Dota 2 is now for the whales

Why you shouldn’t pay another battle pass for cosmetics?

Italo Baeza Cabrera
6 min readAug 10, 2020

Cosmetics around Dota 2 has always been an economy on its own. Before the “Immortal” rarity of items, artists would create and sell their creations with a good return of investment, and players fueled this approach enough to Valve to notice. Whales, as you will learn later, came in to support the market and there was no problem ignoring them, the game was still growing.

Fast forward to 2020, all indicators point to a game slowly declining, and most of the rewards on the game are being heavily paywalled in an attempt to milk those who have invested more than enough as the last hurrah.

This is not just a critique for the Battle Pass. This is the tip of the iceberg. This is something that confirms the current state of affairs between Dota 2 and its lifecycle as a GaaS (Game as a Service).

Whales? What are whales in gaming?

A “whale” is a term used by game developers, game economists and publishers, to categorize a small group of players who recurrently spend huge sums of money in the game, way above the average. There is a full talk about how to catch them.

Tribeflame CEO Torulf Jernström discussing monetization tricks for mobile games.

One of the points of the video is about engagement. Players who have invested more in the game, specially on a old and large community like Dota 2 before 2010, are pushed to keep spending on the game. The “investment” of time linked with buying cosmetics, amplified with “Fear of Missing Out”, makes people feel natural to spend dozens of dollars on Battle pass levels and skins that you may even not show in the game because you’re using a different hero. Let that sink up for a bit.

Later it came Dota Plus, which an user decided to analyze and give some insight of what Valve was thinking about it:

Valve’s current direction with new monetization features is to provide the best experience for current players so they continue playing Dota for years to come.

You could say that this plan has failed when most of the topics about Dota Plus are features or complaints, at time of writing.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for the users, including myself, was the recent Battle Pass 2020. After checking a great analysis by a Reddit user, it confirms that instead of granting affordable items and a healthy progression system, only those who invest more money will get the most rewards.

The old story of Pay to Progress

One of the techniques for mobile games to push more spending on the game itself is limiting progression artificially. Here, the “Battle Pass progression” system is simple: you pay for the entrance, and the more you play the more levels you go up, and more items you get. The problem here is that sentence is less than half of the story. There is a limit on how much you can get for playing.

You should not spend extravagant amounts of money on Dota 2

It’s no wonder that, in average, you can get up to level 100 with just the entrance ticket, which can grant you some nice items. The better ones are behind a paywall and a lie of “you can get it if you keep playing”.

The greatest offender is the “Compass of the Rising Gale”, a skin for Windranger, hero that the community loves and hates. It can cost up to USD$ 250, which is almost a Nintendo Switch, and its exclusive to this Battle Pass duration.

But that is not the only thing wrong in the game. Also, to leverage progression, this Battle pass edition included games of chance that could give you useless consumables or a few more levels, if you were lucky. It was after a community uproar that Valve made it optional and offered recycling items for Battle Pass levels, but no changes to the core of the Battle pass itself.

The game is still free to play, and there is a new game mode that even non-battle-pass users can hop in, but the point of the that new mode is to bring in those users into buying the Battle Pass to get all the rewards waiting for them.

Is Dota 2 declining?

Every game, and every product or service in the market, has a lifecycle, which can be resumed in three stages: growth, maturity and decline. Dota 2 has long past its growth, when we could see every month having notoriously more players than the one before.

Industry Livecycle — Strategy for execs

Now, to identify if Dota 2 is “mature” or “declining” we can check the indicators on the above graph. One big difference between the last to phases is the ability of the vendor to milk its player base before it’s too late and there is no one to milk.

Steamcharts for Dota 2

Now, compare the above chart, the current Battle Pass state of high spending barriers, and the lack of steady growth after 2016:

Industry Livecycle — Strategy for execs

So there it is, Dota 2 has started declining. Seems that, whatever happened in early 2019 apart from the Frostivus event and the 7.20 patch, didn’t have enough momentum to grow, and Valve failed to capitalize the wave. I would bet the state of global health added some numbers in early 2020 after most places went to lockdown.

The above is confirmed by Valve doing spin-offs of Dota 2 to make it a franchise rather than one trick pony, Dota Underlords and Artifact, both failed experiments that any other company would have canned before a year — Valve surely took its sweet time to do it.

Dota 2 itself hasn’t created a more approachable tutorial for a game that is constantly changing since 2014, because the gain expectations to maintain an up-to-date tutorial is not enough to justify it.

All the indicators are there, you just have to assume that Valve is not interested in make it bigger, because is already big. The plan is to squeeze its user base while smiling to the community until the next big thing arrives.

This is a good time to stop spending on Dota 2

Long gone are those days were buying items in Dota 2 not only supported the game, the developers, the artists, and it felt rewarding to contribute to the economic health of the community and the service itself. Things are gone sour after Dota 2 has past its apex.

What I’m trying to say is that you should not spend extravagant amounts of money on Dota 2. Not because this Battle Pass edition, but rather, because Valve is targeting whales like last year, where most players just gave it a pass expecting Valve to make better decisions next time. That didn’t happen, it was on purpose. Big companies do not commit “accidents” or “forget something”, and Valve is not an exception.

To put it boldly: the current lifecycle of Dota 2 demands milking the remaining users and target those willing to pay more, before the game declines like any other does and the window of opportunity is lost. It’s a bummer because grinding a Battle Pass is close to unhealthy. As a player without bucks, in a middle of a pan-de-mic, and kind of tired of the game itself, why would I bother grinding more?

Personally I supported the game with the Battle pass every time I could, but this has been an eye opener. No way I’ll put more than a few bucks unless the grinding stops, but I realistically expect Valve won’t give a damn, as they had been doing with Team Fortress 2 all these years.

Instead, I’ll gladly see in the sidelines what Valve does in the next year to keep Dota 2 from declining, give players a reason for just one more match instead of just freeing 30GB of space for another game.



Italo Baeza Cabrera

Graphic Designer graduate. Full Stack Web Developer. Retired Tech & Gaming Editor.