Betting on the Battle Pass: An Ethnography DOTA 2 & The International 2017 and Beyond

Andrei Zanescu, Concordia University

The role of transactional goods within the scope of videogames is currently a hot button topic, in particular as it pertains to the business model of “loot boxes.” The general model holds that consumers purchase auxiliary and usually cosmetic goods through these boxes, with each item having a set rarity. This model has been catapulted into the public eye by games like Activion Blizzard’s Overwatch and EA’s Star Wars Battlefront II, which have triggered debate on whether microtransactions constitute gambling and/or predatory business practice.

To interrogate this model, we consider its operation in the context of DOTA 2. DOTA 2’s business model, the cornerstone of this presentation, is difficult to classify even by the standards commonly used in games journalism because it combines and obfuscates many different models into its subscription service, the Battle Pass. This model is the primary focus of the talk, along with all its peripheral systems. Generally speaking, this triannual pass is sold up front to consumers and then leveled up by participating in various activities. Additionally, the pass opens the door to microtransactions, loot boxes, gambling, fantasy sports, seasonal activities and casino-style games. However, its multilayered transaction platform has largely shielded the game from criticism as a predatory entity. These systems are also underpinned by a peer to peer consumer market that largely dictates the value of the digital goods obtainable through these activities.

Through this talk, we explain how currency enters, circulates, and ostensibly exits the game space, and to a larger extent, the digital market of Steam. The specific gambling activities, as well as the importance of the digital goods received will be examined as well. The existence of these goods and the systems that encapsulate them is discussed within the values at play framework (e.g. Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014), in addition to commodification of cultural identity in the Marxian sense (Kline et al 2003). Additionally, the competitive environment of DOTA 2 will be detailed in order to provide both a sense of scope and also an explanation of the money flow in the system at large. This section will particularly focus on data from our ethnographic study of The International 2017, the premier competitive tournament that took place last year.

Beyond discussing the details of DOTA 2, we situate the loot-box (micro-transaction) business model and the controversies over it within a broader, concluding discussion about the changing political economy of game production (e.g. Kerr) and its ‘surveillant’ implications for players. Lastly, we distinguish Valve’s intentions by distinguishing the 2017 Battle Pass from the current iteration and its new addition Dota Plus.


The Commonalties of Casual Gaming and Gambling: Flow, arousal, and urge-to-play in Candy Crush

Chanel J. Larche & Mike J. Dixon University of Waterloo

As gambling and gaming mechanics in games merge in a way that makes game classification ambiguous (e.g., “is it gambling?”), it becomes important to look at features shared by each domain in the hope of better understanding problematic gambling and gaming behaviour. In gambling research, an important game feature is the near-miss outcome – a frustrating, yet motivating loss characterized by “falling just short” of a win.  Crucially near-misses occur in both slot machines and the casual game Candy Crush (Larche, Musielak & Dixon, 2017). Another phenomenon implicated in both problematic gambling and gaming behaviour is psychological flow (Dixon et al., 2017; Hull, 2013). An antecedent of flow in videogames involves a balance of skill and challenge. Using Candy Crush as a platform, our research aim was two-fold: 1) to show that different outcomes affect the skill-challenge balance and hence flow, 2) to ascertain the role of both flow and arousal in determining players’ urge to continue gameplay. Thirty players rated their level of skill, challenge, arousal, flow and their urge to keep playing after each outcome (wins, near-misses and losses). Ratings of skill and challenge were most similar (i.e., balanced) for wins, and least balanced for losses; subsequently, flow was highest for wins and lowest for losses. For all three outcomes, both flow and arousal were correlated with urge. For wins only, flow and arousal combined to increase the urge to keep playing – a finding of relevance for problem-gaming.


Loot Boxes: Video Game Gambling, Paying to Win, and the Question of Game Design

Dr. Mark R. Johnson, University of Alberta; Dr. Tom Brock, Manchester Metropolitan University

A ‘loot box’ is a consumable virtual item purchased and redeemed within a video game to receive a random selection of virtual items. In the last eighteen months, their implementation in many major and independent titles has led to extensive controversy. For example, in April 2018, gambling authorities in Belgium and the Netherlands declared that loot boxes risk creating a new generation of problem gamblers, whilst China, the UK, US and Canada have expressed concern over whether that loot boxes lower the threshold of gambling by integrating ‘games of chance’ into otherwise skill-based gaming experiences. Despite public and policy outcry, research has not engaged with those who actually design and develop these systems: the voices of designers are missing from the debate. In this talk we will outline our present research program into this phenomenon, which we believe to be the first project to interview industry actors on loot boxes within video games development and integrate these voices into local, national and international debates about the regulation and funding of games development. We will outline our main research questions, our interview data gathered up to this point, and the potential directions for further investigation into loot box implementation, and effects.


The Gamblification of Live Streaming on Twitch.tv

Dr. Mark R Johnson, University of Alberta

Twitch.tv is a platform on which people primarily broadcast themselves playing video games. The platform has grown rapidly to become approximately the hundredth most-viewed website in the world, with over 150m spectators, and 2m individuals around the world regularly broadcasting. Of those, several hundred thousand profit from their broadcasts, and of those, three to four thousand make full-time incomes. Drawing over one hundred in-depth interviews with professional Twitch streamers, in this paper I will examine how many live streamers “gamblify” the cultural content they create. Specifically I will consider three trends: the rise of “raffles” run by live streamers as a means to encourage donations; the rule of randomised rewards for those who donate money (outside of a raffle context) designed to encourage repeated donations until the desired reward is obtained; and the growing role that poker, and gambling broadcasts more generally, play on the platform. This analysis will shed light on the political economy of Twitch and how its gamblified economic dynamics influence, and are influenced by, the political, social and cultural relationships on the platform. Given the striking profitability of the most successful streamers, and Twitch as a whole, it is crucial to interrogate who is winning and losing in financial terms, and why, and how the role of money brushes up against the inherent playfulness of a platform dedicated (primarily) to gaming.