posted by HolyShift,
Ticket and items bundles have made Dota 2 what it is by creating dozens of tournaments with massive prize pools. The Summit, Starladder, and many others have seen dramatic growths in their prize-pools year after year. Despite the big numbers, is this relationship hurting the Dota 2 scene in the long run, and more importantly-- will it last forever?

A column by Fernando "Holyshift" Salvador Ramirez

In an interview with Bruno Carlucci, Bruno gave his thoughts on the idea of being against bundling in-game cosmetics with tickets: “Personally I think it is kind of weird, and I'm not entirely against it, but I would like to see if tournament tickets can be separated from items.” said Bruno. But why bother? It seems like a simple win-win; the artist get exposure and a cut of the sales, and the organizers find themselves with a fat prize pool. Bruno described the idea of bundling cosmetics and tickets like “going to McDonald’s to buy a burger because you want a Coke. What do people want? Do they want more burgers or do they want more coke?”

In other words, If I buy the Star Series Season 11 ticket, am I purchasing the ticket for the viewership, or for the items? Or am I purchasing both because I love items and the organizers?

Bruno goes on to say that bundling items and tickets together create an anomaly where prize pools are dangerously inflated and don’t accurately represent interest in the events they raise money for. He hypothesizes that a sudden change with the in-game economy or people’s interest in items may lead to a significant drop in a tournament’s prize pool. How seriously should we heed Bruno's warnings? Is there a perfect storm brewing from selling tickets with items?

V1lat's tweets (translated by reddit user artjomh) gave a good perspective of what event organizers are most likely panicking about:

"Nobody is interested in quality tournaments. Everyone is interested in hats. That's the market today. And we are forced to dance in this market. So, yes, next season there will be cool hats. Since no-one gives a shit about the tournament itself. There is ESL or Dreamhack, which work really hard on tournament organization and LANs, but they get shit about items and low prize pool. And then there is DotaCinema which basically has no tournament, no LAN finals or a studio. But they have an ENORMOUS prize pool. Be prepared that the entire 2015 will be like that."

Anuxi♥ : "Items sell tickets."
It may sound a tad alarmist, but Bruno and v1lat's arguments hold significant validity. Dota 2 is one of the only competitive sports where the success of a tournament is dependent on the success of merchandise.

Imagine if the Los Angeles Lakers had empty stadiums the entire season because fans felt strongly about the jersey’s design. Or if the new Avengers movie flopped at the box office because the Iron Man action figure looked phallic in nature.

Workshop artist Anuxi♥ explains that the relationship is just as vital as we make it out to be: "I was told by one tournament organizer that if they didn't have a item to ship with their ticket, they won't even host a tournament. I keep telling me fellow artists that they need you, not you need them. Items sell tickets."

Another workshop artist Terra.cotta explains how the saturation of items with tickets effects cosmetics.

Terra.Cotta: "Safe isn't safe anymore"
"There used to be some pretty strict rules but now....who the fuck knows. Safe isn't safe anymore, because there is too much shit for safe to get noticed."

"Maybe try making the character obscenely gaudy. Make every color full saturation, and cover everything he wears with gems. Like 40 or 50 gems. Of different colors. Oh and make them glow. With fairy dust. I know this sounds pretty kappa right now, and it kinda is because I hate this trend BUT it is the trend. The more ridiculous it is, the more attention it gets."

It isn’t a coincidence that the majority of hero cosmetics accompanying tournament tickets correlate strongly with some of the most played heroes.

Ever wonder why XMG captain’s draft or Starladder won’t sell a 10$ ticket with a Chen or Visage cosmetic? When the fate of your tournament is on the line, the only sensible choice is the safest one.

Why do bundles work?

The success of bundling items and tickets lies in the fact that two items are being sold for the what seems like the price of one. You get a ticket to view your favorite team and you get a new Mirana mount. The reality is that the cost per item is proportionately cheaper if bought separately.

If you’re a sharp salesman, what this offer really tells you is “our product isn’t selling enough without x”. Thats not necessarily a bad thing either, if your peanut butter isn’t selling faster than the shelf date-- why not bump up the price and throw in a free jar of jam?

The difference is that even If I don’t buy the peanut butter, I'm still getting a free jar of jam. Even If I don’t buy the ticket bundle, I can still view the game. I can have my cake and eat it. I can hop on twitch and view the entire tournament there, free of charge and without spending a penny.

This is true for a lot of consumable media, like watching a live concert vs. watching them on youtube... but the Dota TV experience isn't a better deal than its free Twitch version. So buyers that dislike a cosmetic have no incentive to buy a ticket whatsoever. They aren't even given the option to buy the ticket separately.

You create a situation where the only incentive to buy a ticket is whether or not you like the item that comes with it, because after all, you don’t actually need the ticket to view the event. To the folks who don’t like the items offered with the ticket bundle, the question on their mind is "So why buy the ticket at all then?".

Good question.

Tournament saturation might explain less team participation, but fluctuating prize pools can be directly attributed to a plethora of latent and unseen consequences that negatively affect sales. Maybe a tournament failed to fall on a holiday, where consumers are most likely to purchase. Or maybe the initial release of a product didn’t match up with most people’s payday. Or perhaps the release occurred on a weekday, instead of a weekend where most people play video games. Or maybe the items just plained sucked.

Companies have entire marketing divisions staffed for the sole purpose of finding out the best time and method to maximize sales. Sales forecasting, market sensing, and audience testing are all critical tools that help companies understand variables that effect sales.

Can we say the same thing for Dota 2 tournaments and the cosmetic sales keeping them alive? If cosmetic sales are going to be the life-blood of Dota 2 tournaments, they should go the extra mile with analysis--otherwise when a tournament prize pools tanks in comparison to its previous two seasons, organizers aren't left wondering "what happened?".

Case study - Starladder 11

Last year, Starladder Season 11 released a loading screen and Luna mount accompanying its ticket.
The item was received poorly by the the community, with many people claiming it was a downgrade in quality from the previous season-- a complex Tiny set whose cosmetics evolved through levels and also counted views.

Comparing both videos, the Tiny set has nearly 5 times the views and a much better "like" ratio.The consequence in sales were dramatic. The quality of the item resulted in Starladder 11th prize pool being the lowest since season 8.

Starladder prizepools for season 9, 10, and 11

Consequences to the Artist

A strong argument for keeping tickets bundled with items is the artist. Artist use tickets for exposure and severing the relationship between tickets and items might have dire economic consequences.

In spite of that, workshop artists Anuxi♥ explains that cutting this relationship might not be the worst for artists:"The problem artists are having right now is tournament items take prime position over regular items when getting added to the store. So say there is a quota of 20 new sets a month. If tournaments take 15 of those item slots, that means the pool for acceptance for regular artists is now 5."

Terra.Cotta's latest creation, the Fires of the Baphomet

So why do more tournament bundles get accepted than individual sets? Do ticket bundles have more priority over individual sets? Terra.cotta says "Valve insists that isn't the case and they are all judged according to their normal standards (which are pretty fucking nebulous at this point),the bar is way higher for non bundled sets for one simple reason-- tournament tickets and bundles are time specific."

As a result choosing to make a set for a tournament or a set for the store becomes a dilemma of risk and reward. Anuxi♥ asks if it is"really worth it to give up 70% [equity] for a faster entry to the store? Some artists who are trying to do this full time will argue that getting an item in is worth it."

At the end of the day, if Valve only processes a set quote for items, removing items from tickets will allow artist to create more independent sets to get into the market, allowing artist to receive more revenue from the work they create.

"Its hard to argue against that" says Terra.cotta, as a result "we might see some of the smaller tournaments start to disappear, but lets be honest, people aren't jumping over each other to purchase tickets to see the SouthWest Greater Manhattan Area $500 Dollar Super Slam Championships (yes, I made that one up). If there are fewer tournaments, then we may have more space in the economy for non bundled cosmetics."

Where do we go from here?

Ayesee also gave his 2 cents
A recent video with GoodGame's Aaron "Ayesee" Chambers warns us of the dangers of continuing the trend of piling more and more items onto tickets.

"The concern to me is... if we get into this race, if tournament organizers get into this race of 'who can give away the most', eventually people are going to get sick of it. There are only so many tickets they're going to buy and get a gajillion sets. How many sets for Gyrocopter can you have?"

So what now? Do we want more burgers or more coke? How can we build up a massive prize pool off ticket sales alone? The best way to stabilize prize-pools is for organizers to sell the tournament, not the item.

Incentives like the Summit's compendium redemption votes and all-star player voting are ingenious ideas. They incentivize ticket sales with features directly related to the event. Thats why Valve’s compendium is all about the tournament and the game itself. Base customizations, music, and weather effects were some of the biggest draws to purchasing the ten dollar compendium.

Imagine if Valve offered just one or two cosmetics to fund the international. Just one Pudge,Juggernaut, or Mirana set to try and raise over $10 million dollars. The best way to maintain a consistent and accurate prize-pool is to create a general compendium with features applicable to all players and the professional teams they love. The more organizers dissociate a ticket from a specific item, the cheaper the ticket is and the the larger the demographic of buyers becomes. The bottom line is there are more creative ways to incentivize ticket sales besides selling in-game items.

Event organizers should stop selling tickets like they do in real life. In real life they might just be a piece of paper that confirm your permission to see or participate in an event-- but in the digital world, the possibilities are endless. Dota 2 TV tickets should offer exclusive content that its free competition, Twitch, can't.

At the purchase of a ticket, events could offer fans virtual autographs or the chance to play a pub with their favorite team or player. If you buy the ticket before a certain date, a chance to attend the tournament's live event or maybe a tiny discount on a sponsor's product. Maybe an event called "beef squashers" where players dilute salt by pouring cans of Monster Energy Drink® on each other. Or maybe a role reversal where caster's 1v1 and players cast. Or a "2kage match" where professionals fight an onslaught of bottom percentile players.

As it stands, Dota has built the foundation of its tournament on a lucrative but unstable ground. The direct relationship between item sales and tournament success make crowd funding a fickle mistress. Eventually, organizers need to create an environment where buying a ticket isn’t slang for ‘buying an item’, or the next big tournament might suddenly find itself with a prizepool equal to the amount of Pudge sets offered in their bundle. How should we gather our prizepools, with safety and sustainability or big risk and big rewards?

Do you think Valve should keep selling tickets and items together?