Until its problematic migration to the Source 2 engine in September this year, Dota 2 had experienced two to three years of uninterrupted and impressive growth in its player base. It is currently by far the most played game on Steam and one of the most popular MOBA (Multiplayer online battle arena) games around. One of the reasons for this success is the huge publicity regularly garnered for the game around the time of its annual flagship event, The International (TI). The prize pool for TI increased from $1.6 million in 2012 to $2.9 million a year later, rocketing to just shy of $11 million in 2014 and $18.4 million this year. This resulted in huge grand prizes for the winning 5-man teams of TI in 2013 ($1.4 million to Alliance), 2014 ($5 million to Newbee) and 2015 ($6.6 million to Evil Geniuses).

When explaining esports or Dota 2 specifically to friends and family, mentioning these huge prizes certainly helps pierce their scepticism. The prize pools also helped generate significant media attention for the events, which has surely drawn more people to play the game. However, the question remains: is the concentration and distribution of these prizes actually good for the Dota 2 esports scene as a whole, and will it help grow the sport over the medium to long term?

Note: all stats taken from http://www.esportsearnings.com/

At time of writing, well over half the prize money awarded in the four years of professional Dota 2 has been won in the two TIs in 2014-2015, amounting to almost $30 million of a total of $51 million. Adding in TIs from 2011-2013, plus the major Valve-backed Dota Asia Championship in 2015, around $38 million has been awarded from just six tournaments; the overwhelming majority of which has gone to a relatively narrow pool of teams and players. The remaining $13 million has been distributed across around 500 tournaments.

What this means is that the benefit of most of these prizes has gone to a very small number of professional players. The list of highest-earning players is of course dominated by players who have won TI, especially those in the last couple of years. At the beginning of November 2015, there are 10 Dota 2 dollar millionaires, with one more player (‘Puppey’, real name Clement Ivanov) on the cusp of joining them. There are a further 25 players who have made over $500,000. At this point, one might expect the numbers of players in each earnings bracket to increase, but this doesn’t happen. There are 22 players between $250k and $500k and just 19 between $250k and $100k; compared with 17 between $750k and $500k. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of the most successful players are from China: five of the millionaires are from China; 12 of the top 20; and 23 of the top 40.

What’s the problem with this? First, Dota 2 has a large geographical divide, with little crossover between Chinese and Western teams, for technological, geographic, cultural and political reasons. The upshot of this is that among Western teams, the lack of equality in the distribution of winnings makes for a very stark feast or famine situation. A few players have been hugely successful and made millions of dollars in their early twenties or even as teenagers; while others have made peanuts despite devoting a lot of time to the game and even becoming minor esports celebrities. While many players supplement their earnings with sponsorship and income from streaming content online, there is nevertheless a very unequal distribution of tournament-related income that is quite odd considering the relatively small population of professional players.

The automatic reaction of a lot of people to this scenario is to say ‘tough’: competition is the way of the world and the attitude of ‘winner takes all’ is pretty common to all mainstream sports. That’s true to an extent, but what is significant here is that Valve seems to have made a decision, consciously or not, to try and recreate the rampant inequality and first-past-the-post mentality of billion-dollar mainstream sports in a fledgling esport. It’s curious. This works in major sports because they tend to be deeply embedded in wide sections of the population for historic reasons and because they have been played for generations. But in order to build a new spectator sport that will appeal to wider audiences, it is important to try and raise the general level of competition. This is done by maintaining a healthy size of player pool as well as ensure players are of a high skill level and also work well as teams.

One of the problems of this once a year, winner takes all model is that teams had to devote everything to a one-shot tournament. This has a variety of consequences, the most obvious being that it promotes a conservative and sterile attitude towards tactics and strategy, with an ever-narrowing pool of heroes and strategies being employed as tournaments go on. It also contributes to a musical chairs approach to roster management, as teams constantly rotate players looking for that ‘magic formula’ to help them be successful. Valve seems to be tackling this to an extent, with a forthcoming six-month roster lock as well as the introduction of several ‘Major’ tournaments each year, the first of which, in Frankfurt this November, has a prize pool of $3 million. This may alleviate the problem, but is unlikely to solve it, especially if the same teams keep winning.

One wonders what the stress must do to some of the players. Speaking of which, one minor but obvious aspect of this situation is: what happens when you give millions of dollars to young men who are famous for playing video games and spend their whole lives doing so? The public pronouncements and profiles of most of these individuals are more or less what you would expect, which is to say, uninspiring at best and dismal and unedifying at worst.

Is there an alternative to this approach of making Dota millionaires? Perhaps, in the West at least, Valve could consider a system of giving stipends of a few thousand each to young players to encourage them to train and play while continuing their normal studies and lives. It shouldn’t be the case that players should be unable to perform as Dota players to a high level and not pursue productive lives in the ‘real world’. Such an approach to making ‘Dota scholars’ would surely help the profile of video games in our culture at large, and would ensure a broader pool of players playing to a high level. It might also help encourage those from poorer or non-traditional backgrounds (eg, women and people from certain ethnic minorities) that a life in professional esports might be for them. At the moment the demographics of most esports players are exactly what you would expect–middle class, male and white or Asian.

All this might seem ludicrous to some but, until recently, Valve had a history of defying mainstream expectations and business practices. One of the interesting things about the current position of esports is that there is a lot of freedom–in the West at least–compared to major sports as there are no bureaucratic institutions or mainstream interests to deal with. And this is why it is so disappointing to see the most unequal aspects of established sports aped in such a literal fashion.