For Ohaiyo’s story to matter, players need to insist on more clarity from Valve

Over the past few years, Valve have made significant improvements in their competitive system, with each consecutive decision addressing previous issues. Unfortunately, most of these decisions have also introduced new issues — usually foreseeable ones — and we’re stuck in a kind of vicious cycle of problems coming up and only being solved after the fact, despite people regularly pointing them out ahead of time.

Ohaiyo’s dismissal

The current case relates to Ohaiyo, who has recently been kicked from Fnatic immediately following their qualification for ESL Katowice, and has today released a statement of his own. Ohaiyo is especially upset about the fact that Fnatic chose not to replace him before completing the qualifier. He feels used, rightly so. But according to existing regulations, Fnatic’s decision is entirely above board, and indeed the smart decision for the situation, as emphasized by their failure to qualify for the Bucharest Major the following day — this time using Universe and not Ohaiyo. It’s obvious that even if they think the replacement is a good one, that in the short run they had better chances of qualifications using Ohaiyo.

In order to address this problem in a fair and equitable way, I’d hope that Ohaiyo will receive a cut of whatever prize money Fnatic win at ESL (Edit: Fnatic have already committed to doing so) and that Valve also award him some number of qualifier points accordingly (this is entirely unknown). It would certainly be consistent with Valve’s treatment of Era in the buildup to TI4. But while Valve have said that they will penalise teams by awarding them less points after they break the roster lock, they’ve not commented on what happens to the players that get replaced, both now or within the lock.

Source: Ohaiyo’s Facebook

The case of Net

Interestingly, Ohaiyo was on the opposite side of a similar decision two years ago. After already having secured an invite to the Manila Major, Fnatic decided to replace Net who had been with them all season, relegating him to the sub role. The roster was locked at this point but Fnatic found a loophole in that 343 was registered as a sub. Initially Net had consented to this change and that was the only requirement Valve’s system had for a player being subbed out at the time. However, it quickly became clear that Net was not actually happy with the situation, but found it impossible not to ‘consent’ given that all his teammates didn’t want to play with him. This highlighted the fact that the onus should not be on players to protect their positions in teams during a roster lock.

No history of transparency for Valve

Also in the buildup to the Manila Major, we saw an issue relating to which teams to directly invite. Too many teams presented strong cases and Valve’s solution was to invite an unprecedented 12 teams to the event (rather than the 8 that had come to be expected). This undermined the consistency and predictability — and as a result, the fairness — of the system. Then again, the very nature of ‘direct invites’ is anti-competitive, with no guarantee of any kind of integrity to the system. If teams don’t know how many invites are decided, or what the criteria are for those invites, this places an unfair burden on them and offers no guarantee that decisions will be made fairly and consistently. Loda would later reinforce this point, commenting that:

“I think it adds an immense kind of pressure on players and teams to not know. You can win a tournament right before a major and still not actually know if you will get invited or not. I believe LAN wins should matter a lot, but I’m obviously biased. Perhaps placing top-four continuously is more impressive than actually getting first once.

Source: Starladder

“I think like I said before that something has to change. I can feel a different kind of stress from teams and players nowadays, and I believe it’s because they do not even know what they are aiming for. To be tier-one, -two? To win a major or actually practice to play a qualifier?”

To this day, Loda is one of very few players willing to make any sort of public criticism of Valve and it’s commendable that he was willing to take the (perceived) risk in an environment when so few are. Even so, Loda had not been as vocal around the Shanghai Major, when it was his team who benefited from the lack of transparency in Valve’s invitation system.

A little later, Valve again made an unprecedented move of inviting only 6 teams to TI6. Significantly, Na’Vi were awarded a direct invite ahead of Fnatic with no justification offered at all — despite Fnatic being more qualified for the spot on all objective metrics and what few explicit regulations were known. It is quite possible that Fnatic’s lack of invite was an implicit punishment for the Net situation, but given the lack of communication from Valve this is impossible to know.

The case of Rappy

Like Fnatic had done with Net, Execration relegated Rappy to ‘sub’ shortly before the Boston Major, again with the appearance of ‘consent’.

Valve had recently amended their sub rule to allow for subs not to be locked to teams, addressing the problem of teams registering people like SirActionSlacks as their subs. As there is little incentive for a serious player to register as a sub rather than try to qualify as a regular player, Valve realised that locking subs would guarantee the above outcome.

However, in doing so, they also implicitly took a strange position on the Net issue. At Net’s time, one reason his replacement was an abuse was because subs were understood to be there in case of emergency with no clarification as to whether teams could make strategic changes by benching players as they saw fit. Now it looked like Valve were happy to enable teams to make strategic changes. In order to clarify that the new sub rule would make a substantive difference, Valve clearly stated that:

If they so choose, any main player from a team with a sub can then yield their spot…”

Thus, we now had a situation where a team could pick up a sub at any point in time, and as with Net’s case, simply manufacture the ‘consent’ of a teammate in order to replace them. As such, Rappy would follow in Net’s shoes, with 343 again being the incoming player.

Genius or coincidence? 343 attended 2 Majors as a ‘super-sub’ thanks toValve’s unclear roster regulations. Source: Fnatic

Progress has been made but now we face a new batch of problems

Fast forward to the present and a lot of the above problems have been solved. The current points system makes the criteria for ‘invites’ to TI entirely explicit, consistent and predictable. However, a lack of clarity has left several important questions unanswered and emphasized new issues of fairness.

While anti-competitive ‘direct invites’ no longer exist for TI, they do exist for 3rd party tournaments. Ironically, while Valve could previously use their own invites to counteract 3rd party biases, they are now at the mercy of them. This means that 3rd party organisers have the power to increase certain teams’ chances of qualifying for TI simply by deciding to invite them to their events. Many of the direct invites to Galaxy Battles looked to be an example of this as they certainly don’t appear to have been merit-based. And the problem is not only about conflicts of interest. Organisers also have an incentive to invite fan favourites like Na’Vi in order to make their events more profitable.

Source: Natus Vincere

Valve also initially stated that points earned at events would scale with the prize money presented at those events. In practice this has only ended up differentiating Majors from Minors (though their announcement suggests it could differentiate within those categories). This compounds the above problem because organisers with more money have more influence than when it comes to pushing particular teams’ odds up. Worse, we haven’t been told the criteria for being awarded Major or Minor status, and this lack of transparency reinforces concerns about unwarranted power.

More problems with roster changes

Meanwhile, Valve have made yet another attempt to regulate the usage of subs. Unfortunately, yet again, a lack of clarity about the rules has opened up new potential for abuses. The new system measures teams only based on their top 3 point-earners when considering them for TI qualification. While Valve have taken an explicit interest in allowing for roster changes, their aim is still explicitly to create more stability than before. But the 3 point-earners rule actually opens the door to the opposite, incentivising less rather than more roster stability.

Valve have recently tried to address this by announcing a new roster lock, including regulations that promise to penalise teams where they attend events using a significantly different roster. However, we have not been given clarity on what constitutes ‘significant different’. And there is a much more important question that is still answered: will teams be penalised right at the end when considering them for TI qualification, or does this only apply at the point of earning points? If they don’t get a further penalty right at the end, then there is nothing to stop teams replacing a player after all Majors and Minors are complete, and abusing the fact that their top three point earners can carry that player into TI — with the potential for a player who has earned zero points during the season to auto-qualify for TI.

For Ohaiyo’s story to matter, players need to speak out more

Returning to the case at hand, it is easy to feel sorry for Ohaiyo while simultaneously acknowledging that Fnatic have acted within the rules. If anything, we should commend them for doing the best they can to use all available resources in making their decisions. But this seems counter-intuitive. We don’t want a system that incentivises behaviour which we think wrongs people in the process. As stated above, a fair solution might be to still award Ohaiyo points for ESL.

But even if Valve go this route, that they need to deliberate on it only now highlights a more serious problem. They have, time and time again, waited for issues to manifest before addressing them — despite the fact that many people have pointed those issues out ahead of time. The reason this continues to happen is because Valve like to experiment, and because there simply isn’t enough vocal criticism happening. The criticisms that will matter are those from players, and those from the community who will usually get behind the players.

But for the most part players prefer to talk to Valve behind closed doors, if at all, and are afraid of making public criticisms. This is a strange fear, since criticising Valve in a way that improves their system should be seen as a good thing. From Valve’s perspective it’s basically specialist consulting at no cost. If we are to buck the trend of only addressing issues after they cause practical harm, it will begin with players accepting that criticising Valve is a very good thing to do, and not waiting to be personally affected before doing so.

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