In 2021, Dota 2’s annual tournament exhibited a prize pool of $47.7 million, coming at the top as the highest cumulative prize pool ever recorded in the history of eSports. Out of the $47.7 million, Team Spirit, the winner of The International Dota 2 Championship (The Super Bowl of Dota 2) took home $18.2 million. The rest was distributed among runner-ups and the rest of the tournament members.
CounterStrike: Global Offense and Battlegrounds ranked second and third in leading eSports games by cumulative tournament prize pool of $21 million and $17 million respectively, and other popular ones such as League of Legends, Fortnite, and Call of Duty managed to accumulate less than $10 million for tournament prize pools in 2021.
While the amount of cash prizes for eSport players is substantial, the Dota 2 International prize pool is undoubtedly bigger, estimated by 55%, compared to the rest of the online multiplayer games. When did it get this big? where is the money coming from? and how do these players get paid? These are fair and common questions that get asked for a game that you can download and play for free, and on the other hand, something you can master and make a living (if you are really really good).
As the name suggests, Defense of The Ancients (Dota 2) is a sequel of the first version of this multiplayer online battle area (MOBA) game created by Blizzard Entertainment. Before Dota 2 was its own game, Dota was just a community-created mod for Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and the later expanded version Warcraft III: Frozen Throne. While the Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and Frozen Throne feature a single-player campaign mode that follows a couple of protagonists and their storyline, the mod version, Dota, features a MOBA approach where it is played in matches between two teams of five players.
Since Valve’s Dota 2 is an adaption of the Dota mod, it practically consists of the same objectives, and mechanics such as choices of heroes, items, maps, and gameplay. The big differences include the user interface, matchmaking, graphics, and aesthetics. Each player chooses and controls a hero based on the team’s strategic approach while also considering agility, strength, intelligence, and most importantly, their powers. A strong team consists of heroes with the ability to carry (lead), support, initiate a battle, escape, etc. The main objective of the game is to defend your ‘Ancient’ and destroy your enemies ‘Ancient’. A lot more goes into this in-between so it’s better to check out this beginner’s guide to playing Dota 2 if you’re interested.
In 2011, Valve opened doors to the first International in Germany, unveiling the new and improved Dota 2 and surprising worldwide audiences with its staggering $1.6 million prize pool. 16 professional teams were invited from all over the world to compete in the tournament. Team Na’Vi won the first-ever International taking home $1 million in front of a sold-out stadium and up to half a million online viewers. The rest was history.
The following decade saw massive spikes in the tournament viewerships, fan base, and live-event tickets, which kept raising the prize pool. The game also kept improving its nuts and bolts over the years. Although it’s a free game, it sells extra items to enhance its aesthetics and gamers’ visual experience such as cool apparel sets called “Arcanas”, costumes, map designs, and diverse voice narrations. Lastly, Valve introduced the Compendium, now known as “International Battle Pass”, which grants access to tournament and event features and a wide variety of earnable cosmetic items. All these elements contributed to the exponential growth of the tournament prize pool over the years and hence, the competitors’ salaries.
Prize money from tournaments is not the only way the eSports gamers make their living. Apart from the tournament earnings, Dota 2 professionals as well as other eSports gamers have found a steady source of income through signing with an organization, individual sponsorships, and live streaming. Just like any other sports, team organizations scout the best talent to sign, provide them with a salary, and invest in their next potential win. Once you’re a reputable talent, companies look forward to making you the face of their upcoming brand. Furthermore, live-streaming your games on Twitch and Youtube attracts millions of fanbase, followed by a hefty paycheck. Add all these up, and you have a well-rounded and salaried eSports professional.
The picture above is an “Immortal” costume set for the hero Invoker, selling for $251.17 in Dota 2’s in-game store. Since Dota 2 is a free-to-play game, nothing you buy can change the performance or outcome of your game. Instead, it enhances your visual experience as your heroes are draped with heavy cosmetics, aesthetic looks, and cool apparel. Out of the vast options of things you can buy in the store such as costume sets, map designs, and voice narrations, only certain purchases go towards the ever-increasing prize pool of the International, such as the International Battle Pass.
The 2013 International tournament held in Seattle was the first time Valve introduced the International Battle Pass, which was referred to as the ‘Compendium’ at that time. This in-game digital purchase was designed for the fans to engage in the tournament and the professional teams while also allowing them to directly support the tournament. For every Compendium purchased, 25% of the proceeds would be added to the International’s prize pool.
The Compendium provided players with qualifier predictions and polls letting the community decide which players would qualify for the All-Star match. Furthermore, all Compendium owners would receive newly created ‘Immortal’ items, a category of cosmetic items with custom ability items, effects, and animations (like the Invoker set shown above). Over the years, as the Compendium evolved to become the International Battle Pass, it featured even more sophisticated rewards than the last time, and with the engaged fan base, the prize pool kept growing exponentially.
Besides the International Battle Pass, the live event tournament tickets also highly contribute to the prize pool. For the International 10, the ticket cost started at around $60 for the first and second half of the group stage, $240 for the playoffs, and around $355 for the entire event. Every year, the International event sells out the stadium to an average of 15,000-20,000 audience members.
eSports haters: "Why would you watch a game when you can just play it?"
also eSports haters: *sits down and watches a football game*
In 2011, when Justin.tv launched a spinoff platform called TwitchTV that broadcasted live gaming competition for the video game communities, everything changed. Twitch would become the most popular streaming platform in the world and eSports viewership numbers would explode. The League of Legends World Championship went from having 1.2 million viewers in 2011 to 32 million in 2013. Dota 2 was also part of this trend that brought Twitch to its full potential. These games spread like wildfire across the world fueling the demand for eSports competition.
When the mainstream media and eSports started rubbing shoulders for a few years, ever gaining attention and news headlines, it also aroused confusion and became a laughing stock for everyone who couldn’t wrap their head around the concept of watching people play video games or eSports. While some news reporters debated whether they consider eSports a ‘sport’, TV personalities such as Jimmy Kimmel poked fun at the eSports community for watching others play video games and calling it a waste of time (which he received tons of backlash and schooling for from the gaming community).
What Jimmy Kimmel and other critics failed to understand was that eSports had become a legitimate part of the entertainment business and not just a subculture in the gaming community. This quickly turned around as multiple celebrities and huge organizations started advocating for eSports. Utah Jazz basketball player Gordan Hayward was seen defending the eSports industry as well as the gaming community and its success over such a short period of time.
By the end of 2016, eSports welcomed a plethora of notable organizations and athletes such as the Philadelphia 76ers, Sacramento Kings, Magic Johnson, and Shaquille O’Neil as new investors in the eSports industry. Now, investing in this space has become the norm, so much so that sports teams have started partnering with eSports teams, making it a multi-sport team organization. In 2018, Dota 2’s Team LGD officially partnered with the French football giant Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), now known as PSG.LGD.
What started as a bunch of video game enthusiasts gathering to play games together in a room has turned into a spectator sport and a worldwide phenomenon with sold-out stadiums where millions of fans come and watch the professionals go at it for a substantial amount of prize money. The global eSports industry is expected to reach $3.6 billion by 2027 growing faster than ever with a rate of 21.3%, which is an exciting opportunity for gaming companies, investors, and game-enthusiasts alike.