My rares: thoughts on the Compendium's gradual shift away from esports

TI5 Compendium

Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.

Every International Compendium has been more about hats than the one that preceded it. When the concept made its debut in 2013, it was called the Interactive Compendium. It was specifically designed to allow fans of the competitive scene to involve themselves more actively in the International tournament. Exclusive cosmetics were, I suspect, intended as a bonus feature rather than the main selling point.

That's not the way they were received, of course. This was the peak of online trading and resale of Dota items, and the random distribution of rewards from the original Compendium caused a lot of community unrest. If you were unlucky and got the Abaddon mace, your Compendium purchase was worth less than that of somebody who got the Pudge hook or Kunkka sword. This might not have mattered so much if the majority of players had seen the Compendium's match prediction and sticker collection minigames as the main reason to invest in one, but that wasn't so. 2013 was the year we (and Valve) learned that cosmetics trump every other incentive to spend money on Dota, every time. You can draw a direct line from that learning to the concerns about the influence of cosmetics on the pro scene raised earlier this year.

I'm not convinced that the ascendancy of the special hat is a terrible thing for Dota. I think it simply 'is'. It's easy to point out all of the ways that spending money on internet hats is irrational, but that irrationality is now the norm. 2014's Compendium introduced many more Immortals, with direct incentives to spend to collect 'em all. It also allowed players to vote on aspects of the game completely detached from the tournament it supports, like voice packs and future Arcana items. Valve's second pass at the Compendium ditched the 'interactive' label and confirmed that it had become a community event for Dota as a whole, not just a companion to the International.

I'm enjoying the new Compendium on that basis. I think it's the best magical internet hat book that Valve have produced to date. The challenge system is a far smarter integration of optional objectives into regular Dota than Manifold Paradox was. The new Immortals are all great, and I'm excited for sets two and three. The rapid delivery of stretch goals so far suggests that Valve have been busy getting all of this stuff done in advance, which is exactly what they should have done last year. They've learned a lot of good lessons from 2014.

Yet I have no idea how this Compendium will tie in to the International, beyond the prediction minigames that have been a factor in every Compendium to date. Should we expect another round of player trading cards? How about Compendium matches—remember when you queue for games that challenged you to win with a draft that had been used in the pro scene that week? Has interest waned in item sets and reward systems that directly benefit professional players? Do Valve now trust that 'Compendium as item store' will trump 'Compendium as esports event' when it comes to inflating the International's prize pool?

Getting more people to tune into pro games clearly isn't the goal, here: selling more Compendiums is. Once, those two ideas weren't so separate. They now are, and I suspect the reason—ironically—is to ensure that the International prize pool gets bigger every year. If a bigger prize pool means a higher profile tournament and more eyes on competitive Dota, then it's all for the good—right?

According to the data on Cyborgmatt's prize tracker, this year's prize pool is about a million dollars ahead of where it was this time last year. Almost all of that difference occurred on the first day of sale, when all you got for your money was a friendly armadillo and the promise of more treasures to come (a sentence, incidentally, that I never thought I'd write.) On day two, the first Immortals were released, which helped 2015 to maintain its huge sales lead a little longer than it might otherwise have done—but not enough to prevent it from dipping below 2014 on day four.

It looks like a safe bet that this year's prize pool will top last year's $11m, but I expect that it'll be a far more incremental increase than the one from 2013 to 2014. Growth will spike when the next sets of Immortals come out (which is, I suspect, why there are three sets) and then return to 2014 levels. In 2014, the release of the Immortal items on day 22 caused sales to jump by around $600k. Similar spikes are possible this year, but, I'd argue, less likely: if you're not going to put down cash for the hats that are already on the table, I doubt you'll put down cash for the next set to come (another sentence I never thought I'd write.)

In this regard, the level 175 Enigma item makes for an interesting case. It came out six days into the 2015 Compendium drive, accompanied by a comic—the sort of thing Valve normally reserves for new heroes or Immortals. Yet its impact on sales has been, so far, muted— arresting the huge drop-off in daily revenue, but not causing it to spike in any immediate way. Given that getting a Compendium to level 175 currently involves spending upwards of $77 ($27 for the level 50 bundle plus five lots of 24-level booster packs at $10 each), it's highly possible that this exceeds the upper limit of what people are willing to spend for a cosmetic. The suggestion is that there's a saturation point for interest in Dota hats, and that we might finally have found it. And if there's only so much that the average player is willing to shell out, then there's only so much the International can grow when the thrust of the fundraising effort is hats.

What the 2015 Compendium needs, right now, is a more diverse offering. If nothing else, it needs a way to level up without spending cash—even if it's slow. With the Challenge system tied to a separate economy (coins, which are traded for items), there's no way to think of the Compendium as anything other than a money sink with uncertain rewards. Ironically, I think its old form—that of an interactive companion to an esports tournament—can help here. A Compendium that encourages players to check out professional Dota is a Compendium that increases the sense of Dota's worth as a whole—and that sense of worth will translate into more eager investment in the Compendium itself.

There's obviously only so much that Valve can do at this stage. It's May—the qualifiers are a way off, the International itself even more so. Yet they had the option to foreground esports in the initial pitch for this year's Compendium and chose not to do so. I'd argue that no matter the fundraising potential of the hats themselves, encouraging players to care about the tournament they're funding is just as important.

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Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.