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Dota 2’s Battle Pass Is Valve’s Secret Weapon

By Kenneth Williams in Sports
| May 22, 2019 12:00 am PDT
Valve - International Esport’s Biggest Tournament

Valve’s history as a company is… unique.

Almost all of their major franchises, from Half-Life to Counter-Strike to Dota 2, are based on mods. Their others, like Left 4 Dead and Portal, are based on the glitchy properties of their own engine.

Nowadays, Valve hardly makes games at all. Their latest release, a card game based on Dota 2 called Artifact, flopped immensely due to its unpolished meta-game and sloppy monetization.

Valve’s last major release was technically Dota 2 in 2013, though the game was in open beta since 2011.  With their involvement in virtual reality development and the success of the Steam store, you wouldn’t think Valve’s profits come from their games.

And yet, you’d be wrong.

Valve is making cash hand over fist unlike any other video game company. While they don’t release many new titles, they do a great job of monetizing their existing games.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2, and Team Fortress 2 all make Valve tons of money through the sale of their cosmetics. There’s a reason those three games are all free to play.

The International is proof that Valve’s style of monetization works. The biggest Dota 2 event of the year is now in on its ninth incarnation, simply titled The International 2019. It will be the biggest event in all of esports and sport the largest prize pool ever.

So how exactly does Valve deliver such large prize pools along with ultra-high production value tournaments with teams from every corner of the globe?

The Dota 2 Battle Pass Is Genius (and Financially Dangerous)

Several months in advance of The International, Valve gives every Dota player a big advertisement smack dab in the middle of the screen. It’s brightly colored in that year’s theme, 2019’s being purple. There’s a theme to it, like royalty in 2015, caverns in 2018, or this year’s jungle exploration. The Battle Pass serves as a way for every Dota player, regardless of rank or reputation, to connect with the very top level of Dota 2.

Its price can be as low as 10 dollars, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone drop only a tenner on it. This year’s most expensive package cost $45, and every player I know, including myself, paid $45.

We’ll be spending hundreds more each as The International grows closer. For what purpose? For silly hats, of course.

The Battle Pass is a companion app to The International that’s filled to the absolute brim with ways to enjoy Dota 2. Every owner of a Battle Pass has a level starting at 1 and going to infinity. Players can earn levels through completing several challenges in-game, such as playing a specific hero or performing a certain tactic, like teleporting to ganks or using Smoke of Deceit.

Of course, buying Battle Pass levels is how most players gain the bulk of their levels. They’re available in chunks of six, 12, and 24 with the largest pack selling for $9.99. Some players take pride in only buying the basic Battle Pass and only earning levels instead of purchasing them.

As the Battle Pass levels stack up, players unlock new content.

At just level one, players earn new music, a cursor cosmetic, a new courier, a new ward cosmetic, a purple Aegis emoticon representing that year’s trophy, five pro player collectible card packs, votes to use in the Arcana gauntlet, MMR double-down tokens, an in-game high-five ability, an in-game banner that displays your hero, several in-game fun abilities, and an Immortal treasure.

Talk about value!

As a player purchases and earns more levels, they’ll get upgrades to their courier, more Immortal treasures, hero taunts, lottery tickets to win Arcanas, chat wheel sound effects, an Announcer pack, several groundbreaking hero cosmetics, an Arcana, creep skins, terrain skins, and more.

There’s an insane amount of stuff that can be earned from the Battle Pass, and money is the key to getting most of it.

Valve Knows Exclusivity Is Key

Players are pressured to spend as much money as they possibly can on the Battle Pass for a few reasons.

The first is that most of the cool stuff is exclusive to Battle Pass owners. The Tiny Arcana and Young Invoker Persona can’t be purchased, traded, or otherwise obtained without a Battle Pass, and there’s no way to earn them after the Battle Pass ends.

Immortal treasures also spur hardcore Dota players to drop hundreds on the Battle Pass.

Each year, three treasures are released periodically that can only be obtained and opened by players with the Battle Pass. Inside of each Immortal treasure is one of several Immortal cosmetics.

Immortals don’t just change the color or the design of a hero’s outfit; they completely rework that hero’s visuals. This year’s Immortals include long sparkling red claws for Lifestealer and big purple wings for Skywrath Mage that turn his Arcane Bolts into doves.

Immortals are the second most valuable class of items in Dota 2, so of course the most exclusive is found in the Battle Pass too.

Arcanas don’t just rework one ability or one piece of equipment; they rework everything. This year’s Arcana is for Earthshaker, and it appears to give him antlers and bright blue eyes.

They’re technically not Arcanas, but Invoker has a “Persona” coming out that changes him to his younger self, while Tiny’s Prestige item changes him to a massive gray mountain with a stone crown and beard.

There’s also an Axe cosmetic where our beloved berserker is naked and axe-less. Instead of spinning his axe around to damage enemies, he T-poses and spins in place like a Beyblade. That alone is worth hundreds of dollars.

The penultimate prize is reserved for players who hit level 1000 on their Battle Pass. Valve will send all level 1000 Battle Pass owners a small replica of the tournament’s trophy, the Aegis of Champions. It comes in a neat little display box inlaid with mother-of-pearl and inscriptions of the year.

I know because I have two sitting on my shelf right now.

The final prize is a custom-made Roshan statue reserved for level 2000 Battle Pass owners. This promotion began last year but ran into problems because the statues look like absolute garbage. Not to worry; Valve has sent out replacement statues that actually look pretty cool.

Some players don’t stop at level 2000.

Team owners, pro players, and superfans go above and beyond the 2000 mark. Investors and team owners often pour thousands into their Battle Passes. Their reasoning? If their team wins The International, they’ll get the money back anyway.

Their Passes can grow well over 10,000 levels.

Turning Hats Into Prize Pools

We’ve gone over the pricing of the Battle Pass and why it’s so revered by Dota 2 players, but how exactly does that translate to a gargantuan prize pool?

The secret lies in Valve’s crowdfunding system.

Every time a player spends money to upgrade their Battle Pass, only 75% of the money goes to Valve’s coffers. The remaining quarter goes directly into the prize pool for that year’s International.

That might not seem like much, but the sheer amount of money that Dota 2 fans pour into the game means even past prize pools are some of the biggest in esports history. The five largest prize pools in all of esports belong to past Internationals.

The prize purse grows every year, and 2018’s ended at $25,532,177. This year’s goal is $30,000,000, and they could very well hit it. We’re already more than $2,000,000 ahead of last year’s prize pool at this time.

Something else that many players forget about is the three-quarters of the money going to Valve. In less than four days, Valve pocketed almost $30,000,000. If their goal is met, they’ll have earned almost nine digits of money by the end of TI9.

That goal might not be met if Valve doesn’t listen to their players, though.

Complaints have already started arising due to the changes for this year’s recycling. In past years, players could trash one of their Immortal items to gain two levels in their Battle Pass.

This recycling system made it much easier to hit the coveted level 1000. This year, players can only recycle four Immortals to get another lootbox.

It’s a small gripe, but those little things add up when there are millions on the line. Fans have even hung up posters behind analyst decks at the MDL Disneyland Major asking for Valve to revert the change.

Whether it comes or not, players will still slam down money on their Battle Passes.

Valve’s Innovation Pays Off

The sheer size of The International’s prize pool boggles the mind, but even more confusing is why other developers don’t crowdfund their own prize pools. The answer is a little complex, but the truth is that crowdfunding a giant esports event is a logistical nightmare. Valve has plenty of problems that smaller companies literally cannot deal with.

Server issues, complaints, purchases disappearing into the aether, and more take a multi-billion-dollar company like Valve to address. Smaller companies simply don’t have the resources or incentives to crowdfund.

All that content I talked about earlier takes months to curate, and a lot of it isn’t even out yet. It takes dozens of programmers, artists, designers, playtesters, and more to create a Battle Pass worth buying.

With the prize pool currently sitting at a comfortable $10,000,000, Valve has no reason to worry.

The title of biggest esport event will continue to belong to Dota, and Valve, players, and professionals all benefit. It’s a hell of a lot of work, but everyone gets a hell of a lot of money (or shiny hats).

If you’re looking to lay down some real money on professional Dota 2 matches, check out our list of the best Dota 2 betting sites.

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