COVID-19’s impact on Dota 2 in 2020

By Kenneth WilliamsDecember 22, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has had a generally negative effect on competitive Dota 2. When travel restrictions were enacted in February, fans and organizations were optimistic about online tournaments. Dota is no stranger to leveraging the digital nature of esports. The same enthusiasm generated the (as is tradition) record-breaking $40,000,000+ prize pool for The International 10.
Now it's December. League of Legends’ year-ending Worlds event played out close to normal; the Vietnamese teams’ absence was the only change of plans. Valorant is working towards unseating Counter-Strike with first-party leagues all over the world. Simulation esports like NBA2K and Madden are exploding in popularity, and universities worldwide inch closer to integrating gaming. In the wake of general success, Dota can feel like it's been left in the dust.
Dota the online game and Dota the esport are both far from dying. Still, the lack of offline competition and exit of multiple sponsors points to a general decline in enthusiasm. 2020 is a year lacking in exclamation points, with no Majors after March and still no concrete plan for TI10. The formal announcement of 2021’s Dota Pro Circuit starting on January 18 hints at a return to normalcy, but the damage done by the pandemic might be irreversible for some regions.

Third-party in a somber era

One of the first calls at the pandemic's onset was to eliminate the 2020 Dota Pro Circuit. StarLadder Minor Season 3 in March was the last DPC event. The cancellation of OGA Dota PIT Minor, EPICENTER Major, and ONE Esports Singapore Major removed a total of $2.3 million in prize money from professional Dota.
ESL One Los Angeles was a Major converted to an online regional league in March and April. The total prize pool was reduced from $1 million to $375,000 and weighted heavily towards the old world; EU and CIS fought for $200,000, China got $55,000, and $40,000 was granted to each of North America, South America, and Southeast Asia. This distribution unintentionally painted a very clear picture of how each region would fare in the online era.
The elimination of first-party tournaments in their entirety put the onus on third-party hosts like the Electronic Sports League, WePlay!, and Beyond the Summit. Third-party tournament organizers have actually been quite generous to Dota in 2020. 2020 has had 62 tournaments hosted by well-known sponsors with at least $45,000. That’s exactly double the number of high-level tournaments in 2019. Combining multi-region events into one (as if they were single international events), 2020 had 44 unique professional tournaments. That’s still a 13 tourney increase over 2019.
While useful, the quantity of tournaments isn’t the best metric to judge the state of Dota. Prize money is. Including the Dota Pro Circuit but excluding The International 9, a total of $10,562,723 was given out in prize money in 2019. In 2020, that number is $8,864,317. Once you include The International 9, the amount of money given to pro Dota teams in 2019 becomes 457% of the money given out in 2019.
2019’s prize purse was a Level 3 Coup de Grace compared to 2020’s right-click.

Less money in 2020

Regional locks have greatly impacted the distribution of prize money in Dota. Previously, the majority of prize money was dealt out in international offline tournaments. Third-party prize money is much more heavily skewed towards the strongest regions in 2020. The greater specificity of regional leagues also gives a much clearer look at where Dota prize money ends up.
The graphs below display the ratio of total prize money available to pro teams of a region in 2019 and 2020. Dota Pro Circuit events and The International are removed to account for their cancellation in 2020.
It’s no surprise that Europe is the best-funded region; in addition to having the highest level of talent, their proximity to CIS allows for intra-regional online competition. A similar, less lucrative relationship exists between China’s tier two scene and Southeast Asia, as evidenced by ESL One: Thailand Asia and Moon Studio’s multiple Asian leagues.
The most alarming statistic is the tiny portion of the money going to the Americas. The majority of NA and SA events are combined. While this model benefits well-attended EU & CIS events, American tourneys tend to have eight teams or less. The lack of distinction cuts into the number of both region’s representatives.
All of the American prize money from 2020 combined is $614,000. In 2019, American rosters had access to just under $2 million from high-level international tournaments. For context, Chinese teams fought for around $2.5 million in 2019. In 2020, they’ve earned $1,800,369. Chinese prize pools dropped by 28% in 2020. The Americas’ fell by 70%.

The great Stratification

Esports is an industry of the haves and have-nots. This is prevalent across genres and platforms; good luck finding a Dota league in Korea or a PUBG Mobile sponsor if you don’t live in Southeast Asia or India. Regional biases have always applied to Dota, but teams' inability to compete internationally has stratified Dota's regions like never before.
Europe weathered the storm as expected. Ample third-party prize money has sustained the region’s strongest teams and several lesser ones. Team Secret’s Wicked Sick streak from May to September provided an easy storyline to follow and either a champion to root for or an overlord to jeer. Several success stories have spawned out of the pandemic, like the rise of or Yellow Submarine’s performance through several open qualifiers.
China’s scene has probably developed the most among regions. A massive shuffle in Autumn divided some of the most well-set teams. The original storyline of Vici Gaming and PSG.LGD’s rivalry ended when both teams remixed their rosters. The success of Xu “fy” Linsen’s superteam Elephant took over CN Dota weeks before their October debut. Six-digit purses are rare, but tournaments like CDA-FDC Pro Championship and CD2 Pro Cup are frequent and usually feature a handful of developing teams. China’s long history of structured regional competition has greatly benefitted them in the online era. CN also hosted the only in-person Dota competitions after March 2020. Both CD2 Pro Cup seasons featured a LAN playoff. While by no means a go-ahead signal to the rest of the scene, there is optimism both rooted and stemming from CD2 Pro Cup.
The relocation of TI5 champs Evil Geniuses, inarguably the most iconic name in NA Dota, was both an omen and driver of the region’s decline. North America previously enjoyed a spot right below China and Europe as a region that could win international events. Now, it’s hard to argue that NA is above SEA or SA. In fact, both of those regions have a dozen or more sponsored teams still competing. With the exit of CR4ZY and EG’s move to Europe, there are officially no sponsored teams in North American Dota.
South America is in a similar situation to their northern neighbors, though team sponsorship has remained consistent. Prize money has been sparse, though the region usually gets lip service from multi-regional events like Beyond the Summit and OMEGA League. They’ve also received recent aid through Valve’s sponsoring of third-party events. Movistar Liga and Realms Collide have both boosted their prize pools via first-party partnership.
Southeast Asia has benefitted from international competition against China’s developing talent, but several big exits including Reality Rift and Geek Fam were symptoms of low prize money. RR appeared at the DreamLeague S13 Major in March, and Geek Fam earned $40,000 from a victory at ONE Esports SEA League. These were fairly successful teams. Two of the most famous SEA players, Nuengnara "23savage" Teeramahanon and Daryl Koh "iceiceice" Pei Xiang, have left the continent for Vici and EG respectively. Both transfers detract from the region’s star power.
Perhaps the greatest question lost to the coronavirus is how regions would stack up against each other in 2020. Elephant’s formation was a response to Team Secret’s overwhelming dominance, but the two teams won’t get a chance to duel for several months at the minimum. Southeast Asia was known for pulling shocking upsets over European teams, something North and South American teams can also stake their names on. The loss of the Dota Pro Circuit and The International 10 accidentally created a unique metagame experiment with no legacy to remember it by.

A look to Dota’s future

Overall, Dota has stopped the year-over-year growth that the esports industry is used to. China has swapped into full sustainability mode, and Europe has further consolidated its power as the capital of Dota 2. Southeast Asia and the American continents are struggling, with the promise of 2021’s Dota Pro Circuit barely keeping them afloat.
The future of competitive Dota was announced in traditional Dota fashion with a blog post on November 24. The Dota team confirmed that 96 teams from around the world will compete in the 2021 Dota Pro Circuit starting on January 18. Almost all of the sponsors that left Dota in 2020, from Ninjas in Pyjamas to Geek Fam, cited the lack of the DPC in their goodbyes. Its return is now just weeks away. The reintroduction of first-party tournaments will have a huge positive impact on Dota’s recovery; sponsors, tournament hosts, commentators, fans, and even journalists have something to look forward to.
The coronavirus pandemic greatly divided Dota 2’s regional scenes and highlighted the need for consistent competitive infrastructure. It’s also created an opportunity to step back, reflect, and appreciate. LAN play will be highly valued once it returns, and newfound empathy for the developing scene should bolster Dota’s new talent. While the optimism of April wore away months ago, the Dota 2 esports industry has definitely survived COVID-19.
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