Dear professional players: you are the problem

By now everyone’s seen an increasing number of players speaking out about problems with Valve’s new Major system. Yet again, Valve’s single page of information has, shockingly, failed to establish an airtight system.

Just to be clear, the changes Valve have made over the past few years have been trending in a positive direction, improving transparency and fairness in the ecosystem. But this is something people far too eagerly jump onto. Everyone in the community is so afraid of Valve that they’d rather emphasize their successes and downplay their failures wherever possible. The fact is that while Valve have consistently made improvements, they’ve done so needlessly slowly and left their system open to glaring problems for large periods of time, over and over again.

A lot of people reading this are going to say stuff like ‘Valve are a private company and can do what they want’. I think that’s a pretty stupid argument which both misunderstands the difference between ‘can’ and ‘should’ and underestimates the quickly evolving role of distributors in Esports. Anyway I’d rather just avoid that discussion and speak in a language said detractors will accept: incentives. What gives Valve an incentive to change their system? Two things — professional players and the community. Without the players their product falls apart and without the community…their product falls apart. So they need the buy in of both groups.

But most of the visible (read: Reddit) community don’t know what their own opinions are, never mind what would be best for the system. That’s an exaggeration, obviously, but the fact is that the community very consistently decides on their stances based on the views of the players they like. So players have most of the power because they have both direct and indirect power to pressure Valve to make changes.

This is not the first time players have had grievances with Valve’s system. Basically every Major and TI we haven’t been told how many teams will be invited or what the criteria will be. The format and groups for qualifiers typically get announced only a day or two before they start. Controversial decisions like inviting Na’Vi to TI6 never get discussed or explained. The substitution rule has been abused. These are just some examples on a long list of issues that have arisen over the last few years relating to Valve’s system.

And for each of these there’s usually a handful of players who courageously post a twitlonger where they point out these concerns while trying their damnedest not to say anything that might conceivably be construed as critical of Valve. Fuck it guys, you ARE criticizing them. That’s OK. It doesn’t mean you hate them. In fact it’s usually the opposite, you criticize the system because you care about it and want it to be better. And if you really think saying this stuff unapologetically will upset Valve then you’ve gotta think they’re an exceptionally immature bunch of decision makers who can’t see this criticism for what it is — a valuable (free!) service.

So that’s the first thing. Stop holding back all the time and saying shit like ‘I don’t mean to blame anyone but-’. Bullshit. Of course you’re blaming Valve. They’re to blame. You’re just afraid of saying it and you really shouldn’t be. This approach only serves to weaken the pressure applied and thus decreases the rate at which important changes occur.

More important than the ‘how’ is the ‘who’. Anyone who has been paying attention for a while will have noticed that the people complaining are always people directly impacted by the particular problem. There has never once been a player from a directly invited team speaking out about problems with the invite system. Never! And yet the same players who stay quiet when they’re on top are complaining when they’re on the other end.

I can personally corroborate this because I’ve written so many damn articles criticizing Valve’s system and regularly approached players to comment. Some players agree to, most do not. Those agreeing are never those benefiting from a broken system. What are the reasons they give? There’s basically only two. The first is unsurprisingly ‘I don’t care’. Well that’s nice — you’ll care when it’s your turn so why not try to think beyond your immediate self interest? More concerning, though, is the common response that players don’t want to comment publicly because Valve already consults them privately on these kinds of issues.

So you’re worried about betraying your mighty Gods, Valve, who have bestowed upon you such riches, and brought you into their home and fed you and listened to you. And now, when they make a mistake, you feel like you owe it to them not to say anything. At most, you’ll bring it up in private. Of course even then you’re not going to be too assertive for you have even less leverage behind closed doors. In fact you’ll probably just wait until they consult you again. Does this seem like an approach that is likely to efficiently lead to change?

There is also a pretty obvious problem with rectifying issues of transparency with private conversations among a select few. These consultations are themselves unfair given their selective nature. They’re also an obvious conflict of interests. But honestly they wouldn’t bother me that much if the decisions ultimately made were entirely transparent in their reasoning and explained how everything worked upfront. But this never happens. What we get is a one page announcement with hardly any details and maybe one sentence of rhetorical explanation.

Players have the power to improve the system. They can accelerate this process substantially. Exclusive private conversations are not the way to do this. They further entrench transparency problems and make it that much harder for those publicly engaging to have any leverage. If it’s only ever the people losing out who complain, it’s really easy to see that relationship as causal. Valve don’t have to take it as seriously if they can just say of course people who don’t get invited to stuff will be upset about it and project this into complaints about whatever.

The only way to truly and clearly emphasize problems in the system is for lots of people to point them out at once, and for at least some of those people to be those benefiting from it. If you’re complaining about a system that benefits you there isn’t any way to read that except as a genuine criticism to take on. Moreover, those teams who are getting directly invited have the most power because they’re the most important at that time. Valve depends on them most and the community rallies behind them most. So pressure from them will always matter a lot.

All of the players who are currently complaining about the qualifier situation need to step back and see the bigger picture. It helps nobody for you to desperately try avoid coming across as critical when that’s exactly what you’re doing. And it helps nobody for you to only raise issues when they affect you. It doesn’t even help you, because as we’ve seen time and time again the system of ‘only complain when directly affected’ results in extremely slow progress at best. If you keep behaving the way you currently are, you’ve got nobody to blame but yourselves when these sorts of problems come up over and over again.

Anthony is a former Dota 2 coach and commentator. He is currently studying towards his Masters in Public Health.