Kyle interview: “The lack of exclusivity for Dota 2 broadcasting is a big problem”

On the last day of WePlay!Tug of War: Mad Moon, Kyle Freedman was kind enough to sit and talk with Taras Bortnik, our special reporter at the event, and what we initially wanted to be a wrap up of the tournament, it turned into very interesting discussion about the Dota 2 professional scene as a whole, about the prize pools, the events production, monetization and much more. What is absolutely beautiful about Dota 2 and esports in general, what hurts the pro scene right now, in the interview below.
Thank you for sitting down with us on the final day of WePlay! Tug of War: Mad Moon. I think no one in the esports scene would disagree if I said that this event delivered an entertaining level that we were not prepared for.

Oh yes. I’m almost afraid the praises are too much because other production companies might get mad at me. But, to be honest, it’s pretty incredible what WePlay! accomplished here. When it comes to the care that we feel from the staff, the emphasis and the energy placed on the set design, production and new content, the clips, the augmented reality,   it’s just unparalleled. 

You’ve also been to the WePlay! Minor last month, and by experiencing everything first hand, by being directly involved with the event, I guess you had some expectations coming to Mad Moon. Did they manage to impress you even more with this one?

Dude, I’m actually shocked. I was a bit worried coming into this tournament because the initial plan didn’t include an English broadcast. But, because the Minor was received so well, some of the teams and some of the English casters said to WePlay! that they got to arrange one for the next LAN. 

Knowing that this company took the whole staff and the set, etc, all the way on top of a mountain for the Minor, and they set the bar so high with that tournament, but then, they had just one month of preparation time for this one, I was ready to set my expectations lower for Mad Moon. Look, I like to work with low expectations, that’s why if I go on a date with somebody, I say that I’m a college drop out and that I’m homeless because if you start there, you can’t help to at least appear that you actually got something.  So, yeah, I was not expecting WePlay! to deliver again in such a short time. It’s tough to compare the two events because they have a very different feel, but Madd Moon is certainly on the level of Bukovel Minor 2020, if not exceeding it.
Besides WePlay!, who else impressed you, what teams, or perhaps some drafts or strategies that pleasantly surprised you?

I don’t think anything super crazy has been brought out. We had some niche picks and some innovations. I think Nigma’s performance against, in the lower bracket finals, was admirable. To be honest, Nigma and VP are the teams that impressed me, the way they have improved through the tournament. Mind_ControL specifically is a guy that stood out. MC is the best player and has been the best player of this squad for effectively the entire time of the team’s existence. For the last few years, this guy has been one of the best players in the world and he shows it over and over again. 

WePlay! Esports raised the bar for DPC tournaments with the Bukovel Minor, but would you say that Mad Moon just showed us what the non-DPC should be like? I mean they didn’t have the exact top eight teams in the world right now, yet they have a pretty impressive audience because of the show they put on. 

I agree and I think something that hurt this scene for over the last couple of years is that there have been almost too many DPC events. If you take into consideration that last year we also had a much longer qualifier period for all the DPC LANs, like a week and a half for each event, we had effectively something like 15 events that were purely revolving around the Dota Pro Circuit. I like these third party tournaments, I like when we have an event, just because we want the show, because we want Dota, because that’s what we love, and I hope that next year there will be more freedom for independent organizers to throw their own tournaments. These are also so much easier to monetize, you don’t have to come up with $500,000 to throw a Major without having the ability to sell some certain types of sponsorships. 

I think that a free market is always going to work best, and if we are to meet the design of the DPC, I would just say “there is really no barrier entry to throw a Dota 2 event, we respect you and we want you to have events as long as they are good shows. You have x number of teams, have the qualifiers run a certain way, have this much prize money, you get this number of points,” and let the TO run the event and just see what happens. 

If you look at these other games, Overwatch, Call of Duty, WoW, League of Legends, how do you get into those? Can WePlay! start tomorrow an event in those games? No, they can not, because they are franchised, there have broadcast rights already purchased, like exclusive deals, etc. 

To me, Dota is beautiful because we didn’t need help for the first seven years. Shoutout to Valve for continuously putting on The International, throwing up the compendiums, supporting the Majors for as long as they have.

Do you think that after these two WePlay! events we will have other tournaments raising their game? Let’s take for example ESL or Epicenter, who are known for their high-level production and player treatment. Do you think that they need to do something to change the way their events look?

I think that every TO has their own idea of what they want esports to be. Some look at sports as a guide, I personally think we should gaze more towards WWE. But that’s just a disagreement that will continue forever. I had discussions with Redeye about this, I think that we need to have more fun and he thinks that a lot of times we need to be more rigid, more respectful, more sport-like. At the end of the day, it only depends on what sort of show you want to put on. 

What WePlay! does that’s unique, is picking a theme. The Bukovel event was all about Christmas, it was the winter wonderland. We had the Valentine’s Day event of last year and the Mad Moon with the cyberpunk, futuristic, 2077 theme that brought a very cool vibe and it helped a lot with creating the narrative, with building the set, etc. As long as you have these core concepts, as long as you ask yourself “what do we want to do for our viewers? We want to transport them here. Ok, how do we do that?” When you have the answers to all those questions, the event starts to take shape. 

I’d be more interested to see how this event and how this company will influence the rest of the esports world. I know from talking to Rich that he was getting a lot of love during the Bukovel Minor from people with whom he worked on other games. They were like “holy s**t, wow, what is going on,” and ending the Minor with that fireworks show, it’s absolutely incredible stuff.  

You know how they say: “people won’t remember what you said, they won’t remember how or what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel.” And being at these WePlay! events you can feel that these people care, they care about doing their jobs well. Everyone from the interviewers that you get to talk to, to the staff that are helping you get dressed, get your hair and makeup done, the people from content production, the event producers, you know that they take pride in what they do and it’s very easy to motivate yourself to go the extra mile when you know that there are others in the trenches willing to do the same with you.  
Looking at the team line-up of Mad Moon, how do you see the fact that we have teams such as Secret next to let’s call them lower-tier squads, or even stacks, such as Aggressive Mode, do you find it as a pro or as a con? 

It is a big pro and this is my big issue with the DPC. For example, I was trying to put together a climate awareness event around one of the DPC tournaments and it is very difficult to plan that when I can not guarantee to the people I’m working with that anyone is actually going to be able to come, because I don’t know who is going to be at at the event until the DPC qualifiers are finished, and that’s like a month before, which is not enough time. 

If let’s say I want to sponsor an event in quarter 4 of this year, quarter 1 next year and I come to you and say “hey, what can I get involved with?” Well, the answer is “I don’t know because we don’t even know what the system will be, let alone who will have what events and when they’ll be.” That right there is a problem. You look at franchised leagues and the reason for which those models are so attractive is because they provide legitimacy and structure and you know that there is a future and you can have a plan, sign multi-year contracts and see what you will get. While in Dota 2, for not just you, the fans and the commentators, the players, no one knows what the hell is going to happen after TI. We just kind of hope for the best and that certainly hurts our ability to develop and grow as a scene. We have had this issue for quite some time. Yet, 10 years later Dota 2 is still one of the biggest three esports titles in the world.

The other thing to bring up regarding the DPC is that there are no invites, so as a tournament organizer you have a vast interest in getting popular teams and popular players at your event. Again, we go back to the selling sponsorships, making money doing Dota 2 events. How many of these popular players will be at the fourth Major this season? Will Puppey be there, will Arteezy be there, will Dendi be there? We don’t know and that’s a problem because business isn’t done this way. You don’t show up three weeks before an event in a boardroom asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is not how things work and unfortunately for all of the tournament organizers, it’s incredibly difficult to monetize their events. I know that a lot of the companies are hurting right now and something is going to have to change if we want to see not just this game, but the whole industry thrive. 

What do you think of the rumoured regional leagues system for next year’s DPC?

It is a solution to a problem not discussed often, which is the amount of travel involved in esports and the complications and logistics involved in that. The average Dota 2 team travels significantly more, even though they play fewer tournaments than let’s say an NBA franchise. The problem I have is that because we neglected the tier 2, tier 3 scene for so long, these leagues won’t be even. beastcoast, in South America, has an enormous advantage on any up-start Brazilian, Peruvian squad. The same goes in NA with Evil Geniuses, and I don’t see how you can expect people that have been unable to scrape a living, to suddenly be able to join a league and see it developing. This would have been a great idea after TI2, but I don’t know if it’s the right solution to address the problems today. Perhaps, if we would combine the regions a bit, I would see more of a potential. Simply put, NA and SA have not won a Major, ever. A league sounds cool until you realize it’s effectively a snooze because the only worth tuning into is the fight for top 3 and that for me as a Dota 2 player, commentator or what I am at my core, a fan, it’s not interesting.

  • Related: Valve announces next year’s DPC system

What do you see as a solution to the problems this scene is dealing with?

What I said a bit earlier. Allow more freedom within. I would prefer an ecosystem where Valve removes all the support with the exception of TI and also loosen some restrictions. The lack of exclusivity for Dota 2 broadcasting is a big, big problem. I’m watching Twitch in between the games here and I see that WePlay! who paid for the lights, the cameras, the teams, the prize pool, the set, basically EVERYTHING, just have Gorgc and AdmiralBulldog watching the same games taking money straight from the pocket of the people who provide and nurture the scene. I don’t see the difference between BTS as a studio and OG.Gorgc casting with OG.N0tail and OG.Ceb. If there is anyone who doesn’t need money in Dota 2 at the moment, it’s the millionaires and I feel like the game is not going to survive if we can’t at least guarantee that the tournament organizers will reap the benefits of what they themselves, and only they, have been able to provide for us.

There is an alternative, I believe and it comes from another Valve game, CS:GO. The free, independent leagues like EPL, BLAST and FLASHPOINT.

FLASHPOINT is not going to survive because the best Counter Strike teams are all signed with ESL and as much as I respect and appreciate what Thorin, MonteCristo and Semmler do, at the end of the day it’s very easy for us to sit on our high horses, just like I’ve just spent the last 10 minutes doing, and criticize the people who have real experience on the ground making these sorts of things happen. There is a difference between talking and walking and it’s significantly easier to get into flame wars on Twitter than it is to do real s**t. Thorin as a commentator, by all means, is very good at this job, he is perfect for it. I would not want to have him on my board of directors, that’s for f**ing sure. 

What I was asking is if you think that these part franchised, part open leagues, because they do have open slots, might be a solution for Dota2.

It comes down to incentives and the thing about it is that with Valve it’s always been the players first. The argument is that it is really the teams that drive the game forwards and they need to have a financial incentive. Another ability that we’ve lost in Dota 2 is the ability for tournaments to create their own compendiums, to do their own crowdfunding and I understand that because we are looking at TI as this big endgame. But, it does seem rather silly when you consider that more than 90% of the prize pool from a year is handed out literally to the last week. So, it’s no wonder that post-TI there’s a bit of a snooze. 

If we are told by the publisher ” ya, don’t worry about Dota, TI is what matters and you guys can take a break,” which is what the top 4 teams in Dota 2 just did, I think it just hurts all of us. I feel bad for MDL and ImbaTV that they had to do the first Major without a lot of the big draws, but at the same time, can you blame the players for working the entire year, grinding the tournaments and now wanting to rest for a bit? You’ve just won a few million dollars, of course, you want a break, a vacation. We don’t have that month of a break that the CS:GO guys have. We have 5 Majors and 5 Minors instead of just 2 Majors.

Does it matter in any way if the TI prize pool continues to increase?

I would argue that it doesn’t. If you ask any of the players whether the TI should be 40M dollars or 10M, they will tell you that’s still the biggest pot in esports. You look at teams like VP, Secret or LGD and you see that it’s getting harder to consistently dominate through the year, it’s much easier to be hot and to train hard 3 months out of the year like OG. Not to take anything away from their accomplishment, but it’s a shame that VP and Secret are looked at as failures, even though they were the best teams in the world for longer than OG was. And it just comes down to the way the prize pools are allocated and how TI has become this giant, this huge behemoth that seems impossible to fit properly. I don’t really know necessarily what matters. It depends on what you think it’s best for the scene: franchises, free market, electing a commission, who the hell knows? That’s the beauty of living at this time: we are history, no one knows what the future of esports will be. We are all just going to do our best to shape out our own little piece, make it better for ourselves, make it better for everyone around us and hope for the best.