Feature Article

Dota 2 and the Road Toward "Getting It"

Shaun ventures to The International during PAX and comes away with a newfound appreciation for competitive gaming.

by

23.1 hours. According to Steam, that's how much time I've spent playing Dota 2 since getting my feet wet two weeks ago. As much as I've learned in that time, I know I've only scratched the surface of what this bewildering mash-up of strategy, tower defense, and action-RPG has to offer.

Dota 2 is a lot of things. It's complex, obtuse, frustrating, and deeply rewarding. Together, that's what makes it so brilliant. This is a game where strategies spawn sub-strategies, where your success comes not so much from how you build your house of cards but by how deftly and in what order you can catch the falling pieces. I'm terrible at it. I know this. And that's precisely why I was drawn to The International during PAX this past weekend.

Now in its second year, The International is Valve's official Dota 2 tournament, featuring a million dollar prize for the winning team and a not-too-shabby $250,000 consolation for the runners up. What brought me there wasn't so much an interest in eSports--the concept of competitive gaming had always flown over my head--but rather the belief that if I could learn a few lessons while watching these pro teams, surely I'd go home a better player. In the end, though, I learned about a lot more than protecting my team's base.


When I first walk into the lobby of Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony, I see a massive crowd being pulled in all directions. A four-man broadcast stage analyzes every last occurrence from the previous match. A merchandise table beckons fans to buy a branded mousepad, or an inflatable axe, or a plush donkey. Me, I'm just trying to find out where in the hell the entrance to the auditorium is.

I approach the person closest to me, a friendly-looking kid in sandals and jean shorts who, for some reason, seems to be doodling on a Dota 2 poster. Just before I can ask him where the entrance is, he hands the poster to an excited fan and wraps his arm around someone just as a camera flashes a few feet away. Later, while looking through the tournament guide, I realize he's actually a member of mTw, the team that finished first in the International West Qualifiers. I awkwardly slide away, deciding I should probably pose my question to someone who isn't being mobbed for pictures and autographs.

An hour ago I was in the lobby of the Hyatt killing time before an interview. Players from the Anaheim Angels, visiting Seattle to play a series against the Mariners, were waiting around before heading off to the game. Among this group was Albert Pujols, the greatest player of the past decade and a man the Angels recently signed to a 240-million-dollar contract. In the 10 minutes I stood around watching PAX attendees flood through the lobby to get to the convention center, not a single person approached those players.


Valve is an inscrutable company. Trying to decipher the logic behind its moves has become a sort of game in itself, with every new announcement met by a storm of interpretations and conspiracy theories. When Dota 2 was announced, the question at the time was where Valve's sudden interest in the MOBA genre came from. And now that people have an idea of just how eerily similar Dota 2 is to its predecessor, you can't help but wonder why Valve would go through the trouble of making a sequel at all.

Because it's not a sequel. At least not in the traditional sense. Dota 2 is Valve's attempt at taking a highly competitive game and making it highly watchable, all while keeping the original formula intact. It's Valve outwardly acknowledging that eSports is a force to be reckoned with, and boy do they ever want in.

Watch a game in person and it clicks. Broadcasters--or "shoutcasters," to use the appropriate jargon--aren't simply describing the action; they're using a toolset to paint a vivid picture. Bar charts pulled up on the fly show each player's net worth in terms of gold collected, while line graphs show which side has been earning XP at the faster rate. Panels crammed with stats are summoned onto the screen to illustrate a point, then quickly dismissed so the shoutcaster can use the mouse to draw telestrator-style notes onscreen. It's action and information dancing together in a carefully orchestrated ballet.

For these broadcasters--the ones whose screens adorn the halls of The International--Dota 2's spectator mode isn't a passive thing; it's a toolset that allows you to be nearly as active as the players themselves. And for us, the viewers, the result is like watching a game of college football on ESPN. There's a game on, sure, but half the fun is in the presentation.


The crowd is electric. They're cheering, they're on their feet, they're waving national flags. At one point I wonder what new patch added a loud horn every time a hero dies, and then I realize someone in the crowd has brought in one of those mind-shattering vuvuzela horns made famous by the 2010 World Cup. It's South Africa all over again.

What astonishes me most is how familiar the crowd is with every last nuance of the competition. It's as though they've pooled together their collective knowledge of not only the game, but the competitors as well.

The pre-match hero draft has every right to be a dull, tedious affair. It's the process by which teams huddle together to first decide which heroes they want to ban the other team from choosing, followed by which ones they choose themselves. I keep thinking to myself that this part of the game should be like watching a coin flip before a football game, or a tip-off in basketball. But it's not. Players erupt into cheers when a favorite hero is selected, or boo when one is banned.

At one point the announcers can't stop mentioning how good the Chinese teams play with Morphling, a versatile ranged hero whose water abilities excel at taking on other heroes head-to-head. Team Zenith needs to ban him against LGD Gaming, they say. They can't afford not to ban him. They don't ban him. And when LGD inevitably chooses Morphling, the crowd loses its mind.

Then there are the unorthodox tactics, the moves you rarely see in ordinary competition. Team Zenith does this thing where they take a pair of heroes and hide in the trees. Obscured by the fog of war, LGD can't see those Zenith players when they roll through their lane. That's when Zenith pops out from the trees for a surprise gank (a hero kill, essentially). One member of LGD goes down. Another puts up a fight, but quickly falls. The crowd is at a fever pitch. It's the loudest I've heard them cheer.

Yet for all the energy in the crowd, the competitors are almost certainly oblivious to it. As a way of keeping the players from hearing what the announcers might reveal about the competition, each team is sealed up in a soundproof glass booth. It feels like a magic show, 10 lovely assistants submerged in tanks of water before making a daring escape. All that cheering, and none of it gets through.


A Dota 2 match ends when one team destroys the other's ancient, the defensive centerpiece buried deep within each team's base. It should be a moment of triumph: the sight of one team's heroes and creeps hammering away at the ancient while the other team desperately fights to push them away. In reality, it's about the most anticlimactic part of the match.

So much of the focus leading up to this point falls on the little things. A player uses a town portal scroll to return to safety a 10th of a second before getting killed; another destroys his own tower to deny his enemy the gold required to fully upgrade that powerful item in his inventory. Dota 2 is nothing if not a game of details.

The crowd and players are so deeply engrossed in these minute machinations that by the time one team begins to home in on the other's ancient, nobody cares. In fact, every match I watch ends with the losing team disconnecting as soon as they see their own blood in the water. No one sticks around to watch their ancient fall.


As someone who grew up watching the usual trio of American sports--baseball, football, basketball--I keep searching for metaphors. At first, finding parallels with traditional sports is easy. The broadcast setup at The International wouldn't look out of place at the Super Bowl. The people who cheer teams on by waving national flags. That obnoxious vuvuzela.

But the more time I spend watching these matches, the less I understand. Cheering on players who can't hear a single thing, a team investing everything they have for 70 minutes just to disconnect with 10 seconds left. These are things that would never happen in traditional sports.

And yet the crowd couldn't care less They're on their feet for half the match, applauding esoteric strategies and bombastic kills alike. They have their favorite teams, their favorite players, and it doesn't matter to them one bit whether the whole thing feels like a game of football or basketball. They're Dota 2 fans here to watch people who are really, really good at Dota 2.

Maybe the phrase "eSports" is a misnomer. Maybe people like me, the ones searching for parallels to help better understand a culture they don't fully understand, have been doing it wrong this whole time. Who knows? By the last day of the tournament, I don't really care. I've left Seattle and flown home to San Francisco with my new plush donkey stashed away in my suitcase. At home in my apartment, I'm not playing Dota 2. I'm not trying out the new strategies I've learned. I'm right there in spectator mode watching the conclusion of The International, because like everyone else back in that auditorium, I just want to see who wins this tournament.

Discussion

45 comments
Silos911
Silos911

Very good article, it was a blast to read about your experience at the Dota 2 international. Keep up the great work Mr. Mcinnis.

Strider_91
Strider_91

Sounds like a great experience and a very well written article - really enjoyed reading it!

 

Glad you seem to be getting a grip with eSports!

coolerdude42
coolerdude42

Excellent read. I love hearing and reading testimonies of people who are just starting out fresh in the world of DotA. It reminds me of when I started out. Then, all my friends were playing it, and I was one of those who scoffed at the idea. Didnt take long before they turned me.Personally, I have been playing semi-consistently  for 7 years now and I am still thrilled on all the new things and nuances I am learning every time I play. I think that is my favorite aspect of this game - even after so many years, the ceiling is still not in sight.

samirus
samirus

I used to be a Dota gamer like you, but then I took an arrow to my knee and couldn't play anymore! LOL

faur_cosmin
faur_cosmin

how am I supposed to get a Dota 2 key!? I've been searching for at least 1 week.

BenderUnit22
BenderUnit22

I'm too deep into League of Legends to switch to Dota 2, but it's good to see more companies jumping into esports, if only to maybe slightly alter the public perception of what level of strategy and skill can go into playing a video game.

Hyzhenhok
Hyzhenhok

Nice article, great to see Dota 2 getting some front page love from Gamespot.

Sam3231
Sam3231

I agree Dota 2 is awesome, so when is the Gamespot review?

eldanon
eldanon

A great article... I'm in a similar position, I just discovered the wonderful world of Dota thanks to gamespot's Dota Diaries a couple of months ago. The international was a blast to watch, I hope this game does very very well when it is released.

QQabitmoar
QQabitmoar

E-sports have always been quite big, maybe not so much in the west. But ever since SC2 released, they really took off. And with Dota 2, e-sports are going to become as popular as standard sports soon enough.

AndCarlsen
AndCarlsen

I knew that eSports was a big thing, but having a tournament with a 1-million-dollar award, signing a 240-million-dollar contract (is that right?) and things like that were unknown to me. I had no idea this was so big. I'm sure I would be just as lost if I went to an event like that.

Bregzeinkul
Bregzeinkul

Great read.

 

I find Dota more appealing than other e-sports because it requires both teamwork and strategy. 

 

 

" because like everyone else back in that auditorium, I just want to see who wins this tournament."

 

 I think everyone just want to see Na'vi win the damn tournament

Too bad they didn't :)

 

Btw, we have another big LAN tournament, The Asia 2012, coming in December. 

vendettared468
vendettared468

Really great article. With concerns to the leaving, that is a staple of RTS games, from whence dota spawned, which carried over. 

 

You said yourself that the end is not very exciting and there is almost always a point where there is nothing you can do to come back. Its a courtesy to end the game instead of dragging it out, not a rage quit.

Fooljeff
Fooljeff

I enjoyed reading this and I'm jealous of the experience you had.

Darkmoone1
Darkmoone1

Instead of trying to find things to relate it to, try giving it a chance to be its own entity. You keep trying to find something in common with a Sports game played outside, with tools, weather conditions, and generations of history behind it. What you compare the regular sports to is one that is played inside, uses electronics, and is trying to MAKE its own history.

 

  This is not an entertainment that is won by the sheer man power or muscle that someone brings. This is yet a entertainment won by the strategic mind. Maybe you do understand that, but try to understand it better and maybe you and everyone else will see why things are the way they are.

SKaREO
SKaREO

<p>You painted the atmosphere as flamboyantly euphemistic as possible . eSports is still young, and grossly underfunded by corporate sponsorship. You seem cautiously cynical of professional electronic gaming. Perhaps you preferred traditional sports for being more pragmatic.

 

<p>It's possible that you left understanding less about eSports because you can't justify people getting paid to play their favorite game rather than have to work like the rest of us. You noted the salary of a professional athlete as if it had some kind of hidden significance, which you quickly found out is not the case for someone who is a devoted fan or professional player of competitive video games.

 

<p>You have to play the game at a competent level to understand advanced mechanics and the metagame. It's a whole new world of strategic analysis and tactics.

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

 @samirus Get that disinfected or it might turn gangrenous! 

Zaknaifen
Zaknaifen

 @faur_cosmin The best thing to do is sign up for the beta and hope that they let you in, but I think they may have recently slowed down how many invites they're giving out since they were refining the game in preparation for The International. If you absolutely want to get in now, have a friend who is already in buy a $30 invite. I'm pretty sure those come with some sweet unlockables as well.

BanditBrother
BanditBrother

 @shaunmc I am a wonderful dude, so I forgive you. I remember trying to give you a Dota 2 beta key when you asked for one on Steam, but I guess it didn't work out. Anyway, all is forgiven!

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

 @BanditBrother Aww, I'm sorry! My friends list was totally out of control so I trimmed it down to people I've actually played with. Please don't take it personally. I'm sure you're a wonderful dude!

ALPHAHXCORE
ALPHAHXCORE

 @BenderUnit22 There's no such thing as beung to deep into LoL to dota 2. Just make the switch and you'll be all the happier for it.

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

 @Sam3231 It's still in beta, believe it or not. I'm sure we'll have something once Valve releases the 1.0 version. 

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

 @AndCarlsen The guy with the $240M contract is a baseball player. 

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

 @vendettared468 Thanks! That part was more of an observation than a critique. 

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

 @Darkmoone1 Perhaps I didn't illustrate this clearly enough, and this is probably my own fault, but the point of the end is that I stopped caring about whether it was analogous with regular sports or not. I learned to appreciate this tournament for itself. 

 

So while I was searching for those comparisons in the beginning, they stopped being a concern once I went home and realized, hey, I really want to see who wins this tournament. 

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

 @SKaREO I was cynical about it to start with, yes. But not by the end. 

faur_cosmin
faur_cosmin

 @Zaknaifen it's funny ... i have introduced this game to my friend, and he got an invite the next day by trading a game from Indie Gala bundle (total cost 1$) for a key. i don't want to spend 30 bucks on a game that will someday be released free, i've tried trading various games but with no success. i've made habit of spaming, "do you  have a dota key" everywhere and with everyone haha.

Daian
Daian

 @ALPHAHXCORE  @BenderUnit22 I think it's easier to get into LoL, Dota 2 is more complicated as far as I know, although I hadn't had the chance to try it so far.

AndCarlsen
AndCarlsen

 @shaunmc Oh, I thought those were Dota 2 teams, sorry. I'm not from the USA. But the whole thing is still pretty impresive, I didn't know there was such a big market for this kind of competition.

Darkmoone1
Darkmoone1

Well wow, big mistake on my part. I deeply apologize for that and I find it pretty cool that you enjoyed the tourny.

 

See I was under the impression that the more you watched the more you didn't understand, not the other way around. So.....yeah. :P

 

Do you see yourself visiting other tournaments in teh future for DOTA 2?

SKaREO
SKaREO

 @shaunmc Keep an open mind. The reason why the Asian teams are so strong is because they get strong support from their community at home. We could easily show these guys what professional gaming is all about if only corporate sponsors we willing to show support. The media needs to get behind eSports and give it a push into the mainstream. The more cynical articles from gaming news outlets, the more uncertain the future of competitive gaming becomes.

robotopbuddy
robotopbuddy moderator

 @Daian  @ALPHAHXCORE  @BenderUnit22 I'd have to say that's partially a result of a large mix of players in DOTA2 tbh - some people have been playing the game it pretty much replicates for many years, while many others are literally just picking it up, LoL rebalanced everything and as a result everyone had to get used to that different balance, so there's not nearly as huge a gap in experience, the learning curve is also less steep, probably to avoid driving people away from it.

Dota is very much a game of strategy, teamwork, and counters in the end, and even the 'basics' like last hitting/denying aren't immediately obvious to new players.

That said, dota2 is still in beta and a lot of things are still being moved into it and little fixes done where it doesn't function quite as intended, so there's also a few temporary balance issues here and there as a result.

If you can't get into the beta but really want to play I would strongly recommend getting WC3 cheap and trying out the current version on WC3 in the meantime - it's not as pretty/observer friendly, a few underlying mechanics (WC3 engine limitations) are different, and some interfaces are less convenient, but all the same basic content is there, so you'll be prepared to much greater extent when you do get to play DOTA2, I suspect both will be getting the same balance patches over time once DOTA2 is complete as well.

 

I'd have to say Valve made a good choice to bring them into eSports though, DotA has been more popular than wc3 ladder has for years now, and wc3 was a eSport game to begin with, so DotA clearly had plenty of potential.

Daian
Daian

 @ALPHAHXCORE  @BenderUnit22 Yeah but you can get ok at LoL quickly, in Dota you will get crushed for quite some time. You need to dedicate a lot of time to Dota to get good at it.

ALPHAHXCORE
ALPHAHXCORE

 @Daian  @BenderUnit22 it is by a large margain. But that's the whole point, the fun in these types of games is the learning and discovery.

AndCarlsen
AndCarlsen

 @ck10304  @shaunmc Have you seen Tekken Tag Tournament 2? The developers put a lot of effort on the competitive part of the game, with the World Tekken Federation thing.It does seem to be growing fast.

ck10304
ck10304

 @AndCarlsen  @shaunmc It's growing pretty quickly by the looks of it, CODBO2 has a similar feature that they've been showing off

adilejaz
adilejaz

 @shaunmc  @Darkmoone1  Hardcore Dota 2 editor at Gamespot!! :-p Now who will be better off reviewing Dota 2 when it is released!! :-D

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

 @Darkmoone1 Yeah, I'd love to in the future--especially as I play more of it and begin to understand the more advanced strategies better. 

shaunmc
shaunmc moderator staff

 @SKaREO I think you may have missed the point of this article, then. I started out not being a fan. I was by the end. 

Dota 2 More Info

First Release on Jul 09, 2013
  • PC
  • Macintosh
  • Unix/Linux
Dota 2 features the characters and factions from the original Defense of the Ancients title with new features.