Romanian event production company PGL set a new standard for quality at The Manila Major this spring, but at Boston, the second Major they organized, there were a few hiccups. Teams’ attempts to scrim before the main event were thwarted by a series of blackouts at their hotel, players were frustrated by the decision to cut back on meals, and one team, Execration, alleged that they were disqualified because tournament officials didn’t file their visa paperwork on time.
A lot of that happened out of view of the fans, who were treated to a broadcast as spotless as ever. PGL had a lot to be proud of in Boston, for example the introduction of former ESL host Alex “Machine” Richardson, who was a quick favorite with the crowd and on Reddit. It also was the first Major to be streamed in full 1080x720 HD, and in what may be a first for an esports event, Boston had no broadcast delays of any kind.
The contract to organize the Dota Majors has been highly competitive, and Valve has shown no qualms about burning bridges with organizations that don’t live up to its standards. Yet the billion-dollar gaming company appears to be pleased with its relationship with PGL, who they have contracted to run a third Major in Kiev next spring.
It might seem like Valve takes a very hands-off approach to the Majors, but in an interview in Boston PGL CEO Silviu Stroie explained that he and his team of about 80 staff work closely with Valve on every decision, large and small. Their strategy for what goes in the broadcast, how the tournament is structured and how the event is run is very much collaborative. “We put the tournament on together, and we work together to make it the best event it can be,” he said.
Stroie said that PGL make a point of experimenting at their events, whether it be with new broadcast material or more efficient procedures. He believes innovation is one of the things that stands out about PGL over its competitors, even if it involves some risks, and he thinks it’s a big part of why Valve came back to them after Manila.
“Some stuff we put up on the screen we know… not everything is perfect,” he said. “We are trying to put up a lot to make people laugh, to keep them hyped. We are trying new videos, we are increasing production value. Yes, we are always experimenting. We want to make everything comfortable so the players can focus on playing their game.”
One thing that didn’t work in Boston — at least in the eyes of players — was the decision to cut catering on break days between the group stage and main event. When teams weren’t playing, they were expected to cover their players’ meals, though PGL provided information about where to find food. Those we spoke to didn’t think it was the biggest deal, but many of them said they would have preferred not to have been blindsided with it.
“Valve is cutting costs for this Major and it's only understandable,” David “MoonMeander” Tan said after earlier posting about it on Twitter. “Digital Chaos is fine ‘cause we have this fine man called Thomas Hancock funding us. But for other teams like WarriorsGaming.Unity or maybe even a South American team that comes up next Major, they won't be able to afford all this stuff. They're gonna have to take loans and stuff to pay for food. Like, shit, y'know?”
Stroie didn’t want to discuss the decision to cut back on hospitality costs, saying only that PGL did not make many changes and the end goal was always to put on a better event. When asked whether it was more expensive to host the Major in a city like Boston than in Manila, he said that there was no real difference, at least for PGL. (MoonMeander disagreed, noting the eggs benedict and juice he ordered from hotel room service set him back $65.)
Despite the grumbling, the cutbacks probably didn’t impact how teams performed on the main stage — but not being able to scrim on break days may have. Multiple players said that though they scheduled scrims for Dec. 5-6 in between the group stage and main bracket, they had to abandon them when the power repeatedly went out in their rooms, potentially caused by the massive electrical draw from 80-plus gaming computers, routers, personal electronics and lighting on a single floor.
"Everyone had power issues,” Team Faceless’ Dominik "Black^" Reitmeier said. “We've been trying to scrim yesterday against Team NP, it didn't really work out because we played five minutes then the power turned off. Then the power came up, once again we tried to play a scrim one more time, five minutes then it went down."
PGL took some flak for not anticipating and doing more to prevent the issue, but compLexity’s Mihai “canceL^^” Antonio credited them with making efforts to solve the problem as quickly as possible. “PGL saved us,” he said. “They did the Romanian thing. If you're doing the Romanian thing, you're going to solve it.” (Spoilers: canceL^^ is Romanian.)
Hospitality and technical issues aside, by all accounts the biggest change PGL made this Major was getting rid of the lower bracket on the main stage. Unlike past Majors, where teams had to lose two series before they were eliminated, one series loss was enough to send a team home from Boston — which was what happened to TI6 champions Wings Gaming in the Round of 16 and consensus favorite Virtus.pro in the Round of 8.
Stroie said PGL and Valve worked together to come up with the new format, and as of his interview on Day 3 of the main event, they were pleased with the results.
“I like this format because, look, with esports becoming bigger and fans are seeing the same matches over again. This way every match has stakes, every match is exciting. We want to keep the event hype and good for fans,” Stroie said. “There is an energy at this event, every game is important. You don't want to see this team play that team for so many times in one or two months. Our first priority is the viewers.”
Boston did provide a high-energy Grand Finals, after Ad Finem surprised Digital Chaos, won the hearts of the crowd and made it to the top of the bracket at their first-ever Valve event. But it was definitely not the most competitive finals we could imagine. Though Ad Finem showed a lot of chutzpah in Game 3, OG outclassed them in most respects, and Boston was very nearly the first Valve event to end with a 3-0. It’s hard to judge how the average viewer reacted to the series, but if they were expecting the highest level of Dota, OG. vs. Ad Finem left a lot to be desired.
The problem was not just that top teams like Virtus.pro and Evil Geniuses weren’t given a chance to make a runback through the lower bracket, but that the flawed Round of 16 seeding created a lopsided bracket, with a much harder path to the finals for Wings, VP, EG and OG than Ad Finem. And it’s worth a reminder that an early exit at a Major translates to tens of thousands in lost prize money, in an esport where prize money is by far the number one source of income.
The format for The Kiev Major has not yet been decided, but the main event is currently scheduled to take place over four days in April, and so far, every double-elimination Major has needed at least five days. We will likely see a repeat of the single-elimination format; however, changes to the group stage and a better seeding formula could go a long way to making a more competitive bracket. Hopefully PGL and Valve will continue to experiment.
For PGL — or any tournament organizer — running an event is a constant tug-of-war between the players, fans, and in this case, Valve. It may not be possible to please everyone with every decision. Yet Stroie made it clear that he takes genuine pride in the events PGL puts on, and all the choices they’ve made have been in the interest of putting on a great Major.
“People think it's all about the money, or that it's a game to us. It's not a game,” he said. “Yes, everybody wants money, but when we wake up we just want to put on the best event we can. Everybody here loves Dota, our company plays it a lot. We are fans, too, and we want to make an event that everybody enjoys.”
Ryan "Gorgon the Wonder Cow" Jurado writes about Dota 2 and freelances for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.
Jeff Fraser is a supervising editor at theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.