Dota 2's new VR spectator hub is spectacular and strange. The Dota community cries out for many things: for the absentee hero Pit Lord, for a new patch, for the next round of Immortals, for their +25 MMR back, and so on. Nobody to my knowledge was crying out for the ability to stick their head fully inside a game of professional Dota 2. Nobody has petitioned for the ability to get all up in the game's business, to stalk virtual squirrels through the undergrowth and experience the life of a creep.
Well, I did. But I was joking.
Last night, I decided to watch an entire game of the International's group stage in VR. Not only that, but I forbade myself from using either the lobby, which allows you to watch the game on a relatively ordinary virtual screen, or the zoom-out function that allows you stare down at the battlefield from above like god.
No. I was going to experience this battle from the ground, like the war reporter that my lack of experience, ability, courage and level of physical fitness precludes me from being.
I am sitting on a rock in Na'Vi's fountain. The draft is ongoing, and no heroes roam the battlefield yet. It's very quiet. The shopkeeper, who is very tall, beams at me from across his anvil. I wait. I can hear the casters discussing the pick-ban phase, but without being able to see it the process doesn't hold my attention. The Radiant base is quite pleasant, actually. It reminds me of that part of a garden centre which sells faux-marble statuary to people with terrible taste.
Suddenly, Na'Vi appear in front of me. They're inert and lifeless at first, as—I presume—their game clients jutter through the transition from drafting menu to game proper. I wave, because it seems like the thing to do. Then they're off, rushing past me: somebody teleports out immediately in a massive flash of light. I consider who to follow and settle on Dendi's Mirana.
This... feels weird. Due to the physical limitations of the Vive my movement chiefly takes the form of short teleporting 'hops', not entire unlike Dota 2's actual Blink power. I get comfortable with it quite quickly, and I'm able to follow Dendi closely has he rushes down to midlane. There's an eerie sense of actually following somebody, which is compounded by the fact that Dendi doesn't know I'm 'there'.
I understand that players must know that they're being spectated, in some abstract sense, but I'm... there. I'm on the map with him! Na'Vi have six team members, and one of them is a me, an idiot! I feel like I'm tresspassing, like I'm about to get chucked out of the game by International security.
Shit! Na'Vi's opponents, TNC, are hidden across the river under the cover of Smoke of Deceit! I can see them because I'm technically a spectator, but Dendi can't. Does he know? Am I on his side? Should I warn him? I jump up and down and wave frantically, like a moron.
Dendi's game sense warns him to the danger, however, and TNC's strike at midlane fails. Or perhaps this was my doing? Perhaps, in some strange cosmic way, Dendi felt that somebody was trying to warn him. Perhaps every time you've thought 'I bet they're doing Roshan' or 'their supports have been missing too long' you've actually been secretly warned by a tiny invisible man.
This almost certainly isn't true, in any way, at all.
I can just about follow the battle over the creep wave in midlane. I stand on Dendi's side of the river and cheer him on as he contests for farm. From down here, creeps aren't just little bags of gold waiting to be cracked open: they're about my height. The heroes are tall, dazzlingly colourful, and very much unlike me, but I find the creeps—with their bad posture and silly way of running—rather relatable.
They are dying in droves.
Yeah! Early aggression from Dendi and SoNNeikO forces Kuku's Tinker under his tower, and they close in for the kill. I've become rather factional, despite having no horse in this particular wizard race, simply because it was Na'Vi's fountain that I chose to start in. I'm from the Radiant fountain, you see, and therefore fuck this Tinker guy. "Eat it, Tinker!" I jeer, thrusting my controllers back and forth like the shit weedy child that accompanies most schoolyard bullies.
I understand that the control this kill gives Dendi over his midlane is important, and I'm aware from the ambient commentary that first blood has already gone to TNC elsewhere. But my perspective is so localised that this amounts to information that I know but don't feel. My sense of the game as a whole, usually crucial to spectating Dota, is entirely absent. But I feel remarkably attached to this moon-cat-riding archer lady and her ice dragon friend.
I accompany my two new friends on a smoke gank to the Dire jungle. This is excting! I creep up the stairs, where I see TNC's Beastmaster jungling. Assuming that he's their target, I sneak closer for a look: but they're already on their way to the safelane. Very quickly, I become lost in the jungle. It's only when I see the lights of a teamfight that I know where to look.
Jesus Christ. From the ground, a Dota teamfight is chaos. I feel like I've just wandered into the middle of a football match, and I have a pressing feeling that I'm about to get into somebody's way. I can't really tell what's going on. I lose Dendi in the chaos and the fight doesn't seem to go Na'Vi's way. Lacking any kind of UI I have no way of gauging anybody's cooldowns or relative power. This fight between Beastmaster, Faceless Void and Disruptor amounts to three brightly-coloured muscular topless magic men smacking each other in a wet disco.
What a time to be alive.
I find Dendi in the Radiant offlane just in time for a fifteen minute pause. Somewhere, outside of this game I now live in, somebody in a hotel in Bellevue is having a problem with their headset. This all seems rather alien to me as I hear about it from the ground. I have time to wander a little through this frozen, grey kingdom. Here's a fun fact: water never pauses in Dota, but fire does. Makes you think.
Bored, I teleport up to the ward spot near the Radiant secret shop and have a lie down. I lie there, on the floor and/or on the ward spot, and wait. Suddenly colour returns to the sky and the pause ends. I spring to my feet, feeling compelled to shout "I'm up, I'm up!" like I've been caught napping on the job.
Near Dendi's position I discover a stacked camp in the Dire jungle. I'd always thought of camp stacking as a rather benign affair but it's quite intense in person. It's so cramped: particularly for those poor little skeletons, who seem to be having a terrible time. I wonder, for the first time in 2,500 hours of Dota 2, why neutral creeps live in camps.
There is a whole jungle out there, guys! There's a lot of space. You don't need to live like this. What are you afraid of? Who hurt you?
Then it occurs to me that they are afraid of the giant colourful magic men who come and murder them every minute, every day, forever.
Dendi murders these centaurs while I watch, silently. Then he murders some golems. Sometimes he throws an arrow sideways, and I watch it sail through the air until it murders something else. He has his Aghanim's Scepter by this point, I realise, as barrage after barrage of lunar energy brings a terrible unfeeling wrath upon the creatures of the forest. Dendi is farming well, a caster observes far above me.
Then I met a squirrel the size of a dog with a single giant triangle for a face. He can't be killed because he isn't worth any money, which is the law of the jungle and also capitalism.
Dendi dies in an engagement in midlane, I think (I'm lost.) Hiding behind a tree, I watch TNC begin their push. It's very impressive. I instinctively don't want to get in the way of Tinker's March of the Machines or Beastmaster's Necronomicon creatures. Watching a big purple goblin, a bodybuilder, a gnome in an exoskeleton, hundreds of tiny robots, a magic boar, a blue woman, and the angry purple ghost of a bird lady lay siege to a big marble tower with a face, I realise: Dota is weird.
From the steps of the Radiant base, my home, I watch her defenders sally forth. I wonder why they keep running into the March of the Machines: down there on the ground, wading into a sea of knee-high razorbots seems like a terrible idea. Nonetheless, off they go. There are jungle creatures to murder.
I find Dendi again and follow him as Na'Vi stalk under the cover of Moonlight Shadow to Dire's midlane. Somebody drops an item near this ward but I can't tell what it is because it only appears to me as a giant treasure chest and the casters don't mention it. I can see what Na'Vi are trying to set up, vaguely, but unlike them I can spy TNC's position through the trees. The angles don't look right. I attempt to express caution through Vive controller semaphore to no avail. While gesticulating I brush my arm against my office cabinet, which I briefly mistake for a person.
"Hello" I say, to the cabinet.
Na'Vi's aggression in midlane is punished. Most of the action happens on the far side of Shadow Shaman's serpent wards so I don't see much of it properly. That is true generally for most of these fights. Vantage points like stairways and rune spots help, but the precision and decision making that goes into each action is lost on me. I do however make eye contact with TNC's Eyyou midway through the fight. He is a chicken when this occurs, but the condition is temporary.
Having won the fight, TNC enter the Roshan pit. I had always imagined this place as a deep cavern, but it's actually a little small. Roshan himself is pretty impressive, but he clearly doesn't have enough space. This is like those mini 'apartments' in London that are actually somebody's refurbished garage and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to live in. Roshan is, I suppose, a victim of globalisation, irresponsible marketeering, and insufficient rent control. He is also very presently going to become a victim of being murdered for the magic orb he keeps in his brain.
Imbued with the power of the Aegis and presumably winning a game that I find increasingly hard to follow, TNC lay siege to the Radiant base. Creep meets creep in hand to hand combat. Heroes die and buy back and charge out of the fountain only to die again. I have no idea what is going on and it is terrifying.
I find Dendi surrounded by springloaded clockwork razorbots. A horned goblin holding three eyeballs and a placid expression does yoga poses in the midst of the melee, as an orange samurai finally overcomes the blue woman that just blew up his house. There are bodies and gold coins everywhere. There are voices in the sky and they are shouting.
Na'Vi have one last shot at staying in this and it means laying claim to Roshan or at least preventing TNC from doing so. I know this because the voices in the sky are talking about it. They also say that the Roshan pit is a trap laid by TNC. I understand what this means in principle but I don't really feel it until the trap is sprung. I hang back as Na'Vi charge ahead, and watch as they're caught in a tidle wave of blue and purple magic that blindsides them completely. Dendi vanishes into the chaos.
My god, it's full of wizards.
The battle/disco/massacre at the Roshan pit clears TNC's pathway to the Radiant ancient. It's almost peaceful without Na'Vi's heroes here to oppose TNC's slow siege. Raven's Drow Ranger slays a squat little creep with every arrow, glowing a healthy shade of green as she does so. A tower crumbles at my feet.
Suddenly everybody and everything stops: Na'Vi have called GG. I can't see the words but I see it in the map itself—a sudden anticlimax followed by the spectacular detonation of the Radiant ancient. Blue light rockets into the sky and cherry blossoms tumble down around me as the world itself comes to an end.
I have just spectated a game of Dota 2 and now I need a drink and a lie down and possibly a drink while lying down.