Earlier this year, Valve hosted The International, one of biggest e-sport tournaments in the world. It’s a hallmark of the e-sports scene, due to both its absurd prize pool (this year’s topped $18.4 million) and its reverent spectacle. Because Valve makes its money on the compendium (a virtual ticket that includes in-game goods), it doesn’t have to cater to sponsors or run ads, which grants it a level of prestige that few other tournaments can currently match.
And that was kind of a problem. Because Valve itself hosted it and because it had the biggest prize pool by a country mile, The International felt like the only Dota 2 tournament that mattered. No tournament could really compete with it, and if a casual viewer wanted to watch more Dota 2, they’d have to differentiate among organizations like the MLG, the WCA, the ESL, BtS, G-League, and many others. It was hard to understand the stakes or get a feel for the storylines that made watching a tournament appealing. Worse yet, the teams playing in any of these tournaments had only a vague understanding of how their performance at tournaments throughout the year would affect their invitation to the next International.
Enter the Dota Major Championships, a series of four tournaments hosted by Valve and its partners, including next year’s International. The first of these, the Frankfurt Major, had its main event last week, culminating in a spectacular set of final games on Saturday. More importantly, it demonstrated the new Majors system, which had its ups and downs in terms of organization, fan engagement and spectacle. So how’d the first major go?
A More Stable Scene
Before the Majors system, players tended to flee from team to team with abandon until the International season started up again, usually mid-spring, since Valve invites specific team lineups instead of letting teams choose whoever they want. The frequency of roster changes made it hard for someone to root for a particular team, knowing that if they lost, they could end up with a completely different lineup the week after. It also made it hard for teams to choose which tournaments they wanted to go to. In short, the scene was chaotic.
The Major system alleviates that. After this year’s International, teams had scant few weeks to determine who they’d release and who they’d add. With the pressure to evolve their teams quickly, even Evil Geniuses, this year’s International champions, decided to kick their support player, Kurtis “Aui_2000” Ling, in favor of Team Secret member and former teammate Artour “Arteezy” Babaev. Other teams, like Cloud9, decided to reform their teams from the ground up.
The roster change period was a flurry of speculation and surprises, but after it settled down, teams had to stick with whoever they picked from the beginning of September until last week, and it made watching tournaments between The International and the Frankfurt Major more fun to watch. How did one tournament look for this team, and how does that affect their chances at Frankfurt? Can this lineup pull it together by November? It gave you a reason to watch other tournaments, to see who to root for (and who to bet on) come the Frankfurt Major.
With established rosters in place, most of the teams had to have practiced with each other for at least two months, either through scrimmages with other teams or by playing in other tournaments. This gave most of the matches between teams during the playoffs (and in the group stage) a higher potential for big plays, the kind that come about once a team has learned what they’re good at as a group, whether it’s staying on defense and slowly building an advantage or rushing in and ending matches before the enemy can recover from an initial beating.
Recent patches have pushed Dota 2 in a fight-oriented direction, and we saw the epitome of that playstyle at the Frankfurt Major. Teams could get caught off guard, reposition themselves, then still take fights that didn’t start in their favor, as long as they weren’t too behind on gold and experience and knew how to work as team. Even better, with two of the highest-ranked players in the world (Aliwi “w33” Omar and Amer “Miracle-” al-Barqawi) finally making their way to professional teams, we saw plays that truly pushed the boundaries of what Dota 2 is capable of, such as using a copy of a character to scope out an ambush by feel alone.
I’d been a little burnt out on Dota before watching the Frankfurt Major, but watching matches this good got me excited about playing again.
As mentioned earlier, Valve’s tournaments lack a lot of the product placement of other tournaments; between matches, I wasn’t subjected to awful ads for keyboards, mice, headsets, or e-sport betting websites. Instead, I got a picture of the two teams about to play next and some low-key instrumental music. The panelists, who discussed the character drafts and matches both before and after a match, included prominent personalities from various Dota-based production companies. Their insight wasn’t always on point and they went for jabs at each other a bit too often, but they gave a good overview of the teams and their chances. I also don’t remember a single technical mishap ever disrupting the production, either, though a few in-game pauses did slow down the pace of a few matches.
Most tournaments have similar production in terms of tech, but none have the air of The International, and getting another dose of that this soon made me hopeful about the future of the Major series.
The International excels at giving the audience a reason to care about watching people play Dota 2 for so much money. Before some matches, the tournament would show a short film about a particular player from one of the two teams about to play. These were usually about how that player got into Dota 2, and what their friends and family thought of someone going all-in (most of these players drop out of school in order to play professionally). The Frankfurt Major went further in this direction, and doing this continues to humanize people we tend to take for granted. Watching Arif “MSS” Anwar talk about how he had to lie to his parents and all but run away from home to start his professional gaming career was eye-opening, and gave me a reason to root for Cloud9’s new team, even though I wasn’t interested in them at all up till that point.
The tournament itself also produced at least one stellar story. Team OG had to fight its way into the tournament through the European qualifier. They ended up making a tremendous run through the lower bracket, playing best-of-one sets to survive and fight several more matches than their opponent, Team Secret, in order to reach the grand finals. And then they won, which I don’t think anyone saw coming.
OG is made up of players kicked off of teams that didn’t make it far at the International, as well as a Miracle-, a player recruited off the back of his incredibly high matchmaking rank (“8000 Matchmaking Points” became a bit of a meme whenever he would make a ridiculous play). So that they were able to win the whole tournament over established teams like Evil Geniuses, Vici Gaming, and Team Secret shows not only that new players can dethrone veterans, but that players on lower-tier teams can shine with the right composition and chemistry.
The compendium for the Frankfurt Major did a lot of damage to the goodwill of the Major system. Unlike the International 5 compendium, the proceeds didn’t go towards the prize pool (which stayed at a rigid $3 million), so anyone who bought it or spent money leveling it up couldn’t feel good about contributing to the life of the game.
Even worse, the reward system felt exploitative of the fanbase. Like previous compendiums, you could level it up (by paying more money, of course) and receive more in-game treasures, which gave you a random item and had a chance to drop a bonus item. Before, the system prevented duplicate items, which meant that if you spent X amount of dollars, you’d get every item (save for the rare bonus items).
The Frankfurt Compendium made its treasure system downright byzantine, with four chests. You received three different kinds of chests for leveling up your compendium, two of which did not allow duplicates. The third you could also purchase with in-game coins, which you could earn by completing in-game challenges. This chest included a tiered item system which allowed duplicate items from three different tiers: bronze, silver and gold. You could sacrifice three bronze items to get a silver, three silver ones to get a gold. But because these weren’t transferable in any way (unlike items from previous compendiums), you could get stuck with two items you didn’t want, and would have to spend more for the chance to get something you did. The fourth chest you could only purchase with real money if you’d already bought the compendium in the first place.
The combination of duplicate items, tiered systems, and items where you had to buy something else in order to have the chance to buy have made the whole thing feel sleazy, and got the Majors system off on the wrong foot. Each Major will likely include a compendium of its own, and this feels like the worst first impression Valve could have made on this end.
The Stopgap Patch
6.85 is a strange, interesting patch, but it’s bound to go down as a rather poor one. First, it didn’t make any sweeping changes to the game itself, only tweaking numbers and skills for a few heroes. It made the most popular heroes of 6.84 weaker (Leshrac, Tusk and Lina, for example), but it didn’t do much to change the rhythm of the game, only the heroes in it. It was nice for Slardar to finally see some competitive play, but the patch as a whole felt like a stopgap.
Second, Icefrog, Dota 2’s mysterious mastermind, said the patch would be “limited in scope” in order to keep the game stable for the Frankfurt Major. This made fans who’d rather play than watch the game feel like the Major was an obstacle toward a more fun patch, and could have made more casual fans drop out of the game, waiting for the “real” patch after the Major. Two of my friends have stopped playing entirely, and I’ve definitely played less of his patch than I have most others.
No Newcomer Cast
I think Valve missed a major opportunity to keep casual Dota 2 viewers around all year. Since the International gets the most viewers, it makes sense for Valve to set up a newcomer stream, which talks about the game in simpler terms, explains character abilities between matches and when they make a difference during them. The Frankfurt Major lacked such a stream, so casual viewers who were looking for more insight into the game, or who might have heard about the International from a friend, didn’t have an easy in to get them watching. It might not be worth doing all year round, but I have to wonder how many people tuned out when they saw a broadcast that was completely impenetrable to them.
Is the Majors system the way forward for Valve and Dota 2? I think so. It might end up making other tournaments throughout the year seem less important, but Valve has to stake its claim on a chaotic tournament schedule if it wants to keep the scene from falling off for most of the year. This is a good first impression overall, and with a few kinks and bad practices ironed out, having four major tournaments instead of one could give Dota 2 exactly what it needs to be an e-sports staple all year round.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who did not appreciate having to get up at absurd hours to watch matches played on a Central European Time schedule. He’s written for Paste, GamesBeat, Playboy, and many others. You can follow him on Twitter.