How Valve’s eSports mastermind shook up the industry in 2013

This was the biggest year ever for eSports

Screengrab via GamingLives/YouTube

This was the biggest year ever for eSports. Competitive gaming has more players, a bigger audience, and a brighter future than ever before. Over a period of 10 days, the Daily Dot will profile people who’ve fueled this unprecedented growth, from top players to industry visionaries. 

In earlier pieces, we looked at Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, the 20-year-old StarCraft 2 phenom from Canada, and Rod Breslau, the eSports journalist. Today, we’d like you to meet Erik Johnson, an industry legend who’s helping turn Dota 2 into one of the most innovative eSports on the planet.

Erik Johnson is a legend in the games industry. Starting as an internal tester for Half-Life, he went on to positions like project manager for Team Fortress and is now the lead director on Dota 2, the second biggest eSport in the world.

The gap between number one and two, however, is pretty big. Riot’s League of Legends leads the way by millions of players, seemingly leaving Dota 2’s team to watch and then play catch up. But according to Johnson, they’re watching anyone but themselves.

“To be honest, we really think mostly about Dota,” he told Gamespot. “We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the broader eSports world.”

Maybe that’s his secret. Today, Johnson is presiding over some of the most impressive innovations in eSports.

Johnson conceived and create Dota 2’s annual championship tournament, The International. This year’s edition boasted the biggest prize pool in eSports history, despite the fact that Dota 2 is not as popular as League of Legends.

Johnson’s ingenious trick was something called the Compendium, a virtual book costing $2.50 and that included collectible cards and fantasy prediction games. Zealous fans, buying these items up at rapid speeds, boosted the tournament’s prize pool by over $1 million to a grand total of more than $2.8 million, eclipsing League of Legends as well as Valve’s grandest expectations.

Much of Valve’s massive eSports successes can be traced back to Johnson. At the very foundation of the game, he’s responsible for the masterstroke of hiring Icefrog, the talented developer behind Dota 1 whose real identity has never been revealed.

The huge success of Dota 2’s unique in-game items, tournament viewing tickets, and powerful workshop have boosted the economy of the game by millions of dollars. Equippable items like pennants allow fans to directly fund the teams they love in a way that’s never been possible before. Johnson sees building a bridge between fans and teams as a big part of Valve’s job, something the company will be focusing on in 2014 in a big way—and something that no other developer has caught onto yet.

Ultimately, there’s only one way to truly tell the worth of innovation. Who is taking what you’ve done and using it for themselves? Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Valve’s sequel to one of the biggest eSports games of all time, has adopted much of Dota 2’s unique takes on eSports from tickets to in-game items. It’s no coincidence that Global Offensive’s popularity has surged at the same time.