Should EU get more slots? No.

This hilarious Brexit propaganda photo has nothing to do with this article except that it echoes the title and I thought it would be funny to include.

There is a popular narrative circling the Dota 2 community that suggests Valve should be giving EU more slots for DPC events. The argument goes that EU simply has a larger portion of the best teams, and the DPC should be about creating events where the best teams in the world compete. I disagree with this line of thought, and think the current safeguards for regional representation are both necessary and valuable toward the end of creating a circuit for the best teams in the world.

The importance of regional representation

In a time long past, professional Dota 2 had only two regions, “West” and “East”. This meant that Southeast Asian competitors had to qualify against Chinese ones and North American teams had to contest with European ones. This system was used for TI2 and TI3’s qualifiers. Unsurprisingly, no SEA or NA teams made it through those qualifiers. The bigger, stronger, more developed regions of Europe and China dominated the smaller developing regions of NA and SEA.

For TI4, Valve split the two regions into four. Do you know what else happened at TI4? EG came 3rd. The first success North America had ever enjoyed in the first three years of Dota 2’s history. Granted, they didn’t have to qualify for the event but instead were directly invited to it — this was, after all, how most teams got to TI back then. However, it’s no coincidence that the same year the NA region first got explicitly acknowledged by Valve was the year they started fielding a genuine championship caliber team.

One year later, MVP Phoenix made a top 8 finish at TI5, following a run not only through the SEA qualifier but through the Wildcard qualifier at TI. This would not have been possible if SEA teams were still competing against Chinese teams in a single qualifier. Meanwhile, EG won TI5.

In the years since then, EG have become the most consistent tier 1 team of the modern era, struggling to take championships, but always being solidly in contention for them. Fnatic, TNC and Mineski have all been finalists of multiple DPC events, with the latter two both having won Majors.

As Dota 2 evolved, Valve’s system became more transparent, and qualifiers became more and more important, right up to the point where the DPC system now has all spots for Valve events requiring some kind of explicit qualification. With this emphasis on qualification, had SEA and NA been forced to remain part of larger regional groups, it’s easy to see that teams like EG, Fnatic and TNC would not have enjoyed the success they’ve had up til now. And without that success, those regions would struggle to even sustain themselves today.

In 2017, the regions were further split to more naturally mirror the servers teams were competing on, CIS splitting away from EU and SA separating from NA. VP placed 5th/6th at TI7, the best any CIS team had done since the golden Na’Vi days. For the next two years, VP would dominate two entire DPC seasons. The SA region, which faces considerably more developmental obstacles, took a little longer to show results. However, come 2019, two SA teams top 4’d Minors, ultimately culminating in a top 8 finish for Infamous (now Beastcoast)at TI9.

South American Dota 2 is now firmly on the map thanks to an incredible 2019 by the Catburgers.

It’s no coincidence that every time a region gets formally acknowledged and granted its own stable route into professional events, that region starts showing better and more consistent results. The reason for this is that access to the top events is a fundamental part of what is required for those regions to develop. The two original dominant regions, EU and China, are not dominant because of some obscure genetic advantage. They’re dominant because their scenes are more developed. They’ve had more time to build up infrastructure and more money to support it.

Smaller regions can’t make up on the time, but they can catch up on the money. However, to do this, they need to have teams attending big international events, thus enabling them to attract significant investments. Over and above the money, the only real way to get better at Dota 2 is to play with better teams. Once you’re the best in a developing region you simply won’t get better without access to other regions.

Optimizing slot allocation

How does this discussion pertain to the question of slot allocations? Quite simply, we’ve seen very clearly that protecting developing regions is part and parcel to their development. When this is done, those regions consistently produce top level teams. It’s not just about fairness or representation (although those things are good too). It’s also the case that once we allow smaller regions to develop, they do produce teams at a level that is competitive with the best.

The current slot allocations give each region two guaranteed slots, allocating a further three slots based on some kind of invisible criteria that Valve haven’t felt necessary to share with us. I say this with my tongue in my cheek, because even though I’m a long time critic of Valve’s transparency failures, let me tell you now that they are doing several orders of magnitude better today than they were just a few years ago.

In any event, I agree with the notion of having two guaranteed slots per region. Some people might ask why it can’t be one and there’s a few reasons for that. One of them is the potential for gatekeeping teams like the old Faceless, who dominate their local region but struggle internationally, thus blocking other local teams who could do better internationally. Another reason is that allowing only one team into big international events can facilitate and entrench the kind of problem the NA region has had for some years now, where one team is always very good, and nobody else is consistent. By guaranteeing two slots per region at Majors, you’re making sure that every round of DPC events provides a valuable developmental experience for multiple teams in every region. This is important, and it’s great that this system is in place.

The remaining three discretionary slots are currently being given to CN, EU and SEA. While Valve’s reasoning isn’t given here, it seems fairly obvious. Those are the stronger three regions. So actually, people arguing that stronger regions deserve extra credit in the DPC system need to first stop and acknowledge that they are already getting exactly that.

If you keep all the cake to yourself of course you’ll become the best cake-eater.

Now, everyone advocating that EU deserves more slots is, necessarily, also advocating that some other region/s lose some slots. By and large, they aren’t just saying give more of these discretionary slots to EU, they’re complaining that it’s not possible for all five of the best EU teams to get to the Major and this is somehow alarming. Mostly, I’ve seen people saying that because those five teams would all be in the top 16 in the world on a region-neutral analysis, they should all be able to qualify for the event.

But this kinda misses the point. The reason that there are more strong teams in EU than, say, SA, is because the region provides greater opportunities for players to get into successful, sustainable teams. The reason to guarantee two minimum slots for every region is actually precisely to counteract this inequality. Europeans aren’t innately better at playing Dota 2. They’re over represented in the best Dota 2 teams because of structural advantages. And protecting the representation of developing regions directly mitigates against those advantages. If we were to give even more slots to Europe, instead of counteracting the inequality we’d simply be reinforcing it.

Consider for a second the UEFA Champions League. For many years now the competition has been dominated by teams from Spain, Germany, England and Italy. And for many years those four countries have had four teams qualifying for the tournament, while most other European countries only have either one or zero. It doesn’t take a rocket (or football?) scientist to see the connection. Yes, of course, you want your system to be sensitive to performance. But you also need to be aware of the fact that these kinds of systems very easily create feedback loops. If you don’t protect developing regions, they simply won’t be able to protect themselves. The top regions will stay on top forever, and it won’t be because they are inherently better but just because the system favors them.

The takeout

I want to be clear that it is a problem that there are tier 1 teams in Europe whose livelihood depends on participating in DPC events but who nonetheless are unable to do so. But the problem is in the first part of that statement, not the second part. We should strive for a system where the career of a professional player doesn’t depend so much on whether or not they attended the last big event. As long as that’s the case, the system will be extremely volatile in one way or another. But the solution is not to further entrench the advantages of the already advantaged regions by squeezing away slots from those still desperately trying to develop.

And remember, even if you give zero fucks about fairness, we can see empirically that protecting representation ultimately leads towards a better merit-based distribution anyway. Diversity doesn’t compromise merit, it distills it.

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