“I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself,
‘This could be Heaven or this could be Hell’
Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor,
I thought I heard them say…”
Welcome to Dota 2, the Hotel California of online gaming. Late last December, I was naïve enough to dip a toe in its beguiling waters and today, 1,399 hours of gameplay later, I return as a semi-functional human to regale you with tales from its realm.
Dota 2 is unlike any other game I’ve ever played, both in its nature and history. It started off as a StarCraft mod popular enough to be ported to Warcraft 3, which then exploded into a kaleidoscope of player-made variants and eventually coalesced again into a single entity titled Defense of the Ancients Allstars. There is no single author of Dota, though all the anonymous contributors who’ve made it what it is have come from the community that first started playing the mods. As such, Dota is the very definition of grassroots game development. The idea of a game made by the people for the people, as a certain American president might put it, fills me with a particularly warm and fuzzy sensation.
Of course, I knew none of this when I first picked up Dota. A friend recommended it because it’s free and I’m cheap. I understood that the game had a team-based format where killing the other guys was a good thing, like with first-person shooters, but your character also leveled up through the course of a match, as in role-playing games. That seemed like a recipe for unbalanced gameplay, but as it turns out, it’s precisely Dota’s balance that makes it so unbelievably addictive.
You start off as a member of a ragtag group of five heroes intent on destroying the enemy’s base, which is embodied by the titular Ancient structure. Through a series of skirmishes against the other team, their defensive towers, and waves of autonomous creeps, you gain experience and gold, the latter of which can be spent on items that make you stronger, swifter, and deadlier. The more you kill, the more you make, the more you buy, the more you kill. Rinse, repeat, and make sure to say "gg" at the end.
Learning a language might be quicker than mastering the full breadth of Dota
Excuse me if I’m making this sound simple, because it really isn’t. Dota 2 has a roster of over 100 heroes to choose from, and the combinations of items they can obtain is an order of magnitude greater still. Each hero has four or more unique abilities, and to have any hope of defeating a skilled opponent, you have to know what those are, what items he or she is carrying, and how they affect your chances of survival. Ignoring all of that nuance, I jumped straight into the game with the Juggernaut and was promptly beaten into a pulp of samurai sushi. A dozen humbling ass whoopings later, I was online and reading the Dota Fire hero guides.
The key reassurance I can offer is that all of these intricacies are, in fact, worth learning. As daunting as Dota’s complexity may be, without it the game just wouldn’t be as rewarding. My way of rising to the high bar of basic skill required was to pick the last enemy hero to destroy me. Thus I went from playing Juggernaut to Bounty Hunter to Bloodseeker to Ursa to Spirit Breaker. Each time I was sure I had the "right" hero, a better player would come along, expose my weaknesses, and teach me something new. I’m the worst loser I know and yet I played Dota 2 for nearly 100 hours before I could get my winning percentage above 50. Maybe if I could actually see that I was being dominated by 14-year-old kids listening to Darude’s Sandstorm on repeat, I might have felt sufficiently embarrassed to retreat in shame. I stuck through it, though, because, in the immortal words of Agent Smith, "as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery," and Dota delivers both with just enough victory to keep me titillated. And once I had a couple of hundred hours of experience under my belt, I too started passing on the sacred knowledge of Dota through the time-honored tradition of owning noobs.
This is not a game for the impatient. Success in Dota 2 requires the strategic forethought of chess, the unselfish teamwork of basketball, and the steely nerves of poker. None of those skills are acquired with ease and there’s no magic number of matches or hours played to achieve Dota competence. It’s a lot like learning a language: I never felt discrete upgrades in my knowledge and skill, but eventually I got to the point where I could tell you every typo in the game’s hero descriptions and every corner of its single asymmetric map.
Just know that the commitment required is on a whole different scale to other games. You could complete the epic Mass Effect trilogy (plus all of its expansion packs) in less time than it takes the average Dota player to familiarize himself with everything from Abbadon’s Aphotic Shield to Zeus’s Lightning Bolt. But that’s really the point. Mastering this game in 50 hours wouldn’t feel anywhere near as satisfying as taking a good 500.
DOTA 2, I love you.— Vlad Savov (@vladsavov) December 29, 2013
I feel an appropriate mix of pride and embarrassment about my 1,400 hours in this game. It’s been debilitating to the rest of my life, as illustrated by the three accidental beards I’ve grown over the course of this year and the habitually red eyes I wake up with. Personal grooming and sleep are the innocent victims of trying to maintain both a job and an all-consuming addiction. I’ve no idea how people with actual families to take care of can persist in this world.
Dota is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. It may be called Dota 2 now and overseen by Valve, but it’s still a community-driven, constantly evolving beast. The mysterious figure of IceFrog maintains and adjusts the game, heeding feedback from a loud and deeply engaged community of players. Those same players also contribute to Dota’s artistic style by using the in-game workshop to design and sell their own cosmetic kits for heroes. I’m too hooked on playing Dota to actually work inside of it, but these added interactions just help drive people further down the game’s bottomless rabbit hole.
The rare respite I get from needing to play is provided by my job flying me out to trade shows or events. This game’s Mac version is a cruel joke that nobody should try, so when I’m on the move I get my fix by watching the pros play. It can’t have escaped your attention that Valve hosted The International 4 tournament this summer and distributed over $10 million in prize money. Most of that came from fans buying cosmetic perks inside Dota — I found this a silly waste of money at first, but once the game sucks you in, buying your Bounty Hunter a shinier shuriken just starts to make sense. It also helps to know that you are supporting the thing you love, as money spent on items and tickets to watch live tournaments is used to fund the very existence of those tournaments, giving fans a direct way to fund exactly the sort of entertainment they desire. It’s so democratic that it hurts.
Because of its origins, the mythology of Dota is as eclectic as it is insane
For all my fawning adoration of Dota 2, I haven’t been blind to the game’s failings, either. First up, as intensely loyal and devoted as the community is, its level of discourse barely rises above the standards of primordial man. And I do mean man specifically, since the majority of players are male, and women can often struggle to find their place in an environment that’s overrun with testosterone-fuelled machismo. Crude language and curt manners prevail in the e-sport arena just as much as they do on the sports field.
One of the artefacts of the game being designed by young males is in its presentation. Female characters tend to perform clichéd support or witch roles while dressing in form-fitting costumes that seem to have shrunken in the wash. One of the long-standing bugs in the game involves the Crystal Maiden hero, whose death animation sees the character momentarily stripped down to her underwear before disappearing. Some moves have been taken to rectify this imbalance, such as the re-gendering of the Legion Commander hero from male to female. That at least gives one recognizably female character among the Strength class of fully armored and uncompromisingly fierce heroes. It’s also worth acknowledging that Dota 2 doesn’t take itself too seriously, as evidenced by its bright color palette and predilection for puns. Gabe Newell’s favorite hero, the Sand King, makes a habit of asking his fallen enemies if they were expecting "Sandy Claws."
Dota 2 could be more sophisticated in its design and more inclusive in its makeup, but you can say that about the vast majority of video games and a great deal of other popular entertainments too. I don’t want to make light of its issues, but they are more about us, the players, than the game itself. What sets Dota apart from anything else I’ve experienced is the very essence of the game: its finely tuned gameplay that’s as unforgiving as it is rewarding. You could have predicted I would fall in love with Dota just by knowing that it combines my two favorite things — sports and the internet — in one unique, crowdsourced creation.
Calling Dota a multiplayer game is like calling Michael Jordan a prolific dunker
Without the internet, there is no Dota, 1 or 2. This game is built on a legacy of organic participation and collective creativity that’s inspiring and affirming of the best aspects of the web. Its continued existence and the funding of professional competitions are also directly dependent on the engagement of its players. While I’d prefer to see more decorum and maturity among said players, there’s still a chance for these online encounters to bring disparate people closer together. Dota 2 allows me, a Bulgarian living in London, to watch an Australian in Berlin commentating on a match taking place in China between teams from Malaysia and the Ukraine. Calling this game’s headline tournament The International is as fitting a title as any in gaming.
The humbling experience of having your face repeatedly slammed in the mud is what builds the incredible loyalty and commitment that Dota 2 enjoys today. NBA player Jeremy Lin describes it as a lifestyle rather than a game, and my experience this year has confirmed that in every way possible. I have a relationship with this game. It’s built on the trust of knowing that every screw-up and every triumph is my own. At a time when gaming is growing more cinematic and prescribed, Dota is pure, unadulterated, interactive fun. No training wheels, no assistant popups, no pausing to gather your thoughts. Thank you, internet, for being this awesome.
Correction: This post has been updated to note that Crystal Maiden's death animation is a bug in the game rather than a design decision and to include witches among the typical roles played by female characters.