“Direct invites” need to be eliminated entirely

This week there’s been a lot of talk about the “competitive integrity” of DPC events inviting certain teams to their LANs, or even to their qualifiers. But people are missing the point. The problem isn’t that organisers are making bad decisions. The problem is that the system enables them to make those decisions. A lot of organisers make very little profit, or even run at a loss for some events. If you give them the power to make decisions based on financial motives (inviting teams that are easier sells to sponsors), they absolutely will.

And that’s the best case scenario. In reality, it’s not only sponsors who unduly influence who gets to which events. It’s the teams themselves. Several organisers have business relations with teams, whether they own them, share a common owner, or just have some or other type of partnership. There are very real conflicts of interest at play, and nothing at all to regulate them. If Valve don’t place further restrictions on how events decide who their participants are, this status quo will not change.

Background

Before the DPC existed, Valve had full discretion to decide who to invite to TI. This was itself an issue. People are upset that Na’Vi got invited to the Super Major. Guess what? Valve kinda set that precedent at TI6. You can never guarantee competitive integrity if subjective discretion is responsible for who gets to participate.

To their credit, Valve gradually added more qualifier slots for their events until eventually they designed the DPC system, eliminating the need for any discretion at all. This system ensures that teams know the criteria for getting to TI in advance. It’s fair and it’s transparent. That’s a big win for competitive integrity.

Today’s problem

The problem now is that because there’s no constraints on how independant organisers handle their own invites, a similar issue persists. As long as an organiser has the right number of qualifiers, they can do whatever they want. It’s a mistake to think this is only a problem when they abuse their discretion. What even constitutes abuse? How do we determine the objectively “correct” invites? Maybe this is something we could figure out but the discussion hasn’t even happened yet.

The very concept of direct invites is problematic. It is inconsistent with any reasonable notion of “competitive integrity”. Imagine a professional sport where participation in a league was decided by the whims of the relevant association? It’s outrageous. The simple fact is that if we really want to be serious about setting competitive standards, ALL spots in ALL tournaments should be earned.

To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all spots for LANs should come from qualifiers. There could be other objective criteria — for example, based on performances at previous events, or an independant rating system. The point is that criteria should exist, they should be objective, and they should be known. None of this arbitrary discretion that we’ve been plagued with since the beginning of Dota 2 as an esport.

As long as people are focusing on the specific invites they disagree with, we’re not going to make real progress. Campaign to improve the system, not to address symptoms of it. Because as long as the system doesn’t change, there will always be more symptoms. The solution is to get rid of direct invites, whose very existence is an affront to the very notion of competitive integrity.

A response

One response to my position is that realistically organisers have to make money and not being able to invite teams that sponsors want will undermine this. To such a response I’d like to ask — which of the best performing teams this season do you think would not impress sponsors? It seems that a decision only needs to be made between objective quality and marketability once you start needing to invite 8+ teams. But there’s no way in hell that your sponsorship is riding on having 8 specific teams at your event. I’m sure 4 or 5 is more than enough. It’s also not clear why a 16 team event needs to invite so many teams in the first place. Competitively speaking, it makes a hell of a lot more sense to me to have 12 qualifier spots and 4 auto berths rather than 8 and 8.

The only place where I do have a little sympathy is with the smaller minors, who have to face top teams actually declining participation at their events. For them, there might indeed be a trade-off between the most qualified teams and the ones sponsors might want to see. Even so, this can’t simply be a reality that we accept. It has to be something we’re trying to move away from. At very least, if we’re gonna let events have a few of these ‘sponsor invites’, this should be a transparent process, not one pretending to use the same kind of criteria as the rest. While these kinds of invites do undermine the integrity of the system, they do this less so than those based on organisers being in bed with teams — so as a bare minimum we need a way of distinguishing the two.

Ultimately, for those events that cannot afford to run themselves without inviting teams that would otherwise not deserve it, Valve need to make a decision about whether or not the circuit needs such events. After all, the schedule has been packed this season and if we’re gonna cut some events out, they might as well be the ones undermining the competitive integrity of the circuit.

TL;DR: Stop complaining about specific invites you disagree with and instead challenge the system of discretionary direct invites itself. Everyone attending events should have to earn their way there, one way or another.