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March 13, 2018

What Dota Plus means for data-driven innovation in esports

So Valve has decided to capitalise on their own match data. Dota Plus is a significant step in the monetisation of esports data, marking the first major game publisher to directly exploit consumer-facing analytics to justify a premium subscription. I have read ShimmyZmizz’s interesting commentary on the pricing and revenue strategy with great interest, and what it tells us on the stage within the product lifecycle Dota 2 is moving into.

In this blog post, I want to discuss the implication of Dota Plus on the ecosystem around esports data from the view of an innovator. Over the last 2 years, I have been establishing a research group on esports research at the Digital Creativity Labs, and was humbled to work closely with leading personalities, companies and new initiatives in the Dota 2 scene to carve out how we can create new data analysis tools that could benefit the community.

We, just like many other researchers and entrepreneurs chose Dota 2 for obvious reasons: Valve has been a poster-child for openness with data, providing great access to data and statistics (e.g. Valve API, GSI). Where Valve has not officially supported data access, they have at least been extremely tolerant towards community-driven efforts and commercial efforts to exploit dota 2 match data (e.g. Clarity).

Of course this is not just out of negligence or pure good will. Open data in Dota 2 has worked out great for Valve so far, fostering a rich ecosystem of services, innovation and buzz around data-driven experiences. As a result, Dota 2 is arguably the esports surrounded with the most mature ecosystem of data-services, lead by platforms such as Dotabuff who have painstakingly pioneered ways of making complex data meaningful to fans. There is also an established culture of using data to augment Dota 2 broadcasts, and I was thrilled to make a contribution in the space alongside the great people from Datdota and Layerth at ESL One Hamburg last year. As an academic observer, I feel that the grass-roots-driven innovation and spark in the Dota 2 analytics scene have been a true asset to the game. And Dota Plus is evidence that Valve agrees.

Dota Plus doesn’t necessarily introduce new functionality, rather, it reproduces existing features from Dotabuff & co and makes them more convenient to access. Utilising the community to crowd-source innovation, and then monetising the outcomes is a well-established trend in esports. Dota 2 itself was created by the community, and was then later exploited commercially. Valve also has a history of integrating community-driven features (e.g. fight recap and various features from Layerth). Dota Plus is merely a continuation of that trend, and there are many arguments for why taking input from the community is a very good practice for game developers. Now, I personally love Dota 2 and think that Valve have done an amazing job with it, deserving to reap the benefits. Valve certainly have every right to use their own data however they like.

However, to me personally, hiding statistics in front of a pay-wall is a worrying trend. As an academic, I don’t need to compete. My team and I will continue to work with Dota 2 data, and we can afford to do high risk research since we are not under pressure to be profitable. However, micropreneurs, venture-backed-data innovators and even established companies in this space should be worried. It’s one thing to hinge a business model on the mercy of a publisher to provide access to data, but it’s another if the publisher now directly competes with you. I am sure that the announcement of Dota Plus made a lot of people very nervous.

When I talk about my research, I always open with how amazing data in esports is: open to all, large volumes, huge amount of detail. Will Valve still continue to make their data open when a sizeable chunk of their future revenue depends on it? Possibly. I am sure the experts will tell me. However, this could also be the first step towards aligning business models in esports much closer to those in traditional sports, in which raw match data is not accessible at all, and data-driven experiences are in full control of league owners + big broadcasters. And I would think that his would be very disappointing. After all, it’s the grass-roots driven innovation, entrepreneurial drive and hard work that made esports what it is today. And I would hate recent developments from discouraging new, sparky talents to drive disruptive innovation in the esports data market.