This essay begins with a simple object—a ticket to The International, Valve Corporation’s annual Dota 2 Championship—and traces its life cycle to show how something seemingly straightforward like admission to an esports tournament in China can reveal a series of interleaved microeconomies that index the performances of professional players inside the stadium, instigate a host of informal money games played outside the stadium, and even intersect with contemporary geopolitics. From USD and RMB to online and offline tickets to wristbands and black-light stamps, blind boxes and swag bags, loot drops and virtual cosmetics, and back to money, a ticket does not simply grant entrance to watch a game but constitutes a metagame in and of itself. Although these types of games also occur alongside sold-out concerts, maximum-capacity sporting events, and bustling fan conventions, the life of this particular ticket brings together Valve’s unique history financializing esports and gamifying money with the political and economic realities of an American company holding an event in Shanghai the summer of 2019. Working with Tara Fickle’s concept of “ludo-Orientalism” and Marcella Szablewicz’s notion of “patriotic leisure,” this essay moves from the competition between pro gamers and esports commentary to the political spectacle produced by the metagame of ticket arbitrage. When the metagame of ticketing transgresses the boundaries of the magic circle of the esports stadium, the illusion of meritocracy falls away to reveal money games all the way down.
At 6:00 a.m. on May 25, 2019, tickets for The International Dota 2 Championship went on sale for $4401 each—some of the most expensive seats in the history of esports (see fig. 1). In a flurry of CTRL+V’ed credit card numbers and frantic F5’ing, the tickets sold out in less than five minutes and immediately began circulating in secondhand marketplaces like Viagogo and Taobao for $2200. From August 20 to 25, an ad hoc bull pen of “yellow cows” gathered across the street from Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, and daily ticket prices fluctuated according to the specifics of the tournament—specifically, if Chinese teams were advancing through the double-elimination bracket. On Thursday, August 22, tickets skyrocketed to $4400 overnight after national favorites PSG.LGD beat local Shanghai team Vici Gaming in the upper brackets at 8:08 p.m. that evening. But the demand didn’t last. The next morning, on Saturday, August 23, ticket prices plummeted after the one-two punch of Vici losing to European powerhouse Team Secret at 11:46 a.m. followed by PSG.LGD losing to rival Danish team OG at 12:53 p.m. At this point, the chance a Chinese team would make the finals was looking less and less likely and ticket prices were in free fall. Although The International had sold out, when the finals started the morning of August 25, Mercedes-Benz Arena was empty. From haggling for $4400 tickets to making memes about the missing audience, the material histories of esports extend well beyond the phenomenology of pro gamers and the technologies of videogames to the audiences, venues, ticketing, and markets that emerge around games like Valve Corporation’s Dota 2. Instead of following the money, in this essay we will follow the tickets in order to uncover histories of esports that go beyond sales figures, match statistics, and sports commentaries. What stories can a ticket tell about esports, money, and metagaming in China?
A stack of two hundred thirty-five ¥100 notes (about $3300) sits next to seven seats’ worth of tickets to The International Dota 2 Championship; in late August 2019, these two stacks were worth roughly the same amount. (Photograph courtesy of authors)
This essay begins with a simple object—a ticket to an esports tournament—and traces its life cycle to show how something seemingly straightforward like admission to an event can reveal a series of interleaved microeconomies that index the performances of professional players inside the stadium, instigate a host of informal money games played outside the stadium, and even intersect with contemporary geopolitics. From USD and RMB to online and offline tickets to wristbands and black-light stamps, blind boxes and swag bags, loot drops and virtual cosmetics, and back to money, a ticket does not simply grant entrance to watch a game but is a metagame2 in and of itself. Although these types of games also occur alongside sold-out concerts, maximum-capacity sporting events, and bustling fan conventions, the life of this particular ticket brings together Valve’s unique history financializing esports and gamifying money with the political and economic realities of an American company holding an event in China the summer of 2019. Working with Tara Fickle’s concept of “ludo-Orientalism” and Marcella Szablewicz’s notion of “patriotic leisure,” this essay moves from the competition between pro gamers and esports commentary to the political spectacle produced by the metagame of ticket arbitrage in late August 2019. When the metagame of ticketing transgresses the boundaries of the magic circle of the esports stadium, the illusion of meritocracy falls away to reveal money games all the way down.
Damai, What Did You Sell? Buying Tickets Online
Even before playing took the form of passing cash in Shanghai subway stations and wiring money from international bank accounts, Dota is a difficult game to pin down.3 Although there are precedents like Aeon of Strife in the late 1990s, the phenomenon began with Defense of the Ancients, a Warcraft III mod that inspired a diffuse and granular genre of custom maps that circulated on Blizzard’s Battle.net in the early 2000s. Those many DotAs were then distilled into DotA: Allstars, the most-played variant that became popular in China in the mid- to late aughts. Recognizing the mod’s global popularity, Valve hired modders who worked on DotA and Allstars to develop Dota 2 (even though technically there had never been a Dota 1). For its part, Dota 2 is a high-production remake of Allstars designed to operate as a platform for cosmetic items, community markets, and competitive tournaments throughout the 2010s (see fig. 2).4 Rather than a single piece of software, when taken as a whole, Dota is a complex phenomenon that has come to operate as a platform for enclosing a diverse array of player-driven metagames, from the META (Most Efficient Tactics Available) of professional gamers to the 3-D models, machinima, and mods created by players to the collecting and trading, buying and selling, betting and gambling, and even money laundering taking place in and around the game. Beyond its format and mechanics and alongside other games like Riot’s League of Legends (2009), Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm (2015), and Tencent’s Honor of Kings (2015), Dota 2 is notable for being a free-to-play platform monetized through virtual items, live tournaments, and enormous crowdsourced prize pools for the annual Dota 2 Championship (see fig. 3).
A screenshot of Dota 2 (left) in which two teams of five players each pilot an individual hero on a top-down, RTS-inspired map. The minimap (right) depicts the playing field, which is split into three lanes with three towers protecting two opposing bases divided by a river. (Screenshots from Dota 2 Team, “[EN] PSG.LGD vs OG BO3 - The International 2019 Main Event,” YouTube, August 24, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-3X4Q9yZkg )
From a couple dozen people standing around a booth to see who would win $1.6 million at GamesCom 2011 in Cologne (left) to selling out 18,000 seats to spectate a tournament with a $34 million crowdsourced prize pool at Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai in 2019 (right), The International Dota 2 Championship has consistently grown in terms of viewership, prize pool, and venue size. (First photograph from designducky, “valve’s booth next door,” Flickr, August 17, 2011, https://www.flickr.com/photos/52821156@N00/6073132468/ ; second photograph from Dota 2 Team, “The Opening Ceremonies,” Flickr, August 20, 2019, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dota2ti/48581371966/ )
Although the original modders were American, the original mods were released on an American platform, and Valve is an American company (being sued by a couple other American companies for remaking the original mod), in many ways Dota is a Chinese game. As Team Secret Captain and one of the oldest and winningest Dota players, Clement “Puppey” Ivanov put it: “[e]ven before there was a TI, China was the epicenter of competitive Dota.”5 All the way back in 2010, IceFrog, DotA: Allstars’ enigmatic steward from 2004 onward, blogged that he estimated that “the Chinese DotA audience is about 40–50% the worldwide audience.”6 Valve hired IceFrog to cement their sequel’s legitimacy and gain access to the Chinese market, which would lead to developing Chinese partnerships, Chinese infrastructure, and Chinese tournaments. Like clockwork, in 2013 the first new hero IceFrog announced after porting his earlier work to the Source Engine was Sun Wukong, the Monkey King from Journey to the West.7 So toward the end of The International (TI) in 2018, when Valve first announced that TI would be leaving North America for the first time in seven years and would finally be hosted by China, the stars began to align. In 2019, one of China’s favorite esports teams, PSG.LGD, was still at the top of their game after a close loss in the fifth game of the TI8 finals; there had been an explosion of interest around Shanghai-based Drodo Studio’s new Dota Auto-Chess (2019) mod, which brought an incredible 23 percent player spike to Dota 2; and Valve was planning an announcement of the official Chinese Steam client by Perfect World that summer.8 That year (like every year before it), the crowdsourced prize pool broke all previous esports records with a whopping $34,330,068 pot (see fig. 4).9 As Dota 2 commentator Kyle Friedman put it, Dota 2 is “[t]he Super Bowl, but for stakes typically reserved for the World Series of Poker.”10 With so much on the line, TI9 was primed to be a spectacular showing abroad, but this also meant working with a new venue, a new production crew, and a new country. One of the first issues to emerge that directly impacted fans (and especially non-Chinese fans) was ticket sales. Specifically, the dates that tickets were first announced and finally sold were the latest of any TI and the tickets were also the most expensive of any TI.
Starting in 2013, the prize pool for The International Dota 2 Championship has been crowdsourced via the Dota 2 Compendium, a kind of digital magazine or interactive website now embedded in a paid monthly service called Dota Plus. (Screenshot from Matthew Bailey [@Cyborgmatt], “The International 2019,” Dota 2 Prize Pool Tracker, 2019, https://dota2.prizetrac.kr/international2019 )
Valve released surprisingly little information about when tickets would go on sale, how tickets would be sold, and even the final dates of the late August event. It was a black box. In previous years, tickets were sold about five months ahead of the event, in late March or early April.11 However, in 2019, the official date of the tournament wasn’t announced until April 25 and ticketing dates were only announced on May 20, just three days before tickets would go on sale at two different vendors. Rather than Ticketmaster, Chinese ticketing company Damai would sell to Chinese citizens with a limit of ten tickets per national ID, and Universe would support tickets for everyone else via passport numbers.12 Players who held a Battle Pass (or a Dota Plus monthly subscription)13 prior to the announcement were given priority via a ten-digit early-access code that allowed them to log in and purchase tickets on Damai and Universe a full hour before the general public (see fig. 5). On paper, this seemed like a decent means to finally reward devoted attendees and give them an advantage when acquiring tickets. Then again, in 2019 prices were substantially more expensive than previous years. For the first time, tickets were broken into three bundles14 that totaled $440, 4.44 times the original price of TI4 and TI5 tickets at KeyArena in 2015–16 and 1.52 times the price of TI8 tickets at Rogers Arena in 2018. These prices were especially high given the purchasing power parity of the Chinese yuan. So even before the reselling game began, these were some of the most expensive tickets in the history of esports.15 Given the shortened timeline, increased price, and complexities of traveling to China in 2019, attendees (and ticket resellers) scrambled to plan strategies for negotiating the various ticketing websites. For those located on the Pacific coast in North America, this meant readying a fleet of computers to queue online before the early-access codes were accepted at 6:00 a.m. PST on May 24. Unfortunately, if what happened nine hours earlier in China was any indication, the prospects of easily securing tickets was bleak.
Aside from contributing to the prize pool and gaining access to alternative game modes, collectable prizes, and seasonal achievements, one of the perks of purchasing the Battle Pass for The International in 2019 was a unique early-access code that allowed users to purchase tickets one hour before they were released on Damai.cn and Universe.com. (Screenshot courtesy of authors)
At 11:59 a.m. China Standard Time (CST) on May 24, exactly one minute before tickets were released, the Dota 2 Twitter account released an ominous message: “The International 2019 ticket sales start on Damai will be delayed by 1 hour.”16 And with that, the slight advantage afforded by early-access codes was gone and buyers were not pleased. At 1:00 p.m. CST, the 26,804 tickets released on Damai sold out in fifty-three seconds.17 Tickets for the finals alone sold out in twenty-seven seconds.18 Chinese fans who failed to get tickets on Damai could try again nine hours later on Universe at 6:00 a.m. PST. Predictably, Universe sold out in minutes and the aftermath was a mess. Tickets appeared almost immediately on secondary markets like Taobao and Viagogo19 complete with options for section and seat number (which were not even available in the original purchase).20 Accusations that the ticket resellers, informally called the huáng niú (黄牛, lit. yellow oxen or yellow cows), colluded with Damai in order to bypass the early-access code began to circulate.21 Fans on Steam, Reddit, Twitter, Weibo, and WeChat alongside news outlets reported that “a special URL was being provided to scalpers to help them buy tickets faster by removing the need to input the early access code.”22 Regardless of whether Damai had actually given reselling agencies a backdoor (or if they simply withhold a predetermined number of all event tickets for corporate and government partners which were then offloaded en masse to resellers if left unclaimed), the sale was a scandal.
In response to the scheduling delays, technical difficulties, and failure to ultimately acquire tickets, fans wasted no time in expressing their frustration:
Yeah this is fucking bullshit and they have the nerve to brag about this. I clicked the final purchase button about 8 times before that 27s mark. These tickets were automatically sold out in the 1st second to scalpers & Chinese bots. My only ever opportunity for TI is gone.23
I’ve attended TI since TI5, the ticket process this year is an abomination where real fans can’t even get tickets. You should cancel the scalper tickets and actually let real fans buy them. I even planned my hotel and flights, all ruined due to the ticket system this year. 24
I guess this is what it feels like when TI is in US and everyone else outside couldn’t get tickets, lol. The only extremely bad part imo was that those with presale codes, never ever got a chance to even purchase. I am reading that queuing started monday. . . . Who knew the queue started while the countdown was on? Didn’t say it anywhere. 25
Chinese netizens echoed the sentiments circulating the anglophone internet but pinned their disappointment more squarely on Damai:
大麦和完美就是坨屎 💩 勾结黄牛一秒售罄 💩 Fcking DAMAI 💩 Fcking Perfectworld 💩 (trans. Damai and Perfect World are shit. 💩 Collude with yellow cows—sell out in seconds. 💩)26
你们这票务搞的你妈逼什么东西？操你妈，听见没有，操你妈！(trans. What the fuck is this ticketing thing you guys are doing? Fuck you, you hear me? Fuck you!)29
Yellow🌕 cows🐂 dead[💀] moms[💁♀️]30
As numerous articles reported online, fans were quick to accuse Damai of colluding with the huáng niú.31 Whereas Chinese social media commentators aimed their attacks largely on Damai, anglophone sentiment blended critique with explicit racism, lashing out at Chinese businesses, the Chinese government, and Chinese people more generally:
The Chinese are cheating and scamming? I’m shocked! 32
News flash: Chinese are scummy . . . In other news: water is wet and grass is green.33
Isn’t there a Chinese phrase that’s like, “do whatever you can to get ahead”? 34
This country and Scam, name me a more iconic duo.35
Now you know why trump don’t like China. 36
Tripping on the blocks after the starting pistol jammed, in North America and Europe, the players disqualified from participating in any further money games funneled their ire onto a convenient target. But these racist stereotypes and crude generalizations about China are not new to Dota 2.
In The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities, Tara Fickle frames the history of American-Asian relations in terms of ludo-Orientalism or how “the design, marketing, and rhetoric of games shape how Asians as well as East-West relations are imagined and where notions of foreignness and racial hierarchies get reinforced.”37 For example, as Fickle points out, Barack Obama characterized US economic policy as a game after visiting China for the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations in 2015: “[T]he rules are unfair. The playing field is uneven. . . . We have to make sure America writes the rules of the global economy. . . . Because if we don’t write the rules for trade around the world . . . China will. And they’ll write those rules in a way that gives Chinese workers and Chinese businesses the upper hand, and locks American-made goods out.”38
After withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017 and starting the American-Chinese trade war in 2018, Donald Trump was more blunt: “I will not say the word ‘cheated,’ but nobody’s cheated better than China, I will say that.”39 Fickle argues that “[i]f the United States is both rule maker and enforcer, China is now more than ever figured as the rule breaker, the cheater defined by a refusal to play fair: to respect the international rules for trade and manufacture as well as those concerning the value of human life in terms of labor laws; or to maintain the presumed sanctity of human rights, particularly regarding free speech and access to information.”40 This characterization aligns with the way in which English commentators were quick to label the huáng niú, Damai, and China more broadly as “cheaters” and “scammers.” In the same way the United States frequently accuses China of “massive market barriers, heavy state subsidies, currency manipulation, product dumping, forced technology transfers, and the theft of intellectual property . . . [and continuing to] game the system at others expense,” accusations around the manipulation of tickets immediately started to fly after The International sold out.41 The conversations around ticket buying and selling tickets for The International reflected the geopolitics of 2019—the Trump administration’s characterization of China as money gamers, IP thieves, and economic cheaters; China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang in 2017; and Hong Kong’s protests against the Chinese Extradition Bill starting in 2019.
While online commentators shined a spotlight on China to complain how damaging the ticket touting had been in 2019, a longer look at the history of ticket reselling reveals that these behaviors were neither new nor that different from other cultural contexts in which secondary ticket markets flourish. The practice of ticket reselling is as old as tickets themselves, which can be dated back to at least the Elizabethan era and the rise of commercial theater.42 In the US, companies like Ticketmaster have a long history of public critique over their unscrupulous business practices like so-called convenience fees and cooperation with secondary markets both online and offline. Kerry Segrave’s book on the history of ticket reselling in the United States documents collusion around ticketing that goes back to the nineteenth century.43 Segrave further observes that as much as ticket touting has been “reviled and vilified by editorial writers and general commentators from at least 1850 to the present time,”44 it has also proved to be virtually impossible to eliminate and a fundamental part of the contemporary mass spectatorship experience.45 In this respect, contemporary online outlets like Damai and Ticketmaster are participating in the long history of entertainment industries publicly paying lip service to a problem and implementing pyrrhic policies to impede reselling, while simultaneously profiting from and enabling secondary markets.46 As Dean Budnick, coauthor of Ticket Masters, states in an interview, a ticket seller’s “job is to sell tickets. . . . They want to sell as many tickets as they can, and if they want to sell to thousands of people who are going to resell them, they have a right to do that. That’s what the laws are.”47 While both anglophone and Chinese Dota fans slipped into racist rhetoric while blaming China for the troubles around ticketing, these centuries-long practices are hardly unique to any particular country or company.
Huáng Niú, What Did You Re-Sell? Buying Tickets Offline
Tickets for The Dota 2 International Championship in 2019 were more expensive, announced later, sold out faster, and had a stricter will call than any other International (see fig. 6). Beyond booking transportation and lodging, traveling to Shanghai, and, for foreigners, applying for a Chinese visa and registering with the local police, how did potential attendees actually acquire secondhand tickets? The notion of journeying to this event in order to meet a stranger and exchange large sums of money for esports tickets is quite a risk. What if something was wrong with the order? What if the seller found another buyer? What if the tickets were counterfeit? What if a flight or train got delayed? From a seller’s perspective, things seemed equally dodgy. What if the buyer was a no-show? What if they found another seller? What if a buyer tried to renegotiate the deal? Or what if they simply stole the tickets outright? One way to distribute risk would be to purchase tickets secondhand from another person in a similar strategic position (e.g., two students from rural China or two visitors from abroad) so both parties would be traveling, exchanging currency, and meeting up on equal footing. That might be worth the gamble. However, given the speed at which tickets sold out and the vast majority rumored to be bought by brokers, what was the best way to get a ticket?
A single VIP ticket for The International Dota 2 Championship allowed entry into the midlevel boxes at Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai. The ticket was punched, stamped, and swiped by security on the way in and out of the stadium. (Photograph courtesy of authors)
From an anglophone context, in previous years many tickets were resold on Stubhub, eBay, and Reddit as well as smaller forums and Discord channels. In 2019, however, there were no sales occurring in the usual English-language websites. The event page on Universe did not update as refunds were processed, and there was not a single eBay or Stubhub sale leading up to the tournament.48 Although there were tickets listed on Viagogo—the European reseller created by StubHub cofounder Eric Baker after being ousted from his original company—the shipping details provided did not match the pickup procedures that were advertised by Valve, Damai, and Universe. Nevertheless, alongside the listings for Damai tickets in Taobao or Xianyu (an app owned by Tabao and used primarily for secondhand goods), Viagogo became an index for private negotiations, moving from five times the price on May 24 to four times and then three times the price as the first month of ticket trading proceeded (see fig. 7). On Reddit, discussions over ticket reselling were no more promising even though this had been a useful resource in every other year.
Starting back in 2014, there was always an annual subreddit for trading tickets, reselling, and meeting up at the tournament. However, 2019 brought all of these conversations to a halt. Historically, the TI ticketing subreddits receive a little over eight hundred threads (typically in the style of buy and sell orders like “WTB 5 Sets of TI9 Tickets”) and about 760 comments (which are typically buying or selling offers based on each thread title). In 2018 The International moved out of the United States for the first time since 2011 and activity dropped an order of magnitude. Then, as a result of the complexities of travel to China, vendors, and currency, in 2019 activity dropped another order of magnitude: 1 percent of typical arbitrage around the event (see fig. 8). There were a handful of posts and queries, but it was clear that the previous year’s methods for ticket acquisition would no longer work. Most ticket negotiations would have to take place in Shanghai very close to the start of the tournament itself and likely in collaboration with the local huáng niú.
Tickets on Viagogo started around five times the original price (at the lowest) before falling gradually throughout the summer as the tournament approached. (Screenshots courtesy of authors)
A count of the number of threads, comments, and maximum subscribers to the annual Ticketing subreddit related to The International Dota 2 Championship.
Despite the difficulties of ticketing, on August 20, 2019, the tournament began as expected. Upon exiting China Art Museum Station across the street from the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, the first thing spectators saw was tickets. Yes, the silver, flying saucer–shaped stadium floated directly ahead and the red, inverted pagoda of the China Art Museum (first built as a pavilion for the Shanghai World Expo in 2010) could be seen down the block, but tickets were in your face. Dozens of ticket resellers congregated in the open area across the street from the stadium, the de facto site for secondhand ticket arbitrage for events at Mercedes-Benz. The huáng niú there accepted WeChat Pay, Alipay, and stacks of RMB.49 And the prices were marked up roughly the same amount as the odd ticket found online. The week of The International, a woman in sunglasses and a headscarf sat under an umbrella attached to a moped and negotiated with potential buyers the mornings before the games began. Once a deal was reached a man would carry over a black athletic bag full of shrink-wrapped bricks of tickets. This might as well have been another will call. Various groups of resellers worked together and, ultimately, worked with Damai (see fig. 9). While the space was bustling and loud, it was hardly disorganized, and everybody, from buyers to sellers, understood the roles they were playing in this ecosystem.
After will call opened at Mercedes-Benz Stadium the morning of August 18 and 19, online posts of ticket sellers wielding huge handfuls of tickets appeared online. (First image from ert556, “Scalpers are showing off TI tickets they got from Damai.com publicly on Weibo,” Reddit, August 11, 2019, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/couvka/scalpers_are_showing_off_ti_tickets_they_got_from/ ; second image from Shanghai Morning Post from “Opinion: The Turbulence of TI9 Ticket Sales in China,” Esports Observer, August 21, 2019, https://esportsobserver.com/opinion-ti9-ticket-sales-china/ )
Many in the audience, however, were so frustrated by the ticket-purchasing experience and the difficulty of buying secondhand, that images of ticket sellers showing off literal bricks of tickets fueled a visible backlash during the tournament. On the first day of the tournament, August 20, the graffiti wall in the hallway of the lower bowl of Mercedes-Benz Arena was vandalized (see fig. 10). Alongside scribbles of Dota 2 memes like “LGD vs OG,” “CN Dota Best Dota,” and “Ding ding ding mother******,” there was a highly visible “DMSM” standing for Dàmài mā sǐle (大麦死了), which roughly translates to “Damai’s mom’s dead,” a variation of the popular online obscenity “NMSL.”50 Stadium security stood in front of the wall and actively blocked attendees from taking photographs while staff quietly edited the “DMSL” into “RNGNB,” a combination of a local team name, Royal Never Give Up, with a somewhat vulgar but common acronym niú bī (牛逼), that, when taken together, can be approximated to “RNG kicks ass.”51 The critical statement was covered up with a message of support for the local Shanghaiese team.
From DMSM to RNGNB, one attendee’s vulgar graffiti taking aim at Damai was too controversial for the public graffiti wall. Security guards kept watch and shooed away photographers until the message was stealthily edited to a cheer for the local Shanghai team Royal Never Give Up. (First photograph courtesy of authors; second photograph from Dota 2 Team, “#TI9 Graffiti Wall,” Flickr, August 22, 2019, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dota2ti/48598886727/in/photostream/ )
Then, the next day, on August 21, fans held up a multilingual banner reading “大麦网你卖啥了 Shame on you damai.cn” (trans. “Damai what did you sell?”) which was briefly aired on the Chinese livestream (see fig. 11). Of course, stadium security promptly removed it, but not before the crowd performed some “Dàmài wǎng nǐ mài shàle” chants. Finally, on the third day, August 22, Shanghai police arrested resellers operating inside the stadium (see fig. 12). It’s not clear on what grounds the arrests took place, but at that point ticketing around the event started to make international news so a group of low-level huáng niú were lined up and loaded into the police van outside the stadium. After that, police were visibly present both in and outside the stadium for the remainder of the tournament making it difficult to buy and sell tickets. From switching cameras to editing graffiti to arresting ticket sellers, Mercedes-Benz Arena, Damai, and Valve worked to manage the controversies surrounding The International and sanitize the stadium—especially at a time when international relations were at a boiling point and already leaking into the event.52
A large multilingual banner “大麦网你卖啥了 Shame on you Damai” caught the attention of the internet after it was briefly flown behind the Chinese shoutcaster desk. (First image from 电竞狗子哥, “DOTA2-TI9现场：玩家高举“大麦网你卖啥了”横幅，获网友力挺,” 163.com, August 21, 2019, https://dy.163.com/article/EN44E6RH0526SJ13.html ; second image from 网上冲浪记事 , “Ti9换票疑云：大麦网，你卖啥了?,” Zhihu, August 22, 2019, https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/79320845 )
In a mostly symbolic attempt to demonstrate that authorities were responding to the ticket speculation taking place outside the arena, a handful of low-level huáng niú were taken away by police in highly visible arrests starting midtournament. (Screenshots from Hongyu Chen (@CHYchenhongyu), “#TI9 The Chinese police caught scalpers for re-selling TI tickets. But also the scalping ticket price has been much higher than before ... Ultimately, it’s harder for fans and players to buy a ticket now ¯\_(ツ)_/¯,” Twitter, August 22, 2019, https://twitter.com/CHYchenhongyu/status/1164474627579502592?s=20 )
Considering the optics of The International 2019, editorials across Chinese social media, microblogging platforms, and even the local newspapers lamented how poorly the tournament ticketing had been handled, treating it at the level of a national scandal. Numerous online commentators appealed to Damai’s sense of national pride: “[t]his is so wrong. Players want more than just a better seat, they want a fair and equitable chance to enjoy an esports tournament, a tournament in China that can make them proud, a memory that will satisfy the Chinese players who have waited years for it—not what’s in front of them: mismatched ticket numbers, rampant scalping, soaring ticket prices, and hearts on the verge of breaking.”53 Both inside and outside the stadium, Chinese fans and commentators expressed a desire for future TIs to never again be held in their country until better ticket-selling procedures were established. As Bjarke Liboriussen and Paul Martin observe in their work on “Games and Gaming in China,” in the wake of the Beijing Olympics, games have increasingly been deployed “in the performance of national identity and projection of soft power”54 (and like TI9, it’s no coincidence that the Beijing Olympics faced serious controversies around ticketing).55 The International, and esports more broadly, can be seen as an expansion of the broader ways in which China has mobilized soft power.56 But videogames, and specifically online videogames, have also been met with resistance. The idiom wán wù sàng zhì (玩物丧志), “play saps the will,” dates back to the Ming dynasty but continues to reflect popular sentiment and cultural anxieties around the effects of playing videogames in China today. Contemporary debates focused around videogame addiction, and the perception of play as wasteful has fueled a substantial body of governmental, academic, and journalistic writing in China.57 In this respect, fears about game addiction share a family resemblance with the debates on videogame violence in the United States that began in the 1980s, peaked with the media panic in the 1990s, and periodically flare up during moments of crisis. In China, videogames are not “murder simulators,” but “e-heroin.”58
Esports, however, has succeeded in carving a space outside of this field of concern in order to be embraced as a form of what Marcella Szablewicz calls “patriotic leisure.”59 In Mapping Digital Game Culture in China, Szablewicz analyzes the rhetorical distinction between wǎngluò yóuxì (网络游戏, trans. online gaming) and diànzǐ jìngjì (电子竞技, trans. esports). By creating two different categories of gaming, esports becomes the privileged term that is able to disavow the negative associations around videogames.60 Szablewicz argues, “[i]t is often only a matter of personal preference that separates diànzǐ jìngjì from wǎngluò games.”61 Yet official government and industry rhetoric often takes great pains to separate the two practices so as to carve out a space of legitimacy for esports. This is part of an at least three-decades-long tension that Lin Zhang has described as a conflict between the “pathology versus productivity” of computers and videogames.62 Scapegoating one category of play has allowed esports to emerge as “a form of professional competitive digital game play . . . sanctioned by the Chinese government and supported by both local government and corporate actors.”63 The result, Szablewicz suggests, is that esports can be shored up in the name of “patriotic leisure.”64
From an American perspective, the volatility surrounding ticket speculation taking place outside the stadium as well as the behavior of the audience within the stadium were suffused with racialized assumptions around Chinese gaming culture. As Fickle points out in The Race Card, “Asians have had a long and equivocal intimacy with gaming in the American imagination, stereotyped on the one hand as humorless workaholics afflicted by a racial allergy to all things fun and frivolous and yet, on the other, harboring a peerless global proclivity for gambling and games of chance.”65 Discipline on the one hand, addiction on the other. The Dota 2 International Championship in 2019 reveals both sides of the ludo-Orientalist coin. Inside the stadium, one kind of Chinese player is framed by commentators and online communities as a cold and calculated killjoy who sticks to the statistically optimal strategies and plays the long game despite the optics. Outside the stadium, another sort of Chinese player is characterized online as a dishonest and disruptive scammer who will gamble with tickets to make a quick buck in a game they neither know nor care about (as if the only people allowed to exploit Dota 2 are fans of Dota 2). Importantly, beyond the anglophone imagination archived on Twitter, Reddit, and the Steam forums, the Chinese government historically demonizes one kind of gaming while endorsing another. On one hand, diànzǐ jìngjì (including Dota 2) represent a legitimate (and even patriotic) opportunity for economic growth for pro gamers and corporations inside the veritable stadium. On the other hand, wǎngluò yóuxì (also including Dota 2) are a waste of energy that “sap the will” according to state-authored mental-health definitions around gaming disorders. It’s discipline for me, addiction for thee when it comes to Schrödinger’s videogame.
One of the more grandiose esports events to date, it was no surprise that fans reacted so aggressively against the huáng niú impeding the pursuit of patriotic leisure at TI9. If esports are understood as a form of health and productivity that furthers national interests and bolsters national pride, fans and officials alike could leverage that sentiment in order to publicly shame the mercenary behavior of the ticket resellers. The huáng niú, for better or worse, are embedded within Chinese infrastructure as intermediaries when it comes to a range of essential activities, from train tickets to hospital visit reservations or, more recently, the resale of flu vaccines at triple the price in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.66 Yet, although the effects of ticket reselling resonate far beyond videogames to transportation, health care, and governance, long after The Dota 2 International Championship event had passed, the impact of such volatile ticket trading lingers in public memory. Despite many other notable moments in the history of ticket reselling, TI9 continues to be referenced outside the gaming community as a particularly egregious phenomenon.67
Valve, What Did You Hide? Betting on Blind Boxes and Swag Bags
After arriving in Shanghai, traveling to Mercedes-Benz Arena, and actually acquiring a ticket for a day of TI9, what do you do? If you’re not going to turn around and resell the ticket for immediate profit, then the first thing to do is wait. Audience members lined up at designated checkpoints around the perimeter of the stadium for security screening and swag redemption. Gate 5 for upper seating, Gate 2 for lower seating, and Gate 1 for the VIP boxes sandwiched between the two in a ring around the interior of the stadium. On August 20, 2019, it was hot, but the wait wasn’t that long. As with public transportation and cultural sites around China’s coastal cities (including government installations, most museums, and even some parks), PRC military personnel saw that all backpacks, bags, and purses were first piled onto X-ray conveyor belts before beckoning fans through metal detectors. Security wands confirm nothing is hidden and any food or objects deemed hazardous were immediately confiscated before people walked up to another set of lines for ticketing and swag.68 There, a cadre of Damai employees in bright magenta shirts check and punch tickets (a total of two punches allowed per day), apply color-coded wristbands and black-light stamps for reentry, before giving out two or three trinkets (see fig. 13). Tickets are converted into physical and virtual swag (often tied to one another) even before they grant access to the event. From production to consumption to collection, swag has an economic life all of its own as it becomes both a form of commodity money and a piece of equipment for playing money games in and around the stadium.
For security purposes, each day of The International Dota 2 Championship used a different color wristband featuring a matching chibi Dota 2 hero and their class: green jungler Tidehunter, blue support Crystal Maiden, purple durable Faceless Void, magenta nuker Puck, and red pusher Ember Spirit. (Photograph courtesy of authors)
Primary avenues for obtaining Dota 2 memorabilia include the online Valve Shop and onsite Secret Shop69—Valve’s annual International merch booth themed after Dota’s hidden in-game shops. Although both shops ship internationally, only a small percentage of TI merchandise is also offered online. Fans seeking the rarest memorabilia must peruse the Secret Shop catalog and wait in lines instead of watching matches (see fig. 14). At TI9 it was not uncommon to see lines wrap around the stadium as hundreds of attendees queued for hours to purchase their goods—during the midweek rush these snaking lines might hold more attendees than the stadium itself. Valve typically releases a limited number of each item per day so that attendees with different tickets have a chance to buy items like the Five Meepos TI9 Memorial Metal Pin for ¥199, a Maelrawn’s Abysm Whirlpool-themed Dota 2 Foldable Umbrella for ¥149, or a TI9 Commemorative Collector’s Edition Dota 2-themed mahjong set for ¥1688 (now selling for over six times that amount, about $1700).70 These collector’s items are exclusive not only in the sense that they are expensive and in limited supply, but that they were made available only during The International Dota 2 Championship in Shanghai. You must hold a ticket to buy them. And that kind of exclusivity increases their value and produces a robust secondary market. For many attendees, the arbitrage around the Secret Shop is worth a detour during a lower-bracket best of three, for others the tournament itself takes a back seat to the money game.
High-resolution scans of the Secret Shop Catalog from the TI9 reveal a wide array of exclusive objects for sale only in Shanghai. These objects were rationed daily to give single-day attendees a chance to acquire all the items but nevertheless produced long lines at Mercedes-Benz Arena, sometimes starting hours before matches began for the day. (Photographs courtesy of authors)
Beyond the Secret Shop, the first trinket offered almost every day was the 2019 TI9 Attendee Pin, an intricately detailed enamel pin with purple plating, gold and purple glitter, the Dota 2 logo in the center, and gold finish (see fig. 14). Since The International in 2014, Valve has offered these pins to each attendee, typically part of a single swag bag redeemed at will call when picking up a badge. At The International in Shanghai, these pins were given out every other day (corresponding with each two-day ticket). The front of each pin package simply showcases the enamel, while the back has instructions on how to redeem a scratch-off serial number for a virtual representation of the pin (see fig. 15). By pressing the plus button in the bottom left corner of the Steam Client or navigating to https://store.steampowered.com/account/registerkey, a person can enter serial numbers for games, media, virtual cosmetics, and other memorabilia to activate and register them on a given Steam account. Labeled “Genuine Pin: The International 2019 Attendee” on the community market, the product redeemed after scratching off and entering the sixteen-digit serial numbers on the back of each pin is neither a representation of the physical enamel pin handed out at The International nor a cosmetic adorning a hero within in Dota 2. Instead, the virtual pin is a noncraftable trophy stored in a Steam inventory and displayed on a Dota 2 profile. Like framed ticket stubs, players can put the pin on their wall to impress friends, teammates, and competitors who view their profile after a game. On the Steam community market, this particular pin originally sold for $10.87 on the first day of The International on August 20, 2019, and then settled around $2.50 a month later aside from one curious spike at $68.79 on June 24, 2020. Virtual cosmetics will continue to circulate online as playable tokens to collect, trade, buy and sell, and gamble well beyond 2019. The paper ticket may expire, but its digital ghost remains.
Since 2014, TI attendees were offered an official enamel pin to commemorate the event (above). Each of these pins features a sixteen-digit serial number that can be redeemed online to add them to a Steam Inventory. From there they can be showcased on public profile pages or traded for Steam Dollars on the Community Market (below). (Photograph and screenshot courtesy of authors)
Then, each day a different surprise was offered via blind bags, blind boxes, and even blind security clearance lines. Like gachapon, unmarked packaging housed a random trinket: one of five foam squeeze toy keychains, one of six Velcro patches, one of seven plastic chibi figurines, and one of two all-stars T-shirts (see fig. 15). These items are designed for collectors with opportunities to get at least two of each when attending the whole event (one every other day upon entry and three in a swag bag redeemed during finals) before purchasing more (or trading with other attendees) at the Secret Shop or online.71 Since 2016, Indonesian artist Chroneco has been creating the squeeze toys and plastic figurines for The International. Chroneco specializes in chibi art,72 and they’ve been responsible for designing shirts, phone cases, emoticons, and, most notably, the blind-boxed Dota 2 toys and collectables. Whereas companies like Disney and Nintendo are famously authoritarian when it comes to intellectual property (especially for purposes of merchandising), Valve’s hands-off, laissez-faire attitude toward “connecting users with value”73 extends from their flattened office spaces and libertarian marketplaces to their players, mods, esports, and even their merchandising. So the money games extend to include not only buying and selling, collecting and trading swag, but also making physical and virtual goods for the company.
At The International Dota 2 Championship in 2019, there were three different blind bags (top left): one that contained a random patch (bottom left), one that contained a random chibi statue (top right), and one that contained a random foam squeeze toy keychain (bottom right). (Photographs courtesy of authors)
Transmuting a ticket into toys is just one of the ways in which Valve digitizes—in the sense of making into discrete, measurable, quantifiable units of human labor time—the act of spectatorship within a live setting. The company also achieves this conversion by incorporating gambling mechanics that transform the stadium into a small-stakes casino. For each day of The International, every spectator is given a Daily Drops card with a unique, sixteen-digit code and a QR code that points to https://www.dota2.com/cn/ti9signin (see fig. 17). Upon visiting the website and signing in using a Steam account and password (despite warning that it “is not affiliated with Steam or Dota 2”), audience members are prompted to “please enter your code below to be eligible for today’s Crimson Witness drops” in a white text box. Upon successful entry of a unique code, drops are added to the specified Steam inventory based on a lottery occurring alongside every “first blood” after that point in the day. It’s not clear if these serial numbers are predetermined to receive a drop, what the probability is for a given serial number to be selected, how many serial numbers can be associated with an account, or how the timing of the distributions of Crimson Witnesses work. But the intent of the cards is twofold: to incentivize attendance (especially for morning matches) and to simulate something like catching a foul ball in baseball—a luck-based distribution of commodities that connects spectators to the action happening on the field, court, or in the case of Dota, the map. These small-scale forms of gambling are why, as Rebecca Cassidy argues, the exact numbers of the global gambling market are difficult to pin down. In Vicious Games Cassidy concludes: “Everyday games like tombola, lotteries and drawing lots undermine the idea that gambling can have a single definition or function ... we are inconsistent about what we think constitutes gambling, as well as which kinds are helpful or harmful ... It makes no sense to try to search for the essence of gambling. Its meaning and appeal is predicated on the way in which it is inserted into and changed by a particular society.”74 This indeterminacy combined with a desire to index, enclose, and ultimately, financialize the physical presence of attendees is one of the ways in which Valve has relocated much of its efforts from designing a game to designing the actions in, on, around, and through Dota 2 as a spectator-friendly esport. And for Valve—a company that prides itself on quantitative evaluation of its products and staff—the quickest way to make something meaningful is to make it money. Valve is a modern-day Midas. Everything the company touches turns to gold farming.
This stack of Daily Drop Cards could be redeemed online at https://www.dota2.com.cn/ti9signin by first logging into a Steam account then entering the given sixteen-digit code with the hopes of being selected to receive a Crimson Witness drop upon First Blood of each subsequent match. (Photograph courtesy of authors)
After logging in with one of the scratched-off serial numbers and being selected for a random drop upon first blood in a match, ticket holders are awarded with the Crimson Witness, a virtual item that is itself a gachapon gamble (see fig. 18). Like crates or cases in Team Fortress 2 (2007) and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012), the Crimson Witness is a loot box containing a randomly selected, limited-edition cosmetic item from an assortment of varying rarity. The items themselves are typically 3-D models and textures that are either made in-house by Valve or crowdsourced from the Steam Workshop.75 Compared to other conventional sports (and even other esports), Dota 2 spectatorship is increasingly financialized within Valve’s ecosystem. While some spectators may be there in order to experience the euphoric feeling of being part of a crowd or to celebrate their fandom, the Dota 2 ticket and attending the tournament comes with unique forms of financial incentives that go beyond T-shirts and tchotchkies. The spectators participate in an expanded gambling game as not only the ticket but their physical presence becomes the means through which physical and virtual assets of varying degrees of rarity can be acquired. Few companies are as efficient as Valve at turning objects, actions, and data into money and informal forms of currency. At The International Dota 2 Championship in Shanghai, metagames look a lot like money and money operates as a game mechanic.
Due to the rarity and utility of the cosmetic items, the Crimson Witness is annually the highest-selling Dota 2 virtual commodity. (Screenshot courtesy of authors)
PSG.LGD, What Did You Lose? The Metagame and the Market
As tickets were transmuted from punched holes and wristbands outside the stadium to blind boxes and swag bags inside the stadium to loot boxes and virtual cosmetics online, ticket prices continued to fluctuate based on the performances of Chinese teams at The International 2019. Demand for tickets increased for the days when Chinese teams were guaranteed to play. And the number of days Chinese teams played increased when Chinese teams won. Specifically, the market was indexed to PSG.LGD’s performance, and the online audience recognized the home-team advantage as well as its relationship to the economics of The International. Anglophone attendees on Twitch wielded political critique in order to veil the pervasive racism that attends Dota 2—a pattern recurring online since tickets first went on sale. In Twitch chat, contemporary events like the imprisonment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and Hong Kong’s protests were interwoven with the history of the Cultural Revolution and China’s relationship to Tibet and Taiwan (see fig. 19):
🦍 SPAM 🦍 THIS 🦍 KING KONG 🦍 TO 🦍 FREE 🦍 HONG KONG 🦍
Dalai Lama 法輪功Falun Dafa 新疆維吾爾自治區The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region 諾貝爾和平獎Nobel Peace Prize 劉暁波 Liu Xiaobo
THIS CHAT REPRESENTS EVERYTHING CHINA IS NOT. AS A RESULT WE WILL BE REMOVING 100 CREDITS FROM YOUR SOCIAL ACCOUNT. THANK YOU—People’s Republic of China
USA USA USA USA USA USA USA USA USA USA USA USA USA USA USA USA
Anglophone spectators converted political issues into cudgels and memes partially fueled by resentment toward ticketing and other ways in which Western audiences perceived a loss of privileges enjoyed in previous years. So when PSG.LGD won, prices went up and racism went up. And when PSG.LGD lost, prices went down and racism went up. The metagame around ticket buying and selling outside the stadium was indexed to the metagame governing the Dota 2 matches inside the stadium.76 And the money games being played outside were as fierce as the fight for the $34 million prize pool inside. The International lasted six days and the speculation around ticket prices reached its highest point of volatility midweek, when the fate of PSG.LGD hung in the balance.
A chat filled with emotes, memes, and copypasta is typical on Twitch, but the amount of xenophobic and racist discourse on Dota 2 streams throughout the week of The International in 2019 was unique to this particular tournament. (Screenshots courtesy of authors)
On August 20, the first day of the tournament started out strong for Chinese fans (see fig. 20). In the upper brackets, national favorites PSG.LGD won 2–0 against Russian team Virtus.pro. Then local Shanghaiese team Vici Gaming won 2–1 against the much-maligned TNC Predator (a Filipino team that was both subject to and accused of racism after one of the players, Carlo “Kuku” Palad, used the term ching chong in a public match, which resulted in a messy public backlash).77 In the lower brackets, another Shanghai-based team, Royal Never Give Up, also won their single-elimination match against Alliance, securing a surprise Chinese appearance in the lower brackets the next day. On August 21, the second day of the tournament, Royal Never Give Up continued its streak and won 2–0 to knock Virtus.pro out of the tournament. Because there was only one Chinese team playing that day, tickets were particularly cheap on August 21. The next day, on August 22, PSG.LGD had to face off against Vici Gaming, beating them 2–0. Even though one Chinese team had knocked another out of the upper bracket, the final-day tickets still skyrocketed as PSG.LGD were the victors. This meant that at the very least last year’s beloved TI8 runner-ups were confirmed to make an appearance on the final day. At this point, resellers were buying and selling for ten times the original price—the most expensive moment in the entire tournament. After the pump throughout the night of August 22, it was time for the dump.
The International Dota 2 Championship bracket in 2019 was seeded based on a group stage in which eighteen teams were divided into two groups in which they played one another in a best of two (Bo2), round-robin series. PSG.LGD was first place in Group A and then went on to win all of their games until the upper bracket finals where their defeat inside the stadium also deflated ticket prices outside the stadium. (Image from Liquipedia, “The International 2019,” Liquipedia, n.d., https://liquipedia.net/dota2/The_International/2019 )
On August 23, no Chinese teams were playing except the tenacious dark horse Royal Never Give Up who lost 0–2 to TI7 winners Team Liquid in the lower brackets. It was now or never if you were going to sell your finals tickets because on August 24, Vici were booted out 0–2 by Secret, and PSG.LGD lost 1–2 to OG—their bitter rivals who had stolen the Aegis from them at last year’s International. With PSG.LGD booted down to the losers’ bracket and being the last remaining domestic team, tickets were in free fall. Although OG and Team Liquid were smart and skilled teams, watching these winners of the two previous TIs battle in the stadium was no longer worth tens of thousands of RMB—or over 20 percent of the annual take-home pay in China for most prospective buyers. The finals tickets plunged from ten times the original price back to cost because it was no longer guaranteed that LGD would be in the last game. And they weren’t. Liquid beat PSG.LGD in the losers’ bracket finals guaranteeing that the grand finals would be between the TI7 winners, Team Liquid, and the TI8 winners, OG. Two foreign teams, both of whom had won previous TIs, were now going to the finals. China’s luck had run out in the stadium. And, by extension, those outside left holding any unwanted tickets were the losers of this money game.
In many ways the finalists at The International continued to reflect the larger economic reality of Dota 2 in general. The winningest players would continue to get richer, only further intensifying the wealth gap between the top and bottom players. In a statistical analysis making use of the Gini Coefficient, traditionally used to measure economic inequality within a country’s population, Ben Steenhuisen applied this metric to various esports economies including Dota 2 (see fig. 21).78 He was surprised to find that not only was Valve’s economic inequality by far the worst compared to all other esports companies but the results were also much worse compared to other professional sports.79 Steenhuisen remarks that “compared to traditional sports it’s way more unequal than I considered. Part of this is because we have no idea on the salaries paid to esports players; but another key part of it is the inherent system's structure.” Dota 2 truly is a game for the 0.0001 percent. Further, Valve has been very forthcoming about describing the way the company follows a specific economic ideology toward game design, and one result is that their players are both the richest and poorest in the industry. A handful of professional players seize a multimillion-dollar prize pool in games like Dota 2, and a minority of players may manipulate the gunskin markets in Counter-Strike, but the rest live in absolute poverty. If OG and Team Liquid represent the winningest Dota 2 players, controversies around players like Brazilian pro Bryan Freddy “SmAsH” Machaca Siña, who was caught match fixing and banned from all Valve events, exemplify the cavalier and dismissive attitude the company has taken toward their losingest. Like in pro sports, match fixing is one of the most taboo activities a player can do apart from doping. After SmAsH was banned from competing, he penned an open apology letter explaining how his monthly salary of thirty to ninety dollars and his exploitation by unscrupulous managers from his former team Not Today meant that he was living off “cold cereal” and enduring “days where my teammates and I had no food to eat and no place to sleep” while trying to play professionally.80 As Will Partin admonishes, “Valve could help address this by looking honestly at the ways this system fails the disadvantaged. Instead, one of the most profitable companies in the world hands down draconian and capricious punishments against some of its poorest players, to applause from a community that often doesn't understand the choices and pressures of poverty, but has heard a little bit about it, and thinks SmAsH should have just gripped his bootstraps a little tighter.”81 The community is more likely to bring down the gavel of morality and retributive justice against the least privileged in the community, and nowhere was this more evident than in the way the huáng niú, many of whom would be facing unemployment and poverty otherwise, were scapegoated during TI9. The street touts were shamed and condemned by foreign and domestic fans alike for engaging in the same type of activity that would be right at home on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The fan fixation on the resellers was a means to disavow the deep financial precarity that is the foundational substrate on which esports as a whole depends: the free labor of streamers, coaches, commentators, analysts, journalists, production, and players.
Ben Steenhuisen posted a data visualization on Twitter measuring the inequality among different esports using the Gini Coefficient, a statistical tool typically used for measuring income inequality dispersion. Valve’s Dota 2 , as well as their other popular esport Counter-Strike: Global Offensive , soundly surpassed all its competitors. (Image from Steenhuisen, “Scraped a bunch of data from Esports Earnings. Of the 31 titles with 200+ players to have earned $100+, here's a visualization of the Gini Coefficient vs log[number of players]. The most unequal are the titles furthermost right.”)
From early-access codes for online queues to money games in and outside Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai to the afterlife of swag on eBay or virtual cosmetics on Steam, the adventure of a ticket reveals the local and global ecosystem on which esports depend. From Reddit, Twitter, and Twitch to Weibo, Douyu, or Bilibili, one thing that connects the Dota 2 community around The International are questions about tickets. Why aren’t tickets regulated more carefully? Why aren’t they linked to specific Steam accounts? Why aren’t they sold via a lottery? Why isn’t ticketing easier, clearer, and fairer? Ultimately, these questions pertain to customers but they don’t enter into Valve’s equation. Valve hedges its bets, offloads the risk, and collects the margins. Then Damai does the same. Then ticket brokers do the same. Even pro players and yellow cows do the same. Money gamers compete with one another and Valve profits. Resellers move tickets and Valve profits. Early-access codes don’t work and Valve profits. Tickets hover in an indeterminate space between commodity and currency until they are transmuted online into swag and Valve profits. These movements and circulations offer a microcosm that mirrors the larger movements of finance capital in the twenty-first century. It’s a rigged game and the house always wins. Money may not have a clear history but it always has a future—a ticket’s worth is always dependent on a speculative projection forward in time. Future trades are modulated according to actions in the present. The imminent threat of a police crackdown, the juke in the jungle by the right team, a scandal over racist trash talk among pro gamers, or protests around extradition acts change the game and play with money. And when there is no future, that’s when the market ends—not with a banknote but with a ticket.
1. ^ Unless stated otherwise, in this essay we use $ to signify the United States dollar (USD); ¥ for the Chinese yuan, officially called 人民幣 or rénmínbì (RMB); and € for Euros (EUR). Monetary conversions are calculated according to exchange rates from the month and year being discussed.
2. ^ Following Richard Garfield’s definition of metagames as the games that occur “before,” “after,” “during,” and “between” other games, in Metagaming we argue that metagames also happen in, on, around, and through videogames. From the simple decision to press start or purchase a game in the first place to modding and mapping, speedrunning and spectating, gambling and griefing, games are always attended by and enclosed by metagames. And some of the most popular metagames people play in and around esports use money as a primary game mechanic. In this essay we will consider these “money games” and how they relate back to esports. Richard Garfield, “Metagames,” Horseman of the Apocalypse: Essays on Roleplaying (Charleston, IL: Jolly Roger Games, 2000), 17–18, 18, 20; and Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux, Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2017), 3.
3. ^ This difficulty is evidenced by the many variations of the word Dota. In this essay we will use Dota 2 to refer to Valve’s remake of DotA, or DotA: Allstars, the most popular version of the original Defense of the Ancients Warcraft III mod. Although there is no Dota 1, we will use Dota (unitalicized) to refer to the broader cultural phenomenon, videogame genre, and player communities.
4. ^ For a more complete accounting of the evolution of Dota from wargames to Warhammer (1983) to Warcraft (1994), see Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux, “The Turn of the Tide: International E-Sports and the Undercurrency in Dota 2,” Metagaming, 207–73.
5. ^ Clement “Puppey” Ivanov, quoted in Dota 2 Team “[EN] The International 2019 Main Event - Day 1 (Part 1/2),” YouTube, August 23, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiaZDcIgkmw&t=542s.
6. ^ IceFrog’s full statement reads: “I can only give estimates based on getdota.com usage, because I can’t track ingame downloads or fansites or downloads from China. It is roughly estimated (based on the statistics from popular Chinese sites) that the Chinese DotA audience is about 40–50% the worldwide audience. Not counting China, the player base is estimated to be somewhere between 7–11 million.” IceFrog, “Q&A Session #4,” Play Dota, April 30, 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20160913234927/http://www.playdota.com/forums/blog.php?b=89.
7. ^ The Chinese-language release even went so far as to feature Li Shihong, the canonical voice of the Monkey King from the 1986 CCTV adaptation of Journey to the West.
8. ^ Tianyi Gu. “Auto Chess Mod Boosts Dota 2’s Core PC Player Base by 23% in Two Months and Spawns New Genre,” Newzoo, April 1 2019, https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/auto-chess-mod-boosts-dota-2s-core-pc-player-base-by-23-in-two-months-and-spawns-new-genre/.
9. ^ Ten years ago, $1.6 million was an unprecedented amount of tournament money for an esports tournament. But starting in 2013, Valve began crowdsourcing and gamifying the prize pool for The International. Every year Valve offers an International Compendium (now known as The International Battle Pass) for $10, with 25 percent of sales funding the prize pool. After purchasing the Compendium, players typically gain access to a kind of digital magazine or interactive website embedded in the Dota 2 client and featuring player statistics, fantasy leagues, collectable cards, and all kinds of online prizes, raffles, and virtual loot. Since 2015, the Compendium has morphed into the Battle Pass which operates more like a separate game mode on top of Dota 2, with daily challenges, achievements, minigames, experience levels, and an expanded set of custom prizes related to The International. Players can “level up” their Battle Pass by participating in these additional game modes or by spending more money—25 percent of which continues to go to the prize pool. Given the tiered reward structure perfected over the course of a decade of Internationals, the prize pool gradually expanded from $1.6 million to $34 million in 2019. Like every TI before it, TI9 would boast the largest prize pool in the history of esports at that time, just topping the $30 million prize pool of the 2019 Fortnite World Cup Finals the same year. So the winningest gamers are now taking home more money than professional athletes at the Masters or Wimbledon. In 2011 and 2012, winning teams of five split a million dollars, but in 2018 and 2019, teams like Red Bull’s OG from Denmark are winning millions of dollars per player.
10. ^ Kyle Friedman, “TI 1Ø,” Medium, October 9, 2020, https://medium.com/@keepingitKyle/ti-1%C3%B8-b2711ae5d42b.
11. ^ From 2014 through 2018, attendees were mailed hard plastic badges featuring unique bar codes about a month before the tournament that allowed single entry according to a check-in process where every badge was scanned on entry and exit (to track exactly when specific attendees were present for virtual prize drops). Badges could also be sold at the stadium, Stub Hub, eBay, and Reddit. But this wasn’t the case for The International in 2019.
12. ^ The names of the ticketing vendors were first leaked in an update to the Dota 2 client on May 8, so players suspected Damai and Universe would be the retailers rather than Ticketmaster. Little did they know they would have to wait two more weeks to purchase tickets. MSTRMN_, “(Rumor) The International 2019 tickets will be sold through Damai (for CN customers) and Universe (worldwide customers),” Reddit, May 8, 2019, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/bm4p0j/rumor_the_international_2019_tickets_will_be_sold/.
13. ^ Dota Plus is a subscription service that Valve added to Dota 2 in 2018 that costs $5 a month and adds analytics, achievements, and other perks to the game. For more information on Valve’s other monetization methods, including the Dota 2 Compendium and Dota 2 Battle Pass, see Daniel Joseph, “Battle Pass Capitalism,” Journal of Consumer Culture 21, no. 1 (2021): 68–83; and Andrei Zanescu, Martin French, and Marc Lajeunesse, “Betting on DOTA 2’s Battle Pass: Gamblification and Productivity in Play,” New Media & Society, July 2020.
14. ^ For TI9, Valve offered a two-day ticket for August 20–21 that cost ¥499 ($70), a two-day ticket for August 22–23 that cost ¥499 ($70), and a two-day finals ticket for August 24–25 that cost ¥2099 ($300). See Dota 2 Team, “[EN] The International 2019 Main Event—Day 1 (Part 1/2),” YouTube, August 23, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiaZDcIgkmw&t=542s.
15. ^ Compared to other major esports events in 2019 like the Fortnite World Cup and League of Legends Worlds, The International was far and away the most expensive, and that’s before reselling really began. Epic’s Fortnite World Cup was a three-day event with $50 tickets. Riot’s League of Legends Worlds was a one-day event with three tiers: Platinum for €80, Gold for €60, and Silver for €40. In comparison, Valve’s general admission tickets were almost as expensive as the VIP tickets from TI4 which let spectators into box seats and player-only areas featuring luxuries like complimentary drinks and catering. See Fortnite Competitive Team, “Tickets for the Fortnite World Cup Finals,” Epic Games, July 9, 2019, https://www.epicgames.com/fortnite/competitive/en-US/news/tickets-for-the-fortnite-world-cup-finals; and LOLesports Staff, “2019 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP TICKET INFORMATION,” League of Legends, August, 2019, https://nexus.leagueoflegends.com/en-us/2019/08/2019-world-championship-ticket-information/.
16. ^ Dota 2 Team, “The International 2019 ticket sales start on Damai will be delayed by 1 hour,” Twitter, May 23, 2019, https://twitter.com/DOTA2/status/1131771777300934656.
17. ^ To be clear, these 26,804 tickets were the combined total of 9268 tickets for August 20–21, another 9268 tickets for August 22–23, and finally 8268 tickets for August 24–25. Damai, “【上海】2019 DOTA2 国际邀请赛,” Damai, May 24, 2019, https://detail.damai.cn/item.htm?id=593089517773.
18. ^ Matthew Bailey (@Cyborgmatt), “The Chinese allocation of tickets sold on Damai for the International 2019 sold out in 53 seconds. The grand finals day sold out in 27 seconds. #Dota2,” Twitter, May 23, 2019, https://twitter.com/Cyborgmatt/status/1131807907136327681; and Damai, “5月24日下午1点左右，2019DOTA2国际邀请赛（简称TI9）中国大陆地区玩家抢票圆满结束。数十万人通过大麦网参与在线抢票，26804套票的所有场次53秒一抢而空，其中决赛场次27秒售罄，系统平稳。八月我们上海见,” Weibo, May 24, 2019, https://www.weibo.com/1722647874/HvFd5DQKt?from=page_1006061722647874_profile&wvr=6&mod=weibotime&type=comment#_rnd1594150707100.
19. ^ A quick comparison between Taobao and Viagogo suggests that one was indexed to the other. At the time of purchase, Viagogo merchants would simply buy the corresponding Taobao ticket rather than holding them in reserve.
20. ^ ZG_karas, “In China, alibaba already has ti9 tickets on store shelves and, most importantly, he supports seat selection. I bought my own ticket and didn't know where the seat was. Why did they confirm the seat?,” Twitter, May 23, 2019, https://twitter.com/ZG_karas/status/1131914259745501184.
21. ^ See mytxwd, “The Scam Of Ti9 Ticket-sale by Damai,” Reddit, May 24, 2019, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/bsi7er/the_scam_of_ti9_ticketsale_by_damai/; and 在？出来starlight, “SCALPER interupt in TI9 ticket selling in China (damai.cn),” Steam Community, May 24, 2019, https://steamcommunity.com/app/570/discussions/0/1653297026034964330/.
22. ^ Michael Cale, “Did ticket scalpers hurt The International 2019 main event?,” Dot Esports (blog), August 20, 2019, https://dotesports.com/dota-2/news/did-ticket-scalpers-hurt-the-international-2019-main-event.
23. ^ Onesert (@Mike_Masson), “Yeah this is fucking bullshit and they have the nerve to brag about this. I clicked the final purchase button about 8 times before that 27s mark. These tickets were automatically sold out in the 1st second to scalpers & Chinese bots. My only ever opportunity for TI is gone,” Twitter, May 24, 2019, https://twitter.com/Mike_Masson/status/1131841584729739264?s=20.
24. ^ AsianNerdPlus, “I’ve attended TI since TI5, the ticket process this year is an abomination where real fans can't even get tickets. You should cancel the scalper tickets and actually let real fans buy them,” Twitter, May 24, 2019, https://twitter.com/AsianNerdPlus/status/1131917121141837824?s=20.
25. ^ unlucky (@nyczalex), “@everyone I guess this is what it feels like when TI is in US and everyone else outside couldn't get tickets, lol. The only extremely bad part imo was that those with presale codes, never ever got a chance to even purchase. I am reading that queuing started Monday,” Twitter, May 24, 2019, https://twitter.com/nyczalex/status/1131917844701163523?s=20.
26. ^ baowangjun (@me5293), “大麦和完美就是坨屎 💩 勾结黄牛一秒售罄 💩 Fcking DAMAI 💩 Fcking Perfectworld 💩,” Twitter, May 23, 2019, https://twitter.com/me5293/status/1131792970120744962?s=20.
27. ^ 你妈死了 (nǐ mā sǐle) translates literally to “your mom’s dead” or “your mom died,” a slur used often and in many recombinations as a general insult. Replacing 你 (nǐ, lit. you) with 大麦 (dàmài, lit. barley, referring to the ticketing company) was common throughout The International Dota 2 Championship in 2019.
28. ^ SHLuo (@SHLuo1), “fucking Damai！！！We need a good explanation！黄牛死妈！,” Twitter, May 23, 2019, https://twitter.com/SHLuo17/status/1131806454074073088?s=20.
29. ^ 1ckmNs1RTSrzSLE, “你们这票务搞的你妈逼什么东西？操你妈，听见没有，操你妈！,” Twitter, May 24, 2019, https://twitter.com/1ckmNs1RTSrzSLE/status/1131920179443585024?s=20.
30. ^ v1v2v3vv55, “The early access TI9 tickets are sold out in three seconds,” Reddit, May 24, 2019, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/bscxh2/the_early_access_ti9_tickets_are_sold_out_in/eon1h09/?utm_source=reddit&utm_medium=web2x&context=3
31. ^ 痴心彡, “官方黄牛？大麦网私自改动Ti9门票票号惹怒Dota玩家,” Bilibili, August 8, 2019, https://www.bilibili.com/read/cv3300029/; and Hongyu Chen, “Opinion: The Turbulence of TI9 Ticket Sales in China,” Esports Observer, August 21, 2019, https://esportsobserver.com/opinion-ti9-ticket-sales-china/.
32. ^ Minitell, “Valve must address and make a statement regarding the TI9 ticketing scam, likely facilitated by insiders at Damai, the Chinese ticket seller,” Reddit, May 30, 2019, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/bupylx/valve_must_address_and_make_a_statement_regarding/ephqy56/?utm_source=reddit&utm_medium=web2x&context=3.
33. ^ BeardedWax, “Valve must address and make a statement regarding the TI9 ticketing scam, likely facilitated by insiders at Damai, the Chinese ticket seller,” Reddit, May 30, 2019. https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/bupylx/valve_must_address_and_make_a_statement_regarding/eph5xm7/?utm_source=reddit&utm_medium=web2x&context=3.
34. ^ N0minal, “Valve must address and make a statement regarding the TI9 ticketing scam, likely facilitated by insiders at Damai, the Chinese ticket seller,” Reddit, May 30, 2019, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/bupylx/valve_must_address_and_make_a_statement_regarding/ephunb6/?utm_source=reddit&utm_medium=web2x&context=3.
35. ^ oiwah, “Valve must address and make a statement regarding the TI9 ticketing scam, likely facilitated by insiders at Damai, the Chinese ticket seller,” Reddit, May 30, 2019, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/bupylx/valve_must_address_and_make_a_statement_regarding/epkexiq/?utm_source=reddit&utm_medium=web2x&context=3.
36. ^ remysk, “Valve must address and make a statement regarding the TI9 ticketing scam, likely facilitated by insiders at Damai, the Chinese ticket seller,” Reddit, May 30, 2019, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/bupylx/valve_must_address_and_make_a_statement_regarding/epgl56o/?utm_source=reddit&utm_medium=web2x&context=3.
37. ^ Tara Fickle, The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 3.
38. ^ Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on Trade,” The White House, May 8, 2015, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/05/08/remarks-president-trade.
39. ^ Donald Trump, quoted in Jeff Cox, “Trump Says China Cheated America on Trade, but He Blames US Leaders for Letting It Happen,” CNBC, November 12, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/12/trump-says-china-cheated-america-on-trade-but-he-blames-us-leaders-for-letting-it-happen.html
40. ^ Fickle, The Race Card, 178.
42. ^ John Seabrook, “The Price of the Ticket,” New Yorker, August 3, 2009, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/08/10/the-price-of-the-ticket.
43. ^ Segrave writes, “[w]hen government probes of the practice became fashionable there were many dramatic revelations of the extent of [ticket reselling]. Also revealed by such probes was the extent of the collusion between the managers and producers of entertainment events and the sellers of the tickets. Such collusion had existed since at least 1859.” Kerry Segrave, Ticket Scalping: An American History, 1850–2005 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007), 1.
44. ^ Segrave, Ticket Scalping, 223.
45. ^ In 2016 the New York Attorney General’s office put together a comprehensive report on the ticketing industry in which they determined “the majority of tickets for the most popular concerts are not reserved for the general public.” Instead, tickets are “sold in presales, which . . . favor brokers” and “are put on ‘hold’ for promoters, advertisers, radio stations, venues, VIP packages, and corporate sponsors, or sold directly to [touts] by venues themselves.” The report goes on to detail that “an average of 46 percent of tickets go on sale to the public” like “in 2009 [when] a seating chart for Taylor Swift’s concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena became public [and] 11,720 of the 13,330 seats in the venue were accounted for before the ‘public sale.’” NY Attorney General’s report, quoted in Jason Koebler, “The Man Who Broke Ticketmaster,” Vice, February 10, 2017, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/mgxqb8/the-man-who-broke-ticketmaster.
46. ^ In an interview with an official representative of Damai published three months after The International, the company apologized for the confusion around seating and discrepancy between the electronic and paper tickets that had produced a lot of controversy, but they continued to deny that any collusion with Taobao or ticket resellers had taken place. They declared that “[t]his is a problem that requires the joint efforts of the industry” (“这是一个需要行业共同努力解决的问题”) and promised to focus on developing better technological solutions so that bots and resellers would not be able to bypass access codes and overwhelm sales. See 朴顺姬, “独家对话大麦网：对玩家的指责表示理解 将用技术避免黄牛囤票,” Dushi Jiazu, November 13, 2019, https://www.dushijiazu.com/keji/shuju/2019111341276/,(http://www.dzxwnews.com/youxi/2019/0829/33995.html).
47. ^ Dean Budnick, quoted in Jason Koebler, “The Man Who Broke Ticketmaster.”
48. ^ In 2020, a cursory eBay search will still turn up dozens of tickets for TI7 and TI6, both of which were held at KeyArena. TI8 (hosted in Canada) and TI9 (hosted in China) are absent.
49. ^ The 100 RMB note is the highest denomination in China. This is about $14.50 but has the purchasing power of about $50. As a result it’s not uncommon to carry a large wad of currency (or just a phone for electronic payment), especially when buying marked-up tickets for three, four, or five times the original price.
50. ^ 你妈死了 (nǐ mā sǐle) is abbreviated online as NMSL and its literal meaning of “your mom is dead” functions as a versatile curse similar to the English “fuck you.”
51. ^ 牛逼 (niú bī) is abbreviated as NB and is a softened version of “cow cunt,” a slightly off-color compliment that might roughly translate as “badass.”
52. ^ Importantly, this major Chinese tournament aligned with a week of intense escalation of police brutality in Hong Kong where officers deployed water cannons and live rounds for the first time in the protests. In August 2019, the ongoing protests in Hong Kong were at their height as activists were fighting for the “5 Demands” that they had released in response to the proposed extradition bill that had been put forward in February (and was ultimately withdrawn by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam just a little over a week after the end of The International on September 4). Both online at Twitch and in the stadium at Mercedes-Benz Arena, Valve was engaged in a delicate political balancing act. In the stadium cameras were carefully positioned to show a large and patriotic audience in the hopes that they would not have to manage the fallout from a major diplomatic incident like what would happen to their rival Blizzard less than two months later when, at the height of the Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament stream on October 4, 2019, pro player Blitzchung (吳偉聰, Ng Wai Chung) donned goggles and a gas mask before shouting “光復香港，時代革命!” (trans. “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times!”).
53. ^ Original passage: “这件事是不对的。玩家们想要的不仅仅是一个更好的座位，而是一个公平、公正的，享受电竞赛事的机会，是一场在中国举行，并能让中国玩家们感到骄傲的比赛，是一段能让等待了多年的中国玩家们感到心满意足的回忆——而不是眼前的这一切：货不对板的票号，肆意嚣张的黄牛，突破天际的票价，和濒临破碎的人心。” 网上冲浪记事, “Ti9换票疑云：大麦网，你卖啥了？,” Zhihu, August 22, 2019, https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/79320845.
54. ^ Bjarke Liboriussen and Paul Martin, “Games and Gaming in China,” Games and Culture 11, no. 3 (2016): 227–32.
55. ^ Given the Olympics’ global audience, ticket prices for events like the opening ceremony soared as high as $21,300, despite the state’s threats of four years’ imprisonment for resale. Reuters Staff, “Beijing to ‘Re-Educate’ Games Ticket Scalpers,” Reuters, March 23, 2008, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-olympics-beijing/beijing-to-re-educate-games-ticket-scalpers-idUSPEK14229620080324.
56. ^ As Liboriussen and Martin suggest in their essay, for more information on the history of sport in China as a form of soft power and national identity, see Li Liu and Fan Hong, “The National Games and National Identity in the Republic of China, 1910–1948,” International Journal of the History of Sport 32, no. 3 (2015): 440–54; and Andrew D. Morris, Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
57. ^ For a discussion of the national conversation around internet addiction, see Trent Bax, “‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ in China: Biomedical Sickness or Sociological Badness?,” Games and Culture 11, no. 3 (2016): 233–55.
58. ^ In “From E-Heroin to E-Sports: The Development of Competitive Gaming in China,” Zhouxiang Lu notes that in May and June 2000, “the term ‘electronic heroin’ was coined to condemn ever-expanding internet use and the gaming industry, which was believed to have made students lose interest in study and end up in addiction.” Beyond the potential impact on student performance, Lu describes the escalating fears as videogames and gambling games would increasingly be linked with more dangerous and antisocial activities like “crime, violence, abusive language, and bullying.” Zhouxiang Lu, “From E-Heroin to E-Sports: The Development of Competitive Gaming in China,” International Journal of the History of Sport 33, no. 18 (2016): 2190.
59. ^ Marcella Szablewicz, Mapping Digital Game Culture in China: From Internet Addicts to Esports Athletes (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan, 2020), 97.
60. ^ Based on her interviews with players, Szablewicz notes the perception of wǎngluò games as addictive, requiring little skill, a waste of time, and expensive (in comparison to esports whose software is often free or pirated). Online games are a “black hole of temptation for Internet addicts with no self-control.” Szablewicz, Mapping Digital Game Culture, 96.
61. ^ Szablewicz, 97.
62. ^ In “Productive vs. Pathological: The Contested Space of Video Games in Post-Reform China (1980s–2012),” Zhang provides a historical genealogy of the way in which the “moral panic over game addiction and promotional rhetoric of the online gaming industry” have been variously deployed over a period of three decades. According to Zhang, “reform-minded [critics] celebrated videogames as productively educating the young post-socialist subject about modern values and high-tech knowledge and skills, even as more conservative voices scapegoated them for degrading public space, promoting rampant hedonistic consumerism, and distracting young minds from ‘constructive’ leisure.” The distinction drawn between wǎngluò yóuxì and diànzǐ jìngjì is a rhetorical way to negotiate this long-standing tension between pathology and productivity. Lin Zhang, “Productive vs. Pathological: The Contested Space of Video Games in Post-Reform China (1980s–2012),” International Journal of Communication 7 (2013): 2393, 2406.
63. ^ Szablewicz, Mapping Digital Game Culture in China, 97.
64. ^ For Szablewicz, “patriotic leisure” builds on Lisa Hoffman’s notion of the “patriotic professional,” a contemporary model of citizenship for the emerging young, urban middle class that reimagines the láomó (model worker) of the Cultural Revolution and the Confucian jūnzǐ (gentleman). Szablewicz, 97.
65. ^ Fickle, The Race Card, 3.
66. ^ Lily Kuo and Lilian Yang, “Flu Vaccine Shortages Hit China after Rush to Avoid ‘Twindemic,’” Guardian, October 7, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/07/china-reports-shortages-of-flu-vaccine-after-rush-to-avoid-twindemic.
67. ^ Joey Knotts, “When Ticket Scalping Meant Cheaper Tickets,” Beijinger, March 19, 2020, https://www.thebeijinger.com/blog/2020/03/19/throwback-thursday-when-ticket-scalping-meant-cheaper-tickets.
68. ^ Alongside lighters, pocket knives, bags of chips, and cans of soda sorted into baskets, an inordinate amount of small flags was also confiscated outside the Mercedes-Benz Arena. Both team flags and Chinese flags could be seen jettisoned into the trash cans around security checkpoints. Ostensibly, these items were restricted because the wooden dowels could be considered a dangerous object, but another effect was the sanitization and curation of which kinds of nationalism were allowed to operate within the stadium.
69. ^ The name Secret Shop is a reference to an in-game store located in the middle of the jungle in Dota 2 where players can purchase rare items. In the same way the Secret Shop requires either a player or courier to physically travel to the store to make purchases rather than their home base at the fountain, so too must fans travel from their homes in order to make purchases at the store.
70. ^ Endless Passion Gaming, “Dota 2 Theme Mahjong Set TI9 Commemorative Collector’s Edition,” Carousell, n. d., https://www.carousell.sg/p/dota-2-theme-mahjong-set-ti9-commemorative-collector-s-edition-257703644/.
71. ^ These physical goods were produced by For Fans by Fans, previously WeLoveFine, whose new name matches their business model: “creating a community that bridges the gap between fans, artists, and the worlds that inspire them.” The LA fan merchandising company connects artists from the broader fan community with licensors like Valve to design physical goods: T-shirts, posters, mouse pads, custom computer peripherals, and a variety of collectables like chibis, plushies, squeeze-me toys, and more. They manufacture the goods in China and distribute via their online store and other online retailers like Amazon. For Fans by Fans, “For Fans by Fans,” For Fans by Fans, n. d., https://www.forfansbyfans.com/.
72. ^ Chibi or ちび art is a Japanese art style featuring super deformed diminutive characters popularized in manga and anime by Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon (1991–97), specifically Chibiusa (ちびうさ) who transforms into Sailor Chibi Moon (セーラーちびムーン).
73. ^ Gabe Newell, “On Productivity, Economics, Political Institutions and the Future of Corporations: Reflections of a Video Game Maker,” Lyndon B. Johnson Graduate School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin, TX, YouTube, January 30, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8QEOBgLBQU.
74. ^ Rebecca Cassidy, Vicious Games: Capitalism and Gambling (London: Pluto Press, 2020), 18.
75. ^ Dota 2 cosmetics can also include custom audio, animations, and particle effects, making them one of the more labor-intensive cosmetics to produce within the Valve ecosystem. As Stephanie “Anuxinamoon” Everett states in an interview, creating gunskins for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is “higher paid and also easier. You only have to make the colours and not the models, whereas I might spend four weeks on a high poly sculpt which is the initial stage. You only have to make a texture and you’re finished in CS:GO.” Everett, quoted in Ollie Ring, “Inside Anuxi’s Dota 2 Workshop,” Red Bull, June 26, 2016, https://www.redbull.com/in-en/anuxinamoon-dota-2-workshop-interview.
76. ^ While in previous years, many of the matches at The International would congeal around a particular set of characters and practices, TI9 broke the record for the diversity of characters banned and picked in the game.
77. ^ Josh Ye, “Chinese Fans Happy after Dota 2 Esports Player Is Banned from a Major Tournament for a Racist Slur,” South China Morning Post | Abacus, December 4, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/abacus/culture/article/3029020/chinese-fans-happy-after-dota-2-esports-player-banned-major.
78. ^ Ben Steenhuisen (@noxville), “Scraped a bunch of data from Esports Earnings. Of the 31 titles with 200+ players to have earned $100+, here's a visualization of the Gini Coefficient vs log(number of players). The most unequal are the titles furthermost right,” Twitter, August 1, 2018, https://twitter.com/Noxville/status/1024697841858617345?s=20.
79. ^ Ben Steenhuisen (@noxville), “Obviously esports represents the pinnacle of competitive—but compared to traditional sports it’s way more unequal than I considered. Part of this is because we have no idea on the salaries paid to esports players; but another key part of it is the inherent system’s structure,” Twitter, August 1, 2018, https://twitter.com/Noxville/status/1024697846023577600?s=20.
80. ^ smashdota2 (Bryan Freddy Machaca Siña SmasH), “Open Letter to Valve & Dota2 Community | About Match-Fixing and SA Scene,” Reddit, December 10, 2017, https://www.reddit.com/r/DotA2/comments/7iv3ne/open_letter_to_valve_dota2_community_about/.
81. ^ Will Partin, “A ‘Dota 2’ Matchfixer’s Plea Shows What’s Really Rotten in Dota Esports,” Vice, December 14, 2017, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ywnbp7/a-dota-2-matchfixers-plea-shows-whats-really-rotten-in-dota-esports.