All Your History: DotA Part 3 – Pro League
By the end of the Two Thousands, the fan-made Dota mod was becoming an industry buzzword. After slowly growing in popularity for years, it reached a millions-strong playerbase by the time commercial studios even started experimenting with it. But soon, a number of games across a range of styles and business models released, proving that the mod had now become its own genre, called Moba by some, and by others, just Dota. During this time, the developers of the original mod were hired by various studios, all working on their own new versions of the game. Before long, some of the biggest names in the gaming world were trying to cash in on the craze, and in so doing, went head to head themselves.
In October Two Thousand Nine, the current developer of the Dota mod, Icefrog, announced that he had been hired by megadeveloper Valve Software. A year later, on October Thirteenth, Twenty Ten, Valve formally announced that they were making Dota 2, a project headed by Icefrog himself. While seemingly a pretty simple statement, it brought with it a lot of questions. First of all, unlike other genre games like League of Legends or Heroes of Newerth, the Valve game would be taking its name right from the original mod. As a matter of fact, Dota 2 promised to be the exact same as the mod. While Valve would obviously put in their own custom graphics with their Source engine, the heroes, items, maps, and gameplay would all be the very same as the mod Icefrog had been perfecting for years. It was, in fact, an extension of the old Valve philosophy of buying popular mods. Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat, and Team Fortress were all fan-made games that Valve had brought into their own portfolio. Interestingly, Dota 2 marked the first time that Valve had ever worked on a project that wasn’t a first-person shooter; even Portal, a puzzle franchise, still involved a gun from the first-person perspective.
However, on the exact same day that Valve announced Dota 2, an anonymous blogger made a post about Icefrog. Claiming to be a Valve employee, the poster blasted Icefrog for being impossible to work with, for being arrogant, and for ruining Valve. The same post also claimed to know for certain that Icefrog had indeed worked with S2 Games on Heroes of Newerth, an older accusation that had never been confirmed. Valve later claimed that the post was an outright fake, and indeed, no evidence has ever emerged to support the blogger’s claims. In fact, all indications are that Icefrog has become a leading employee at Valve. If nothing else, the post proves that there is quite a bit of anger and animosity boiling in the greater Dota community.
Regardless, the Dota genre, or the Moba genre, pressed on. And it wasn’t done conquering the big names yet. Not content with merely Valve, Dota then impressed no less than the legendary Blizzard Entertainment. Of course, Blizzard’s Warcraft III was the game Dota had spun off from in the first place. After watching their own community play Dota for years, Blizzard announced at their own BlizzCon Twenty Ten that it was finally time to take a crack at it themselves. Blizzard Dota would feature popular characters from across the Blizzard universe, while sticking pretty close the original gameplay. It, too, would be a mod, of their own Starcraft II. Of course, being Blizzard, no release date was given. But fan reaction was electric.
Meanwhile, the Dota genre was also busy crossing oceans. Realm of the Titans released in China in October Twenty Ten, bringing the gametype into one of the fastest-growing gaming markets in the world. The game has become a success in China, and is currently in open beta for Western audiences. A full Western release is expected soon.
Going into Twenty Eleven, then, the Dota genre seemed poised to reach the big leagues. Then in July of that year, Riot Games announced that it already had. They stated that their League of Legends game now had one point four million players per day, and fifteen million accounts total. Not long after, they announced that their second tournament season would feature five million dollars in prizes, the biggest cash pool in esports history. In other words, League of Legends was doing better than anyone had imagined.
This trend continued in August Twenty Eleven, when Valve hosted the first Dota 2 International tournament at that year’s Gamescom in Cologne, Germany. Valve brought together sixteen pro-level Dota teams to play competitive Dota 2, a game that none of them had ever touched before, confirming once and for all that the sequel would really just be the original mod reskinned. The cashpool for this tournament was one point six million dollars — for a game that hadn’t even been released yet! This tournament was also the first time Dota 2 had ever been shown to the public. Now that’s a reveal!
But while everyone else was celebrating the genre, Blizzard was having issues with it. That same month, they announced that they had flattened the Blizzard Dota project, meaning they were starting over from scratch. The problem they were finding was endemic to the genre: it had a brutally steep learning curve that was unforgiving to newcomers. Blizzard’s core philosophy has always been to make games that are easy to access, but difficult to master. Dota was just plain difficult. Two months later, Blizzard revealed a new trailer for their revamped game that went for a much sillier tone and feel, possibly indicating that Blizzard Dota will be a more casual experience. Being Blizzard, no release date was given, although it claimed it was coming soon. Ish.
For their part, Valve is also aware of the difficult nature of Dota. However, since their game is a stand-alone product, not a mod, Valve will be able to include tutorials and matchamking on their game. What’s more, Valve wants to harness the incredibly passionate Dota playerbase to help newcomers. How exactly they will implement this is currently unknown, but it appears that Valve will be giving some kind of in-game rewards to experienced players who help newbies. Whether the notoriously elitist Dota playerbase will respond to this remains to be seen.
But during this whole process, Valve quiety did something that set off the entire rest of the community: they filed for a trademark on the word “Dota.” Immediately, Steve Mescon, who had run the Dota community website for years under the name Pendragon, filed a countersuit. His claim was that the word “Dota” was created by, and thus belonged to, the fans themselves; no corporation could lay claim to it. The fear was that if Valve got the trademark, they could shut down the original mod, or at least force it to change its name. Valve did not respond. But then a short while later, no less than Blizzard confirmed that they were opposed to the trademark filing, and said they had been in contact with Valve over the matter. Of course, with trademark in hand, Valve could shut down Blizzard Dota as well, or at least force a rename. To date, Valve has not rescinded the filing. Indications are that Blizzard absolutely do not want anyone, including Valve, to have a trademark, but are trying as hard as they can to settle the matter amicably out of court. But if Valve continues to push ahead, there is a possibility that things could get ugly between two of gaming’s most beloved companies. Time will tell.
As it stands, Valve’s move implies that ownership of the Dota name belongs to Icefrog, who has been the lead developer on the original mod for years. Since Icefrog works for Valve, Valve owns the name.
But the name originally comes from modder Eul, who made the first version of the mod, who then passed it on to Guinsoo, who now works at Riot Games with Pendragon, and only later passed it to Icefrog. Who has ownership here? Does anybody? And what’s more, does the fact that Dota was originally a fan-made spin-off of a Blizzard product give any ownership to Blizzard? This is the legal nightmare of Dota. The tensions within the developer community, including the numerous unconfirmed accusations against Icefrog, might well be wrapped up in this as well, especially with Pendragon’s countersuit against Valve — and by extension, Icefrog. Remember, Pendragon abandoned the Dota community site over disagreements with Icefrog. Hopefully this will all be settled peacefully, but if not, it has the potential to become a landmark case in trademark law. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, still more games in the genre are coming out. Petroglyph Games’ Rise of Immortals released on Valve’s Steam platform in September Twenty Eleven, although it received unfavorable reveiws. Hi-Rez Studios has announced Smite, a Dota game notable for using the Unreal 3 engine in a Greek mythological setting. Uber Entertainment will follow up their successful Monday Night Combat with Super Monday Night Combat, a PC-only free to play game that promises to be a more traditional Dota game, or Moba game, or Action-RTS game, as Valve now wants to call the genre. And of course, Valve’s Dota 2 and Blizzard’s Blizzard Dota are both expected this year.
But through all the legal battles, the commercial interest and the business models, whether you call it Dota or Moba or Action-RTS, the original mod presses on, still being lovingly perfected by Icefrog even as he works on Valve’s game. Even with professional products on the market for free, the Warcraft III mod still boasts millions of players. There have been popular mods before, but rarely have any created their own new genres that are worth so much money. In its own way, the Dota mod has become the fans’ way of giving back to the medium they love, and an inspiration for upcoming gamemakers everywhere. All from a couple of guys who just liked to play.
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