Battle Pass — idea that changed esports
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The International 10 continues to set records. It took 20 hours less for the prize pool to surpass $10,000,000 compared to last year.
The strategy of success remains the same — I did my analysis last year (Why TI9 prize pool easily surpassed $30 millions?), therefore this material is about something more timeless.
During young, yet saturated, esports history, we have witnessed many ideas and events that changed it drastically. WCG, CGS, The International, Overwatch and LoL franchise leagues, USM Holdings investing into Virtus.pro — the list can be continued for quite a while.
However, if I had to choose only one thing, the most important and spectacular in the world of esports, it would have to be Dota 2 Compendiums and their further evolution into The International Battle Pass.
The History and Origin of the Battle Pass
If you check the battle pass history in Wikipedia, you will notice that it was first introduced in 2013 for Dota 2. However, the first Compendium was far from the colossus that exists today. There were no levels, and you could buy the virtual book only once. The rewards consisted of only HUD elements, couriers, several taunts and one Immortal Chest. The only thing you could improve was the treasure that was awarded for success in Fantasy Dota 2.
Moreover, less than two weeks before the Compendium was released, the CS:GO world had witnessed the release of Operation Payback, where you could obtain a gold coin for 50 hours of play on operation maps. Nonetheless, as both Dota 2 and CS:GO were made by Valve, we can say this company has revolutionised the gaming industry.
They came up with an alternative to paid subscriptions and loot boxes, and as time passed, new ideas were added to it.
In 2014, we saw the levels system for the first time. Player couldn’t just buy the Compendium and hope that the community would do everything else. You had to complete challenges or buy additional points. In order to obtain the first Immortal item, you had to boost your virtual book up to level 10 while most of item rewards required levels 50-99.
A year later, we saw not one but three Immortal treasure chests. The Compendium’s structure became somewhat similar to what we see in the current battle pass. The term “battle pass” appeared just before The International 2016.
Over time, many other developers began to use a similar model in their games: firstly, the battle pass could not be compared with gambling (we remember many scandals around loot boxes), secondly, battle pass rewards the time spent in game, thus game developers get a more loyal player base while gamers gain motivation.
We should also say thanks to Valve who popularised the idea of in-game esports merch. Rainbow Six: Siege, Overwatch, League of Legends — in all of these games (and not only them) you can buy items with logos of esports teams. The battle pass model was adopted by many multiplayer games.
Influence on esports
Let’s look at these numbers:
I took this data from esportsearnings.com. While many tournaments are unaccounted for, we can still see the big picture. The amount of prize money in esports has grown exponentially while the number of tournaments has stayed relatively the same for several years.
What catches the eye? The decline in 2008-2009 and sharp rise in 2014-2015. The former can be attributed to the world financial crisis as well as the stoppage of CGS (this deserves its own article). The growth happened at the same time that the Dota 2 community heavily invested in The International prize pool.
Interesting fact: during 2013-2019 the total prize pool of all The International tournaments was 18.8% of all esports prize money combined.
Almost every fifth dollar paid to esports competitors came from The International! Moreover, in 2011-2013, Dota 2 had never led in prize money, losing to StarCraft II and League of Legends. The Korean esports scene was really strong as well as the RTS genre, while Riot Games followed the example and made a 7-numbered prize pool for their Worlds in 2012 and 2013.
By the way, when the first The International Dota 2 tournament was announced, the gaming community was really shocked and hyped. However, this did not lead to a gigantic development in esports. Of course, we can talk about economic, scientific and technological progress as well as the fact that the world wasn’t ready enough for esports, but I would like to give another example.
A similar effect was made by the Red Annihilation tournament in 1997. The main prize of this Quake championship was John Carmack’s personal Ferrari 328. It was not a million dollars, of course, but a luxury car from the co-founder of id Software is still pretty prestigious. The champion, Dennis «Thresh» Fong, was inducted into the Guinness World Records as «the first professional videogamer».
Looking back, both of these tournaments can be called iconic, but at that time they seemed more like a one-time special. These two bright flashes definitely helped our industry, but they arguably were not defining: talking from a business perspective, all the investors needed to see a clear monetization model.
The Compendium brought that model to the table. Dota 2 became the first game where the fans had been given the centralised tools to support their favorite professional players. At the same time, by the way, the idea of crowdfunding became much more popular.
Despite all the limits and relatively undeveloped concept of the first Compendium (one person couldn’t contribute more than $2.5 unless multiple accounts were made), the TI3 prize pool grew by 80%! Valve were right with their hypothesis. When “the level revolution” happened the next year, the world could see that the Dota 2 community spent over $36 million!
For the business world, that was a clear signal: people were willing to pay not only for single/multiplayer games but for esports as well.
2015 strengthened this trend. Dota 2 players spent $67.2 million and all this hype helped to attract investments into esports. Later in October, USM Holdings invested into Virtus.pro, starting the new business era in esports.
The Dark Side of Success
Unfortunately for the Dota 2 ecosystem, this huge success also brought some problems. It would be wrong to look away and ignore them.
So, the seasonal balance was skewed towards only one event. There was The International, and all the other tournaments are in its shadow. That lowered player motivation — going inactive for several months became something ordinary.
Also, the balance in the triangle of players, clubs, tournament organisers was dramatically skewed towards the players. They dictated the rosters they wanted to perform in. We continue to see many player owned clubs (Team Secret, Team Nigma, OG), and that only strengthens this point of view. Why do you need to share prize money and do some media activities for the club when you can live off The International?
Tournament organizers are also often forced to put up with the whims of players: we can remember the scandal at MDL Macau 2019 when Virtus.pro players were playing Apex Legends during the draft stage of an official match.
During my time in esports, I have seen many fun drafts as well as carefree attitudes towards the matches and tournaments because of this obsession with The International. I think I am not the only one who is unhappy with that, but I have to deal with it.
Finally, The International honours the best of the best. That means all the semi-professional players who weren’t able to reach the grandest esports stage are doomed to have a hard time. During the last couple of years, we saw many talks about how the prize money should be allocated. The format of the next season should help the semi-pros, but this process took quite a bit of time.
For example, in Rainbow Six: Siege this problem was solved: Ubisoft set up a maximum limit of the Six Invitational prize pool money, and all the excess was redirected towards the regular tournaments. Unfortunately, Valve can’t follow the same path: the magic of TI prize pool became a signature feat of Dota 2. This year, Valve set a goal of $40,000,000 and this doesn’t seem to be unachievable.
The battle pass allowed the world to see esports as the next big thing. We can have lots of discussions about the attractiveness of esports, but before 2013, esports was very niche and all these talks were not followed by actions. Valve showed an economic model that works effectively. If there was no Compendium, esports wouldn’t have been in such a state. That’s why the battle pass is probably the main idea that changed esports.
Views and opinions of the author are his personal and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of WePlay! Esports