The Dangers of the Transfer Cascade

On the 22nd of March TI5 champions Evil Geniuses woke up in a bathtub full of ice, disoriented and riddled with fresh stitches. Next to them was a note signed by Valve:

Rosters will be locked on March 27th 2016 12:00AM PDT, and will remain locked until after The International. Making changes to your roster [after this date] will cause your team to no longer be eligible to receive a direct invitation to either the Major or the Regional Qualifiers.

The Dota 2 transfer periods were instated as a measure to combat the seemingly over-abundant roster shuffles that plagued the Dota 2 ecosystem. But a hunting season doesn’t save wildlife as much as it forces hunters to get all of their killing done in a shorter time window. TI5 champions and consistent top-3 finishers EG thought themselves safe from the savagery — and instead got several of their vital organs removed only days before the finish line.

Org-to-Org Warfare

Several personalities have already expressed their concerns over teams handicapping rival squads by poaching players. If EG truly had no heads-up about Arteezy and Universe leaving, then Secret has just neatly gutted one of their biggest competitors. Whether it’s a win for the players involved has yet to be seen. One thing is for certain: Kemal Sadikoglu is one up on Alexander Garfield before a single match has been played.

The phenomenon existed long before the Majors or the roster locks. The best example is Na`Vi’s consistent signing of Team Empire players, leading to the second team being mockingly described as “the Na`Vi training grounds”. This periodic strengthening of the Natus Vincere squad triggered an avalanche of transfers throughout the CIS region every time it happened, as each team that had lost players recruited new ones from their weaker rivals in turn.

The introduction of the Majors and the roster locks didn’t change that dynamic; it only upped the stakes. Getting to one of the Valve events alone nets your squad a cool $30.000, even if you go 0–12 once you’re there. At the same time it’s easier than ever before to lose your eligibility for a direct invite. No full roster before the deadline means going through the Open Qualifiers, and that road is long and riddled with unpredictable opponents.

Taken together, this means that the transfer period is a great opportunity for powerful teams to (intentionally) cripple their rivals. Poaching the right player at the right time forces competing organizations into race against the clock, and it’s all but guaranteed that some will fall by the wayside.

Digital Chaos Bites the Dust

It comes as no surprise, then, that Evil Geniuses got out of the bathtub and put someone else in there instead. Less than 24 hours after the news of Arteezy and Universe’s transfer, SunsFan announced “dead team” on his twitter. Resolut1on, who had been removed from the squad only days before, still featured prominently on the DC website. With Aui_2000 and BuLba almost certainly leaving for EG, the north American organization is now home to only Yawar and 1437. The amount of players that has to be replaced has now increased to 3. (This is not counting the rumors that Fear and Suma1l are going to leave EG too.)

So what will it be? Will DC pass out among the ice cubes, or will they too grit their teeth and harvest some teams further down the line?

The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play

Only the team that set the cascade in motion profits; everyone else suffers. Late kicks can and will destroy entire pro careers. World-class players might end up on squads that don’t suit them, or they won’t be able to find a team that’s on their level at all. And tied to the careers of those players are the livelihoods of all manner of people — coaches, managers, web designers, community managers… and ultimately event organizers and sponsors too.

As things are now, players have every reason to be wary of being backstabbed by their teammates until the rosters are locked. Teams will implement extra measures to prohibit their players from interaction or negotiation with other organizations.

The fact that eSports juggernaut Evil Geniuses was forced to scramble for survival is a sign on the wall. The seemingly imminent demise of Digital Chaos adds a giant red exclamation mark. Valve’s bare-bones transfer rules and one organization’s backroom negotiations have combined to shape a crisis neither of these teams could have anticipated. The transfer cascade takes no prisoners: it’s either ride or die. EG have chosen to ride — DC might have no choice but to die.

Whether it was intentional or just an unfortunate side-effect, Team Secret’s last-minute transfer efforts have thrown the professional scene into unprecedented chaos. Rather than making the Dota 2 scene more stable, Valve’s roster lock deadline has made it more volatile than ever before. Any new organizations who were considering investing in Dota 2 will have to think twice before they take the leap.

Curbing the Cascade

Like an avalanche, the cascade is easily triggered but extremely difficult to stop. In this case, the course might end with DC’s demise. But if Valve is willing to counteract the destructive results of their own rules, they could also opt to switch out the roster deadline for a “kick deadline” after which teams are no longer allowed to release players. This would force teams to select replacements from the pool of free agents instead of plundering lower-ranked teams’ rosters.

In order to reduce the amount and severity of cascades, future transfer periods will have to be more tightly regulated. This could either be done by Valve (Riot-style) or by a union formed by players and orgs themselves (FIFA-style). For now, though, the cascade leaves the Dota 2 scene no choice. There’s three days to go until the deadline, and we’ll all ride the out this wave whether we want to or not. 

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