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Dota 2’s The International Shanghai (TI9) has broken last year’s prize pool record. Last year’s purse reached a total of $25.53M USD, while the current prize pool has exceeded $25.64M at time of writing. It took 55 days to break last year’s record, with an almost 1500% increase on the base prize pool of $1.6M. Furthermore, this year’s prize pool is already $6.1M ahead of the TI8 amount, after the same amount of time had passed. The International is not only the biggest Dota 2 esports event of the year, but has also consistently been the esports tournament delivering the highest prize pool since 2011, when the first TI in Cologne, Germany, awarded $1.6M.
The TI9 will take place in the Chinese city of Shanghai from August 20-25. A month before that happens, the Fortnite World Cup will be hosted by Epic Games in New York City from July 26-28—with its own prize pool of $30M, entirely provided by the publisher.
In this article, we will look specifically at the concept of the TI crowdfunding system in order to better understand why TI9’s prize pool might surpass the Fortnite World Cup for the highest total in esports history.
The Basic Prize Pool Concept of TI
Basic prize pool money and contributed prize pool at the time of writing. Credit: Dota 2 Prize Pool Tracker
Unlike Dota 2, League of Legends and Overwatch both use a franchise-style tournament system. In exchange for franchise fees, teams are entitled to revenue sharing. Dota 2’s game publisher Valve uses an open tournament circuit, partially funding each competition’s prize pool.
The only competition that Valve runs itself, TI, awards a crowdfunded prize pool. These winnings consist of two parts – basic prize pool and contributed prize pool. Every year, Valve has consistently contributed $1.6M as the basic prize pool, while the Dota 2 community builds up the prize pool via in-game purchases, primarily through the purchase of the “Battle Pass.” For every purchase, 25% of goes towards the total prize pool of TI, while Valve keeps the remaining 75% as revenue.
In 2013, Valve first released the Battle Pass as a TI exclusive product to its Dota 2 community. Customers could “top up” their Battle Pass and be rewarded in-game benefits if the prize pool money reached certain milestones. This was not just a significant moment in the history of Dota 2 , but also for the whole of esports. After the Battle Pass system was first released in 2013, TI3’s prize pool reached $2.87M, exceeding the World Cyber Games (WCG) total prize pool ($2.84M). In 2014, it reached $10.9M, becoming the first esports tournament prize pool over $10M.
Since the inception of crowdfunding its prize pool, TI has consistently broken its own record, year after year. For esports professionals, winning the Aegis (an in-game item in Dota 2 and also the trophy of The International) could be life changing—last year’s winners, OG, took a lion’s share of $11.2M. Even now, some top esports titles still do not award their champions $1M in prize money, the winner’s prize amount of the first TI in 2011. For example, Invictus Gaming won the 2018 League of Legends Worlds Championship, and a top prize of $840K. It should be noted that most league-based games rely on annual salaries, revenue sharing, and other guarantees for players.
In today’s esports industry, professional players already have a basic salary for living, and most esports team organizations have a number of sponsorship deals, or receive competition stipends as a form of revenue. In the early stage of esports history, professional players relied on tournament prize pool money as a form of income. In some ways, The International, the first million-dollar esports tournament, not only changed the esports industry in 2011, but also helped change society’s acceptance of esports. It’s now common to hear that “professional video gamers can actually become millionaires,” and that’s largely thanks to The International prize pool.
Compared with traditional sports, according to Business Insider, the TI7 prize pool ($24.7M) surpassed that of the final football Confederations Cup in 2017 ($20M), and the 2017 US Open golf tournament ($12M).
When Fortnite Enters The Battle
Credit: Epic Games
Back in 2018, the gaming and esports industries were surprised by the arrival (and subsequent popularity) of the battle royale genre‚—particularly popularized by games such as PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (PUBG) and Epic Games’ Fortnite. In May of 2018, Epic Games announced that it would support a Fornite esports scene, providing a total of $100M for competitions during the 2018-2019 season. In addition, the Fortnite World Cup would feature a $30M prize pool.
Even compared with TI, this is the all-time highest prize pool money for any esports tournament, and by far the most a publisher has ever committed. Furthermore, there was an increase of approximately $830K from 2017 to 2018 for the TI prize pool.
From the Fortnite video showed at the Tencent Global Esports Annual Summit; it displays the Chinese term, “highest prize pool money in esports history.” Credit: Tencent Esports
Even Tencent Games, the largest shareholder (40%) of Fortnite game developer Epic Games and exclusive distributor in China, has shown confidence in Fortnite: “The Fortnite World Cup is the highest prize pool money in esports history”- comment made in an official video and shown at the Tencent Global Esports Annual Summit on June 20.
A +$6M Prize Money “Bug” Made by Valve
The +$6M “Bug.” Credit: Dota 2 Prize Pool Tracker
On June 27, Valve released the Battle Level and Treasure Bundle, including 120 Battle Levels and multiple in-game treasures. The price for the bundle is $29.99, offering a 75% discount if the content was bought individually, and can only be purchased “once.” The “only once” purchase was later reported as having a bug, with a number of players finding a way to purchase it twice. Three days later, Valve claimed that it had fixed the “twice” purchasing bug, and in order to make it up to the playerbase, people who did not exploit the bug got a chance to also buy two bundles (from June 29-30).
Regardless of whether this was a bug or a marketing strategy, Valve achieved a $6M increase in the TI9 prize pool ($18M revenue for Valve). This likely contributed to the 55-day speed to break TI8’s prize pool record, and also gave the community hope that Dota 2 still had a chance to break $30M.
The Next Chance for TI9 to Reach $30M Price Money
Every year, TI’s prize pool has a consistent period of growth, based on when Valve releases its various in-game items/treasures. The release of both the basic Battle Pass and Treasure Bundle all led to a marked rise in the TI prize pool for the last five years. For TI9, there are still at least two more treasures still to be released. Valve will also have the chance to sell Dota 2 treasures autographed by esports casters and commentators to Dota 2 fans, which also contributes to the prize pool.
The Purchasing Power of China’s Dota 2 Community
TI is a classic example of why esports is all about community. The Battle Pass and the crowdfunding system employed by Valve for TI allow the game publisher and community to symbolically co-own the tournament, which to this day still operates with only one commercial partner: NVIDIA’s GeForce gaming/hardware brand. In many ways, Dota 2’s community is the sponsor of TI.
According to Servers Syncing, a data collection company, Battle Pass owners who are lower than level 75 in Dota 2 are 1.6M, those higher than 75 are 796K, and those higher than 1K are 39K. The top eight highest-ranked Battle Pass owners (that’s ranked from #3-10) are in China, at the time of writing. In addition, this is the first time in nine years that The International has come to China. Expectations from the Chinese Dota 2 community are high, and this has been reflected in ticket sales. According to Perfect World, the Dota 2 exclusive distributor in China, tickets sold out in 53 seconds.
To conclude, TI9 has a high likelihood of surpassing the Fortnite World Cup’s promised prize pool of $30M. The Dota 2 community has two more content packages and 48 days to contribute the $4.5M in prize money needed to surpass $30M. That all said, it’s quite possible that Epic Games could add even more money to the Fornite World Cup prize pool, as a show of faith to its own community. Whatever the outcome, we are guaranteed to see a new record prize pool in esports this year.