For being one of the three esports with the largest audiences, Dota 2 sits at a strange place when it comes to big-name, non-endemic sponsors. Dota 2 is a juggernaut in terms of viewership and prize payouts for top teams, but it's relatively small-time in terms of mainstream sponsorship in the West. Outside of the standard big-name esports teams we see at The International every year, Dota seems unfriendly to non-endemic sponsors. But Valve can change that.
In most of the past entries of this column, I've talked about non-endemic brands entering all kinds of different esports spaces, but I've rarely mentioned Dota. Part of that is because I'm admittedly not the world's foremost Dota expert, but a larger part is the fact that mainstream sponsors don't really interact with Dota very much, and I think that's at least a small part of the reason Valve just changed their competitive season system so drastically.
On Monday, Valve announced that they were getting rid of their old Majors system and replacing it with third-party tournaments that will be sponsored by Valve and named either Majors or Minors based on their prize pool value. The Majors and Minors will also need to have qualifiers across six primary regions and a LAN finals.
According to Valve's announcement of the new system, this was done to make The International and the Majors fit more organically into Dota's existing third party ecosystem, which has been stagnating slightly over the past few years. In June, before Valve announced their changes to the Majors system, Beyond the Summit co-founder David "LD" Gorman told theScore esports that the institution of the majors system led to a tournament calendar that essentially pushed teams away from third-party events and towards Valve-sponsored ones, or tournaments that could match Valve's prize pools.
Smaller tournament organizers simply can't front the cash that Valve does for the Majors. Each Major, from Frankfurt to Kiev, featured a $3 million prize pool. Compare that to even a tournament as large and prestigious as EPICENTER, which only had a $500,000 prize pool for each of their two events. Valve stepping in to boost these smaller prize pools and add some prestige by lending their name to the tournament can only help those smaller tournament organizers, but it could also make Dota more attractive to bigger-name sponsors.
For one, it simply means there are more tournaments overall, which means more opportunities for sponsors to get involved. More importantly though, it could offer more team stability, which is something Dota sorely lacks right now. In May, Immortals CEO Noah Whinston told Glixel's Will Partin that a Dota player who isn't willing to do media for the organization isn't a good fit for Immortals. It's a sentiment that several investors and team owners echoed in Partin's feature — Dota players don't necessarily want to do media, and it's hard to create content around players that constantly change teams every few months.
We don't necessarily know how it'll work out yet, but the new Majors and Minors system could encourage more teams to stick together longer. They're not playing for three or four tournaments with the only prize pools that matter anymore, and with more money going around to smaller teams through the Minors, those teams will be encouraged to stick together to keep hitting Minor tournaments until they're ready for a Major, instead of failing to hit the Major, breaking up, and trying again with a new team next time.
There are some issues that could still scare bigger-name sponsors away from the space. For one, TI qualification will be earned through qualification points handed out at the Majors and Minors, but only the top three points earners on a team will count towards TI qualification. That could mean that winning teams are encouraged to stick together to horde their points, but it could mean that the lower earners on a team are more poachable. However, given that there will be less money at each tournament, players could end up more reliant on organization salaries instead of huge prize pools.
Similarly, the enormous prize pool at The International still only benefits the top fraction of Dota 2's pro teams, which is an issue when it comes to encouraging new talent, and basically brings us back to the problem of having these enormous prize pools. If smaller teams can't get money, they're not encouraged to stick together, and if a big team can't win TI, why not shuffle the roster and try harder next year?
Skimming a little more money off the top and giving it to the teams who place well in the qualifiers could encourage teams to stick together, as well as keep TI from being the absolute be-all and end-all of tournaments for even the biggest teams. TI becoming just a little less important, through sharing the wealth with smaller teams and boosting prize pools at third-party events could make Dota more attractive to mainstream sponsors. After all, they can't sponsor The International, but the more tournaments there are, the more chances Dota has to appeal to those sponsors in the first place.
Grade: B — Dota 2 is already one of the biggest esports titles in the world, and Valve's new competitive season system seems like it could encourage the stability the scene needs to get sponsors interested again. "Could" is the operative word though, and it remains to be seen if sponsors are willing to take another look at Dota after this change.
Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.