Economics of SEA Dota: How Much Does it Take to Run a Team

How SEA esports teams financially sustain and succeed in the volatile Dota 2 industry

Vignesh Raghuram
Updated On: 
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Economics of SEA Dota</p></div>
Economics of SEA Dota


AFK Gaming

In the high-stakes world of Dota 2, where virtual clashes between the factions of Dire and Radiant captivate a global audience, a quieter, yet equally critical battle rages on: the struggle for financial viability. 

Behind the scenes, team owners in bustling cities from Manila to Jakarta manage a complex array of expenses—from player salaries to operational costs and visa fees. We spoke with multiple senior executives and team owners in SEA and Western Europe—granted under the condition of anonymity—who have opened up their ledgers to provide a rare glimpse into the esports economy.

Despite a daunting array of expenses, the Dota 2 scene in SEA is thriving, buoyed by a mix of sponsorship deals, prize money from tournament wins, and innovative approaches to generating revenue. This exploration sheds light on how teams in this volatile industry craft strategies not merely to compete, but to financially sustain and succeed.

How much does it cost to run a team in SEA vs Rest of the World?

Player Salaries and Operational Expenses

In Southeast Asia, a hotbed for esports talent with a burgeoning competitive scene, the financial dynamics of running a Dota 2 team are markedly different from their Western counterparts. According to an executive at a Tier 1 team from SEA, player salaries in the region can range from a modest $1,000 to $10,000 per month.

It's a wide range, reflecting the diverse pool of talent, from up-and-coming players to seasoned veterans."
- An SEA esports team owner

Operational costs for professional Dota 2 teams vary significantly and are crucial for gaining a competitive edge while preserving organizational efficiency. Key expenses include maintaining training facilities or gaming houses which require rent, utilities, and high-performance computing equipment. Teams also invest in boot camps (temporary training set ups) and training sessions ahead of major tournaments which are crucial for team cohesion and strategy refinement. These involve additional costs for travel, accommodation, and venue hire, The operational roster extends beyond players to include coaches, analysts, psychologists, and nutritional experts, whose salaries and benefits represent a significant monthly expenditure, underlining the substantial investment needed to compete at the highest levels of the Dota 2 competitive circuit.

These add another layer to the budget, with monthly costs starting from $4,000 to $5,000. Annually, this places the total expenditure for maintaining a competitive team in SEA at approximately $300,000 to $500,000. 

The financial landscape shifts dramatically as one looks to the West, particularly in regions like Western Europe, where the cost of living is higher and the esports infrastructure is more established. An executive from a tier 1 team in the region (also speaking on the condition of anonymity) outlined a much larger budgetary footprint for player salaries, with figures ranging between $50,000 to $100,000 per month for a five-player team. "The investment in talent is substantial," the owner noted, "supported by a comprehensive backend of coaches, analysts, and mental health professionals to ensure peak performance."

Operational costs in these regions can double or even triple those in SEA, with monthly expenses for a team potentially hitting the $100,000 mark, excluding additional costs like international travel and player transfers. 

The Wild Cards: Transfer Fees and VISA Procurement Costs

Speaking about player transfers, an often overlooked but significant aspect of esports team economics, these fees can vary wildly, from $25,000 to upwards of $200,000, depending on a player's marketability and competitive standing. "Transfer fees are a critical consideration," one team owner explained, "especially when looking to acquire a player who can change the team's competitive fortunes."

The case of Wang "Ame" Chunyu, whose transfer fee was rumored to be just under $1 million, exemplifies the high-end of this market. While such figures are exceptional, they highlight the potential costs involved in securing top talent. 

Factors like a player's nationality, passport strength and visa history can also influence transfer fees, with European players often commanding a premium due to the perceived ease of facilitating their participation in international tournaments. Many SEA countries' passports carry more restrictions, requiring holders to undergo more rigorous and lengthy visa application processes to enter certain countries for tournaments. This not only increases the likelihood of delays and denials but also elevates the costs associated with securing visas, including application fees, documentation, and potentially legal or consultancy services to navigate the complex application procedures.

One SEA team owner highlighted that while it's rare for players to be unable to attend tournaments due to visa issues, it has occurred, underlining the inherent uncertainties teams from the region face. In such instances, teams must bear additional costs, such as securing stand-ins at short notice. This involves not just the financial outlay for the stand-ins' compensation but also potential loan agreements, further complicating the team's budget and planning. 

How much does an SEA Dota team typically earn?

To navigate the complex landscape of operational costs and the logistical hurdles associated with international competition, SEA Dota 2 teams must adeptly manage their revenue streams to sustain and grow within the ecosystem. 

Revenue Sources for SEA Teams

AFK Gaming

Sponsorships: The Financial Bedrock

Sponsorships are the linchpin of revenue models for esports organizations globally, and SEA Dota 2 teams are no exception. One team owner emphasized, "Primary revenue model for esports organizations has always been sponsorship, whether you are in SEA, whether you are in Europe, it doesn't matter." The spectrum of sponsorship deals in SEA is wide, with figures ranging from "at least a 100K to say a million dollars," highlighting the significant dependency on brand partnerships. For top-tier teams, sponsorship deals can even reach up to $2 Million a year, underscoring the high stakes involved in building and maintaining a competitive brand and team.

The financial success of a team, in terms of covering the annual operational expenses estimated between $300,000 to $500,000, heavily relies on these sponsorships. This reliance illustrates the critical nature of team performance and marketability in attracting and retaining sponsorships. Teams with strong brand power and a roster of star players are more likely to secure lucrative deals, which prove key to maintaining profitability.

In this environment, the integration of cryptocurrency and betting sponsorships fits in naturally. Given their alignment with the tech-savvy, predominantly young demographics of esports viewers, these sectors offer promising prospects. Cryptocurrency companies are increasingly viewing esports as an ideal avenue to expand their visibility, while regulated betting platforms can tap into the highly engaged fanbase that follows Dota 2 tournaments closely. These partnerships could provide a fresh influx of sponsorship dollars, essential for teams aiming to cover their substantial operational costs and invest in future growth.

Prize Money: A Variable Yet Vital Supplement

Prize money from tournament wins represents an important, albeit less predictable, source of revenue for SEA Dota 2 teams. The distribution of winnings typically sees a portion allocated to the organization, ranging "from about 20% to the organization to about 10.". This division not only rewards players for their hard-earned victories but also contributes to the organization's financial ecosystem, underlining the significance of competitive success in the team's overall financial health.

In 2023, Team Spirit topped the earnings chart among Dota 2 organizations, raking in over $7 million from prize winnings. On average, the leading five teams—including Talon Esports from Southeast Asia—garnered $3.42 million each in prize money. Assuming organizations claim a 10% share of these winnings, prize money alone could theoretically cover at least 60% of the annual operational costs for a top-performing SEA Dota 2 team.

Digital Sales: Exploring New Avenues

The sale of team bundles within the Dota 2 client has been a notable yet fluctuating source of income for teams. Historically, these bundles could yield "probably like 30k, 40K a year," with performance and popularity influencing sales. However, the changes to the Dota 2 Pro Circuit have impacted this revenue stream with teams now only expecting to earn a significant revenue through this by qualifying for The International, making it an unreliable source of revenue for all but the best teams in the world.

Social Media Incentives: An Emerging Opportunity

Recent initiatives have seen tournament organizers like ESL and Riyadh Masters introduce financial incentives based on social media engagement, marking a new frontier in esports revenue. With the likes of Riyadh Masters 2023 rewarding organizations $100,000 for teams' social media content during events, this model encourages teams to maintain an active and engaging online presence, offering a novel way to supplement income while enhancing fan interaction. 

This approach not only incentivizes creative content creation but also opens up a direct avenue for teams to capitalize on their social media footprint, an increasingly important aspect of Dota 2.

Other publishers like Tencent have already started incentivizing teams in their PUBG Mobile ecosystem through such programs. PUBG Mobile teams could potentially earn upto $100k USD through these programs.

Merchandising and Supplementary Revenue Streams

While merchandising and other monetization avenues exist, they generally play a supporting role in a team's revenue strategy. These activities, often more about brand building and fan engagement, provide additional but typically minor income streams compared to the heavy hitters like sponsorships and prize money. The challenge and opportunity lie in leveraging these supplementary avenues to enhance brand visibility and deepen fan loyalty, contributing to a more robust and diversified financial foundation for the team.

Given the variability and the wide range of potential earnings from these sources, a successful SEA Dota 2 team could realistically see annual earnings ranging from the low hundreds of thousands to potentially over a million dollars, largely hinging on the size and terms of sponsorship deals, tournament successes, and their ability to monetize digital content and fan engagement. 

However, professional players' lack of engagement in brand-building efforts through livestreams has stunted the impact of sponsor-driven activities. This has since started changing steadily with organizations like Team Spirit and Team Liquid leading the pack with intense and engaging content updates throughout the year.

So, is it profitable to run an SEA Dota 2 Team?

Despite facing stark cost disparities and logistical challenges compared to their Western counterparts, Southeast Asian (SEA) esports teams have carved out a niche for potential profitability through strategic management and market adaptability. Central to their success is the adept handling of operational and player-related costs, which benefit from the region's lower cost of living and salary expectations.

These teams, by leveraging their market presence and creatively engaging their fanbase, can not only cover their substantial expenditures but also achieve a profitable stance within the global esports landscape. This intricate balance between cost management and revenue optimization, amid the dynamic and rapidly evolving esports industry, forms the cornerstone of success and sustainability for SEA Dota 2 teams as they pursue both competitive glory and financial stability.

Valve could enhance the profitability of the Dota 2 scene by adopting successful strategies from other esports titles. As noted by a Tier 1 team owner, other games such as CS:GO, Valorant, and Rainbow Six offer team-based digital assets like skins, bundles, and emojis that provide a steady revenue stream beyond major tournaments. Implementing similar features in Dota 2 could bolster the ecosystem, providing consistent revenue opportunities throughout the year.

Looking at CS:GO, Valorant, and Rainbow Six, you see a lot of team-based skins, digital assets like bundles with gun buddies, and sprays. If Valve could also implement such features for Dota 2, it could significantly bolster the ecosystem. For The International (TI), they offer wallpapers, TP emojis, and the like, but these are limited to the TI period. You have to qualify for TI to benefit, leaving no consistent revenue opportunities throughout the year for teams that don't make the cut. Perhaps Valve could introduce a leaderboard, similar to an EPT tour score. If you're among the top 50 teams globally, and fans purchase your team's skins, it would contribute directly to the team's income. This system is effective in other games and could help stabilize incomes for teams, fostering a healthier, more sustainable competitive scene."
- A Dota 2 Team Owner

The implementation of such strategies could provide Dota 2 teams with more consistent financial support, potentially stabilizing the competitive landscape outside the high stakes of The International.

Published On: 
author profile picture
Vignesh has been covering the esports industry for nearly 5 years starting with the early days of the DPC. His industry expertise includes experience in Dota 2, CS:GO and Mobile Esports coverage.