The return of The International to the city of Seattle ushered in a sense of homecoming to those who have been well immersed in the game for as long as one can remember. After spending the past six years seeing the event make its presence in different parts of the world, the scene welcomed back the Pacific Northwest city to serve as the forefront of the Dota world.
For the players, broadcast talent and fans themselves, it marked a return to what many regard as hallowed grounds. With the city serving as the host for TI 2 all the way to 7, it organically cultivated a divine status almost in the same way that Counter-Strike people look at Cologne and Katowice. It’s no wonder that Valve and PGL then tapped into that sentiment by creating the cathedral theme for this year’s TI, simultaneously honoring past and present competitors alike.
Speaking of the past, various people arrived in Seattle to bask in the return of TI to North American soil. Some include n0tail, JerAx, Dendi and, most specifically, ppd. Winner of TI 5 with Evil Geniuses, ppd would eventually retire in 2021 after spending nearly a decade of competition in the game. However, after spending the next two years serving as an esports advisor and an operations manager for Esports Engine, ppd’s Dota bug began to scratch with fervor after working as an analyst for the Berlin Major this year so he eventually decided to start contributing to the scene once more.
In recent times, he’s been working with the NA Dota Challengers League, a grassroots league that highlights inclusivity by giving ordinary people the chance to compete as full-fledged professional players. With this, ppd hopes to revive an NA region that has been dormant over the past few years in the Dota sphere with its struggles in developing talent. Having worked both in front and behind the computer for the majority of his adult life, ppd has become an important figure within the Dota scene.
Amidst TI 12, BLIX caught up with ppd for an interview about his work with the NADCL, his view on Dota’s place in the “esports winter,” how he looks back at his career and much more.
ppd and the NADCL
Pedro Romero, BLIX: It's been six years since TI has been in Seattle and from that point, you were part of the EG team that finished Top 3 and was also a guest analyst. For you to return here on the sidelines as a spectator, what's that experience like for you?
Peter "ppd" Dager: Really great to have Seattle back in TI. Having a well-rounded experience as a player, analyst caster, and now kind of as a spectator, it's just good to know we're all just Dota players, right? There are plenty of other people here who are just as passionate about Dota, if not even more passionate, than I am, and it's just great to be able to be amongst them and just enjoy that energy.
BLIX: You've been working more specifically in NA Dota in recent times. For you to get back in it, how have you been going about contributing to the NA Dota what with the NADCL and stuff like that?
ppd: I was an analyst at the Berlin Major this summer and I just caught the Dota bug. Had a little bit of time on my hands, so I said, "Why not start a Dota league?" I wanted to do things a little bit differently because I ran this league back in 2018 and 2019 and I wouldn't call it successful. It's really hard to build a sustainable business as a Dota tournament operator just because of the way the ecosystem is built. With Valve sort of backing out of DPC and the uncertainty around next year, I feel like there's an opportunity for operators to come in, but we have to kind of have a little bit of a cultural shift in terms of players wanting to support the operators that are actually making these things happen.
For the last ten years, everybody's pretty much just gotten everything for free and expected either Valve or sponsors to pay for that stuff and I think, by and far, sponsors have been left burnt a little bit in the scene. That's because if a fan is not paying for an experience, how could you possibly expect them to convert on a sponsorship. Fans have only really been converting on in-game digital sales, and now that Valve is pulling the plug on those, there needs to be somebody to lead us into a new phase of Dota, which I'm trying to do, which is supporting the hobbyists who want to compete in esports but maybe don't necessarily have ambitions of ever competing at TI or being a professional player.
BLIX: You mentioned your work in the NADCL on how that has been working around this era, so to speak, of Dota which is entering into an uncertain landscape given the end of the DPC. What have been the biggest differences that you have enforced in making this new iteration of the NADCL?
ppd: I don't mean this to sound the bad way, but we've sort of lowered the player standing on the totem pole. The players aren't willing to put money into the programs, so therefore, we shouldn't treat them like they're the kings of the program. The people who are actually funding our leagues are the fans, and our league is a little bit different in that players register as individuals. They're then drafted onto teams by supporters who pay for the governance opportunities of those teams. So they get to play like esports team managers, and the players kind of compete for them and my goal here is to, first off, just bring more money into the league but also empower people who love competitive Dota but maybe necessarily don't have the skills or desire to compete themselves. So just trying to make esports a little bit more inclusive by creating different avenues of competition.
Dota within the “Esports Winter”
BLIX: I'm wondering about your opinion on the place of Dota within this period in esports—not just within this game—in general. We've seen people coin the term "esports winter" so how do you view Dota 2's place within this "winter" and the like?
ppd: The 2010 to 2020 period was really great for esports. There was a ton of hype and interest and it was a new market that led to all kinds of speculative investments that created this wonderland for esports. And that stems all the way from the publishers producing programs themselves, the esports teams who raise capital to sign players and even the esports leagues who raise capital to entice players to want to participate with them.
So now that the world is in a little bit of a recession with inflation being a little hectic and everything is getting more expensive and people are kind of a little more—I don't know if people are necessarily being conservative with their money, but there's definitely less spending money available at the moment. I think Dota is one of the largest games in the world and it's very much financed by the publisher in Valve but not entirely, so I don't think we're in a worse spot compared to maybe the LCS or the Overwatch League, for example. I think Dota esports has a long life ahead of it, but we need to do a better job of making esports more than the 10 players that are on the stage. We need to empower the fans to feel like they're actually a part of the teams that they're enjoying online.
BLIX: We've seen a major decrease in recent years with the shrinking of the TI prize pool. People have their own opinions here and there. For you to have been looking at this with a different sort of lens, is the shrinking of the prize pool and all of the perks that come with it a good thing that Valve is doing to manufacture or grow the scene?
ppd: I think a lot of the opinion around this subject is maybe that it's a little too late. There was a lot of really passionate operators who helped Dota get to where it is today, and at a certain point, when all of the investment money kind of came in and swooped over the top of them, they were either forced to sell their companies to compete at that same level or just completely exit the scene. So if they weren't really willing to give it all up to somebody else, a lot of them just left, you know? Beyond The Summit is probably the most notable group that we all miss dearly, and they're not coming back, so there's going to be a handful of new operators that are going to try and develop their own circuits and tournaments kind of like the way it was in 2017 where we had a bunch of third-party events.
Players will play in a bunch of individual qualifiers to qualify for those leagues and tournaments. I think it's a step in the right direction for Valve, but I don't anticipate that much to change because I feel ESL is just going to step in and fill the shoes that Valve is leaving available. And I do think that most of the players and esports teams, instead of bunkering down and trying to build organic Dota communities themselves, are just going to listen to whatever ESL tells them to do.
BLIX: ESL has been doing Dota events for a little while, but it seems that, in recent years, they've been taking a much bigger approach and grasp in developing their own way within the scene, such as Dream League and Riyadh Masters. How do you view ESL's workings within the Dota scene in relation to what Valve is trying to do?
ppd: This is very similar to some of the other topics we touched on but these leagues are being funded by unsustainable actual revenue sources. These esport leagues are not profitable, but they're seen as marketing expenses for the groups that are running them. First, it was Valve and now it's going to be ESL and that just makes it really hard for anybody who doesn't have access to large amounts of capital to participate as an operator themselves. There are other communities—look at the fighting game community in America where the local players support their local TOs and as they grow their communities, those TOs level up their products alongside their growing communities, and it just leads to a much more sustainable, healthy and positive environment for esports to really grow and thrive.
BLIX: Where do you see the future of Dota with this uncertain landscape in mind and given the things that you touched upon? Is it a bright future or a dark one?
ppd: For the next three to five years, I do think it'll look very similar to what it looks like right now. The DPC will just be replaced by DreamLeague, ESL Pro Tours, the one-off LAN events, the ESL Ones, and eventually, the Riyadh Masters or Esports World Cup. That'll basically be the super exciting gigantic tournaments, so I don't think much will change. My cause for hesitation is what happens when ESL decides that they don't want to invest millions of dollars into Dota anymore. Who's going to be there to pick up the pieces and what does the pro scene and esports for Dota look like?
I think we're very fortunate to have ESL to sort of fill in for Valve because Valve kind of pulled out very suddenly, I think, which is the way I would view it. So yeah, I think we're going to be okay. I hope that as our player base ages up, we find more passionate operators. A lot of the Dota community is getting into their 30s and 40s. They have a lot of money, and they have built success for themselves in other avenues of business. I think, in your 20s, you're always just chasing success and you're thinking, "How much money do I need to have security and be comfortable?" A lot of those people are at that point now and they can reinvest their working capital into their passion projects, which is Dota, so I'm excited for the future.
BLIX: With ESL, there's obviously the topic of the Saudi Arabian government supporting it. There is attention to that aspect within ESL's work of Dota, but not much has been done, in my opinion. So, should that be a cause of concern for the Dota community to consider?
ppd: I personally don't have too much gripe about whatever sort of cultural issues that people have with the Saudi Arabian government funding entertainment. It's not just Dota. It's all entertainment: golf, basketball, football or soccer, right? So they're kind of just buying a culture, and that's great because we have somebody to fund and create all this great entertainment for people, but it goes back to what I was speaking about earlier. The people that are making those decisions over there are not very endemic to Dota, so when they make a business decision that Dota is no longer a part of their paid programming, who is going to be able to fill the shoes of that programming? I don't think that anybody will be able to sort of match that.
BLIX: You call yourself an "esports survivor" in your Twitter/X bio. What does that mean?
ppd: We went through what I call the bull market of esports from 2010 to 2021 and now, you see different organizations, TOs and tons of consolidation. Everybody's selling their companies, people going bankrupt or literally being unable to sell their company, and it just shutting down. I think that I was one of the very fortunate lucky people who managed to make enough money to continue exploring esports and not have to necessarily reroute my life into a different industry. I do think that I'm "Team Esports." I've survived the esports bubble. I'm just about to turn 32 and I'm excited to see what I can make happen for esports in my 30s.
Looking at the past, the future and the Reddit community
BLIX: A good reason for that perspective is your winning of TI 5. How do you look back at that victory with a different perspective now that you've been able to experience all of these things not just as a player but also as an executive and a management person?
ppd: I think we really lived in a very, very unique time. I don't know if we're gonna have the Riyadh Masters with a gigantic prize pool next year, but to be able to participate and win these events where you make more money than professional sports players at their events, it's a pretty unique opportunity and I think we're all just incredibly lucky. So I just look back on it like I was ‘right place, right time’ a number of times in my 20s and that's because I was just putting my best foot forward and trying my best. I got lucky with all the things that kind of surrounded me. I'm not trying to preach or give life advice, but you really just have to keep doing your best and keep your fingers crossed.
BLIX: The days of TI and big prize pools consisting of $40 million, $30 million, is that time over for good?
ppd: It's completely up to Valve, right? They can decide to turn on the fountain of cosmetics. They could easily just do that next year, and they could come out with that big Compendium that makes them $100 million each season. So it's totally up to Valve. We've had a number of times where digital sales have contributed to prize pools and TO's running events. They kind of did away with that mostly because they felt like those cosmetics and "hats," as we call them, were moving themselves without necessarily the tie to esports. That brought even more attention here with the dissolution of the Compendium. Are they going to release all these sets in a month from now? Possibly. Are they going to sell? Absolutely. Adding to the esports prize pool and having this gigantic tournament was a great piece of marketing, but when it comes down to dollars and cents, it didn't really make that much sense.
BLIX: What are some of the, if I may say, future projects that you want to do aside from what you've already been doing?
ppd: We really need to better organize ourselves. For example, we ran these Crimson Witness events yesterday and the day before. And if you really ask yourself, "Where do I go to tell the Dota community about this awesome thing that I'm doing?" There's not really a good place. I think the Dota 2 subreddit is probably the biggest congregation of Dota fans, so getting your post or your interview or your project presence on that page can give it 100,000 views, but the Dota 2 audiences are millions and millions of players, and they're scattered through random Discord servers, Facebook groups and WhatsApp groups. They're all over the place, so I think we need to find ways to congregate and create focused attention around esports.
And I think we also need to basically create a Battle Pass or a monthly or yearly subscription that has all these benefits for esports supporters so therefore they actually feel the money they're putting in to support esports is worth it to them. Once we create more stable regular income, we'll be able to create really cool events and do cool stuff and I think because everybody is contributing in the [same] way that the Compendium made everybody feel like they were a part of it, I think they'll feel similarly. I'm kind of trying to get there, and we're just starting in NA Dota because that's my home and my space. We just changed our brand from NA Challengers Leagues to NA Dota Esports and I want to be Dota Esports one day.
BLIX: You brought up the Reddit community, and I want to bring that up because there has been major attention towards them and what they say and how that affects other things, such as content creators and talent. Why is there such a big focus on the Reddit Dota community and what they say?
ppd: It's always been consistently there. We've had so many different groups come and go, and the Dota 2 subreddit has always been the best place to find Dota news. It's the best place for match discussions. It's just been like a hub. Reddit is a very successful site. They have millions and millions of users and a lot of them are Dota fans. They're the most popular place and that gives them a certain amount of leverage, so their community has a large voice, I suppose. And, you know, what is said on Reddit is seen by most people, and people have opinions, so, regardless, it has influence over their opinions.
BLIX: Is it a good or bad thing for the r/Dota2 community to have as much leverage as you mentioned?
ppd: It's good to have leverage and to basically have a pulse on what the community thinks, but I think we need more people to actually want to participate or have a say. Of all the fans that are watching TI right now, most of them are not on Reddit, most of them don't even look at Reddit and very few of them post on Reddit. It's kind of like a little vocal minority that has a large voice in those spaces, which is pretty common. Yeah, I would love to maybe do more polling and voting. We just need to be able to organize ourselves so we can figure out what everybody actually wants, and I feel like it's not being worked on anywhere right now.
BLIX: Why not?
ppd: It's just an incredibly challenging task. Managing large decentralized audiences is super difficult. People often jump in and lump themselves into local groups, but organizing people across the globe is a really daunting task.