Are we approaching a 'moneyball moment' for esports?

June 22, 2016 by Kris Ligman

Recent changes to Dota 2 team structures suggest we may be entering a new phase of high-level competitive play.

Moneyball isn't just a movie with Brad Pitt -- it's a term (sometimes, a pejorative) to describe a dramatically different way of thinking about baseball. I won't bog you down with the history -- the movie does a good job of that on its own -- but in simplest terms, moneyball is about using sabermetrics (statistical analysis) to make plays your opponents can't adequately predict or counter. In other words, you study the situation from the most objective vantage point possible, collate patterns, and crunch numbers to try to 'out-think' the other team.

If the above sounds far more sensible to the already stats- and numbers-driven world of videogames than it might for the guts-and-grit world of baseball, well, you wouldn't be alone there. As Kill Screen's Will Partin notes, professional Dota 2 teams have begun regularly employing analysts, with roughly half of the teams at the recent Manila Major in the Philippines boasting such an individual as part of their on-the-ground support squad. These analysts take over a role traditionally handled by active players, closely studying the opposing team and suggesting plays based on their observations.

Here's Murielle "Kipspul" Huisman, analyst for Team Fnatic, laying out in an interview with Kill Screen how she used sabermetrics to give Fnatic the lead in a match against rival team LGD Gaming:

During my research, I noticed a ward that LGD never managed to find and deward. [That ward] worked for us too. I also knew one of LGD’s signature smoke [invisibility skill] timings and showed the players [on my team]. Lo and behold, LGD smoked during that exact window and we dodged their attack.

Even if you don't play Dota 2, it should be clear that these are fairly subtle observations, and that they don't, by themselves, equal a decisive win -- but by consistently anticipating and countering opponents in this way, a team can carve out a victory where otherwise they might have lost. Fnatic ultimately placed fifth at the Manila Major, out of 16 teams, a respectable position for a team of their standing.

That's not to say having an eagle-eyed buddy to spot during matches is an assured victory -- neither of the top-placed teams at the Manila Major, OG and Team Liquid, used analysts -- but the practice is still in its infancy, all told. With a greater body of data and stronger statistical models, analysts have the potential to significantly shape professional Dota 2. And it may mean we'll be seeing this practice spread to League of Legends and other team-based esports in the near future as well.

I highly recommend checking out the entire essay on Kill Screen, which goes into greater depth on the subject and what a "moneyball moment" might mean for professional Dota 2. And watch Moneyball, if you haven't yet! It's a baseball-for-math-people movie and probably more up your alley than you might think.