New Dota 2 Substitution Rules invite abuses

By now everyone has noticed that Valve edited their substitution policy at the beginning of this season. Though it has become a talking point lately, it went largely ignored early on in the season, perhaps due to the innocent intention behind the rule.

Subs are no longer registered in the roster lock period. Teams that qualify for a Major event will be able to issue a Substitute Player invite to any one player not participating in the Major once the qualifiers for that Major are done. If they so choose, any main player from a team with a sub can then yield their spot to the team’s sub by clicking on the ‘Switch to Sub’ button in the ‘My team’ tab.

The Reason

It doesn’t seem difficult to understand the intention behind this rule. Prior to its introduction, the ruleset and existing incentives resulted in the awkward consequence of teams having either no substitute at all or joke substitutes like SirActionSlacks registered in case of emergency.

Premier teams should not be forced to give up an opportunity to compete merely because one player faces an emergency and suddenly cannot attend. With visa problems still rife in the industry, it’s not even that uncommon that such emergencies occur. But it’s not a good solution for teams to have to register subpar players as their subs either. Competing with such a player at a top tier event is just as anti-competitive.

Unfortunately, given the fact that Dota 2 teams have never historically used subs dynamically, as comprising a larger ‘squad’ which can be used interchangeably with the starting lineup, to be a sub in Dota 2 really has meant being just a benchwarmer. And the fact is that no premier player is incentivised to merely warm a bench. Everyone wants to actually compete. Thus, with the old system, it was almost guaranteed that those qualified to be useful subs wouldn’t agree to register as subs.

Valve’s new rule addresses this very clearly. We now have a system where players can try to qualify for a Major and, failing that, fall back onto being a team’s sub as a last resort. Of course, this does run contrary to one of Valve’s chief aims of encouraging roster stability across seasons. It is, I would say, an imperfect solution, but perhaps Valve felt it was better than no solution and, on the face of it, they’d seem correct about that.

The Problem

The trouble is that the implications of the new rule run a lot deeper than that. So far we’ve already seen this rule utilized by Execration, adding 343 as a substitute with the attached announcement that he’d actually be competing in Rappy’s place at the Boston Major.

Execration’s recent change. Photo Credit: @wykrhm

Now, to start with, this is already a departure from the form subs have taken in the entire history of Valve’s system. Up til now, we’ve had no evidence that Valve supported, or were even open to, substitutes being used strategically. And with no evidence at all that Rappy has any kind of emergency prohibiting him from attending (and, in fact, some evidence to the contrary) it seems that this is exactly the case. The team has decided that strategically speaking their chances to succeed are better with 343 than they are with Rappy. This is a perfectly normal move in a system where substitutes are strategic pieces, part of a deeper squad of players. But where subs have always been seen as there for emergencies, this is a bizarre and sudden change to normal processes.

The most obvious question is: what about Rappy? What does he get out of this? Is he OK with this? Isn’t he part of the team that got invited to the Major? Should he share a % of the prize pool from the Major? What sort of deal would be appropriate here? Are Execration entitled to making the swap on whatever terms they see fit?

Here, Valve’s rule offers one very simple response.

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

So the burden is placed entirely on the shoulders of the individual. But is this fair? First off, it’s not entirely consistent with Valve’s historical policies. Recall that when Fnatic.EU tried to replace Era with Excalibur, Valve stepped in and consulted Era directly to confirm whether or not he had actually agreed to this change. Valve showed, and historically have always shown, a keen interest in upholding the rights of individual players.

So, why now would they see fit to leave their players out in the cold, to fend for themselves, and hope that they can ensure themselves just outcomes? You might argue that the industry was less developed back then, and more organisations were abusive and exploitative with their players. Personally I’d say that’s still sufficiently the case to warrant more direct oversight.

But even if it isn’t, we still have a problem. Even if organisations are not dodgy/evil, we still need to scrutinize the notion of consent in this case. For it is not as simple a question as ‘did the player consent or not’. Rather, we need to consider whether consent is informed and free from coercion. To guarantee that consent is informed I would hope that Valve contact players directly to precisely inform them of their rights in this situation. Lets face it, a very short FAQ with 4 lines on the relevant subject is hardly enough of an available resource to ensure that players are properly informed about the situation. That being the case, I’d expect some intervention from Valve to ensure fair processes and outcomes.

More crucially, however, is the notion of coercion. This isn’t just a question of whether a person was directly forced or not but rather there are subtler forms of coercion that can vitiate consent as well. For starters, lets look at the incentives at play.

Last year, Fnatic replaced Net with their then substitute 343 in what subsequently turned out to be an entirely strategic move. Even then, Net’s consent was required. And after the fact, it emerged that Net had not been happy with the change at all, despite agreeing to it initially. In an extended statement on Facebook, Net shared some of his thoughts. Primary among his concerns were that 1) he was not given any time to disagree, merely instructed about the change and expected to agree right away and 2) there was very little incentive to disagree, despite really wanting to compete.

See, unfortunately, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a player who wants to compete in a team that has decided to reject them. Think about the kind of decision you have to make, once your teammates have all said they’d rather not play with you, to simply disagree and insist that they do (as a side note, this is also a weird consequence of Dota teams being self-selecting). Is that an environment you want to exist in? Is that a healthy or competitive working environment?

Moreover, Net’s concern about time suggests that there was something coerced about the nature of the change. The implication being that perhaps he would have been able to refuse if given the time to actually consider the change, rather than simply being told the change. Don’t get me wrong, I very much doubt whether anyone at Fnatic saw themselves as bad guys last season, as forcing the change onto Net and not giving him a choice. I like those guys, I like their manager. They’re very nice people.

Fnatic prior to Net’s departure in 2016. Photo from: Net

However, that’s the thing with consent, it can be tricky. It is possible to coerce someone’s choice without you or them being consciously aware that that’s what’s happening. Emotional manipulation is subtle, and as discussed above, the incentives at play do much of the work on their own without having to be guided in any direct way.

So, with one past case where it looks like consent was very much vitiated. What do we have to make of the recent case of Rappy and 343? Presumably for the change to go through on Valve’s system Rappy has also ‘consented’. But will he, like Net, later expose the fact that he wasn’t really happy with the change? Should we require him to do so to prove that something is amiss? Isn’t this a bit too much burden to place on the individual? Given that the organisation has vastly more power than the individual, should the greater burden not rest on them?

And what about assurances? Will Rappy be compensated for his work? Will he be compensated for prizes won at the Boston Major that he was invited to? Surely he should be? Why doesn’t Valve ensure that such things be included in a standard contract used in connection with such substitutions?

Valve’s Intention

At the start of this piece I suggested that Valve’s intention with the new rule seemed to be to avoid less competitive players being used as emergency subs. Since then we’ve seen that the new sub rule seems to have instead encouraged the use of subs as a strategic tool. It’s not obvious that subs need to be one or the other, but what is obvious is that Valve need to tell us what they’re for.

If subs really are still meant only for emergencies, then Valve need to show their continued commitment to the individual, and stop pretending that their ‘consent’ is enough protection for them when the environment and connected incentives are entirely set up to unravel their consent. It should be required that teams provide documented proof of what the emergency is and it should be further required that teams provide documented proof of how they plan to compensate the player they are switching out.

Alternatively, perhaps Valve want to follow the sporting route, a route already toyed with in some other esports, that allows the development of squads that include subs that can be used strategically and not only for emergencies. If this is the case, Valve need to tell us this and need to explain the rules clearly upfront. Is a team allowed to bring >5 players to an event and switch players between matches? Or are strategic subs only allowed between individual events?

On the subject at hand, even if Valve are aiming at the strategic sub path, there are still some serious question marks. For if subs really are strategic tools, allowing them to join a team only after qualifiers end seems to dramatically undermine Valve’s roster stability expectations. What is the purpose of a roster lock if you can simply join a team and compete for them once they’ve qualified for the Major itself? Are there limitations on how many players can do this per team? 1 per team? 2 per team? We need to know these rules and until we do they’re bound to be twisted and abused in attempts to figure out exactly these limits and get as much of a competitive edge as possible.

If subs are strategic and not emergency subs, there’s a much stronger case to be made for their having to join the team earlier on. And certainly the same concern remains about the original player being properly compensated for their work in qualifying for an event they now will be sidelined in.

Enforcement of Rules

Today compLexity have announced that they are parting ways with a player from their roster. The team notes that they will need to discuss the situation with Valve, and even implies that they are aware their spot might be in jeopardy. This is because Valve’s ruleset, and the intention of their ruleset, both continue to be unclear. Valve need to tell us if subs are for emergencies only or exist for other purposes too. If the former is the case, it looks like coL should not be able to change a player mid-season and still compete at a Major.

Edit: An older version of this article inaccurately described Justin as having been kicked. There is no evidence for that claim, and indeed compLexity’s own statement suggests that it was his decision to part with the team.

One thing is clear, Valve need to publish more detailed rules about how the substitution system works, and they need to actively enforce those rules. It is not enough to presume that players having to ‘consent’ will ensure all relevant parties are protected. We exist in an industry where unions don’t exist and player agents are very scarce, particularly in developing regions. Players are not getting good advice or support and are thus very likely to fall prey to abuses of rules, intentional or not.

Many factors exist which can taint consent and the most common incentives work against the notion that consent can itself do the work of protecting players. In the future, it might be a bad thing for Valve to intervene too much, if the ecosystem can propel itself forward in a fair manner. But for now, there continue to be places that Valve must intervene directly to ensure their rules are followed fairly and appropriately.

I should hope that Valve have contacted Rappy directly in much the same way they contacted Era directly when Fnatic.EU wished to replace him. Removing their own burden based on the exist of a ‘consent button’ is simply a copout.

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

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