Dote Night: Era And The Case For A Dota Reserve Squad


Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na’Vi’s Dendi at a dessert buffet cart.

Just prior to The International 4 one of the professional teams – Fnatic – was engaged in a frantic back-and-forth with Valve. The discussion (and thus, this week’s column) centred on team substitutions. Specifically whether Fnatic was allowed to compete at TI4 with Steve ‘Excalibur’ Ye taking the place of their invited carry player Adrian ‘Era’ Kryeziu. The swap was being pursued by Fnatic because Era’s recent health concerns, including panic attacks, had put his ability to travel to Seattle and compete in doubt. Valve’s response was unequivocal. Fnatic had to attend with their invited lineup or they couldn’t compete.

I’ve read through the email chain which Valve posted online several times since then. It was clearly a difficult situation for both parties. Valve had received an email from Era himself saying he was ready to compete but that his team thought they would do better with a substitute and so it would be reasonable to worry about a player being pushed out of a roster thanks to internal politicking. It’s an email which Era later describes as having been written in a “very frustrated and confused mental state” and “without first considering my actual condition, whether or not I’d be physically capable of traveling and playing by July.”

Another problem was that Fnatic’s concerns about Era being fit to play were brought to Valve’s attention after the European qualifiers for TI4 had taken place. That’s significant because the previous year a Chinese team called LGD Gaming had made some roster changes. As a result they lost their direct invite to TI3 but LGD were allowed to compete in their region’s qualifiers to earn a spot in Seattle with the altered fivesome.

This is because the direct invites to The International are based on Valve’s opinion of the current team lineup. You can see that clearly in another situation from earlier in 2014 which was referenced frequently in the comments and discussion about the Fnatic case. The North American team Evil Geniuses replaced Clinton ‘Fear’ Loomis with Mason ‘mason’ Venne after an elbow injury stopped Fear from competing. They were allowed to switch Fear’s invite for mason’s because EG had been playing with mason on their team for a while before The International. Because Valve were familiar with both versions of EG, the company decided they were okay with either one of them attending TI4.

It’s now an old situation – part of TI history – but in the post-TI landscape teams are in a state of flux and the scene feels particularly volatile. It’s not surprising then that I keep circling back to what the Era/Excalibur situation reveals of the way Valve thinks of a Dota 2 team. I’m increasingly inclined to say it would be healthier to take a lead from another eSport. This is the part where I mention League of Legends and I’m not sure if you’ll go with me (you totally should!) or GASP theatrically and close the browser window.

League of Legends takes a lot of its cues from traditional sports – it has seasons, relegations and promotions. That traditional sports mentality extends to the rosters. If you’re like me and have sat down with the LCS official rules document [PDF] and a cup of tea you’ll know that a team requires a general manager, five players who constitute the starting lineup, and between two and five reserve players. There are also transfer window deadlines like you’ll find in professional football, rules about how many players you can pick up from another team from your lineup and so on.

Riot’s rules about what constitutes the active roster are set up to avoid a scenario where illness or accident completely derailing a team’s performance but combined with the other strictures they speak to a definition of a team which goes beyond five main players. It’s no doubt a product of the need for stability when you’re trying to run a league rather than a one-off annual event but it contains the idea that the League of Legends Fnatic team can sometimes not be exactly xPeke, sOAZ, Cyanide, Rekkles and YellOwStaR and that’s maybe not ideal but it’s not an emotional catastrophe. Emotional catastrophe is very much the feeling you get from the Era/Excalibur TI4 email chain.

Words mean it's true.

As an aside: this is not to say Riot’s system can cope with all situations. Earlier in the year the company decided to put on a London Roadshow at Wembley which it joyfully announced, only to discover it hadn’t given Gambit Gaming enough time to get visas for travel to the UK for four of the main players and that if they tried to get emergency visas they would have to forfeit two weeks of LCS matches on account of not having passports for that period of time. The team ended up fielding the one remaining player from their starting lineup and four free agents (one of whom is now listed on Gambit’s official team page as a substitute support player). Not ideal as situations go, but also a thankfully rare one.

Could you apply the League of Legends approach to TI4? Well, as I mentioned earlier, LoL has more of an interest in cultivating that sense of a team as a continuous entity, existing slightly beyond its current constituent players. It needs the stability so it can run the months-long LCS and the Challenger Series leagues. The International is about finding out who’s the best Dota 2 team in the world at a given point. I say that because it’s the response I’ve been given by Valve’s Erik Johnson at two separate Internationals, once in answer to a general “Why do you International?” question and the other time in response to Alliance being knocked out of the competition before the main event.

When that’s the aim of the contest you might not feel the need to consider substitutes because they’re not a known quantity. The hope is that there isn’t a situation where they would need to step in and play so Valve’s direct invite system wouldn’t be able to take them into account. mason was a known quantity and thus he was invited. What of the invisible understudies?

In response to the Era/Excalibur situation Valve also said in their response: “At the point where there appears to be other agendas in play, our default position will always be to protect the individual players’ ability to compete in the tournament they were invited to.” It’s a point which acknowledges that when large amounts of money are at stake individual players might be at risk of unfair treatment. That risk wouldn’t vanish with the addition of substitutes, but it might become less visible to tournament administrators.

Lastly, adding reserve player spots to The International could have a knock-on effect on other tournaments. These third-party events may end up needing to change their rules and procedures to either take account of these extra potential players or to forbid them.

It’s a situation with no ideal solution. But reading through that email chain again last night and watching as team lineups shudder and convulse I feel like giving teams the ability to make substitutions and to exist beyond a five-person stack would be a far healthier option.


  1. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    I had never before really considered the different intent between LCS and The International. That’s an interesting bit of insight.

    • Banyan says:

      The philosophies between Riot and Valve sound entirely different. There was a big kerfuffle back when Riot required players to not stream themselves on Twitch playing Dota 2 or Blizzard games, which is only possible because players sign contracts with teams that Riot approves to play in the League Championship Series (LCS), which is where the money is. Riot fronts the prize money and I _think_ every “official” LoL competition is under the auspices of Riot.

      In contrast, Dota 2 is almost anarchy. Most Dota tournaments are organized without Valve oversight, except for coordination to buy tickets and stream games through the in-game client, and The International prize is set up, from rumor, to reward five individuals who agree to operate as a team, with any additional arrangements to pay for the manager/couch/sponsor/etc those individuals’ concern. Honestly, the Dota model seems more sustainable; there are Dota tournaments happening almost continuously but Valve doesn’t have to worry about anything but organizing the yearly extravaganza for The International, where most of the prize money is crowd funded anyway.

      • milton says:

        My favourite analogy (an imperfect analogy, but an interesting parallel to draw) is that Riot is similar to an autocratic government or a benevolent dictator who you don’t want to piss off and Valve is basically the free market at work.

        Riot is the only one who calls the shots. Riot’s power is absolute. They reserve the right to intervene with absolute decisions. They believe in an extremely strong hands-on and involved approach and this can be seen in the way in which their professional league is constructed and the business model which they have.

        Every large tournament is Riot sanctioned and sponsored. LCS players are contracted not just to their organizations but actually work for Riot as they do get paid by Riot. This creates a more stable income for these players in an otherwise risky occupation however they are restricted by the laws and agreements made to Riot. If these terms are breached then Riot reserves the right to deliver whatever punishment it deems fair and necessary. This creates a more stable environment for professional players so long as they stay inside the boundaries of their responsibilities.

        D I G I T A L S P O R T S from Valve’s point of view however is on the other extreme. Basically Valve advocates for a community moderated system with a lot less input from a ‘head’ and much more of a free market to do whatever you want. Tournaments pop up all the time with very little input from Valve and in some cases it has worked brilliantly to create some extremely large tournaments with significant prize-pools and it has created some cases with extremely unethical practices, where teams don’t receive winnings, teams being unethical to their players.

        This draws the distinction between League of Legend’s hands on model and Valve’s hands off. League of Legends allows players to thrive in a higher degree of safety (whether you do well or not b/c salary) in an otherwise difficult occupation, however they need to be careful not to bite the hands that feed. Valve’s model creates a riskier situation for it’s professional players however does tend to be more lucrative (if you are successful) due to the nature of Dota 2 eSports.

        • The Sero says:

          One thing that’s worth noting about the systems, while being a player in Riot’s is lower risk, there is also less availability to be one.

          For LoL, as I understand it, there are ONLY 16 teams, no more, no less, and as every tournament is Riot sponsored, it always ends up being those same teams, and same players.
          While DotA, with the ease tournaments can be set up, for even the lower levels of play, means that the professional and amateur scenes blur into each other, allowing much easier movement up, and allow a greater opportunity for future players, as well as allowing a greater number and variety of teams. There are also more regional tournaments, meaning big tournaments such as the international will have match ups of people who have never faced each other before.

          I think this advantage that comes from Valve’s style is a very large one, and I also think that Valve’s focus on the players rather than the named teams is the safest focus for the sustainability of career.

          • ETA says:

            Regarding the scale of League of Legends eSports:
            – Riot only has total control of the North American and European LCS and Challenger series. As I understand it, with the Korean (OGN, plus their own equivalent to football’s Europa League which i’ve forgotten the name of), South-East Asian (GPL, LNL) and Chinese (LPL) leagues Riot actually has very little control. These leagues are funded, organized and the players paid by companies such as OnGameNet in Korea and Tencent in China.
            – It is worth noting that these are only the major leagues that eventually feed into the World Championships in October. There are hundreds more tournaments and leagues with prize pools world wide, though these are much smaller ( just look here: link to
            – As such I would think there is at least as much (and probably more) pro League of Legends being played than DOTA 2.
            – Finally in my personal and unfounded opinion I think it would be better for the players to have a sustainable and reliable league that ensures them a steady salary, coupled with the apparently considerable money they can earn from streaming. I imagine to be a pro DOTA player is a more precarious way to earn money as if you’re not in one of those 16 teams that make it into the International your income will be severely diminished.

  2. hennedo says:

    Does anyone know if there are any unionization (or comparable) efforts for esports pros? It would seem especially helpful since these are mostly people under thirty who probably haven’t pursued their rights via litigation and feel those rights are somewhat less legitimate. There’s a lot of money in this, growing year by year, and the pros are going to need some legal support. In that sense it might be good to look to the East Asian scene for developments since it seems to be a bit further down the path towards esports being a more regular part of the gaming industry. Anyone know of any precedents there?

    • SuddenSight says:

      I don’t know of any. But, and this is pure speculation, I think any attempt at E-Sports unions would be very difficult and entirely subject to the whim of the video game overlords. Currently, being an e-sports player is still considered a “dream job,” so anyone who makes life difficult for the company is (somewhat) easily replaced by the next person in line.

      That may change as individual players and teams become more famous, and perhaps if third party tournaments become more popular, but so far the corporation has most of the power over their players.

      • hennedo says:

        Yeah, rough spot for the players.

        If Era’s panic attacks had anything to do with gaming it wouldn’t surprise me. I imagine being a pro gamer to be quite stressful. No job security, wildly varying kinds of social support (some quite belligerent probably), irregular pay for large amounts of labor, the identity issues arising from any form of celebrity, constant performance anxiety: it’d be tough living the dream.

        • Leb says:

          From a handful of guys I know who were once semi-pro in CS.. it’s indeed very taxing. The game you play for leisure becomes a job, training on the regular, patience can get drawn thin at times, etc.

          Not a gig for everyone. I don’t think I could handle it. Hell if I get to high of an ELO in a game with matchmaking the pressure of the games (and the attitude of the players ) changes greatly.

    • kio says:

      All of the public talks from esports figureheads (team managers and event organisers) say that a union would certainly be nice but there’s simply not enough money in the industry still to support the jobs and the efforts of a union. And partly because of that, there’s also no leverage, unlike other sports or workforces. If the players threaten not to play then there goes their career. There’s no competitors or backbone for players unless they somehow reach a superstar status, in which case they don’t really need a union anymore. I think it needs to at least double in size, and more agencies or other large management bodies established before a union can be formed.

  3. SuddenSight says:

    The question of “finding the best team in DOTA” reminds me of Day9’s opinion on what makes a good tournament. I can’t find the quote right now, but to paraphrase: a good tournament should prioritize creating an exciting story over finding the best player.

    • Tiax says:

      …which is what TI3 had and TI4 didn’t.

      • Banyan says:

        To be fair, Chris Thursten, in his analysis of the Grand Finals, makes a strong argument that 6.81b heavily favors the team that secures an early advantage, and doesn’t provide adequate comeback mechanics if a team has lost the laning phase. The top Chinese teams realized this and started doing crazy picks that hinged on getting first blood, while great teams that played as if it was TI3 went out early. It’s up to Valve and Icefrog to balance the game to consistently provide exciting mid-game teamfights, not the responsibility of the teams to ignore how the game structure forces them to play.

        • PedroTheHutt says:

          Well it is fairly safe to say that this current meta is on its last legs as the next major content update is on its way and scheduled to come out at the end of the month, and so far there hasn’t been a single balance patch that didn’t bring major shifts to the meta, 6.78 cemented “Rat Dota” as the strategy to beat, 6.79 made Midas Gaming very popular as you saw teams even letting their supports build one, 6.80 favoured the long game and 6.81 is now all about gaining an early advantage and pressing it home before the other team can come back. I’ve all the confidence in the world that 6.82 will bring about a new meta and that that meta will be long gone again by the time TI5 comes around.

          • The Sero says:

            It won’t come soon enough, this meta which eliminates the chance of comebacks, which such a focus to the early game is far less fun to watch AND to play. I mean, I entirely blame the anti-climatic TI4 final on the state of the meta. 4 games, 4 stomps, almost all 20min ggs.

  4. PedroTheHutt says:

    I feel that it’s worth noting that most other tournaments are more accepting of temporary replacements, also known as “Stand-ins” and won’t make much fuss if teams bring one in. In fact, even major names like Dendi and Admiral Bulldog have helped other (and considerably smaller) teams out as stand-ins when they couldn’t muster all five of their supposed teams. So it’s not an issue for the larger Dota 2 scene, and for The International I can understand that Valve wants to bring in the players that landed that team the TI invite, rather than most of them and then a pubstar or two they just happened to pick up at the last minute.