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Big Trouble in China: What Is Happening to China’s Dota 2 Scene?

March 9, 2016 John Paolo "Sandata" Bago

For the first time in history, a Chinese team has failed to place in the Top eight of a LAN that took place in the mainland.

At the Winter Major, we saw that Chinese teams not only performed poorly, but that the polish on their execution was starkly different from that of the last big LAN in China, namely the MarsTV Dota 2 League (MDL), which EHOME won.

Now there have been many theories thrown out by analysts to explain the lackluster performance of Chinese squads. One often tossed around is the fact that the Winter Major came right after the end of the Lunar New Year.

The Lunar New Year is essentially a reset on the Chinese eSports scene, with many teams suspending practice time so that players and staff can enjoy the holiday time to be with their families. The Lunar New Year also marks the end of contracts and the beginning of negotiations on player movement between teams.

Last year at the Dota Asian Championships (DAC), many Chinese teams also put up poor showings owing to the holidays looming just after the event. The off-time and instability of rosters contribute greatly to play malaise and general indecision. But at the Winter Major, we saw something different: Virtually zero of the Chinese teams performed even close to par.

There’s something deeper to China’s lackluster performances. Kyle “swindlemelonzz” Freedman’s tweets during the event prompted me to reflect at a possible infrastructure problem that is plaguing China right now. He has since removed his tweet, but I’m quoting it here:

“They are not working hard and they do not care. LGD had a match today at 9, they were waking up at 9:05, still groggy.”

Low motivation during the actual event isn’t explainable by the Lunar New Year break. One would think that at the actual event, a competitor at the highest caliber would at least put way more effort. If the Lunar New Year represents the beginning of contract negotiations, then a good performance at the Winter Major would give players and teams a better bargaining chip for compensation and team status.

Placing the blame on the Lunar New Year downtime ignores the fact that China’s problems are economic in nature. Specifically, China’s eSports infrastructure right now is focused too heavily on creating content for their various livestream platforms and the large salaries that come with it.

In 2014, various sources reported that ZhanQi TV contracted Wei “CaoMei” Han-Dong, a retired League of Legends pro to stream on their service. In 2014, he reportedly earned over $800,000.

Two years later, even Dota 2 pros are shying away from the top-heavy payout schemes of winning tournaments in favor of more reliable revenue sources.

In a post on Weibo, Liu “Sylar” Jiajun revealed that — aside from other personal foibles he has with LGD’s manager, Pan “Ruru” Jie — streaming has become such a big part of pro player life. Streaming on any of China’s multiple streaming platforms can become so lucrative that some players are focusing on it instead of practice time for big events.

In his translated post, Sylar said that the right to stream and profit from an individual’s stream has become a part of player contracts.

“One year after TI4, the money paid for streaming went up to the highest it has been in years. Before I went to LGD, a friend advised me to add a clause in my contract: A player should retain rights to his/her personal stream.”

“Winning tournaments was more important. I had nothing to do with streaming, but other players were increasing their value by streaming…We were quite close to TI at that time and every single day of practice was valuable to us. I couldn’t focus on streaming.”

In effect, Chinese teams and players are faced with a binary choice: practice for tournaments or enjoy streaming.

Coupled with the fact that Chinese Dota 2 isn’t producing or nurturing new talent the way Korea does, all of this points to a flailing eSports infrastructure in China. The local Chinese leagues are not producing top-tier talent the way they used to.

Sources from inside the Dota 2 scene in China are pointing to a lack of economic support given to local tournaments as one of the key factors that’s turning away new talent.

Need for new blood

It isn’t all infrastructure and economics however. While incentives influence behaviors to a great deal, China’s other problem stems from the lack of new talent being groomed to shine in Dota 2. This is a mainly cultural issue, as China has historically preferred members of the old guard to play for high-profile teams, valuing experience and seniority over the raw potential of a new player.

This is starkly different from how Korea operates in that the Korean eSports scene is always pumping out and training new talent to go out and dominate. At the Winter Major, fans saw the marked differences between the performances of exciting new European talents like Ivan “MinD_ContRoL” Borislavov, Aliwi “w33” Omar and Amer “Miracle” Barqawi and the noticeable age on Bai “Rotk” Fan and Xu “BurNIng” Zhilei.

This problem isn’t relegated strictly to Dota 2 either. For the League of Legends scene in China, big name Chinese teams placed their bets on expensive player imports to bolster their eSports clubs. The great player exodus from Korea at the end of Season 4 of League saw members of World Champion Samsung White sign big money contracts for various clubs in China. Despite their acquisitions, it was Korea who dominated Season 5 Worlds with an all-Korean final starring new talent forged from Korea’s culture of eSports dominance.

READ: Dispelling the Myth of the Korean Gaming House

As clubs and culture have made it difficult for new blood to enter the Chinese scene, most of the young and talented players simply want to get into streaming games or other eSports titles, lured by the lucrative monetary benefits that go with it.

There are of course other whispers of a match-fixing event between teams and players from China at the Winter Major and they are implicating some pretty heavy hitters in the scene. It’s all speculation at the moment.

 

Regardless, all of these are either economic or cultural in nature and certainly deeper than just having a New Year cycle gumming up the works. If China wants to return to the highest stages of Dota 2 supremacy, it will need to clean up its affairs in-house and address these issues.

Until then, I expect China to continue performing less than optimally in international tilts. Here’s hoping that they fix what needs fixing in time for ESL ONE Manila and the Manila Major.


For more eSports ramblings and pictures of funny looking food, you can follow Paolo on twitter @TheSandata

 

 

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