This year’s International has broken the record for largest prize pool in esports at over $20,700,460 and still climbing. That record was set by last year’s International, which broke a record set by the previous year’s. This presents a mystery to the uninitiated: Exactly where is all this money coming from?
Dota 2's International is the game’s World Cup, and its staggering prize pool is in part a reflection of the fact that there’s simply more money in the game than in any other—pros have collectively won more playing Dota 2 than they have in League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, StarCraft II, and Counter-Strike 1.6 combined. Still, $20 million for one event? How does one single game accumulate so much money for its biggest tournament?
The answer is, simply, crowdfunding.
With every International since 2013, Valve has released a companion guide alongside it, an in-game app called the Compendium. The first iteration cost $10, and 25 percent of the profits went towards that year’s International prize pool. It offered a few goodies, like a new courier, heads-up display, and cosmetic skin for a hero to wear in-game.
As the years went on, the Compendium grew. More items were added, like loot boxes with random draws for cosmetic items of extreme rarity. Fantasy Dota was built into the Compendium, allowing users to draft players and set a lineup to earn points from match results. Effigies and map overhauls, new user-interfaces, and voice lines all began to show up as rewards for Compendium users.
These new items were accompanied by new ways to earn them and, consequently, new outlets for cash to flow. Rather than a one-time purchase like in 2013, the modern Compendium lets you buy levels to upgrade your book, unlocking items as you progress higher and higher up.
You can also earn levels by simply playing the game, either through an in-game wagering system where you bet on the outcome of a game you’re about to play or by completing quests, set challenges for each match that progress along a path towards more unlockable cosmetics. But with each year, the levels climb higher. This year’s Compendium boasts some of the most impressive prizes yet—a brand-new quest path and cosmetic for Kunkka, a cosmetic that turns Io the Wisp into Portal’s Companion Cube, new announcers, and taunts, integrated voice lines that let you play sound files of famous esports moments like “Waow” and “It’s a disastah!”
It’s an endless sink, requiring significant investment of either money or time to get all the best stuff. Hordes of cosmetics rain down along flashy new ability modifications and glamour items, and for every transaction, 25 percent goes towards the prize pool. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled to pore over every new Immortal Treasure set released, but this year the pipe of incentives has been noticeably widened, leaving a bitter taste after every contribution.
That’s how a single tournament goes from a $1.6 million initial investment from Valve to over $20 million—by encouraging users to add to the prize pool themselves. The idea has its merits, and other games like League and Counter-Strike have started to follow suit. Whether it’s sustainable in the long run is an open question—Valve is moving to invest in tournaments itself rather than rely on crowdfunding with the Majors—but it’s hard to imagine an International without a Compendium, even if the taste is starting to sour a little.