Will COVID-19 Help or Hinder Sales for Dota 2’s Battle Pass?

Community spirit, a treasure trove of content, and making instant millionaires. Since 2013, Valve Corporation has woven these aspects together to turn its one and only esports competition, The International (TI), into one of the industry’s most consistent traditions. The tournament itself has been pushed back to 2021 due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but its unique crowdfunding tool—which siphons 25% of sales to the TI prize pool—is as potent as ever.

Just under 72 hours after its release, the 2020 Dota 2 Battle Pass has pushed the tournament purse to over $10M USD (having started out at $1.6M, courtesy of Valve). That’s higher than any previous Pass had accumulated by this point, which is no surprise given the consistent growth rate since the crowdfunding program was first introduced in 2013. 

However, the circumstances surrounding this year’s Battle Pass are unprecedented. Not only is it tethered competition over a year away, but pandemic lockdowns have raised Dota 2 player counts compared to recent months. Likewise, many of those players also have less to spend than in ordinary circumstances, as the countries they live in have seen their currency devalued.

Before we delve into how COVID-19 is affecting the Battle Pass, let’s first explain the product for newcomers. The first thing you should know is…

The Battle Pass is About More Than Esports

While essentially a crowdfunder for tournament prize money, the Battle Pass has been successful because it targets the Dota 2 player base at large. 

In summary, the Pass gives those who purchase it access to an exorbitant number of limited-time quests, challenges, game modes, and rewards. Buying the basic pass for $9.99 puts players at a Battle Level of one, from which they can progress by completing challenges and events. Higher levels allow you to unlock or purchase more rewards—which range from character costumes and accessories to voice packs and menu customizations. 

Every Battle Pass brings something new to Dota 2, and trying to summarize every feature would double the length of this article. Some highlights of the 2020 edition include a new guild system, a Battle Gauntlet that rewards consistent victory, a sideshop inspired by Dota Underlords, and a Bounty system that lets players mark enemies for added level rewards. Remember, all of these are only accessible to purchasers of the Battle Pass.

You can buy more levels to move up quicker, with a level 100 bundle costing $44.99. Reaching level 1000 entitles you to a 1/5th-scale alloy replica of “The Aegis of Champions,” the trophy of The International. After 2000 there are no more rewards (aside from treasure packs), but that hasn’t stopped some gamers buying their way above 50K for bragging rights…which alone would set you back over $25K. 

This all should give you a good idea of why the TI prize pool reaches such record levels ($34.6M in 2019). Other esports competitions have tried similar methods of crowdfunding, but none have even approached an eight figure total. Valve retains 75% of Battle Pass revenue, and although the cost of actually developing all the content is likely nowhere near $30M, it still requires a significant amount of time, resources, and money. 

A Decline in Disposable Income

As mentioned, the prize pool for The International is currently at a record high, compared to where we were last year (the Battle Pass was released late this year, so we’re speaking specifically on how long it’s been available). The TI prize pool tracker site marks and compares the progress of all previous prize pools. As plainly visible, this year’s Battle Pass has on average exceeded last year’s by nearly $1M on an hourly basis.

Also clear is a much-tightened gap, compared to the 2019 and 2018 Passes. By the end of day two, the TI9 prize pool was 28.4% higher than the previous year, whereas the 2020 prize pool is just 8.7% higher. This is roughly the same difference as seen in 2018, 2017, and 2016, with last year’s Battle Pass having exceeded the previous by $2M on an almost daily basis—something the 2020 Pass, so far at least, is unable to do. 

Is the coronavirus recession partly the cause? Anecdotally, it seems to have made some impact. One of the most upvoted conversations on the Dota 2 subreddit this week was by one player pleading with Valve to extend the rewards offered by the Battle Pass beyond the usual four-month period. The user cited a loss of earnings, jobs, and a devaluation in currency in countries such as Brazil. While not everyone is going to spend over $10K to go beyond level 1000, the average player can spend nearly $200 just to get halfway to an Aegis replica.

There are also other consequences of the pandemic. In regions such as Southeast Asia, where the internet cafe is king, some players can’t leave their homes to buy the Battle Pass in the first place. Some are also convinced that it’s more difficult to grind levels this year than in previous, though that may change once the annual co-op “event” game goes live this summer. 

All of this needs to be paired with the fact that, according to Steam Charts, Dota 2 reached a peak player count of 801K in April 2020, the highest player gain (56.1K) since February 2019. 

Last year’s Battle Pass was also surrounded in unique circumstances. The Fortnite World Cup featured a prize pool of $30M (funded entirely by publisher Epic Games), which acted as a rallying cry for the Dota 2 fanbase to build an even higher reward for their eventual champions, OG. According to data collection company Servers Syncing, the top eight spenders on the 2019 Battle Pass were in China, with TI itself taking place in Shanghai that year.

In-depth data on the Battle Pass usually comes from third-party sources, which vary in reliability. Regardless of whether Valve extends the Pass’ availability to record lengths, or how much the TI prize pool exceeds last year’s, even amidst a global crisis the Battle Pass remains one of the most lucrative revenue drivers not just in esports, but gaming overall. The Esports Observer will bring you more key updates on the TI prize pool as the weeks progress.

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