Dota 2 fans panic as game hits historic player count lows

Steven R. January 5, 2020

Dota 2’s player base hit historic lows last month.

According to Steam Charts, Dota 2’s average player count in December 2019 was just 384,179, with a peak of 685,165. Those tallies are the lowest in a calendar month since January 2014, a time that was in the middle stages of Dota 2’s initial rise to prominence. This continues what has been a bad six-month stretch for the game.

2019 was initially shaping up to be a transformative year for Dota 2. The MOBA hit peak player counts in 2016 and steadily shrank during 2017 and 2018. The player count spiked in early 2019 due to the launch of Dota Auto Chess. The wildly popular user-made game mode attracted fans to the game by the tens of thousands, with around 30% of the player base at any given time dabbling in the auto-battler rather than the actual Dota 2 game mode.

This evaporated quickly over the summer. Dota Auto Chess developer Drodo Studio released its own standalone version of the game, Dota 2 publisher Valve released a spin-off titled Dota Underlords, and Riot Games produced a League of Legends-themed knockoff in Teamfight Tactics. This resulted in a stark decline in player counts which was only slightly offset by increased interest in the game surrounding The International 2019.

While one might chalk this up to the holiday season and gamers opting to play new video games they were gifted, precedent suggests that December isn’t a traditionally bad month for the game. That leaves it unclear what is causing this contraction in the scene and what Valve can do to bring players back.

Is Dota 2 dying?

The declining player base in Dota 2 is something of a surprise, given the overall state of the scene.

The notoriously tight-lipped Valve has been far more transparent regarding its plans for Dota 2, something that has been well-received by fans. The pro scene has seen an uptick in activity thanks to events like Midas Mode 2.0 and the ONE Esports Dota 2 World Pro Invitational Singapore. And the game itself is feeling fresh and new thanks to the colossal Outlanders Update that introduced a number of new gameplay features.

Players are still moving away from Dota 2 at the moment, which has sparked widespread discussion on the root cause as well as some harsh criticisms of Valve. Fans have begun pointing out the many things that Riot Games has done well with League of Legends as things that Valve should be doing with Dota 2.

Riot Games has lured in players with things like comic books and viral music videos, while Valve has done little to court non-endemic players in the past. League of Legends enjoys a strong global player base thanks to regional leagues operated by Riot Games, while Dota 2’s pro scene has largely been left to the whims of fate outside of Valve operating The International. Most other popular esports titles have regular seasonal events, something Valve has invested significantly less effort into than it has in years past.

On top of this are questions about Valve cannibalizing the Dota 2 player base with spin-off titles such as Artifact and Dota Underlords, questions on if Dota 2 has been put on the backburner due to a focus on developing Half-Life: Alyx, and debates on whether Valve has just lost its touch when it comes to attracting new fans to its homemade games.

One other topic that has come up but is largely bogus is whether Dota 2 is just naturally on the decline due to it being eight years old. Though Dota 2 isn’t new, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has enjoyed record-breaking numbers over recent months while League of Legends is doing quite well itself.

Fans and Valve ought to hold back on panicking, though. The strongest months for Dota 2 have traditionally taken place in the first quarter of each year.

But if things continue to decline into the spring, Valve might then need to start making some more aggressive moves.