As Dota’s prize pools balloon every year and players claim the top tournament winnings of all time, its organizations have been disappearing. With last month’s news of EG and Alliance departing GoodGame Agency and becoming independent, player-owned organizations, Dota teams are following a trend that could be an ominous sign for the game’s sustainability.
For EG and Alliance, and teams like NP, Secret, and Faceless, their independency is a choice. These rosters house some of the game’s best players, but moreover they have the capital to take that risk. NP captain, EternalEnvy, rejected a sponsorship offer from Cloud 9, which would have doubled the team’s pay. Then there’s EG players, who claim the top 4 prize winnings of all time, equalling over $10 million. And Faceless captain, iceiceice, is paying the rent for the team’s 4 bedroom gaming house out of his own pocket.
But for most players, being without an organization is just par for the course.
Two years ago, at TI4, being the 16th best team paid you zero, while the best team, Newbee, was rewarded with $5 million. The $10.9 million total prize pool of TI4 represented 66% of all prize money given out that year. Since then, Valve has made a slow effort to distribute tournament winnings across the board, with 13th-16th place at TI6 claiming 0.5% of the prize pool ($103k). It’s certainly more than nothing, but because Valve’s events contribute the most to player earnings, they’re also responsible for the massive income inequality in Dota.
It pays to be the best. In 2016, the top 4 out of 16 teams at Valve events took home more than 2/3rds of the $3 million at Majors and 3/4ths of the $20.8 million at TI6. In fact, counting all time, the top 1% of Dota players received 32.7% of tournament winnings, an income disparity greater than that of USA.
Better players should be rewarded for being better, but the sustainability of Dota also depends on everyone else. And right now, it’s not good enough. Meritocracy, the philosophy that people are rewarded based only on raw ability and talent, is a myth in competitive sports as it is in the real world. Never mind that certain teams get more invites to premier tournaments, or that the latency issues occur because of the country you live in. Regardless of the circumstances, teams below that bar of being the best aren’t rewarded their value.
Before winning $500,000 for their 2nd place finish at the Boston Major, the Greek team Ad Finem made a total of $31,915 in the previous year. Were they $500,000 better? That’s the case with many teams who get a chance to compete at Valve events. The tournament is their break, and their team lives or dies whether they get that chance. Without paychecks, they’re looking for their big payday. The sustainability of Dota depends on the ability of players to make a living from playing the game. The top players are certainly doing well. But the majority of players, from teams like Ad Finem, who are well capable of competing, but if they don’t get the chance, then they’re just scraping by.
Out of 753 documented player earnings in 2016, 575 players, or 76%, made less than $11,770, the poverty salary line for the US. Yes, the list has non-professionals, but it's also populated with top players like NutZ and DkPhobos, some who just had bad luck with team stability. It remains that the game pays lucratively only for a handful of players, comfortably for another subset, and meagerly for everyone else.
In 2016, Dota 2 tournament winnings totaled $36.4 million, greater than the winnings of the next 4 games combined: Counter Strike: Global Offensive ($17.3m), League of Legends ($10.2m), Heroes Of The Storm ($4.6m), and Call of Duty: Black Ops III ($3.7m). With the introduction of the Majors, injecting another $9 million a year (the first being in 2015), the 2016 total prize pool for Dota 2 accounted for 39.5% of Dota’s all-time winnings ($92.2m). There’s more money than before for pro players, yet it’s still a high risk, high reward scenario for anyone who wants to become a pro in Dota.
Organizations can offer stability for players to take that risk, by offering a salary. But for Dota, Valve’s laissez faire policies with competitive Dota engendered a free-for-all landscape for players. Roster shuffles follow every premier event, as players scramble to find new teams and match with compatible teammates. Rarely do teams buckle down, maintain their roster, and opt to stabilize from mistakes. Because of the stakes at hand--the next event is right around the corner--there isn't enough time. A new roster is often seen as a new start, but it can also be a slipshod way of trying to correct old mistakes, while creating new ones in the process.
The instability of teams gives little incentive for organizations to sponsor salaries. Too much depends on the success of a few tournaments, especially now that third party organizers can no longer can incentive ticket purchases with item bundles, and at the same time they're competing with the scheduling of Valve events.
Valve, to their credit, has grown the competitive circuit with the Majors, enacted roster lock policies, and committed to prioritizing players first, but without any sort of organizational structure, players are still left to fend for themselves. Some will find the right players, the right team, all hoping to win the next big one.