2 lessons the eSports industry can learn from Valve’s Shanghai flop

A few weeks ago, Valve completely bombed their Dota 2 Shanghai Majors. You’ve probably heard about all of it by now — but in case you haven’t, here’s a quick rundown:

  • Fired a beloved community caster in the middle of the event
  • Let their CEO openly call aforementioned caster an “ass” on Reddit
  • Multiple sound failures in-game and during player interviews
  • Repeated game delays, some as long as an hour and a half
  • Game freezes and a plethora of other technical issues
  • Poor camera work
  • Covering team fights and critical moments via replays

The list could go on.

But the question is….what exactly went wrong? How does a multi-million dollar tournament get screwed up that badly? And how can Valve (and other companies) avoid this kind of spectacle in the future?

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Step 1: Better Preparation

A lot of the bedlam that we saw at the Shanghai Majors can be traced back to the fact that Valve simply did not do their research.

According to this 17-page response by James Harding, the caster who was fired in the midst of the event, Valve had no idea what they were getting into when they hired him. Harding has always flaunted a somewhat irreverent and racy personality when he casts, and he was told by a Valve employee to “be himself” during the broadcast. But apparently, Valve didn’t quite understand what this meant, as Gabe Newell himself made it a point to criticize Harding for being disrespectful and vulgar.

But Harding wasn’t the only blind spot in Valve’s research. They also failed to consider what they might get when hiring Perfect World Entertainment to produce the Majors. Fans who have followed Dota 2’s competitive scene for a while now can tell you that this is Perfect World’s second time producing Dota 2 event — and they screwed that one up, too. At the Nanyang Championship over a year ago, the broadcast was riddled with the same sort of issues that plagued this year’s Majors. But apparently no one over at Valve looked into that before giving Perfect World another shot.

In future eSports events, developers need to spend more time considering who they invite to manage them. Every aspect of an event — from its broadcasting and production, to the personalities and tech — needs to be carefully examined and prepared for. Going in with a clear idea of what to expect from everyone involved is the only way to avoid nasty surprises that could tarnish (or even ruin) the whole thing.

Shanghai Majors

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Step 2: A Level Head

Good preparation will significantly reduce the chances of something going wrong once an event gets underway. But even the best preparation will not prevent everything. Problems will arise — that’s simply the nature of production and gaming as a whole. Games will lag, sound will go haywire, cameras will freeze, casters will screw up. It has happened and will happen at every eSports event ever produced.

But what goes wrong isn’t nearly as important as how it’s handled. That’s where Valve made a fatal mistake. Gaben could have had a chat with Harding about his casting and offered some suggestions or alternatives to the aspects of the cast he was displeased with. He could have had an underling do it for him. He could have just written an email. But instead, he chose to boot him and publicly slander him — thus drawing unnecessary attention to a tournament that was already falling apart.

Generally speaking, openly calling someone an ass isn’t the way to solve much of anything. Creating more of a spectacle to mitigate the damage done by creating a spectacle in the first place…that definitely isn’t the way to solve anything. It’s like burning your whole house down because the plumbing is bad and the door squeaks.

Valve’s biggest failure at the Shanghai Majors was their inability to keep a level head. When things started to go South, they crumbled under the pressure and the criticism of their fans. Gaben’s response to the whole thing isn’t just rash and somewhat immature — it’s proof that Valve came unhinged. And that should be a lesson to other devs on what not to do in future events.

When things go wrong, as they inevitably will, devs need to be able to engage damage control without throwing the whole thing under the bus. Having a plan, a backup plan, a backup backup plan, and a good support network will go a long way in making those upsets as contained as possible. And how do devs acquire those? Through good preparation.

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Hopefully, you’re starting to see the pattern here. Valve didn’t come to this event well-prepared, which meant they weren’t ready for it when things go wrong. If they had done their homework — if they had spent a little more time planning and a little less time focusing on VR Portal knockoffs — they might have been of sound enough mind to handle things calmly when the Majors went awry. A well-prepared developer is a level-headed developer. And a level-headed developer is a well-prepared developer. Simple as that.