This started in a pub. Of course it did. I remember agreeing to something about Dota 2 between a fourth and fifth pint of foamy lager.
The next morning I woke up to an email. It sat heavily in my inbox, like a gauntlet.
"Hello one and all,
"You've all expressed some interest in being part of an elite strike team attempting to learn Dota 2 and then actually beat some REAL PEOPLE at it. It's going to be difficult. It's going to be long. But it's going to be fun."
It's worth knowing three things about Dota 2, a.k.a. Defense of the Ancients 2. Number one, Dota was originally a Warcraft 3 mod that snowballed in popularity so much that it created an entire genre. League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, Bloodline Champions, all of these "Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas" are nothing less than game designers sweating bullets, trying to refine Dota's top-down, team-based hero action.
They attempt to refine it because - number two - Dota is as unrefined and antisocial as chewing tobacco. Matches require ten players exactly, frequently last longer than an hour, each of its 108 heroes plays radically differently and the in-game item shop is as unintuitive as buying actual antiques.
The third thing to know about Dota 2 is that it's Valve doing something they've never done before. A studio traditionally associated with experimentation is, instead, acting as a curator. Dota 2 is simply them porting original Dota into the Source engine, together with a crisper interface, integrated tournament support and community management. The game itself? That has to stay exactly the same. A process a friend of mine compares to transporting a house of cards.
I continued reading the email.
"Here's the plan: we all pick a team role (from http://www.dota2wiki.com/wiki/Role) and try and learn it (through YouTube, wikis, and practicing). We need Junglers, Supports, Carries, Gankers, Initiators. Here's some team composition tips: http://www.dota2pro.com/story.php?t=174
At the end of the month, we go online and play real people. And probably get hammered into the ground. But in a fun way!
Are you in?"
Was I in? I was hungover. I felt like a dog raised on petrol station sandwiches. I felt like an obese kid who'd just been pushed backwards off a high diving board.
But here was a chance to do gamers a service. I could find out how long it takes to get competent at Dota 2, one of the least accessible games in existence, and tell people whether it's worth it.
I now present my diary for those salad days. It contains glaring mistakes on what the game is and how to play it, which is exactly the point. If you want to be involved in the (massively exciting, it turns out) Dota 2 scene, this is what you're in for.
The following timestamps might seem absurd. I can assure you that not only are they accurate, they don't take into account hours spent watching YouTube guides or browsing wikis.
Day 1: After 3 hours of Dota 2
Well! I know what the game is now, so that's a start.
[NOTE: I would later discover that I didn't know what the game was, repeatedly, on days two, three, four and nine.]
A Dota 2 match is a face-off between two teams of five players. Each team gets a base with a shop and a regenerative fountain, bristling with defensive towers. In the centre of each base is an "ancient", a great structure wibbling with irrelevant magic. The object of the game - and nothing else matters - is to crack open the enemy base like a coconut and demolish their ancient with your bare hands.
But your team isn't alone in this. Your base also spawns waves of NPC soldiers known as "creeps" that sprint towards the enemy base down one of three paths (or "lanes"), which are separated by trees ("jungle"). Creeps are terrible. Getting killed by them is the Dota equivalent of showing up at a party and passing out in the house's only toilet.
All the same, creeps are a fascinating mechanic. Supervising and supporting them as they jog towards an enemy tower provides the huge damage sponge necessary for you to kick that tower over.
More importantly, slaughtering enemy creeps gets you XP and gold, the equivalent of performance-enhancing drugs. A match of Dota 2 lasts between 30 and 70 minutes, and in that time you're playing a micro-RPG, levelling up, unlocking skills and snatching items from your base's supermarket of a shop.
Already I can see some really interesting puzzles. Five heroes don't divide neatly into three lanes. Also, the more enemy towers you knock down, the more you compress the other team back towards their base, strengthening their defense. But this is my inner games journo talking. Today, my inner gamer was saying this: Look at the f**king heroes.
Dota 2's hero selection is a riot of interdimensional colour. Glittering knights, night terrors, two undersea beasts, their sea captain rival, steampunk eccentricities, ghosts, scholars, murderers, abominations, concepts and careerists. But everything's a bit sideways in its voice acting, animation, backstory and powers. Despite every hero being a megalomaniacal psycho, there's often something laughable about them. One of the heroes is just a spider. She picks a lane, covers it in web and spawns a horde of babies, alternately hissing about her "mother's love" and thirst for liquids.
Flicking through the game's deck of characters - 81 so far in the Dota 2 beta, with 27 yet to come - is almost gross. Strategy, with the same maximalist thinking that brought you the stuffed crust pizza.
These heroes also gave me my first sickening peek up the skirt that is hardcore Dota.
Players don't just need to memorise the powers and specialties of 108 unique heroes - you need to know how much to fear them at early, mid, and late game. Which actually sounds marginally worse than it is. Anyone who's played Pokémon knows that learning the vital statistics of 150 of the squeaky jerks isn't so hard. Maybe this won't be either.
Anyway, the point is it's day one and I'm already having fun, just bullying Dota 2's bots. I've chosen Shadow Shaman as my hero, a lemon-coloured dude with sticks wrapped to his head, capable of summoning magical snakes and tangling up enemy heroes with a sort of mystic taser.
[NOTE: I chose Shadow Shaman because I like witch doctors. This means I somehow missed the hero who is literally called Witch Doctor.]
Anyway, I understand the game, I've got my character, I've got my hotkeys. From now it's just practice, right?
Day 2: After 6 hours of Dota 2
Yeah. The practicing... well. It's certainly... I've definitely been practicing, but the idiom of "Practice makes perfect" is starting to take on a hollow sound, as if I was shouting into a bin.
Don't get me wrong, I'm mopping up these bots. I swapped a couple of the ones on the opposing team in my last game from 'Easier' to 'Easy'. No trouble.
I begin daydreaming of myself demurely refusing the prize money for a Dota tournament, on ethical grounds. "Since I am covering this for Eurogamer, I will have to decline. Give the prize money to the runner up, who played alright. He was tops." Rapturous applause! Later, I have full sex with a fan.
Day 3: After 8 hours of Dota 2
As of today, I've been playing Dota 2 for eight hours. That's longer than I play most games for. Eight hours of thin experimentation. Of levelling up, getting items, pushing over towers, watching our side's defenses get crumpled up like paper cups, trying to maintain my kill/death ratio and, finally, starting it all again.
Tonight, after three bot games played with some of my Cool Runnings-like noob superteam, something clicked. I took my headphones off. I closed our Skype channel and gazed at the metropolis of dirty mugs beside the keyboard.
I get it now.
Here's your reason to play Dota 2, a reason Dota 2 players don't articulate because they're too busy playing Dota 2 and, frankly, the last thing you want on your team is more noobs.
Dota 2 is fencing.
That's the skill, and the appeal. I finally see it. You're fighting back and forth down these lanes, looking for an opening in the other heroes' defense. The other guy's too close to your tower, or too far from his friend, his ultimate skill's on cooldown, his health is low. Fights in other games last seconds. Fights in Dota 2 are dramatic; entire minutes of feints and narrow escapes. Duels that can span forests, roads and rivers without coming to an end.
But more improbably for a game that appears to outsiders as an opaque wall of rules and facts, playing Dota 2 is just as much about developing folkloric instincts.
You want to push deeper into enemy territory to slap down those defenses, but the deeper you get, the more likely you are to get ambushed by the other team and carved like a roast. The most important skill I need to develop, right now, is being able to stare at the Mine Sweeper-like, pitch black fog of war on the mini-map and know where to push, when to fall back, and where to fall back to based on guesswork.
I am Luke on the Millenium Falcon, being told to fight the drone blind. And when you succeed at that in Dota 2 - when you retreat down a lane, only to see some huge bastard with an axe burst out from the bushes to land, violently, where you just were - the high is outrageous.
Two things: As of today, I'm not just curious about Dota 2 anymore. I'm having an absolutely incredible time.
I'd also never have gotten this far if I wasn't playing with friends.
If Dota 2 is fencing, learning it with friends turns it into a Three Musketeers simulator. Except there are five of you.
Anyway, the lot of you are swashbuckling together, fighting back to back, arriving in the nick of time to save someone's skin, beating desperate retreats, or surging forward in a heroic whirlwind of teamwork. Or ganking gang, as we've started calling it.
What are we becoming?
Day 4: After 11 hours of Dota 2
If we're the Five Musketeers, we are definitely still in our lighthearted origin story.
"Give me my gloves, you f**king donkey!" cries Matt, our team's carry. He is literally shouting at a donkey. Silence. Our team's embarrassed for him.
"Have you tried asking it nicely," suggests someone.
"I can see the gloves," says Matt. "He just won't give me them. Give me the gloves! Guys. Guys! How do I make the donkey give me my gloves?"
Every team in Dota 2 can buy a trained animal (or "courier") to deliver shop purchases from your base to wherever you are.
The donkey is a complicated creature.
I'm weaving back and forth behind one of our towers, trying to fend off two enemy bots with sporadic licks of lightning. I need Matt back. I want him back. He is my friend. "MATT," I scream, as if I were the one talking to a stubborn animal.
"Sorry, hang on," says Matt again. "I can't get my gloves out of the donkey,"
"Jesus, we're not putting stuff inside the donkey, are we?" I ask, dropping a massive wad of snakes at my feet, spooking the bots away. "That's a bit wrong."
More silence. I swear I can hear Matt's continued, frustrated mouse clicks through my headphones.
"Guys," says Owen, our support, his dulcet Welsh accent full of sadness. "The donkey's full. I can't put my stuff in him. Why is the donkey full? There's a wand and some magic branches in here. And a cape 'worn by generations of queens'?"
"Alright, guys," says Matt, in the tone of a patient parent. "Maybe some of us put something in the donkey. Maybe we forget to take it out again. If we all come here and take what's ours..."
A word on team roles, then. The carry's arguably the most important one. A "carry" hero starts off frail, but by the end of the game they're a hero-chomping monster. The rest of the team has to rally around the carry and keep them alive while they "farm" - killing creeps to hoover up gold and XP.
Specifically, you want to protect your Carry from gankers. Ganker heroes are your team's assassins. Kill a carry and you set them back, delivering a hard slap of submission to the other team.
Supports are more interesting. Designed to disable enemy heroes and buff your own, they work fantastically with everybody. They're also useless by themselves.
So, everyone has a role to play and a place to be. Making sure they can't be in that place are the pushers - that's me - who shunt creeps in a lane forward and work to rip down enemy towers. Since towers explode into gold when you shatter them, it's important to defend them, but if you're busy defending, you're not farming as efficiently as you could be.
Then there are junglers, nukers, initiators... never mind the thrill I'm getting from learning how we all work together. It's intoxicating to hear yourself speak in terminology that, five days ago, would have been another language.
I'm having more fun with this than I had playing Diablo 3, and we're not even fighting humans yet.
Day 5: After 16 hours of Dota 2
Just had our first Sunday training session. I bought Gatorade for the occasion. Let me walk you through this one step by step.
First we won a match against Normal and Easy bots, leaving every one of us feeling like an oiled gear in a elegant machine. We were thrilled. So thrilled, in fact, that we decided to go online.
It was time to take on actual humans.
I was expecting us to get our teeth kicked in. What happened was much, much worse than that.