards like the mini aegis and baby roshans, you had to cough up anywhere between $1,000 and $2,000 to obtain them. The cool thing about this battle pass, is that all those things remain true, but for the hardcore fan base, coughing up a couple of hundred bucks a year for a game they spend thousands of hours in is a surprisingly small ask. And for those that do, they are rewarded with incredibly charming and timeless cosmetics that will be impossible to obtain at the conclusion of the battle pass.
Are We Sheeple?
Before we move on, the majority of the hardcore fan base play Dota 2 almost exclusively. Myself for example, rarely purchase any games throughout the year, although the majority of my free time is spent gaming. Having the option to splurge 2 and a half triple-A games worth of battle pass levels was a no brainer for me, and many others. Disregarding the value of the battle pass itself, the very principle that the money spent is feeding into both the company that supports the game, as well as the rewards that are received is almost ritualistic in nature. Before any judgment is passed onto players, it’s important to keep in mind that the entire gaming sphere is full of people who are willing to go above an beyond for a few highly polished pixels, and no wrong is done by either Valve, or the big-spending players. It would be futile to give a non-cliche argument, but the choice of spending hundreds if not thousands on a free game is a choice, and the people spending it are not ill-minded.
Valves pricing strategy
If one were to sum up this year’s battle pass in one word, it would be “Capitalistic”. This pricing strategy set by Valve has got to be one of the most aggressive ones that has ever been done in Dota 2. At times it seems almost evil, but then you’re reminded of the pretty cosmetics you’re gonna be able to use! Let’s start at the first thing you see when you boot up the battle pass page on the Dota 2 website. You’re greeted with 3 bundle choices, with the third having the most value. Pay $44.99 upfront and get 100 levels. At first glance, this seems like an amazing deal, until you actually look at what rewards you’re given if you purchase this bundle. Purchasing the bundle gives you access to an abysmal 6 Immortal Treasures and an announcer pack. However, if you spend another $50, you get access to a Tiny Prestige Item! Spend a little more and all of a sudden you’ve unlocked all the cosmetic rewards bar the physical ones. But look at that, we’re halfway there! If we spend another $100, we can get ourselves the Baby Roshan!
This was my thought process as I’ve used and meticulously studied this year’s Battle Pass. The system encourages you to pay for more, and Valve has done well to include the exclusive rewards, as many players no longer find the value in opening hundreds of treasures for the rare cosmetic, only to find it for $10 on the steam market place months later. Treasures are no longer the focal point of the Battle Pass, but are now a bonus that we are treated within between the big rewards.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, China is the key to Dota’s long term success. You may not agree with the way China handles the gaming industry, all the way to how they deal with internal socio-political issues. At the end of the day, the Chinese fan base is the most powerful gaming fan base in the world. Chinese culture glorifies microtransactions in their games. If you take a look at some Chinese mobile games, they have set an industry-standard in aggressive microtransactions littered throughout their games. And they work because the Chinese demographic loves them! With TI9 being hosted in China, and the Chinese fans being fully aware that the proceeds go to the event itself, as well as their fondness of spending their cash on a game they love, just put 2 and 2 together.
In my review of the TI9 Battle Pass, I mentioned that the likelihood of this years prize pool reaching that $30 million mark was unlikely, but in self-refuting fashion, it really was a “fools errand to discount China”. This point in Dota’s history doesn’t only set an internal standard within Valve, nor does it set an industry standard, it proved that the Chinese market is an incredibly powerful and looming one. It’s without a doubt that many companies will continue to invest in the Chinese market, even though their gaming presence is already gargantuan.
If Valve are to continue this trend of hosting TI in different countries, then it’s only logical that countries will try and one-up each other. As I write this, I’m greeted with thoughts of the Olympics, and the FIFA World Cup, being an international race to show which nation is truly the most passionate one for sport. It may be wishful thinking, but a path that leads to international competition would not only be true to the tournaments name itself but how esports should have been years ago. I cannot confirm nor deny that next year’s TI will surpass this year, but foreseeing a future where TI’s prize pool is a measure of a nation’s patriotism, a possibly dystopian one that is frightening, yet interesting, who’s to say that the $30 million mark won’t be reached again?