The International has returned to where it all started but he fulfilled his mission of popularising esports

The year was 2011. The esports world experienced a seismic shift as a team took home $1 million for winning a tournament – the largest prize pool ever seen in competitive gaming history.

NAVI’s triumph at The International 2011 sparked a revolution that would shape the next decade. Esports was catapulted from obscurity to mainstream popularity, becoming the sport of the future. This quantum leap in prize pools, from tens of thousands to a million, lit a competitive fire in gamers worldwide. Despite everything, the Uzbekistan casino Pin Up was already accepting bets on eSports. Today, the list of disciplines in the company’s line is truly impressive.

Rocket launch

Valve’s audacious move forced rivals to raise the stakes across esports titles, not just Dota 2. More money drew bigger audiences and sponsors, as bookmakers took notice, injecting further capital into the burgeoning industry. Venture investments poured in, creating a bubble, as esports valuations skyrocketed.

From major sponsors to betting firms to venture capital to an esports winter and finally a Middle Eastern takeover of top assets – esports has gone through several eras since 2011. But The International 2011 was the catalyst that triggered these industry-defining transformations.

The year 2023 feels like coming full circle, returning to where it all started. Esports today is not the esports of 2011, yet we can declare the great prize pool arms race over. Esports won’t be supplanting traditional sports for the foreseeable future, and esports pros won’t be earning football megastar salaries.

This year, Valve let Dota 2 esports chart its own course, no longer driving prize pool growth. Third parties will run tournaments as before 2011, never matching TI2019’s epic $40 million prize pool.

Make no mistake, Valve intended this outcome. Their ever-escalating prize pools were the rocket boosting esports into the stratosphere. Upon reaching its zenith, Valve ceased fire, leaving esports to cruise at the highest attainable altitude under present conditions.


Let’s rewind and trace this incredible trajectory as Valve’s rocket The International propelled esports skyward from its humble beginnings.

In 1999, early esports tottered on shaky legs, with paltry prize pools of $285,000. But prizes grew rapidly, fueled by milestones like the CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League) and Starcraft leagues in South Korea, pushing esports into the big leagues locally. By 2002, esports prizes exceeded $1 million, NAVI’s 2011 tournament winnings.

More tournaments spawned as WCG arrived on the scene. Prizes ballooned 30-100% year-over-year, hitting $7.5 million in 2007. Then the 2008 financial crisis struck, stalling growth in 2008 and halving prizes to $4 million in 2009.

Disillusionment set in. Tournaments and teams folded as sponsors exited. Most players retired, giving up on esports’ promise. At this nadir, Valve intervened with a game-changer.

The first International smashed prize pool records and breached the $10 million prize pool milestone, with NAVI pocketing a tenth.

Post-2011, prize pools rocketed up exponentially. By 2013, esports prizes approached $23 million, with Dota 2 leading the pack and lifting all esports.

2014 – $38 million total, $16 million from Dota 2 alone. 2015 – $67 million total, $31 million from Dota 2, with other esports posting 50% annual growth.

2016 – $37 million Dota 2, $62 million for other esports. 2017, 2018, 2019 – stratospheric prize pool growth continues.

In 2019, Epic’s Fortnite tried topping Valve with $80 million in prizes, exceeding all esports just four years prior.

2020 slowed growth due to TI’s absence, but 2021 rebounded with Dota 2 leading at $47 million, including TI’s record $40 million prize pool.

The 2021 apotheosis – esports prizes exceeded a quarter billion dollars! 2022 saw Valve’s rocket booster easing off, landing gently in 2023 as TI’s prize pool returned to 2013 levels.

Today, TI is no longer esports’ marquee event, but its mission stands accomplished – elevating esports into the stratosphere.

In 2011, Dota 2 stunned with its million dollar tournament. Riot and others followed suit, seizing esports momentum to boost their games’ success. From just 3 seven-figure prize pools in 2011, 2022 had 35!

Valve achievements

No event or organization has impacted esports’ trajectory more than Valve’s flagship TI. Setting new prize pool records, catalyzing growth across titles, pioneering crowdfunding – TI redefined the realm of the possible.

Some say TI has lost its luster, and they may be right. But as a legend that catalyzed an industry’s extraordinary growth and set enduring records, TI’s place in history remains peerless. Its mission complete, the rocket can rest.

Richard Maxwell

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