Three Lane Highway: a guide to Dota 2's most meaningless numbers

Chris Thursten at

Three Lane Highway is Chris' sometimes silly, sometimes serious column about Dota 2.

Dota 2 is a numbers game, but then again they all are, really, aren't they. Counter-Strike is about shooting numberbullets into the other guys' numberfaces until all of their numberbrains fall out. Football (see also: soccer) is about how many goals you score and how many shirts you sell and how much it costs to ship vast premanufactured chunks of stadium up the Amazon.

It's all numbers, and Dota 2 has no greater or fewer than any other game. But it does host some truly, spectacularly, galvanizingly pointless numbers. Digits that communicate nothing and convey no worth. They exist outside of any formula or algorithm, and to treat them as if they mean anything is to slip into the kind of superstition usually reserved for numerologists. We're dealing with the unknowable, here, with un-knowledge: you might want to sit down. Some people can't handle it.

Let's not be those people.

USELESS NUMBER #1: The level of your Dota 2 Steam badge.

I have a level five Steam badge for Dota 2. I have no earthly idea why this is something that I acquired on purpose. At some point last year—shortly after TI3, according to my Steam profile—I decided that it was important that I collect five full sets of Dota 2 trading cards. I believe I received a discount on capable puzzle platformer Toki Tori for doing so, but that's not why I did it.

If the decision involved any thought at all, it went something like this: I like to play Dota 2, and I like to perform tasks related to Dota 2. It followed that I'd enjoy scanning the Steam market in order to purchase pictures of characters for pennies and then binding these pictures to my profile so that somebody might look at my profile and think "this person considers Dota 2 to be an entertaining way to spend time". As if they couldn't pick that up from the many other numbers at the top of my Recent Game Activity: 42.3 hours past 2 weeks. 1,477 hrs on record.

Whatever the reason, I have a level five Steam badge for Dota 2. Many of my friends have them as well. All I can take from this is that Valve are very good at providing people with opportunities to lose money in ways that seem like total nonsense when considered with the front part of your brain. Impish little money-siphons that vanish when you look right at them, like fairies at the bottom of the garden. Fairies that turn out to be real and force you to remortgage your house every time there's a Steam Sale.

USELESS NUMBER #2: The number of your friends who play Dota 2.

So here's a fun observation: I have 136 friends who play Dota 2 according to Steam. I have 137 friends who play Team Fortress 2. All these numbers indicate is that a fairly substantial chunk of Steam's user base will at some point boot up either of Valve's free to play games. In Dota's case, the number is most useful for giving you some sense of how many people start playing the game and immediately run the other way—like Han Solo in A New Hope if he'd burst into a room full of wizards and internet dickheads instead of Stormtroopers.

I'm fascinated by the difference between the two values, though. Who were you, one person who never loaded Dota 2? What was it that put you off? Was it the dickheads? I bet it was the dickheads.

USELESS NUMBER #3: The current count on any of your 'Wards Placed' gems.

A personal milestone: my 'Enemies Culled' gem hit triple figures today. I've only had it for a few months, but that gem means something to me. I love Axe very much, and believe strongly that Culling Blade is the best ability in the game. One hundred dunks is significant: each dunk a happy memory, and each a reminder of the many thousand more dunks that I've been unjustly denied by kill-hungry allies. I die a little bit inside every time some quote-unquote "core" hero decides that their need to buy game-winning items supersedes my need to welcome our enemies to the jam. Those hundred dunks are the few, the brave, the just. Reaching this milestone is a sign that there is still some good left in the world.

I don't feel nearly as strongly about the three hundred or so wards I've placed as Rubick and Crystal Maiden, and I'm not sure anybody else does either. In fact, I think the majority of the strangers I've played with would argue that those wards were never placed at all. My 'Wards Placed' gems are documentary proof of something that the majority of people won't believe anyway: that buying all of the support items didn't actually win us any games, and ultimately has nothing to do with our unfashionable MMR ratings. Better not to track wards placed at all, really.

USELESS NUMBER #4: Commendations.

I'd like a special report function for people who say "commend me" at the end of games. Nothing serious. I don't want Valve to actually act on it, or even pay attention to it. But I want to be able to press a button that says "this person is a dingdong" and have that information recorded somewhere. It would make me feel substantially better about Dota in general if I could quietly add people to the dingdong list, you know? For posterity.

To the point, though: if you've just won the game, you don't need another prize. Asking for a commendation at the end of a match is like turning to your parents at the end of your seventh birthday party and asking if there are any more presents. Of course there aren't. They've given you everything they can give. Now stop being a brat, get out of the fountain, and let us all get along with our days.

In reality, though, all those dingdongs are doing is reflecting something of the meaninglessness of the commendation system. They don't do anything, or particularly signify anything, so why not give them freely? It's a little number hidden at the bottom of your profile. You have to scroll down to see it, for god's sake. What difference does it make?

Commending somebody in Dota 2 is like leaving a Yelp review for your favourite restaurant in the aftermath of global nuclear war. I mean, the sentiment is nice. It's great that you can, you know, register your approval. But it's too late, friend. It's too late for both of us.

USELESS NUMBER #5: The prize pool for every tournament other than The International if you have ever won The International.

Here's what occurred to me while watching Alliance return to form during the DreamLeague finals last week: if I won The International, I wouldn't try for the rest of the year. My invitation to the next tournament would be guaranteed. I'd have enough money to live off the proceeds without winning any other titles. I'd spend that time expanding my hero pool, having a good time, and—pointedly—not giving anything away about the strategies or drafts that might help me top up my earnings at the end of the year.

The International prize pool is going to top ten million dollars. Is there a universe where this doesn't profoundly change the attitude of top teams towards the other tournaments? I don't think there is.


I know, right?

Your MMR is probably the most important pointless number in Dota 2. It's the one you see the most of, anyway. If not your personal digits than their implications: your skill level rendered with a specificity which is specifically attractive to a certain kind of player. Since Valve decided to make player ratings public these numbers have taken on totemic significance. It's not enough to have a high MMR: you have to be seen to be utterly dismissive of whatever your number means. "I'm just 5K trash" says everybody. "Don't mind me." A kind of Catholic guilt affected to disguise ego and insecurity. Strife attributed to a four-digit value that nobody is particularly sure how to parse anyway.

Introducing a visible MMR was as close to a balls-to-the-wall mistake as Valve have ever made. Its influence has been almost entirely negative. It armed the community against itself, chucking pointy sticks into a mob already prone to aggressive brinkmanship. I'm still not sure who benefits.

Yet there it is. It's your score, your rating, your place, and you're expected to know it. I say ditch the whole thing. Play like you want to get better and don't worry about whether your MMR goes up or down. Play the same way over and over if that's how you want to spend your time, not because you think it'll buy you access to some higher level of play. You can find that anywhere. Let your MMR become the reason you play Dota and you give up on all that discovery, friendship, meaning that the game turns up when it's firing on all cylinders. Fight the urge to hinge the whole thing on a number. It's poison, friend. Then again I'm 3K trash and I would say that.

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