Officially, Dota 2 is a juggernaut in the video game industry. The MOBA generates massive amounts of revenue, is home to the most lucrative annual esports event, and was the largest game on Steam for years. Despite all of these grand successes, Dota 2 fans’ feelings on the game have traditionally bounced between doom and gloom.
Some of this is just a matter of the game’s persistently toxic community, but some of this has been about a slow and steady decline in the game’s visibility and popularity.
So what is Dota 2’s player count actually like in 2020? And is Dota 2 going to become a “dead game” in the near future?
Though most video games peak and then fade off over time, Dota 2’s popularity has fluctuated many times over the years. Dota 2’s peak concurrent player counts have reached over one million users on a few occasions, and for very different reasons.
Dota 2’s all-time player count peak came in March 2016 with the game hitting 1,291,328 simultaneous players. The highest average player count over a calendar month came in February 2016, with the game averaging 709,178 players. These numbers were both part of a larger upswing across that winter stemming from some significant updates as well as a seasonal battle pass built around the Shanghai Major.
Similar numbers were achieved a year prior, with Dota 2 hitting 1,262,612 in February 2015. These numbers were had by similar means, with the spike in players being preceded by a seasonal event in the Year Beast, as well as a huge Chinese esports tournament with an in-game compendium, the 2015 Dota 2 Asia Championships.
Following its 2016 peak, Dota 2’s player count fluctuated but was then on a long and steady decline for years to come. This drop was briefly stifled by the introduction of Dota Auto Chess. The wildly popular mod that spawned the auto-battler genre launched in January 2019 and helped the game hit peaks of over 1 million players for the first time in years between February and March of 2019.
The popularity of Dota Auto Chess wavered with the launch of standalone versions of the game including Auto Chess, Valve’s own Dota Underlords, and competing developer Riot Games’ Teamfight Tactics, which resulted in a precipitous loss in players for Dota 2.
Dota 2 was in a beta stage for years, which saw the game’s popularity slowly grow from its launch in September 2011 until 2015. The game’s popularity plateaued from early 2015 through the first quarter of 2016, before going on a steady downward trend from there.
The game’s lowest player count following its initial climb came in the second half of 2019. After the peak of Dota Auto Chess’s popularity, the game’s average player count dropped by anywhere from 4-11% month over month for the remainder of the year.
Rock bottom came in January 2020, when the game averaged just 378,925 players and peaked at only 616,415. These numbers were the lowest Dota 2 had seen since 2013.
The game rebounded to a modest degree in early 2020. Whether those numbers will hold remains to be seen.
The succinct answer to this question is that League of Legends is much bigger.
Though Dota 2 and League of Legends are technically rival games battling for dominance in their genre, the reality is that Riot Games’ MOBA is considerably larger by almost every available metric.
In terms of player count, League of Legends is bigger by miles. Though Riot does not make definite LoL player counts publicly available in the way Dota 2 does, the company stated that it hits peaks of over 8 million players per day. Even if that’s slightly inflated, that still blows away any number that has ever been reached by Dota 2.
League of Legends has a similarly lopsided lead in the esports department. Dota 2’s The International 2019 peaked at just under 2 million viewers according to ESCharts, while the 2019 League of Legends World Championship doubled that tally.
From a live event perspective, it’s more of the same. TI9 took place at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, China, a venue with a maximum capacity of 18,000. Worlds 2020 was also set to take place in Shanghai, but in the 56,842-seat Shanghai Stadium.
The one area where Dota 2 might have the edge over League of Legends is in pro player earnings. Dota 2’s The International has made a number of players into multimillionaires purely through tournament winnings. Even that is uncertain however, as League of Legends pros earn considerably higher salaries that are not often disclosed, though it is known that the world’s very best LoL pros can command million-dollar salaries on top of potential prize winnings.
— WIN.gg 🎮 (@officialWINgg) May 26, 2020
Dota 2’s popularity has wavered and surged over the years, but there has never really been any doubt in regards to how important the title is to Valve. That’s because no matter how bad things have gotten for the game, either in terms of declining player counts or fan malaise, The International Battle Pass rakes in cash.
While the selling point of The International Battle Pass is that it helps fund the largest Dota 2 event of the year, Valve pockets the vast majority of the proceeds from the event, a full 75%. This nets the company tens of millions of dollars on an annual basis, with recent years bumping that up over $100 million.
Though Valve makes more money from its Steam digital service platform than of any of its owned games, the battle pass is a windfall of cash that makes Dota 2 very lucrative for the developer.
Valve has invested a great deal of effort into improving Dota 2, and that’s unlikely to change in the forseeable future. In addition to the fact that it’s a profitable endeavor that requires comparably little effort on Valve’s part, the game is an admitted favorite of company founder Gabe Newell. These factors alone mean that the game is going to continue to be properly maintained.
So casual Dota 2 players should be just fine. Professional Dota 2 players are another story, though.
Valve has proven itself generally ineffective in properly running an esports scene over the last 20 years. The publisher has largely neglected Counter-Strike throughout its history, and Dota 2 has been constantly fraught with avoidable controversies.
Whether it’s major tournaments being scrapped due to the publisher’s ignorance regarding visa requirements, Valve not addressing a match fixing scandal involving former TI champions, or the publisher being caught lying to fans regarding a player’s suspension, it’s easy to lose faith in Dota 2’s long-term esports prospects.
Esports organizations clearly feel this. While there are a number of top teams that compete in Dota 2, including Team Liquid, Invictus Gaming, and Fnatic, there are many elite teams that are left without sponsors or are sponsored by smaller organizations.
Tournament organizers agree as well, with the Dota 2 tournament calendar shrinking down more and more each year.
Dota 2 will exist as a game for many years to come. Dota 2’s esports scene is shaky in a way that Valve may not be willing to remedy, and even with the advent of the Dota Pro Circuit, it’s possible that it will get worse before it gets better.