Of the eSports that can be graded as the truly elite-tier of games, Dota 2 is often cited as the most prominent. While League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive may be better known and garner more viewers, for the most part, Dota 2’s steep learning curve and colossal prize pools set it apart from the rest. The International, Dota 2’s premier annual tournament, doesn’t have a peer when it comes to prize money in eSports.
As it stands, all five of the largest prize pools ever put up in eSports belong to The International. The 2015 edition lands fifth with its $18.4 million prize pool, which then increased substantially each year to hit The International 2019 and its record-holding $34.3 million prize pool. The only competitions that come close to the Dota 2 centerpiece of six years ago are the Fortnite World Cup Finals of 2019, with the Solo and Duo games offering just over $15 million each.
Building an almighty industry around the keystone tournament
On the eSports calendar, The International is one of the first that fans look for, if not for anything more than to see its colossal prize pool. While the last iteration didn’t take place, the prize pool continued to tick up, with The International 10 – which took place in October this year – getting underway with a prize pool of a massive $40,018,195. Yet, unlike in other eSports or traditional sports competitions, only a small amount of this prize pool is put in by the operators, and none comes by way of sponsor deals.
Instead, The International is fuelled by the in-game purchases of Dota 2’s players, following a $1.6 million seeding from operators Valve. As of October 14, 2021, Dota 2 has upheld an average player count of between 618,661 and 734,277. So, it’s clear that the game has enough of a playing audience to fund such massive growth in its prize pool, but what do the paying players in this free-to-play title get other than to contribute to the largest prize pool in eSports?
Initially, the mighty $1.6 million seed was the total prize pool for The International, which made it quite the event in itself. However, in the running to the 2013 edition, Valve brought in a digital book for the upcoming tournament called The International: Interactive Compendium, with each purchase adding $2.50 to the pool. Along with the digital book, players would get to vote on awards, predict winners, compete against friends, get special items, and the pool would have stretch goals to encourage further purchases.
Still, the approach was refined for The International 2016, with the introduction of the Battle Pass to replace the Compendium. With the Battle Pass, players would be able to go on several quests, unlock achievements, and get other in-game rewards for buying the virtual item. Rather than a fixed price contribution, now, 25 percent of total Battle Pass proceeds go into the prize pool, which includes purchasing additional level boosts to progress along the Battle Pass more quickly.
Through this strategy of prize pool growth, The International has become the biggest eSports tournament in the world, so big, in fact, that it’s become an industry of itself. While there are the viewers and professional players at its heart, there are several other parts of the Dota 2 space now, including that of the betting sites offering odds on all Dota 2 competitions, but particularly The International. Furthermore, you’ve got people forging careers online by streaming gameplay, performing analysis, and providing commentary on events.
Other games could look to utilize the same method
The key to Dota 2’s success in eSports and gaming is because it’s free to play, generates a huge prize, and said prize pool grows as a result of players getting tangible bonuses in-game. Across the world of gaming, microtransactions and loot boxes aren’t uncommon. What is uncommon, however, is the purchasing of these items, both giving players valuable content as well as contributing to enhancing the game in some way.
These loot boxes alone are predicted to generate $20 billion by the time that 2025 comes around, with Electronic Arts already regularly citing that its loot box mode of Ultimate Team in FIFA games already nets them over $1 billion per year. Aside from them being a form of gambling in a game rated E for Everyone, what also doesn’t help is that the players don’t see any of the exorbitant earning of virtual purchases – most of which yield little-to-no value for the price gambled – put back into the game to improve it make it better.
Dota 2 both provides value and contributes a quarter of these additional purchases within the free game to build a bigger and better prize pool for the best players. So, other games that want longevity and can build a community should look to harness the strategy of Dota 2. Offer in-game boosts, but also create stretch goals that transparently show exactly what the developers will do with a percentage of the additional funds earned, such as additional DLC or maybe a sequel. They don’t even have to be eSports titles to make the most of this.
The International is colossal because its players have responded positively to the Dota 2 system of adding to the prize pool, and all other games should take note of the practice to enhance their standing.