It’s clear that qualifying points was a move by Valve to empower players, dissuade teams from unfairly shuffling rosters, and add transparency to the process of The International Invites. But just in the early round of Valve’s Dota Circuit, the scene saw its first controversy: LGD getting penalized for substituting their coach for a player. With the new qualifying point system, LGD got deducted points due to the substitution.
Valve, in their policies and interventions, has historically backed players. They pay winnings directly to them, and they’ve implemented policies that provide players clout and agency during the pro circuit. It’s certainly the right direction, as Dota’s pro scene is rife with stories of organizations taking advantage of its young players.
In one early case, team Fnatic moved to replace their carry, Era, weeks before TI3—before there were roster locks. Valve investigated the case and eventually forced the team to keep him on the roster or risk disqualification. During this time, Valve judged on a case-by-case basis, because they essentially just had to regulate one tournament a year (The International). Then with the Majors, it was clear that for a pro scene to thrive, there needed to be rules in place that prevented this kind of exploitation. Roster lock rules were a safeguard against teams trying to oust and rotate players before a tournament.
But the lock rules had an inadvertent effect of leaving players stranded, with teams dropping them before the lock deadline. This was later amended with the addition of an add and drop window, in which players had a small window of time to cobble together another team or surface in the free agent market. One fortuitous result was the formation of Digital Chaos in 2016, a team slapped together at the last second and then placed 2nd in The International.
Enter the Dota circuit, an expansion of seasonal pro Dota, with each tournament paving the way for aspiring teams to play in The International. Valve’s methods of how they decide which teams to invite to the main event and qualifiers have always been a mystery. Their process was opaque for so many years that essentially the community could examine the pattern and predict the upcoming invites. Events closer to TI mattered more than events before. A team might hurt their chances by underperforming in an event when they’ve already done well in events before. A notable example includes Fnatic pre-TI6, who finished the Manila Major in 5th/6th place but was denied a direct invite to TI following a poor performance at ESL One Frankfurt 2016.
Just as with roster locks, as Valve sets more, much needed policies and rules, there will be others looking to exploit it.
Qualifying points serve two main purposes (outside of qualifying for TI): deterring teams from changing their players mid-cycle by reducing QPs earned, and empowering players by having them own their QPs, even if they’re no longer with a team.
Just last week, Fnatic replaced their mid player, Xcalibur, with Abed, formerly from DC. After a lackluster start, they opted to take the penalty for any points earned until the next shuffle. It’s certainly within the right of an organization to enroll the best team they can compose. It’s just that organizations have been doing that without consequence since the beginning of esports.
In doing so, Fnatic deemed it was more worthwhile to take the penalty in qualifying points, should they win any before the next shuffle, than continuing with their current roster. Reduced points are better than no points. That was Fnatic's calculation, and it was the same for LGD's situation with Victoria, when the team cited health issues for the reason for the substitution.
There is an issue that health can be taken for granted in esports, which is plagued more by repetitive stress injuries than torn ACLs or concussions. A team gets penalized regardless. In this case, Victoria had acute pancreatitis, and he returned three weeks later, shortly after LGD was penalized for the substitution. In the press release regarding his illness and return, LGD talked about how they sought a replacement for Victoria, and when they couldn't, Victoria recovered, rejoined the team, and is now playing a new position, from the 4 to the 5.
Whether the post was poorly stated or translated, it appears that LGD attempted to drop their player at the first sight of injury, or they concocted a story as a cover for internal issues. Similarly, VG.Reborn cited family issues for nono when they replaced him with Mikasa going into TI6. And when Yang couldn't get a Visa for TI6, nono rejoined the team once again. These situations were dubious, to say the least, and if there were stipulations for health or family emergencies in QPs, it can also open up opportunities for teams to exploit them.
Valve has a lot on their plate by trying to stabilize a volatile scene. Without a collective bargaining agreement between organizations and players, both sides can be reactionary. All decisions lead to TI, and any misstep along the way can be reason enough for either players or management to look elsewhere.
One interesting clause in how QPs work is that only three players with the highest QPs contribute to that team’s total. That would lead to some interesting scenarios by the last shuffle window. Teams in good standing for TI would be free to drop 2 players without penalty, save for having consistency and chemistry going into TI. Not much is different here than last year, except the reassurance that they would still be in the running for TI.
That's just the context for one team. In a hypothetical case, three qualified TI teams have enough players to fracture and create five teams with just the same QP points. That's because only the top three players contribute QPs to their team's standing. That's one extreme scenario, but in this era, organizations own multiple teams. Take, for example, teams LGD and LFY, who are both within the same organization. They could easily splinter one successful team and shuffle players to secure both TI invites. And in a late season situation, they could exploit the standin policy to get QPs for players from another team. If LGD secured a TI invite and LFY hasn't yet, nor have they qualified for the final events of the season, LGD could adopt LFY players as "standins" and essentially carry them towards QPs.
From the other point of view, since players own their points, they're free to find new teammates or join other rosters, without losing much momentum in their TI aspirations. QPs can protect stranded players and free agents, but they can also incentivize players to coalesce with players from other teams. The Dota pro community is a small world, and the camaraderie between its players has been a force for the formation of new teams and the fracture of old ones. Now, successful players can leave and still be assured their good standing in their TI run.
Qualifying points nonetheless is a welcome change, introducing a system when there was none before. There are bound to be exceptional situations, ones that may flout Valve's intentions. For now, they'll just have to handle it on a case-by-case basis, as they always have before.