The Dota 2 Experience, Part Two

Our team of well-meaning Dota 2 noobs go up against actual humans. This is gonna get ugly.

Welcome back! When we left off, our Dota 2 noob superteam was about to have its first game against real humans.

We'd chosen our Heroes. Learned our hotkeys. Invested our lunchtimes in YouTube videos of nasal Americans explaining strategies.

Finally, it was on.

With its inimitable sound effect, like a van full of percussionists and sopranos being driven into a bog, Dota 2 announced that our game was ready. One by one we clicked Accept in a 'Single Draft' match.

A spoonful of fruit yoghurt stopped just short of my mouth. "What's Single Draft?" I asked our team's Skype channel.

"I think it's where we get to pick any hero we want," said Duncan, our ganker.

"Oh," I said.

"Are you sure?" asked Matt.

"I'm pretty sure--"

1

Staircases aren't just cosmetic. High ground is always worth snatching from the other team.

And then we were in. With Dota 2 games frequently lasting an hour or more, the first thing you do is try and scratch information from the names on the other team. Our opponents included Rainbowlynx, Vsadnik and Qu3zT. Was that bad?

Then we were into Hero selection.

"Oh, no," I said.

We few, we proud, we band of newbies, had a gameplan in which we executed a series of clinical tricks in a sort of firework show of competence. But where I'd usually been able to purr through Dota 2's deck of 108 heroes, I had just three unfamiliar ones staring expectantly at me. Warlock, Spectre and Clockwerk. Across England, my four teammates were experiencing similar terror.

We'd all spent the last week obsessively drilling a single Hero, letting their powers, strengths and unique fragility leave indentations in our play style - letting them lounge on the sofa of our minds. Single Draft, it turned out, gives everyone a choice of just three heroes. Never mind having to learn those new powers. The idea of having to play an all-new team role of a ganker, initiator or carry with no experience whatsoever can be compared to having to learn to shave. In public. Against the clock.

"This leads to the worst thing in Dota 2, where your team battles heroes whom they simply bounce off, leaving you to play out the rest of the game as increasingly miserable speed-bumps."

We all sat, silent, staring at our options. Then we all began yelling at once.

60 seconds later we'd made our choices and were in the longest 60 seconds of any Dota 2 match. That of spawning, doing some shopping, wandering the map and getting in lane before the match begins. The Dota 2 equivalent of sportsmen stretching their legs. Or at least, that's probably what the other team were doing. We were still yelling.

"OWEN," I was shouting across another Skype conversation between Chris and Duncan, as my Warlock shoveled Iron Branches from the shop down his pants. "OWEN, WHAT SKILL DO I BUY FIRST."

I'd chosen Warlock, an evil support wizard, because he was actually Owen's chosen hero. Likewise, Matt had gotten Ursa, a psychotic blue bear who Duncan knew back to front. Ursa was a Jungler, a sort of survivalist, who (counter-intuitively) gave our whole team an advantage by staying out of the match's lanes to stalk jungle creatures. That way, the rest of us could absorb more XP and gold from enemy creeps. Already Duncan was pinging our mini-map for Matt, training him in on the locations of the jungle's juiciest prey.

The others hadn't been so lucky. Chris was Gyrocopter, a wobbly steampunk helicopter who Duncan had once fooled around with before returning to the loving arms of his bear. Owen was Windrunner, a sassy redhead ranger who couldn't have been more at odds with Owen's perennially bewildered Skype presence. Finally, Duncan, our devil-may-care ganker, appeared to be playing a tree.

A fine veil of panic was draped over our territory. We all loped into our lanes, skim-reading the reams of text that accompanied each of our four new skills. What could we do? Who were we?

And then the fighting started.

2

Think of everything you see here as a walking pinata of gold and XP. Change your play style accordingly.

Let me tell you about how Dota 2 matches kick off. An enemy hero, maybe two, comes jogging out of the fog of war in your lane. The lot of you exchange a few laconic blows. Maybe you slay a creep, they void a skill in your direction, you fall back to a tower.

To a non-Dota-playing onlooker, this might look utterly inconsequential. It's definitely the game at its least bombastic. But what you're doing is testing one another's waters, kung-fu style. It doesn't matter who achieves what in this opening minute. In the back and forth you learn, between sparse heartbeats, whether you're in with a chance or ferociously outclassed. It's all in the other team's footwork. Their swiftness and grace, their positioning and patience.

And in this game, with my Warlock mumbling curses and flicking fire at the swordsmen opposing me, I knew we were in with a chance.

In the coming weeks we'd learn all about the art of feigning weakness, of guiding enemy Heroes into traps like you're threading a needle. Here? We were just five guys, trying to hit hard and hit fast. Four minutes in I'd gotten into a stand-up fight with the enemy Dragon Knight, only for Ursa to burst from the nearby forest to tear open his throat.

"FIRST BLOOD," shouted Dota 2's monstrously inappropriate announcer. Paying money to replace him loomed as the first free-to-play purchase of my life.

"'Go,' says Duncan. 'Go! GO!' And we go. Sprinting up the base's steps like hot young geniuses, here to collect our diploma in Winning Games. We might have spent a week learning to play Dota 2, but we're about to win using nothing more than the cunning our mothers gave us."

Over the next twenty minutes our team's spirit - and spirit was all we had - positively seared the other team. The lanes were ours. My face was a mask of concentration as we inched forward with our Heroes' unfamiliar powers, knocking down tower after tower in a wildly aggressive push towards the enemy base. Duncan's Treant Protector infused the entire team with armour and health regen during the day. Gyrocopter notched up some enemy kills during the night. Ursa farmed, growing more hulking and fearsome every minute. Day dawned again.

We were winning. We were actually winning! 25 minutes in, we were leading kills 9-3 and towers 4-0. And it felt glorious.

In part one I tried to explain Dota 2's appeal with a fencing analogy. Here's a different tack: Dota 2's daunting because it's gaming writ large. It takes days to learn, one match alone requires ten people sitting down for upwards of an hour, and the community reacts to noobs with bile and fury because they ruin games for everyone.

None of this is a bad thing.

Dota 2 isn't an intimidating, unintuitive monsterpiece that's also a great game. It's partially great because it's preposterous. Dota 2 is a club that is its own doorman. Because it's such a huge, nuanced game, you have to invest in it as a player before you can enjoy it. But because all the players are invested in it, every match feels that much more huge. And because matches are made to feel epic, you need to invest in them even more. Which makes them feel even bigger. And so on.

30 minutes in.

"Alright, let's push, let's go!" I bark. The five of us surge down the central lane and towards their base, running chest-deep in friendly creeps. A full five vs. five team-fight beckons, that most magnificent of Dota 2's tests. It is, essentially, the fight scene from Anchorman on fast-forward.

It's night, so they're almost on top of us by the time we see them. All Hell breaks loose. Within moments, I've lost myself in the crowd. R key. Mouse click. My Warlock pops his ultimate, tearing a hole in the ground. From here, a little more Hell breaks loose - two burning golems emerge, and immediately begin swinging at someone.

3

Creeps become exponentially cuter when you realise they're all wearing board shorts.

In a situation like this, you can't just fight, as we're doing. You have to call targets. It's one of the thousand lessons we've yet to learn.

Within seconds Ursa has fallen, caught between an enormous spectral ghost ship and a whirling man with a samurai sword. Duncan and I begin trying to slow enemy heroes with black magic and entangling vines, which can be compared to trying to wrap presents while toddlers are actively unwrapping them. Our Gyrocopter begins spraying the entire scene with buckshot. An ominous blue wibble washes over us, covering up my own ominous black wibble. I watch our Windrunner fling a shackling yellow cable at the maddened samurai as she turns to run. Have we lost? I click to flee the scene.

It's several seconds of before I realise I've been killed. It's another second till I realise we all have.

As I'm respawning I load up the death ticket, seeing exactly what damaged me, when and how badly. It's like browsing Satan's shopping list, and makes just as much sense. Dragon Tail, 271 points. Blade Fury, 140 damage. Hmm. Whatever! We're still winning.

45 minutes.

I come jogging into our base's shop, my pockets heavy with gold. In my head, my Warlock's wiping his brow and picking gore from his beard. It's Vietnam out there. It's also terrible to leave the fight and come home, but our donkey courier is lying dead in a bush somewhere, so I've no choice. I sidle up to the shopkeeper, buy a Mystic Staff, complete the crafting of my Aghanim's Sceptre and promptly double-take at the kill board.

"We were only seconds from taking down their Ancient. But, just as the best things come in small packages, the worst disasters are squeezed into the briefest moments."

It's now 21-20. To them.

There's a petrifying momentum at the heart of Dota 2. I mentioned how you gain experience and steal gold whenever you kill an enemy hero, right? Follow that through to its logical conclusion. A team that does well becomes stronger. A stronger team does even better. Which means they get even stronger. Ultimately this leads to the worst thing in Dota 2, where your team battles heroes whom they simply bounce off, leaving you to play out the rest of the game as increasingly miserable speed-bumps.

But it also lends the game a unique terror and vibrance. You might have been playing for an hour, amassing dozens of deaths and kills. Every kill is still a threatening occurrence. And in our match, I'm feeling very threatened indeed.

It's absurd. We've torn the defenses in their base open, giving us free access to the Ancient we need to destroy, but we can't get our shit together. The enemy team has a disproportionately high number of Carries, which are great in late game, is the thing. It's why we did so well at the beginning, and why whenever we leave our base now we're tossed about like ships in a storm.

60 minutes.

The kill counter now stands at 44-29. To them.

At this point we've endured an hour of victories and misery. An hour of the five of us working to knit our powers into syrupy webs, or combining them in a mad rush that has us riding down a lane like white water rapids. But it's not working. It hasn't been working for quarter of an hour. We're trying to fight hard when they can fight harder, and we're dying. Morale in our Skype channel has been gutshot. Grumbles trundle back and forth like loose cereal in a box.

Something has to give. So we start fighting smarter.

"If this works, this'll be the best game ever," I giggle. I'm riding the eccentric high of fading adrenaline, watching a sleepy stretch of lane just outside the enemy base. A single squirrel is hopping around. With a chopping noise, Chris's Gyrocopter comes thundering into view. Duncan's tree steps out of the forest, casts a spell, and then they're both gone.

The five of us are now under Duncan's spell, which renders us invisible so long as we stay next to trees and don't attack. Our plan is simple. Wait until the other team has roamed to the other side of the map, then dash out like career vandals to trash as much of their base as possible. It's an all-or-nothing bet. While we organise this and wait, we give them "Free farm" - the ability to slaughter our creeps uncontested. We're encouraging them to grow even stronger. But it won't matter if we smash their Ancient, which is right there. This could be the game.

The time comes. We stop talking. 20 fingertips belonging to 5 men take their place above 20 power hotkeys.

4

Creeps become exponentially cuter when you realise they're all wearing board shorts.

"Go," says Duncan. "Go! GO!" And we go. Sprinting up the base's steps like hot young geniuses, here to collect our diploma in Winning Games. We might have spent a week learning to play Dota 2, but we're about to win using nothing more than the cunning our mothers gave us. God bless video games. Having shredded the last remaining towers, we fall upon the Ancient. 90 per cent health. 80 per cent health. 70 per cent. 60 per cent.

"gg," I type, short for good game. In what would later amount to a sickly burp of luck, I accidentally send the text to my team instead of to the other team.

50 per cent. 40 per cent... Strange white circles are appearing next to the Ancient. I have no idea what they were.

"They're porting!" shouts Matt. "On them!"

Now.

There's a possibility that if I'd known that "porting" was short for teleporting, we might have hit them harder when they appeared. We might, at least, have sent them running. We were only seconds from taking down their Ancient. But, just as the best things come in small packages, the worst disasters are squeezed into the briefest moments.

The porting enemy heroes thrum into existence in the middle of us, their high level builds driving a spike through our optimistic teamwork. Some of us run, some fight, some keep hitting the Ancient. It's the worst result. Within another modest moment, our shattered corpses litter their base.

"OK," said Duncan. "We just need to do that again."

"Now, I'm sure lots of you are thinking that this doesn't sound like much fun. You're entirely right. It wasn't fun. It was the other thing. The thing that causes people to go and watch football matches in the rain. The thing that causes us to one-credit Gradius."

But we can't, or don't. If we roam out of our base as a team, we're too obvious. If we try and sneak to a meeting spot on their side of the map, at least two of us are intercepted like escaped prisoners.

What we do manage to do, though, is put up a ceaseless and very English defense. It's a full 79 minutes before we finally succumb to their monstrously levelled characters. Almost an hour and a half of us gradually running out of piss and vinegar. Finally, following a particularly bloody team fight, we're all left spectating the game as we wait to respawn. There's nothing in their way as they waltz around, flattening our base.

And I mean flatten. The sportsmanlike thing to do in Dota 2 is to push over the enemy Ancient when you have the chance, ending the game as quickly as possible.

Not these guys. They break apart every outbuilding, tower and barracks in a display of primal superiority. Finally, when there's nothing else left, they descend on our Ancient as one. It crumples not just to the ground, but through it, leaving a gaping chasm. Nice touch by Valve, there. And the game's over.

"LOOOOOOOOOOOOL," types Vsadnik. "EPIC LoL"

I've gone back and watched the replay since. Not a single one of our team managed to cough out a "gg". We received our thanks-for-playing cosmetic loot in haggard silence.

Now, I'm sure lots of you are thinking that this doesn't sound like much fun. You're entirely right. It wasn't fun.

It was the other thing. The thing that causes people to go and watch football matches in the rain. The thing that causes us to one-credit Gradius.

In the Dota 2 lobby we immediately began an expansive discussion of where we'd gone wrong. We'd seen the absolute worst Dota 2 had to offer - a lethargic slump towards defeat over an hour and a half, crowned by an insult - and it hadn't killed us. It had just drawn blood. As professional geeks, we'd gotten the theory behind the game down. That's why we'd done so well in the opening minutes. But it wasn't enough.

Next, we'd have to grow teeth.

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