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Money, fame, and Dota 2: An interview with Valve's Erik Johnson

We sat down with Erik Johnson to discuss The International 2, the direct support of teams, and how truly valuable star players are.


It's been just a little over 3 weeks since China's Invictus Gaming and Ukraine's Na'Vi battled for $1,000,000 in front of thousands of screaming fans (and hundreds of thousands at home) at Valve's second annual The International tournament for Dota 2 in Seattle, Washington.

The event has been lauded unanimously by those in the eSports industry, ranging from players to team owners, casters, journalists and fans, alike. Industry veteran and The International host James "2GD" Harding believes it to be the best event he's ever been to, with unmatched attention to detail and emphasis on the players. Since The International ended, Dota 2's popularity and growth has continued to rise, currently the number-one most played game on Steam, as of this posting, with 84,298 concurrent players. All for a game still in beta.

GameSpot sat down with Valve's Erik Johnson to discuss a number of topics in the aftermath of The International 2 (TI2), including Valve's general impressions, the direct support of teams, difficulty watching the game, and how truly valuable star players are. Additionally, how they see themselves compared to competitors in the space, such as Riot and Blizzard.

What is Valve's general impressions on how TI2 turned out, overall? Did you do what you set out to do?

We feel like we did a pretty good job, but like building a game, we're spending a lot more of our time thinking about what we could do better next time around. Our goal for the event was to focus the community on the most talented Dota teams in the world for one weekend, and make viewing that event as accessible as possible. We also wanted to make sure the players and teams were treated in the way that they deserve, given how talented they are and how hard they all worked to make it into the event.

What was the best part of the event for you? What one thing would you like to change for next time?

In terms of how the event went, we were pretty happy with the number of people that experienced the event, both online and in person. Were still in the process of gathering data from players, teams, and the community to figure out how we'd improve next time around, so nothing is set in stone yet. The list of things that went poorly is a lot shorter than last time around though, so we feel like we're making progress.

567,000 was the confirmed highest number of concurrent viewers for the weekend. Could you provide a breakdown of who was watching, from which locations, and which service they were using, among Twitch.TV,, and Dota 2's in-game spectator client?

Like the game itself, the peak viewers for The International was spread around the globe. About half of these viewers at that point were from inside of China on various streaming sites, with the remaining half covering the rest of the world.

Dota 2's popularity and growth has continued to rise.
Dota 2's popularity and growth has continued to rise.

Unlike other developer's, Valve seems much more interested in allowing teams, star players, and personalities to earn cash through the game, rather than just financially support the league's. What is the thinking behind this?

We think there are a bunch of ways to go at solving this problem, our approach has been influenced both by how we approached the Steam business early on, and more recently, the Steam Workshop. Our goal with Steam was to create a system for the creators of a product to have a direct relationship with the consumers of their product, and over time, we've built a number of features to accommodate that. The goal of the Steam Workshop was to create a system inside of Steam for people that were creating value for a product to have a direct relationship with people inside of that community. Our approach with professional players and teams is along the same path, where these players are clearly creating a huge amount of value for people within Dota 2, and our job is to figure out how to allow those people to have a direct relationship with users. We don't think we're there yet, but pennants were a good first step.

In an interview with Kotaku, you stated that you didn't think the million dollar prize purse was enough, compared to what the pro players are worth, and that Valve is thinking a lot about the economy and how they can get cash. How much do you think these players are worth, and what can be done to get them the money they deserve?

Like I mentioned above, it's unclear what the number is, but the comment is just how we think about these issues internally. We want to solve the problem of allowing the players that competed in the International, along with lots of other users doing valuable things within the community, to have a direct relationship with their customers. The prize pool for the International still has us in the middle of that relationship, which isn't necessarily a bad thing right now, but we think building features that allow players and teams to have a direct relationship with customers is a more interesting long term plan, and will do a better job of rewarding their value.

There are tens of millions of people who play Dota around the world, and less than 100 of them compete in The International. What these players represent, in terms of pure entertainment, along with teaching players new strategies in the game, is an enormous amount of total value, and our job is to figure out the right systems to build so they can interact directly with the consumers of that value.

One of the other comments made was that there really isn't a clear scoreboard on who's winning in Dota, with that being one of the challenges for the game and its genre. Any possible solutions to this?

Ha! I think Dota players of any skill level will tell you how hard of a feature this would be to build, at least in a way that would be correct 100 percent of the time. Part of the attraction to Dota is in understanding if you are ahead or behind in any given match, and making good moment-to-moment decisions based upon that. While building a scoreboard that is as authoritative as more traditional sports might make the game more entertaining for the completely uninitiated fan, it would probably force changes to the game design that would make the game less fun for our audience — not something we'd be interested in doing.

Various teams had overheard that Valve expects to return to Seattle next year for The International, with a plan of staying there for an additional 3 years. Is this true?

We haven't thought that far ahead yet.

Blizzard this year launched their World Championship Series, while Riot is currently in Season 2, each with dozens of events around the world, with live finals. Currently, The International is still a one-weekend event, has there been any thought to doing an entire season championship, and/or to have more LAN events for Regional/Qualifier finals? Do you think this is necessary?

Our hope is that there {will be] dozens of interesting tournaments run by third parties throughout the year that give players and fans a bunch of options to play in or watch. Like players and teams, we want to build systems in the game so that tournament organisers can have a direct relationship with their fans. Heading into The International, there were a number of tournaments that sold tickets so that players could watch professional matches from inside of the game client, and we think there is a lot of room over the next year for us to build more systems along these lines.

The big factors in how invitations for The International will be decided are both how active and how successful a team is throughout the entire year. Our goal is for teams and leagues to be able to put together high quality tournaments throughout the year, with the best teams in the world competing, and our guess is that, if we ran a year round season, we wouldn't run those events as well as existing tournament organisers.

Recently, rumblings have come up that had Riot potentially enact a plan to disallow teams from utilizing Dota teams for their Season 3 Championships. That is officially not happening, but does Valve have any worry for Dota 2, in which restrictions may be placed from others within the Dota/MOBA space? Do you feel this genre of games has gotten too competitive?

Our approach is for teams, players, and tournament organisers to be able to make whatever choices make the most sense to them, without any added constraints put in place by us. We think they are a lot more likely to make good decisions for their fans (and Dota 2 fans, overall) this way. As far as other games in the genre, we've seen over and over that people are more bound by the number of high quality games available to play, not the amount of time they are willing the devote to them. There are a lot of good games in the genre right now, which is a good thing for everyone.

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