The Future of the MDI: Is it at Risk?

The first Mythic Dungeon International (MDI) of Shadowlands has not even reached the halfway point, yet we have already seen some striking new developments that are raising eyebrows. A handful of the most prominent competitors have opted out of the tournament entirely while others are making bold moves to livestream their Time Trials and practice to the masses. What implications could these actions have for the future of the MDI as an esport?

Perhaps the biggest shock to the MDI community was on January 17th when the news that Golden Guardians (GG) veteran tank Lightee, who has been competing at the top levels of the MDI since early 2018, would no longer be competing in the MDI after the first Cup of this season. According to the tweet announced by GG team captain Jdotb, Lightee’s decision boiled down to the potential earnings of the tournament being too low for the time requirements. With so many other MDI players (both past and present) joining the conversation on Twitter and other social media platforms, we want to take a deeper look at the MDI to examine whether the time investment is proportional to the potential earnings for the competitors of this esport.

Is the future of the MDI in danger?

Something in the Air

The last time we saw an MDI Finals tournament was over 6 months ago, back in July of 2020. It culminated in an electrifying match-up between EU powerhouse Wunderbar (now Echo) and North American sweethearts Golden Guardians. The series went all the way to the last game of the best-of-five match-up, with Wunderbar finally coming out on top for the win. With the last big MDI moment of BFA being so exciting, players and fans alike have been eagerly awaiting the return of the Mythic+ esport. Sadly, now that the first MDI Season of Shadowlands is ongoing, this excitement seems to have ebbed.

Blizzard announced their plans back in December for both the Arena World Championship (AWC) and the MDI, and now both esports are in full swing. The first Cup of the MDI has concluded, and the second Cup is currently in session this weekend. Unfortunately, after only one Cup, we have seen a number of notable teams and players announce their decisions to no longer compete. Team ????, who despite finishing in 5th place this past Cup and earning prize money, has stated they will not be entering their team in the remaining weeks of the Season.

A team comprised of popular MDI veterans and RWF competitors Fem, Jeath, Faithy, Kuri, and Petko, we are certainly sad to see Team ???? leave the competition for the foreseeable future.

The Format of the MDI: Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

The MDI first launched as a competitive esport in 2017, and has undergone substantial format evolutions in every iteration since. From the 2020 MDI to now, Blizzard has announced three major format changes to note:

  • The addition of a 4th Cup
  • The addition of a 3rd day of games per Cup
  • Two distinct and separate seasons will operate with this format during 2021

Despite the additions of an extra Cup and extra broadcast day each season, the basic format of the MDI has not changed since 2019. It is a tiered competition where teams sign up to compete and, upon being deemed eligible, go through a series of Time Trials, Cups, and Finals. Each of the two seasons this year will have 4 weeks of Time Trials alternating with 4 weeks of Cups, culminating in the one-weekend Season Finals sometime after the 4th Cup. This format carries with it absolute bare minimums for time investment required:

  • Time spent recording three Time Trials dungeons (up to five official “tries” per dungeon)
  • Time spent during on-broadcast competition in Cups and Finals.

This does not take into account the majority of the time commitment, which consists of practice hours.

Practice hours are technically voluntary, but it is quite obvious that if teams do not commit many, many, hours to practice during each stage of the MDI, they will not succeed. The competitive landscape has been growing rapidly since the start of the MDI in Legion as more teams have gotten involved and gained experience and skill in the esport. The true competitive edge in the MDI often boils down to a special combination of time spent practicing, creating exceptional dungeon routes, and having players with the skill to perform those routes to near-perfection under high pressure. The top teams have been known to invest upwards of 50+ hours in the space of a week during Time Trials or practicing for a Cup, while others have invested much less.

In fact, some of the top teams have even reported significant time investments in recent MDI tournaments:

For the purposes of this discussion, we are proceeding with the assumption that the average time investment for MDI players is equivalent to a full-time job (40 hours per week) during every stage of the competition. This is to provide a baseline average as every team’s practice approach differs, but the top ranking teams reportedly put in considerably more than 40 hours per week. To give an idea of the time commitment involved in the MDI process for these top teams, here is an example of a typical schedule for Golden Guardians over the course of one Time Trial and one Cup week consecutively:

Each of the 2 seasons this calendar year will have 4 Time Trials, 4 Cups, and a Grand Final. That is a minimum of 9 weeks per season that these players are essentially doing nothing but MDI practice and competition. If we account for the fact that teams continue to practice long hours in between Cups and Finals, we can easily conclude that teams are dedicating full-time hours for upwards of 12 weeks per season to compete in the 2021 MDI. Therefore, not even accounting for any practice time between MDI seasons, the teams will be devoting on average 24 weeks of full-time hours (~40 hours per week) towards the MDI.

What Does the Time Investment Really Mean for the Players?

It is no secret that devoting 24 weeks to the MDI in a year has made it incredibly difficult for MDI players to find and hold jobs outside of the competition. Some of the players have been particularly outspoken about this issue:

Therefore, in order to truly take part in the competition without supplemental income, players are obligated to financially support themselves from the MDI itself, either directly or indirectly.

Professional gaming has evolved dramatically over the last 10 years, but in today’s esports environment, professional players typically earn income through 4 main sources:

  • Prize pools
  • Salaries
  • Sponsorships
  • Streaming/content creation

Unfortunately for the players, these sources of income are not readily available in being a professional MDI competitor alone for several reasons which we will explain shortly.

Firstly, in the early days of professional gaming and esports, players relied almost entirely on prize pools for income. This made gaming a very risky career, and around 2010, we saw a notable shift towards professional players making salaries and prize pools amounting to a bonus payout. These salaries are provided by the organizations whom these players represent. An excellent example of this salary system in action can be seen in another one of Blizzard’s games, Overwatch. In fact, Activision-Blizzard has mandated that all players in the Overwatch League must receive a minimum of $50,000.00 USD annual salary, health benefits, and a retirement package from their respective esports organizations. Regardless of how a team performs, the players all receive this minimum salary with bonuses based on performance.

However, these requirements do not exist in the MDI, most notably because there are very few esports organizations that get involved in the competition. In the current top 8 teams, there is only one major esports organization fielding an MDI team: the Golden Guardians. Unlike the AWC, where we have historically seen a much larger presence from esports organizations such as Cloud9, Spacestation Gaming, Wildcard Gaming and more, the structure of the MDI does not make it very attractive to sponsorships and organizations. At its core, an esports organization is a business, and contracting a team of players to compete in an esport is an investment. Therefore, an investment is only worth pursuing if there is enough profit potential. These profits come from a number of sources including prize pools, merchandise sales, and sponsorships.

Organizations are not likely to make any money from the MDI via sponsorships for the same reason that income source is not readily available to individual players: MDI players have historically not streamed any stages of the competition on their individual streams.

If the only part of the tournament being broadcasted is done by Blizzard themselves, there is no marketing potential for respective organizations and their players. According to rules stated in the official MDI Player Discord, players are not permitted to personally stream or simulcast the Cup or Finals broadcasts. Therefore, the only tangible opportunity for sponsors to reap benefits through the MDI would be through the streaming of Time Trials and practice hours throughout the stages of the competition. However, due to the unique nature of an esport built upon scripted PvE content and the importance of safeguarding exceptional strategies, players typically “go dark” with their streams when practicing to maintain their competitive edge. Sometimes, an innovative and novel strat can truly be the game-changer between a win and a loss.

The distinction of the MDI as a unique PvE esport is the key to the entire conundrum at hand. By players going “dark” on their streams for the majority of the tournament, they are effectively unable to earn income via conventional esports salaries, sponsorships, or streaming and content creation. Without any live content beyond the Cups and Finals, sponsors have little incentive to get financially invested. Without sponsorship deals or an individual’s stream revenue, players are left with nearly no other options than to rely solely on the official prize pool provided by Blizzard at various stages of the competition. Furthermore, only a small handful of exceptional players have been able to maintain a viewer base and earn a living from streaming while competing in the MDI.

One difficulty we face when evaluating the potential earnings of teams in the MDI via prize pools is that participation in each Cup is not guaranteed. Teams must go through the Time Trials process every other week to qualify for each subsequent Cup. Because the “top 8” are not locked in for the entire season, this creates an instability that causes us to see new teams almost every broadcast.

We believe that for the health of an esport with this kind of time investment, players at all earnings levels need to be able to receive a “living wage”. The amount defining a living wage differs around the world, but if we look at the Overwatch League (OWL) example stated above, the OWL has a mandated $50,000.00 USD annual salary for every player. This is just a minimum, and as in traditional sports, the better players earn well beyond the minimum, with some Overwatch pros earning 6 figure salaries. As we mentioned earlier, the structure and time commitment of the MDI makes it inherently difficult to hold a job or revenue source outside of the MDI. As sponsorships, salaries, and streaming/content creation is essentially off the table for this esport, the prize pools should theoretically be large enough to support the “bottom line”. In other words, the players earning the lowest amount possible (as long as they earn at every stage of the competition) would need to be earning enough to meet a living wage in order to justify the time investment of this MDI.

This is definitely not the case with the current prize pool. The total MDI prize pool for all of 2021 is currently slated to be $760,000.00 USD. This represents a prize pool of $300,000.00 USD for each of the 2 Finals, and $20,000.00 USD for each of the 8 Cups. The breakdown is as follows:

PlacePrize for TeamPer Player
1st place$8,000.00 USD$1,600.00 USD
2nd place$4,500.00 USD$900.00 USD
3rd place$3,000.00 USD$600.00
4th place$1,500.00 USD$300.00 USD
5th/6th places$1,000.00 USD$200.00 USD
7th and 8th places$500.00 USD$100.00 USD

PlacePrize for TeamPer Player
1st place$150,000.00 USD$30,000.00 USD
2nd place$60,000.00 USD$12,000.00 USD
3rd place$30,000.00 USD$6,000.00 USD
4th place$24,000.00 USD$4,800.00 USD
5th/6th places$12,000.00 USD$2,400.00 USD
7th and 8th places$6,000.00 USD$1,200.00 USD

To examine the bottom end of potential earnings, let's make a theoretical team called “Team X”. Team X places 6th in every Cup (thus guaranteeing them enough points to go to the Finals) and then places 8th in each of the Finals. Attaining 6th place in every one of the 8 cups and 8th place in both Finals tournaments will earn Team X a grand total of $20,000.00 USD to be split amongst the entire team. This equates to $4,000.00 per player over the entire 24 weeks span of full-time hours dedicated towards the competition. Without getting too technical, we can clearly see that $4,000.00 per 6 months of work would not constitute a living wage without some form of supplemental income or support.

In the inverse, if a team managed to win literally every single Cup and both Finals, the maximum earnings would be a total of $364,000.00 USD, amounting to $72,800.00 USD per player. While that is a far cry better than $4,000.00 USD each for half a year’s work, the likelihood of winning every single stage of the competition is very low. Furthermore, if a team was able to achieve such ultimate domination, they would be without question the very best team in the entire world at this esport—a feat which would earn players vastly more cash reward in other esports and as well as other traditional sports. This would undeniably be a “God tier” accomplishment.

Can We Compare the MDI to Other Esports?

It is difficult to compare the earnings of the MDI with that of other esports. It is a very niche and unique esport, and as mentioned above, is one of the very few out there that does not lend itself to sponsorships, streaming revenue, or organizational support/involvement. However, to get a sense of what is out there, the largest prize pool available in esports comes from the Dota 2 International, the annual tournament showcasing the best Dota 2 players in the world. Last year’s prize pool reached the 40 million dollar mark. A much smaller prize pool, but a good one to consider as it is a Blizzard game, is available to the players in the Overwatch League. The 2020 Grand Finals for the Overwatch League had a total prize pool of $3.05 million, and that doesn’t even include the prize pools for the midseason tournaments and all-stars events.

It is also interesting to look at the earning potential from playing Path of Exile at the top level, as this is directly relevant to Lightee’s decision to quit competing in the MDI. Lightee is well known as one of, if not THE best, Path of Exile players in the world. Every time a new “League” is released in Path of Exile, third-party groups create prize pools for various achievements. When he competes, Lightee usually wins a fair amount of these prizes. In Jdotb’s announcement about former teammate Lightee, he stated: “So it comes as no surprise that Lightee, who has the opportunity to make more money in less time by competing in Path of Exile races that he can stream the entirety of, has decided that the MDI is a not a good use of his time.”

Technically speaking, 2021 is slated to have the largest overall prize pool in MDI history. However, it also has the largest time investment of any MDI to date. Is the prize pool enough? There will always be players out there who do not need to rely on prize money and simply compete in an esport purely for the challenge and prestige. However, in a global economy that has been ravaged by a pandemic, these players are bound to be the exception and not the rule. Unfortunately, we are already seeing the effects of this time investment being incompatible with the earnings. Not only have we seen notable players quit and or not even bother to compete this Season, but the overall participation levels are down considerably. We just wrapped up the second Time Trials, and the Global region (which includes every game region other than China) saw a grand total of ten teams even record a single Time Trial dungeon run. Only 8 teams even finished all 3 Time Trial dungeons. This is in comparison to 36 teams in the first Time Trial this year, and almost 100 teams in the first Time Trial of the BFA Season 4 MDI. The difference here is staggering.

High Hopes for the MDI: Is There a Solution?

All of this information leads to the question: What could Blizzard do? Many fans and players state that the prize pool should be increased. That’s one option, but an unlikely one. While the MDI and Mythic+ community is a very passionate one, it is also not a very large one. The MDI over the years has never reached the viewership numbers of Overwatch or Dota 2, or any of the myriad of higher-paying esports out there. In order to reach that stage where players are able to earn a living wage from the MDI, the prize pool would have to be increased exorbitantly. Unless viewership was to rise as a result of an increased prize pool (which could very well be a possibility), we believe that it is unlikely that Blizzard would take this route at this time.

We believe a better approach to bolstering the earnings, and thus hopefully ensuring the longevity and success of the MDI and its players, would be to get more esports organizations involved. One option would be for the MDI to function similarly to the NA LCS: the North American League Championship Series. The NA LCS is one of the many professional leagues in the massively successful esport arm of League of Legends. Organizations are required to pay an entrance fee to participate in the NA LCS, but 32.5% of all revenue from LCS events earned by the game company, Riot, is paid back to those teams. Half is divided evenly, and the other half is divided based on a number of factors, including each organization’s contribution to fan retention and league growth. Obviously the system is far more intricate, but it is perhaps an esport model that has some elements that could be of future benefit to the MDI format.

Players Take Matters Into Their Own Hands

Recently, players have been looking for alternative solutions to earning an income while competing in the MDI. While the other traditional paths of making a living in esports have not been a historically good option for a niche PvE esport such as the MDI, we still may be able to find some clues for potential solutions. On January 28th, MDI team favorite Echo surprised the community by announcing on Twitter that they were bravely opting to live stream their second weekend of MDI Time Trials:

This tweet initiated a big community discussion on the matter, as fellow competitors weighed in:

This was a ground-breaking move for the reigning MDI champions, as they potentially stand to be at a disadvantage from streaming their strats live. However, all five Echo players streamed and, together they amassed an average of 12,000 concurrent viewers across the 5 days of that Time Trial. This is impressive viewership and will hopefully lead to more teams streaming, and thus open up sponsorship opportunities.

In fact, as we are literally writing this article, Echo has announced that their MDI team is now officially sponsored by Logitech:

Echo’s decision to innovate the MDI landscape shows that players are really taking the future of the MDI esport into their own hands to mitigate the financial obstacles in place. The new Logitech sponsorship is a promising step in the right direction, as it will hopefully encourage more teams to stream and, thus, more sponsors to get involved.

The players want the MDI to succeed more than anybody, but their willingness and ability to compete could still be at risk if the format or prizepool of the MDI does not change...and fast.

What are your thoughts? Should Blizzard increase the prize pool of the MDI, or could a format change improve the quality of life for competitors? Head over to our Twitter and let us know.

About the Authors

Hulahoops has been playing WoW since Vanilla. If she’s not leading her Mythic Progression guild TBD through raids, she’s probably practicing for the MDI with her team Angry Toast. Hulahoops is a Holy Paladin in every sense of the term: she moderates the Hammer of Wrath Paladin Class Discord, and she was a practicing Lawyer for the last 7 years. Judgment isn’t just a spell! Hulahoops recently decided to put the law books away and follow her passion for esports by joining the team at RaiderIO as the Events and Community Coordinator. She is also passionate about making Azeroth an inclusive, welcoming space for all gamers and is a proud co-founder of the Defias Sisterhood community.

Vitaminpee mains Guardian Druid/Brewmaster and loves doing competitive Mythic+. She is the Editor and Assistant Producer of Raider.IO and is currently pursuing her Masters of Business Administration. She is a partnered Twitch streamer and Discord Partner specializing in tanking classes in WoW and other MMORPGs. Feel free to message her via Twitter for any business-related inquiries.