The DPC: Incremental Changes Won’t Address the Underlying Issues

WARNING: This is a LONG post ( ~3800 words, about the length of a “short” Wheel of Time chapter) – so I made you a video to listen to. Pick your poison.

(There are topic timestamps over in the YouTube description)

Band-aids cover up injuries and maybe  keep some bacteria out – but they aren’t any actual solution to healing a wound. Our bodies dispatch a whole horde of infection fighting skin rebuilding body management tools to fix problems. Valve approaches the DPC like a small child who believes a Sponge Bob band-aid will solve all their problems. Sure, pineapples and krusty krabs – or in the DPC’s case regulated qualifiers and point penalties for roster changes – may look appealing, but without a dedicated horde of infection fighting managers and clear rules, these wounds have done more than just fester.

Don’t get me wrong here – Dota has always had problems. We needed stability, transparency, and a less top heavy system. Valve has made huge strides in addressing those problems, but there would need to be a paradigm shift in Valve policy to truly move into a healthy Dota 2 ecosystem for players, tournament organizers, team owners, and fans.  I ‘m going to take us through the history so we can have a good basis for discussion about what some of those solutions should be. (You can skip through a lot of it if you just want to see what I think the current problems and solutions are) It’s pretty clear Valve listens to Reddit for their policy decisions, so why not try to build a constructive system of feedback as this season begins to come to a close? That’s my goal with this post, so bear with me while we tackle the obvious and subtle challenges the current DPC system faces.

A Comprehensive History of the Dota 2 Pro Circuit

DAC 2015 – The Test Run

I want to take a rather large step back to start us where the Dota 2 Pro Circuit (DPC) began to contextualize that plenty of progress has been made. The Dota 2 Asia Championships first took place about four years ago (yes that’s about how long SumaiL has been around in the spotlight) and has been widely regarded as the test run for a new tournament system that Valve was looking to implement. DAC 2015 featured crowd funding through a special compendium and had production and hype level reminiscent of TI, but in the East rather than the West. The tournament took place roughly halfway in between TI4 and TI5 and should probably be considered the first of the majors.

If we flash forward to TI5 – VP knocks out the favorites Secret, Reddit rages and shames Valve into a Kotlguy invite, SumaiL secures the best rookie year ever, and PPD’s smug grin gets tattooed on his face as he picks up his first (and so far only) Aegis of Champions. Lindsey Sterling was around somewhere as well. For many of the “veterans” – this marked the beginning of the end. Valve bowed to Reddit pressure HARD, the EU/China alternating year trend was broken (we switched to saying West/East to keep it going), and shortly after TI, we were forced to embrace “Rebroken” (Reborn) – an engine update that killed several features and took a long time to reach any semblance of proper function.

The Majors: A Dream of Stability Shattered (2015 – 2016)

That’s all a nostalgic tangent in light of what we were covering: the DPC. At The International 2015, Valve announced the new Major system. There was a bunch of “problems” in the Dota scene back then, with concerns mostly revolving around the invite system for TI, rampant roster swapping, and an incredibly top heavy prize money event once a year. The three $3 million prize pool tournaments spread out about every three months were meant to give people around the world a “TI experience” while providing players with more consistent and stable access to prize money. These tournaments also incentivised roster stability – with rosters required to be locked in by a certain date (usually within a couple weeks of the previous major ending) if teams wanted to be invited to the next major or at the very least the qualifiers.

For anyone who remembers, these roster locks were a disaster. Team Secret / Evil Geniuses / Digital Chaos roster shuffle anyone? There simply wasn’t enough time to properly test out rosters and the pressure of not losing a Major spot forced a lot of hasty decisions. On top of that, teams could keep a promising player away from other teams by kicking them at the last second, removing their ability to find a new team before the roster lock. Potentially because of these pressures, The International 2016 was the only year Puppey finished outside of the top 8, although Digital Chaos seemed to benefit with their second place finish.

The Majors: Try Two (2016 – 2017)

Valve had taken the first step, but they needed to do more. Enter the 2016 – 2017 season. We lost a Major, with only two Majors between TI6 and TI7. This gave teams a little more breathing room and allowed third party tournaments more freedom with their tournament schedules. Teams were still required to lock their rosters, but now we had TWO roster lock dates. First, there was a “kick” lock that was your last chance to remove anyone from the team. This prevented last minute changes that screwed players out of finding any teams. The second lock was the same as the first round of the Majors – a final date that anyone could be added to a roster.

This system seemed to work mildly better, but there were still two key problems yet to be addressed: how did teams earn their invites to TI? Everyone begged for clarity on the TI invite process – when $20 million is on the line, people kinda want to know how getting invited works. Additionally, top teams seemed to only participate in the biggest of events, making their appearances few and far between for fans hoping to see their favorites play.

It was time for the DPC (2017 – 2018)

Rather than go for a “third try is the charm” approach, Valve decided they needed an entirely new system. It’s no coincidence that this system took a large organization burden off of Valve either. Valve would graciously allowed third party tournaments to apply for DPC status, and if it was granted, Valve would fork over 50% of the prize pool. These tournaments were required to have a $150k base prize pool ($300K after help from Valve) for the Minors and $500K ($1 million total) to be a Major. These tournaments were also required to have qualifiers for each of the six regions (with SA and CIS added as new regions). Majors were worth 1500 points and Minors were worth 300 points.

Players on teams placing in the top four of these tournaments earned a portion of these qualifying points, and the roster locked teams before the TI7 roster lock date (February sixth by the way – about seven months before TI would be played) with the highest cumulative point totals of their three top players would be invited to TI. This means that when Rodjer happened to swap from the dominating VP over to less than impressive Na’Vi, Na’Vi conveniently received a healthy boost in the DPC rankings. (Have you ever looked at the sponsors / companies behind these two CIS powerhouse brands? You might notice a few similarities)

Roster shenanigans aside, if you thought the first Major system was crowded, it had NOTHING on the schedule for the DPC’s inaugural season. Valve announced THIRTEEN MINORS and THIRTEEN MAJORS. Thank goodness that schedule didn’t end up happeningwe got lucky and there were only nine majors and thirteen minors by the end of the year.

That’s right, there were 22 tournaments that held the key to qualifying to a $20 million+ prize pool TI at the end of the season. Never mind that the minors were meant for the tier two scene, why wouldn’t Liquid and Secret dominate every single Minor to pad their point totals? Absolutely nothing was stopping them, and every tournament wanted to invite them. How else were you going to get sponsors to shell out $150k in prize money if you couldn’t guarantee a top team or two?

Even if you weren’t around then, you can imagine the disaster year of scheduling that ensued. Qualifiers stepped all over each other, with teams participating in multiple major and minor qualifiers at the same time, playing and travelling 24/7 for a prayer of accruing the qualifying points they would need to make it to TI. Some tournaments had 8 teams, others 12, and others 16 with no consistent format and qualifier slots often weighted towards tournament hosting region. None of the big teams ever played qualifiers, they just sat back and waited for invites to their pick of tournaments. The burnout was insane, top teams abused the minor system, third parties tournaments meant nothing if they weren’t a part of the DPC, and points being awarded to players left endless opportunities for invite manipulation.

The 2018 – 2019 DPC Season

Too many DPC tournaments? Okay, now there are only five of each.

Tournaments sniping your qualifier time slots? Every Major and Minor has an announced qualifier time at the start of the year – no one gets in their way.

Roster locks too stringent? Okay now any roster changes just get met with point punishments. Oh and by the way, points belong to team brands now. Players, we’re sick of you having the power.

Too many major teams in the Minors? Fine, you can only play in the Minor if you failed to qualify to the corresponding Major.

Not enough teams at the Majors? Yeah guys, we don’t care if it costs you more, Majors need to have 16 teams, the Minors will have 8.

It’s too easy to qualify from winning Minors? Good point, let’s make the Minors have worthless point values in the grand scheme of the system.

Top teams just getting invited everywhere? Invites are dead, everyone has to qualify.

Qualifier slot distribution at TI gets whined about all the time? Yup, let’s just have the top 12 DPC point teams be invited, only one team from each region can qualify after that.

Rejoice third party tournaments! You can mean something again! Celebrate team owners, players can’t walk all over your contracts now! Fans get more Dota, all the time. Smaller teams get exposure and international practice and a second chance to make it to the Major!

It looks great, right? Admittedly, I approached this post with a lot of cynicism. Not everything was a hasty patch job by Valve. Reducing the number of DPC events, redistributing point totals, transparent qualifier scheduling, and requiring 16 team Majors were all pretty great moves. Unfortunately, the Dota scene isn’t so great about acting in “the spirit of the greater good of Dota” – they want to win, they want their points, and they want to go to TI. And they want it now. If you’re just whiny enough on Twitter, you can be guaranteed a front page Reddit thread and a statement from Valve within 2-3 days when they realize they can’t stick their fingers in their ears and shout “I’m not listening!” any longer.

There are just a few problems with the new DPC…

Are you a tournament org that scheduled their tournament too close to a DPC event? (Scheduling that probably happened well before the DPC schedule was announce) – expect to have most of your teams drop out. Oh great, you won a minor! Now you have five days to travel six time zones and prepare to compete against fifteen teams that just had a whole tournament of tape on you to study. Have a player with a family, visa, or personal crisis? Looks like you’ll have to take it to Twitter if you want a ruling from Valve. Drop a racial slur because playing in the Dota bubble has prevented you from ever having to learn how to play nice in the real world? Looks like you messed with Valve’s cash cow, they don’t have your back when it comes to competitive integrity. Good bet they’ll lie about it too. Can’t get along with your teammates? Go ahead and kick them a couple weeks before a Major, your team still has the same name, so you must be the same team that qualified. Need more days in your tournament for to justify the cost to sponsors? Look no further than a meaningless group stage where everyone ends up in the upper bracket anyways!

If you got all of those references, good job, you spend 20+ hours a week staring at Dota and are just as much of a lost cause as me. (Feel free to tweet at me for any explanations, I get that not everyone has my level of… let’s say free time. Obsession is a strong word).

I firmly believe that we don’t complain because we hate Valve or we want to drag them through the mud or we want someone to pay. We complain because we are terrified of anything jeopardizing something that we have put (for some) over a decade of our lives into. (Not me, I’m barely scratching six years invested).

What does the next season of the DPC need?

The ultimate question is this: what are the core problems of the current DPC iteration, and how can they be addressed?

Problem: Lack of clear rules for various roster change situations 

We know what happens if a team competes with a stand-in (point penalties) – but what if the reason for a stand-in is out of the team’s control? Travel issues, illness, family emergencies, and visa problems (for example, if a host country doesn’t recognize certain other country passports…) are often going to be pretty valid reasons to have a substitute player. Should teams be penalized both by having to play with a sub-optimal (heh) roster AND only earning a portion of the points they deserve? And should teams really have to wait for maybe getting a response from Valve on their situation, often relying on social media to get Valve’s attention for them? As we approach TI with the current point rules, we also have to ask ourselves what teams should be allowed to do in terms of player kicks and roster swapping, especially in the orgs with bigger pockets.

Solution: More rules OR a DPC Commissioner (Or Both)

Teams shouldn’t need to spend weeks worrying about IF they can have a sub. Making a public rule book honestly opens up Valve to more abuse – Dota players are great at finding loopholes. However, a commissioner who’s job it is to evaluate a situation and respond within a reasonable time frame is a good way for Valve to maintain their laissez-faire approach and still have more competitive integrity for disadvantaged teams. There are also times when the reason for a player missing a tournament is NOT valid – and there should be a public ruling on punishment ASAP to ensure that the scene is being respected and well represented.

Problem: Tournament Organizers aren’t making money

This problem sums up several of my snarky examples above. Tournaments who aren’t DPC struggle to pull together relevant prize pools and attract the big teams that sponsors are going to want to see to justify their spending. Tournaments who are DPC have to deliver something fair, balanced, interesting, and high production on limited budgets. Valve is helping with the prize pool – that’s it. Tournament organizers have to come up with everything else. We’ve seen less talent invited and either more tournament days with less meaningful formats to provide more sponsor hours or longer days to shorten tournaments and lower operating costs. This hurts talent who struggle to work events, production teams putting in insanely long days, and teams forced to play after midnight and still be back to play the next day in the early morning. Weird formats that might make sponsors happy or make your tournament unique push results towards less likely outcomes. And the threat of third party streamers just covering your games and taking half your viewers? Well why even bother to organize a Dota tournament.

Solution: Enable more monetization options for tournaments

As much as the inner me desires the best possible format for every tournament, that is BORING. In theory, the best team should just win, no matter the format! (This isn’t how it works, but Dota has too many variables to try to control all of them for fairness anyways). For now, let tournaments have their weird formats – as long as the commissioner thinks it does not put undue jeopardy on the competitiveness of the tournament go for it. (Valve already approves formats, so this doesn’t really change anything) My only caveat being that players should be protected from formats that would result in incredibly long days.

Ultimately, tournaments need to make money. They deserve broadcast rights if they are granted DPC status. You own the IP Valve, let them rent it for the week! And seriously, introduce some kind of revenue share system. It doesn’t need to be a big fancy crowd sourcing compendium for every tournament.

Ideas: Bring back in game team banners that people can buy and level up with a “collection book” for each tournament, link it to Dota plus shard rewards, give people the option to change their TP color based on their collection, or display banners on their effigies – do whatever you need to do programming wise to introduce a simple way of generating revenue that doesn’t hinge on flooding the market with more lootbox hats. Have one team each tournament submit one player signature – this means there is a different signature each event (five players, five events etc) – you can even link the event to the signature to make them unique. Create tournament brackets that have a ticket cost and reward shards, or dota plus subscriptions, or an achievement medal for your profile, whatever you want that is low programming effort.

And THEN give a % of sales of banners to the tournament organizer AND to the teams for each tournament! Who knows what kind of dent that will make in the overhead of a tournament organizer, but they need some kind of help. Small teams wouldn’t look down on an extra $$$ bonus either. Esports venture capital isn’t going to be an endless flood of money for forever. There will be a market correction and sponsors will realize that current valuations are inflated. We can either take the steps now to find sustainable revenue models, or we can watch endemic brands step away from the Dota space as it becomes less and less financially viable.

Problem: Open qualifiers for the next Major happen during the current one

Solution: Move the qualifier dates a week up.

(This one isn’t rocket science)

Problem: DPC Scheduling can lead to undermining of team performance and/or third party tournament relevance

The first Minor/Major combo saw Tigers travel from Sweden to Malaysia to compete in the Kuala Lumpur Major, with only a week of travel time. This is likely due to scheduling challenges with the first of DPC events, as the subsequent Minor/Major combinations have been more accommodating. However, tournaments such as ESL and DreamHack that plan events sometimes years in advance do face a strong disadvantage in the current DPC system. They sell sponsors exclusivity on a set number of events and locations – they may have a hard time generating a new event out of thin air to match Valve’s schedule.

Solution: More flexibility in Valve Minor/Major dates

This problem is probably already being taken into consideration and addressed. Organizers who plan years ahead of time (like DreamHack and ESL) hopefully are sending pitches in to Valve now and Valve is taking their tournaments into consideration as either event hosts, or at least trying to leave some space about DPC events to enable third party tournaments to survive.

The most likely solution here is to decrease the DPC events to four, rather than five. Third party tournaments need to stay relevant, and we are approaching the problems we saw in the initial major system. (This would also make it a lot easier to NOT have open qualifiers during the current major).

Problem: Qualifier distribution between regions remains arbitrary.

We have fixed the problem with regions getting a different number of qualifier slots for TI – why not fix that problem when it comes to the Majors and Minors as well?

Solution: Bring back a handful of invites and increase Minor team representation

Nahaz, Noxville, and probably every single other Dota talent who likes to use Twitter has suggested fairly similar approaches that boil down to:

  • Invite the winner from the last Major (or top two)
  • Give two slots to every region for the Majors
  • Up Minors to 12 teams, give two slots/region again
  • Top two from the Minors go to the Majors
  • Permanently award Minor DPC points (in addition to any points earned at the Major) to the event winner to make sure those Grand Finals still matter

We can play with the math and mess around with the numbers a few ways to make it work – but ultimately, every region should have an equal number of qualifier slots. Then when all the regions compete against each other in the Minors (and Majors) – whoever comes out on top is  the “stronger region” and they then earn their region extra representation.

An important note is that 12 team Minors increases cost to organizers significantly (24 extra people at a conservative $1500/person is an extra $36000 in costs) – it would be pretty great if Valve agreed to foot the bill for player flight and hotel costs (or at least provide some level of subsidy) to ensure the tournaments could still invest in production and talent for a great tournament.

Ultimately, the DPC has done a lot right

As we see Gunnar’s family traveling to Disney without him, Black missing qualifiers because he is talent at an event, Kuku theoretically banned from China (the home of TI9), and group stages that end with everyone in the upper bracket – it’s hard to remember that the DPC has done a lot of things right. Tournament organizers get promised relevancy by earning DPC status, sponsors know how often teams will be playing in qualifiers, prize money is better distributed throughout the year, TI invites have near complete transparency, and rosters have at least some incentive to stay together.

There are problems, and the incremental approach probably won’t be sufficient to address all of these problems. Tournaments need better revenue sources, rosters and stand ins need firmer rules, and communication from Valve needs to improve – without Reddit forcing their hand.

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