7 Years, 400 Million (2019): Dota Builds Project Year-in-Review

This is a continuation of 2018’s article, “5 years, 350 million“, “4 years, 275 million“, 2017’s “3 years, 170 million“, 2015’s “2 years, 100 million” and 2014’s article: “1 Year, 40 million: Dota Builds Project Overview.

The Standard Hero Builds Project creates and manages over 161 hero builds to help new players learn how to play their characters.

I am celebrating 7 years of updating the Hero Builds. In December 2018, I took a haitus. In February 2019, I announced the end of the Hero Builds Project and 1 month later, I was sponsored by Rivalry.com to revive the project.

If I wrote in 2016 to 2017 that those were the most prominent years for the project and myself, I would say that 2017 to 2018 was considered the most difficult and enduring for me and the project.

5 Years, 350 Million (2018): Dota Builds Project Year in Review

For 2019-2020, I would say that my shift in focus and desire to update the builds without having to take too much interest in public opinion has increased my dedication to Dota 2 and Hero Builds. Thanks to my sponsor, Rivalry.com, my motivation for the Hero Builds Project continues. The sponsor confirms there is an inherent value in the dedicated and consistent work, regardless of waning feedback or vocal support.

Within this review, I will provide statistics detailing the impact the project has had in public matches, growth or decline in subscription growth and more. In addition, future plans, thoughts and desires will be mentioned for consideration.

350 Million to 400 Million Subscriptions – A Year of Statistic

Despite the article being released in 2020, I maintain subscriptions statistics on an annual basis (previously bi-weekly). The main reason for this lower rate of stats tracking was that the interest about these statistics is very little nowadays and the growth has been relatively consistent for the past years.

Does this look familiar? It’s because the daily rate of games that use my guides has not changed: 82.96% (82.67% in 2018).

From what we were able to simulate, approximately 82.96% of all daily matches use one or more of my guides. The percentages represented show the likelihood of 1 to 7 guides simultaneously being used during a match. There has been an increase 0.29% of daily guide usage per game. We found this very peculiar and went to verify with an independent source and fellow data scientist who verified our methodology and numbers. That said, anyone who wants to discuss our approach and analysis, we welcome additional (expert) opinions (like in 2018). Please contact me directly to further cooperate.

Between 2018 to 2019, this section’s results can be summarized as the following:

  • Subscription growth has been positive with 50 million new subscriptions
    • 400 Million in total subscriptions across 161 guides
  • 500 Million more games have been played using my guides
    • 1.8 billion games since 2013 (including overlap)
  • The Phantom Assassin guide leads with 5 million unique subscribers
    • The highest on the entire Steam platform
  • Average # of subscriptions for the project reaches 2.5 million

I am still very happy that there is continued growth and satisfaction with the hero builds. With the New Player Experience coming, I am hoping that future users will continue to seek out my builds.

Sponsorship

Today, I am happy to announce my continued partnership with Rivalry.com. Their continued support has been generous and their expectations have been so few (I am not even obligated to mention them in any social media posts or blog posts). As Dota leans more towards Eastern audiences and sponsors seek Western impressions, it is relieving to see Rivalry continue to support me and other brands, people and teams in this space.

Future

Last year, I tried my hand at doing a coaching show with some friends who were generous enough to give their time to guest-appear. In addition, I’ve started writing some professional insights into the esports industry. Both were great in exploring some opinions I always wanted to say. Though I do enjoy working with on-camera talent, I am not so sure it is the right calling for me.

In addition, last year I enjoyed my time working on the StarLadder Minor, Berlin Major and PUBG Europe League. Similar to my professional work two years ago, the insight, experience and knowledge I’ve gained in esports has been tremendous.

Last year, I wrote a variety of articles about the esports industry including dropping some knowledge about the Dota 2 scene. It has lead to a lot of new career paths that I am currently exploring.

This year, I would like to say and do more. I’m seeking to better display my qualities and explore what I can and cannot aptly do. The importance of always wanting to do more helps against questions of self-doubt. A few ideas have been circling in my head ranging from on-site event interviews to more Dota coaching but I am unsure if they are worth pursuing further. That said, both stem from my desire to learn and be able to do more with Dota 2. For now, I continue to test and research hero builds on my Twitch channel. As always, my methodology to update the hero builds has been a mix between watching and researching commonly-played item/skill builds to personally testing them and seeking feedback on improvements.

Finally, last year I wrote some suggestions for the upcoming New Player Experience for Dota 2. For the Hero Builds System, I continue to advocate the same things I have for the past 5 years: “[…] improve guide selection for new users so the first one at the top isn’t picked just because it has the highest subscription count and games played (these indicators are mostly due to those guides being around the longest).”

Not listed in the original post, this spontaneous idea I had is something that I think would be really cool to include.

Conclusion

You’ve made this relatively ordinary person achieve something pretty extraordinary.

February 2019

I think I’ve talked about why I started making hero builds many times and the skinny of it was a mix of things: my self-validation through being useful for others, a tribute to the old Play-Dota guides I used in the early 2000s and most importantly: being pro-active with my frustration that people didn’t know how to play or build their heroes (including myself).

The project achieved some, if not, all these goals and there’s really nothing more I can be thankful for than that.

Is there value in mobile esports?

Yes. But it is of regional value and to get into mobile as a team brand or tournament organization would depend more on if it aligns with your brand or not. For tournament organizers, the desire to move towards mobile and the SEA/China market means further income sources through production work for publishers. For teams, it would widen your audience reach but may not align with your core target fanbase or sponsors’ interest as mobile games esports’ popularity has not hit North America (yet).

That said, as publishers make moves to bring their PC-centric games to the mobile market such as Riot Games’ Teamfight Tactics, Epic Games’ Fortnite, Valve’s Dota Underlords, Activision’s Call of Duty: Mobile and PUBG Mobile (published by Tencent), a two-way bridge is formed: converting North-American audiences to mobile and introducing Eastern mobile players to western franchises.

As 5G starts to roll-out across the United States and Europe, mobile gaming will be more embraced. For this piece, we will skim over the landscape of mobile esports as well as making note of worthy titles and scenes to consider and how they compare to other competitive titles.

The Free Fire World Series was among the most watched esports title on YouTube.

*if you’re interested in following the mobile scene, consider Jeff Chau’s twitter for interesting insight as well as his valuable medium post

The Mobile Viewership Landscape

As of right now, the largest mobile esports regions are South-East Asia, China, South Korea. We say South East Asia as depending on the game, different countries pop up ranging from Vietnam, Indonesia, India and more. Additionally, LATAM also shows an immense popularity for the genre as we saw Free Fire World Series in Rio garner 2+ million peak viewers and over 7.5 million hours watched. Regarding which games are popular, Battle Royales and MOBAs have the longest staying power. Games like Free Fire, PUBG Mobile, Mobile Legends and Arena of Valor have millions in players that trickle down to an esports audience in the hundreds of thousands to millions.

While Twitch and Mixer are maintaining their strength and targeting to Western markets. YouTube has exploded with mobile game event streaming. Mobile Legends is the mobile imitation of League of Legends.

While these numbers are incredible (and they really are), be wary that this is the start of esports interest on Western streaming platforms. Going back to October will highlight that viewership and interest in mobile games from a creators’ standpoint has much more realistic numbers. Similarly, if we check out Mobile Legends Esports VODs statistics on YouTube, this viewership is also much lower (where YouTube is watched mostly in the West). The popularity of these mobile games has definitely triggered interest in Eastern streaming platforms, content-creators and viewership but it has not moved towards Western European and North-American platforms nor content-creators on Twitch/YouTube (yet). The lack of viewership outside of esports events may highlight that the playerbase has not translated to valuable viewership (yet) akin to WarGaming’s massive popular World of Tanks not translating to a popular esports scene beyond Eastern-Europe brands and viewers.

or some of these events include item drops with viewership. This heightens the numbers of viewers but leads to botting and an unengaged audience (“set-and-forget”).

Its Esports Presence

PUBG Mobile has made a presence Europe with events hosted by ESL and StarLadder but these were through contract with Tencent. It will be interesting to see how they will further push the PUBG Mobile scene in cooperation with tournament organizers.

The excitement about mobile esports is due to the immediate involvement of Eastern game publishers for their mobile gaming competitions. Tencent already dipping their toes with recent work into PUBG Mobile and now announcing a 5 Million prize-pool for 2020. However, when it comes to tournament org. involvement, it can be a mixed bag as there are proposals circulating from Tencent to certain tournament organizations seeking co-investment where Tencent aims to reduce their own spending in exchange for a co-invested partner from tournament organizations (who typically are looking for contractual work with publishers, not to increase their annual costs).

The latest mobile esports event, Free Fire, boomed with 2 million peak viewers and 7.5+ million hours watched.

To add, prize-pool on games is varied. For the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, it boasted a prize-pool of only $250,000. The Free Fire World Series: $400,000. Compared to Western esports, the prize-pools pale in comparison. Teams, as well, mostly feature organizations not involved in mainstream esports titles we see in the West. In the past, Arena of Valor featured squads from Team Vitality, SK Gaming, Alliance, Team Liquid, Immortals and more. For Free Fire, there are no notable major teams actively playing as you can see here.

That said, as we saw with PUBG Mobile, new money is being injected with every new iteration of esports. Honor of Kings’ 2019 Champions Cup featured 4.5Million dollar prize-pool for their month-long league (crowd-funded from 2million to 4.5).

Conclusion

To summarize some concerns, Mobile Esports:

  • can garner a lot of attendance, especially if attendance to the event is free (Free Fire World Cup 2019 (not World Series in Rio))
  • can garner a lot of viewership, especially if there are free item drops for watching – leading to potentially inactive viewers/lower engagement (Free Fire World Series Rio)
  • does not garner a lot of viewership on Western platforms outside of these esports events
  • receives strong game developer support and prize-pool injection
  • has game developer support but they also seek co-investment from tournament brand.
Depending on which photo you find, arena attendance will be mixed depending on the game, year of its lifespan, price of ticket and location of the venue. (2018 Honor of Kings Champion Cup Winter Season)

There is a common misconception that player-base = possible esports reach or value for brands but the reality is that esports is always a trickle of viewership interest depending on the competitive perception of its audience. How serious are players taking their mobile games if it’s on mobile and these users are always in a setting not ideal for competitive focus (playing while riding the train, between classes at school, during lunch at work, etc.). There is more to the sociocultural consideration regarding if a popular multiplayer game equates to the esports-focused label.

This is the Mobile Legends World Championship Grand Finals. In November 2019, this event has 6.5 Million hours watched but nearly as much in attendance.

Secondly, publisher involvement does not always mean endorsement as they also seek investment from tournament organizers who have yet to fully dive into the mobile market (ESL, Vodafone, StarLadder have dipped their toes with work in contract with PUBG Mobile).

Thirdly, Eastern-Asia/SEA growth does not translate into western popularity, different cultures emphasize different gaming platforms and thus different focus and directions.

Despite my skepticism, I do believe this is the start of the mobile esports scene for both Asia and Western markets. My intro regarding the coming of 5G, the growing audience (new generations) of gamers growing up with games on phones and how traditional PC-centric games like Fortnite, League of Legends and Call of Duty can bridge users from moving from their PC to the mobile but also skew their view of competition of their favourite games regardless of the platform.

That said, there are some people in the scene who are trying to sell mobile esports as an underrated opportunity. I firmly believe they are relying on FOMO (fear of missing out) to get brands to invest instead of determining if mobile esports is a sound, long-term investment.

Not all events have to be esports

But they can all be competitive entertainment. The rise of esports has lead to a variety of game developers pushing their community and marketing outreach into esports competition when it may not be suited or appealing to their large and wide-ranging playerbase. This piece is not to determine which games should or should not be esports-focused, as we’ve even seen games built specifically for esports fail. This discussion is to highlight brands that re-examine esports as other than the height of competition or an emblem to traditional sports spectating and treat it more as the marketable and exciting entertainment that esports runs parallel to general gaming consumption culture.

Image result for shootmania esports

Ubisoft’s Shootmania (2014) was aimed to be an esports title but failed to reach mass-popularity both as a game and an esport competition despite some strong support from IGN’S IPL, ESWC and more. They are not alone as games like World of Tanks (2018), Guild Wars 2 (2016), Lawbreakers and Epic Games’ Paragon all were leaning to be or include esports in their game’s branding but failed to even reach that level of exposure.

With the upcoming genre of AutoChess games where randomization heavily affects a player’s chances of winning a match, it is relieving to see Riot Games’ potential approach to their version of AutoChess as a spectator “esport”:

Teamfight Tactics will feature in its own tournament at this year’s League of Legends All-Star event. However, a full-on competitive league isn’t likely for the title. “We’re going to focus a lot more on entertainment-focused infrastructure, that won’t be as regimented,” said Needham. “That’s just specific to how the game is played. It’s a bit more casual than League of Legends from a competitive perspective.”

John Needham, Global Head of Esports at Riot Games (The Esports Observer, 2019)

When it comes to treating a game as an esport, publishers and most tournament organizers seem to define esports as a serious and competitive tournament in front of millions of viewers and a stadium full of exciting attendants. For games that align with the players’ perception of skill and strategy, this is a fairly normal expectation. For genres where randomized elements heavily affect the game it can feel disjointed for fans to see a game, such as Hearthstone, take such a serious tone when it is typically played at leisure and without much focus or thought. It may appear as if I am talking negatively or downward about these games, but in reality, I am simply prefacing the idea that different levels of competition and competitive titles should be approached differently as esports entertainment. The attention, focus and energy I give to playing games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Poker or Dota 2 is significantly different than how I play Team Fortress 2, Artifact or Dota Underlords. Similarly with television, how I digest a sitcom may differ from how I focus in a serious drama – both are appealing but I treat them differently.

Not all games have to be esports but it’s not flawed to try different formats for a competitive title to see which resonates best with its variety of audiences. It goes without saying that even though the live-streamer, Kripparian, thinks people don’t take competitive Hearthstone seriously, he is mostly referring to his cultural and regional audience which may view Hearthstone less seriously than in the Asian regions (China, SEA, etc.).

Tone and Environment

In terms of tone and environment, two major studios have set the standard for a serious tournament set in a relaxed and fun setting for the viewers: HomeStory Cup and Beyond The Summit. Though the matches and competition are of the highest level, both HomeStory Cup and Beyond the Summit [BTS] have integrated an environment that spotlights casters and player personality, knowledge, jokes and memorable moments for the viewer.

HomeStory Cup & Beyond the Summit

Both HomeStory Cup & Beyond the Summit have the same premise: stuff a bunch of pro-players into a house (now enlarged studio), remove the live audience and let them hang out. It’s evidently more complicated than that but the elements of games being casted by sometimes 3 to 4 people, with pros jumping in and out on the mic at their own desire, leads the commentating changing from a partnership between colour-commentator and analyst to a casual conversation between highly-admired and respected individuals. It is a treat for both the talents involved as well as a unique experience for fans who want to feel a part of the event and don’t typically get to hear professional players talk, give insight and hang out.

To further this tone, Beyond the Summit’s creative team put together fantastic sketches and satirical pieces often involving pro-players and of which resemble popular skits or videos that audiences would recognize such as the YouTube video: “Rediculous B-ball shots!!!!!!!”

What’s also key to note is that this relaxed format can be applied to almost any game, allowing Beyond the Summit or HomeStory Cup to expand to games they typically couldn’t break into (as easily). For HomeStory Cup, they have replicated their setup for StarCraft II and Hearthstone whereas Beyond the Summit has achieved events for Dota 2, Counter-Strike, Super Smash Bros., Mortal Kombat, Rocket League, Team Fortress 2 and more.

Though not all listed, Beyond the Summit has achieved over 11+ Dota events, 8 Smash events, opened for the launch of Artifact, premiered a Rocket League, Dragon Ball FighterZ, Counter-Strike, Mortal Kombat and more. HomeStory Cup has produced over 20 events for StarCraft II and Hearthstone on top of their German commentary for other events.

Though I didn’t give them a paragraph, DreamLeague has also taken an otherwise serious game and league and converted their production into a very relaxed and casual setup. Their talent, a mixed group of both intelligent and personable people, tease and josh with one another in-between highly-competitive games. The mix provides fans with comic relief among highly-respected talent as well as the exciting ups-and-downs of competitive games. This mix also helps off-set the otherwise long and perceived repetitive nature of league formats.

Though if you’re not an active follower of these games or people, some of this content might look rough or immature. But these sketches are about engaging with the on-going conversations with its audience, being in on the jokes and, ultimately, having fun in an industry that sometimes takes itself more seriously than it needs to. In that admittance comes a plethora of creative ideas that resonate with an audience and distinguishes a brand from the monotony of competitive tournaments.

Formats & Modes

In terms of formats, we typically have varying degrees of tournaments or leagues involving a bracket and group-stage. Month-long leagues play group stages online with an offline bracket stage for audience attendance. However, many event organizations try or have tried unique formats, modes and broadcasts to distinguish themselves from other events, especially if it meant at a lower-cost or without additional logistical challenges.

IPL Fight Club

The format for the IPL Fight Club, a weekly show-match King-of-the-Hill series by IGN back in 2011 (to 2013) involved players being pitted against one another where the loser goes home and the winner received $500. For each win, the “King” receives an additional $100 bounty that which an adversary can claim the bounty if they win. Though show-matches are on the decline for many games, this unique format has yet to be replicated by other event organizers and really lends itself to a story-line of just how long someone can go undefeated and who will claim their bounty.

Over 40+ players participated in this weekly online event with HyuN managing to stay alive for over 14 weeks.

Twitch Rivals

Streamers over Competitors

Twitch and their program, Twitch Rivals, really maximize the value of their platform and range of showcased games to provide a unique experience for fans and viewers. Instead of relying on competitors to be entertaining, they provide reasons for involved Twitch streamers to be competitive in games of all competitive levels (casual to serious).

Among the competitive games comes a host non-competitive titles that Twitch Rivals have hosted: Mario Maker 2, Overwatch Workshop Custom games, Dead by Daylight, etc. I personally hope they will eventually do a Mario Party Olympics soon.

Captain’s Draft

Captain’s Draft is a unique mode in Dota 2 where a randomized and limited amount of heroes (27 out 117) are available for both teams to then ban and draft according to their play-style. For MoonDuck Studios, this was their first live event and its uniqueness played its part to set itself apart from other Minor and Major events. Captain’s Draft allowed for heroes that are typically seldom played to be played more often while also ensuring that games are varied in terms of strategy and hero cohesion as opposed to traditional tournaments that can sometimes see the same heroes picked regularly because of their strengths and benefits to the team.

Midas Mode

Fan Interaction

Going one step further than Captain’s Draft, Midas Mode by MoonDuck Studios broke new ground. Not only did Midas Mode had an economy in their matches that would affect drafts for each team participating but the event also provided a variety of features for fans to be directly involved with these competitive matches. In the video below, we can see specials being able to fight professional players as Roshan, punching away at them using a VR headset. Other participation also include being units on the board to help teams scout and fight neutral creeps. Midas Mode is the only event to have this level of involvement with fans. ESL being the second organization to have additional activities for fans at their events (none of which have anything to do with the broadcast or matches).

Value & Viewership

For the sake of upholding competition, a lot of events start to blend in with one another, exhausting fans who can grow tiresome of seeing the same teams participating in match-ups they have done just the previous week. For Counter-Strike, there are over 30+ tier 1 events (32% of the annual calendar) and over 40+ tier 2 events (Beyond the Summit’s CS events are considered tier 2 but feature tier 1 teams). Not all these events are profitable, let alone distinguished enough to garner viewership akin to the cost to host and run these offline events.

It goes without saying that not all these events achieve their ideal KPIs. However, the consideration to alter an event into something that has a lower cost-ceiling in return for a more creatively distinguished event can help a brand be set apart from the rest. For example, WePlay Studios continues to operate their brand at extreme losses, but due to the efforts to distinguish their brand with unique settings, animated and live sketches and continued efforts in exploring esports competitions for games such as Artifact and Underlords, they were granted a Minor slot for this Dota 2 season.

WePlay! Dota 2 Reshuffle Madness 2019: photos of WePlay! Esports studio
WePlay continues to reshape their studio set design for each new tournament they host.

There is plenty of room in esports to transform titles with struggling viewership into entertaining games to watch under the right tone and environment. As Riot Games has determined, if a game has aspects that reduce the quality of competition, it may be safer to gear the competitive scene to be more reliant on personality and entertainment over the sanctity of quality competition. For Nintendo, their annual World Championships receives harsh criticism from the Super Smash community because its ruleset does not align with what the competitive scene expects. However, for Nintendo, this marketable event aims to appeal to all demographics and players who may not treat the game as competitively as the esports scene does. That sacrifice plays into Nintendo’s targeted audience and frame for the Nintendo Switch to be accessible and available for anyone to pick up and play.

These numbers may seem short, but Twitch Rivals hosts their broadcasts for about 6 to 8 hours. Their average viewers ranged from only 2-3K to 10-23K depending on the game and the streamers involved. To add, streamers can also stream the event leading to split viewership that is not displayed in the image above.

The conclusion of this piece is to say that not only has esports not explored sufficiently in what ways it can be more engaging and entertaining for some or all types of audiences, but also that its identity has become too narrow to hold all the brands and companies that want to jump into this growing market. The scene is expanding vertically but its horizontal expansion is revolving around types of companies, not number of companies. The identity of esports continues to be an on-going subject I’ve talked about previously in “Publishers are dictating what esports will be”. This article can be tacked up to the marketing aspect of the scene and the games involved.