There is a $30,000,000 Prize for Playing a Video Game You Never Heard of

Every year, a bunch of the best gather to instantly become multi-millionaires

Source: Dota 2 International 2019 Twitter. This is what the venue for the tournament looks like each year.

I’ve played DoTa for almost two decades now. It’s the most difficult, elegant, misery-inducing, and gratifying experience I have ever known.

A million iterations of this game have existed — with each change, a birth and re-birth have occurred.

Defense of the Ancients didn’t start as a standalone game — it started in the idea lab of Blizzard’s Starcraft engine. It was a modification of the actual game. That game was eventually known as DoTa when the concept was ported over into Warcraft 3.

The best analog for DoTa is a chess game on steroids where your moves, instead of sequential and turn-based, are in real-time and split-second.

DoTa stayed as a modification on the Warcraft 3 engine for many years before Valve began to develop Dota 2, a standalone version which became the popular entity it is today.

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Source: steamcharts, Dota 2 concurrent players.

Dota 2 is heavily complex.

The game involves ten heroes chosen between two teams. Two sides will fight along a map that looks like this for resources, gold, kills on enemy players, and objectives.

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Source: Devilesk. Dota 2 map (a bit outdated).

All these things involved create a metagame. This is the part of the game where your item build-up is developed, your gameplay choices are scrutinized, your strategies with your team are dynamic, and your ability to problem solve in real-time is placed under pressure.

Between 119 heroes to choose from, hundreds of items to buy, more items that are dropped by monsters around the map, the degrees of freedom the game offers makes its solvability equivalent to that of chess — if not worse.

All of this peaks at a tournament that Valve puts on called The International.

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Source: Dota 2 prize pool trackers for each International. Last year, the prize pool ended at almost $35,000,000.

In 2019, 18 teams were invited to compete in a double-elimination style tournament that spanned a total of 10 days.

Last year’s prize pool totaled $34,330,068. The money was partitioned as follows:

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Source: Dota 2, The International 2019, partition of prize pool.

A team of five players took home $15,620,181 that year.

The prize pool has steadily grown over the years, too. While Valve has a sponsorship deal with tournament organizers to help establish a season for the players, the majority of the potential earnings for Dota 2 players exist in The International.

In 2018, the prize pool was $25.5 million.

In 2017, the prize pool was $24.8 million.

In 2016, the prize pool was $20.8 million.

This has been a thing since 2011, where the prize pool began at $1.6 million. Every year since then, Valve has allowed the prize pool to be crowdfunded by the growing eSports community who buy items in-game. 25% of those purchases go toward funding the tournament prize total.

If we look at eSports earnings in general, almost all of the highest earners made their money from Dota 2:

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Source: eSportsearnings.com.

But eSports compared to eSports is becoming less important in the grander conversation. Today, eSports players, especially Dota 2 players, are rivaling winnings of traditional sports players:

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Source: Gamingstreet.com

Dota 2 is still a relatively unknown game. Among the games that are popular today, conversations don’t emanate from or gravitate toward it. It’s the underbelly of video gaming, where it shines once a year in beautiful, perfect, and strategic gameplay that has been perfected and executed over years of practice.

The most pronounced thing about the game, and The International, is that there is a small(er), loyal fanbase who continues to fund the event year after year. This is a group of people who, even though they choose to spectate rather than play, will never stop supporting the scene.

Almost all of my conscious life has had some aspect of Dota in it. It’s incredible to see millions of dollars of support pouring into an unknown, beautiful game that started as an idea almost two decades ago.

Written by

UC Berkeley, mathematics. Los Angeles. Long-time runner. Top writer on Quora, 100M+ total content views. New to Medium. Inquiries: Moumj@berkeley.edu

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