With just under a month to go before The International 2019 (TI9) kicks off in Shanghai, China, the tournament made history by breaking the record for the biggest prize pool in esports when it breached the US$30 million mark. For those who are unfamiliar with the esports industry, it may be hard to imagine how a single tournament can amass a prize pool exceeded only by the biggest major sporting events in the world.

How did it get to this point? Read on as we dive into how Dota 2’s The International has repeatedly set and raised the bar for prize pools in esports tournaments.

Grand entrance

In August 2011, Defense of the Ancients (DotA) first became an esport when publisher Valve Corporation unveiled Dota 2 through a US$1.6 million tournament during the five-day Gamescom trade show in Cologne, Germany.

Thus, the International was born.

Sixteen of the best Dota teams in the world at the time participated in what turned out to be a landmark event for esports, with Ukrainian team Natus Vincere (Na’Vi) taking the US$1 million grand prize over the Chinese squad EHOME.

Back then, esports tournaments only featured prize pools that ranged from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars. Competitions that gave away upwards of a hundred thousand dollars in prize money were few and far between. One that would give away over a million was almost unthinkable.

The huge prize pool predictably garnered a lot of attention for Valve’s game, in addition to the significant player base of the original Warcraft III DotA mod that was already anticipating a new standalone title.

Natus Vincere (Na’Vi) became the first champions of The International back in 2011, following that up with two consecutive finals appearances in 2012 and 2013.
Credit: Valve Corporation

The next iteration of the tournament was held from August 26 to September 2, 2012, at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, Washington. With another US$1.6 million prize pool up for grabs between 16 competing teams, The International boasted the largest purse in esports for the second consecutive year.

Chinese team Invictus Gaming triumphed over the defending champs to take home the million-dollar grand prize. Even though Dota 2 was still technically in its ‘beta’ stage that year, the game cemented itself as one of the major esports titles in the world. Dota 2’s growth as an esport would coincide with the rising prize pot of its marquee event.

Enter: The Compendium

For The International 2013 (TI3), Valve introduced The International Compendium, an interactive digital book on the tournament — designed in the same vein as the player sticker books that are popular in baseball.

Every purchase of the Compendium increased the base prize pool (set by Valve at US$1.6 million) by US$2.50. The publisher also introduced ‘stretch goals’ that were meant to unlock more items and bonuses for players who own the Compendium, while also growing the tournament pot.

The International Compendium for The International 2013.
Credit: Valve Corporation

At TI3, a grand prize amounting to US$1,437,190 went to Swedish team Alliance after it bested Na’Vi in a thrilling five-game final series.

Despite boasting of an even larger grand prize, TI3 actually fell short of its stretch goal of doubling the tournament’s base prize pool. Still, the final amount totaled US$2,874,381 thanks to the Compendium. It was a sign of things to come for Dota 2 and The International.

Valve continued releasing Compendiums for the 2014 and 2015 iterations of The International, with each event outgrowing its predecessor by a substantial margin. It also helped that the publisher extended Compendium support to other minor tournaments throughout the year.

The International 2014 (TI4) far exceeded TI3’s prize pool target by ballooning to US$10,923,977 — with a grand prize of over US$5 million going to Chinese team Newbee.

Amid speculation of whether the event could continue its spectacular growth, The International 2015 (TI5) amassed a US$18,429,613 prize pot. Valve also made some changes to the event’s prize allocation with TI5, spreading it out so that all participating teams would walk away with money in their pockets. At the end of the tournament, North America’s Evil Geniuses went home with the lion’s share of US$6,634,661.

Evil Geniuses pose with the Aegis of Champions following their victory at The International 2015.
Credit: Valve Corporation

Dawn of the Battle Pass

Starting with The International 2016 (TI6), Valve replaced the Compendium with the Battle Pass, which offered numerous quests, achievements, and other in-game rewards for its owner.

Unlike the Compendiums, the Battle Pass removed the crowdfunding stretch goals of previous tournaments. Rewards went directly to the owners immediately upon purchase. Moreover, instead of adding a fixed amount of US$2.50 to the prize pool, Battle Pass contributed 25% of its total proceeds to The International.

The new Battle Pass led to a US$20,770,460 prize pot for TI6, with Chinese team Wings Gaming claiming the grand prize of US$9.1 million. Despite only exceeding TI5’s prize pool by just over US$2 million, TI6 still impressed as it broke through the US$20 million mark — an achievement thought unlikely at the time.

Some of the cosmetic item rewards that came with The International 2016 Battle Pass.
Credit: Valve Corporation

Even so, it was thought that the growth of TI’s prize pools would begin to plateau. Some even expected The International 2017 (TI7) to have a smaller pot than its predecessor.

TI7 proved doubters wrong by growing a prize pool of US$24,787,916 — of which over US$10.8 million was claimed by eventual champions Team Liquid.

The beginning of a painful decline?

The International 2018 (TI8) nearly succumbed to the pressure, with only less a million dollars added to the previous year’s pot (for a final total of US$25,532,177).

While TI8 ended up being arguably the best version of the tournament to date — with European underdogs OG beating Chinese juggernauts PSG.LGD in a legendary grand final to take home more than US$11.2 million — The International seemed at risk of losing its prize pool prestige the next time it rolled around.

Valve’s documentary on the legendary match between OG and PSG.LGD in The International 2018 grand finals.

That became the prevalent assumption when the smash-hit Fortnite: Battle Royale announced that its own marquee event, the Fortnite World Cup, would have a US$30 million prize pool. The odds that The International 2019 (TI9) could match, let alone exceed, that mark seemed bleak given the trend set by its most recent iteration.

Back in pole position

On July 21, with more than a month left for its crowdfunding drive, TI9 surprised the esports world anew.

At the time of publishing, the prize pool for The International already sits at over US$31 million. And with a number of Battle Pass rewards, such as the third Immortal Treasure pack, still due to come out soon, TI9’s prize pool can grow to as much as US$34 million or even higher.

It’s hard to imagine that another esports event — perhaps even The International 2020 — could top that. But then again, no one could have foreseen TI to have a 30 million prize pool as recently as the start of this year. If any tournament could continually set a bar so high, only to exceed it every year, history has shown that The International can do it.

Much more can be said on how Valve’s novel implementation of the Compendium- and Battle Pass-based crowdfunding was key for The International’s history of massive prize pools. But none of this would have been possible without a highly-dedicated Dota community fueling it.

Even though League of Legends (LOL) may be the more popular MOBA today, the millions of Dota 2 players and fans around the world — from all the way back to the 2000s’ original Warcraft III mods — are the real reason esports’ continues to grow and break records.

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