That little battle gave us the advantage we needed, and two hours later – in the darkness of the night – when we'd won the match, it felt like we'd earned it.
Our tacitly acknowledged RTS king was Airhorse. His micro was so tight you could have one building left and herald a GG – then hand over to him and he'd have six bases and raise an army so efficient that he could wipe the map clean of hostiles in three AC/DC tracks. Airhorse was the cause of every single enemy swearword in the latter half of our DotA games. I hear that some of them still quit out when they see his name on a loading board. Airhorse named himself after his favourite PC in the computer labs, as if it were a lucky charm.
Cumminz was a joy to play with. Almost as good as Airhorse, Cumminz was the heart and soul of us. On Ventrilo, we depended on his singing Basshunter and Britney Spears hits, terribly, to us at 3am. It was the only thing that kept us going in three-hour-long games that we knew we were going to lose. Any surprise that Cumminz encountered was immediately registered down Ventrilo with a wail so high-pitched we'd all throw off our headsets in pain. His energy was infectious; we wouldn't have played without him.
Everything that was important in my life at that point was arbitrated by in-jokes and DotA. Our post-exam triumphs were celebrated with ten-man Battle.net hookups, straight in the vein. My woes over essay marks were treated with a DotA suture and 11 grinning faces over post-match pints in the pub, walking home falling into bushes, and drunk DotA at 1am.
Games took on different tones. Losing at 7pm is not the same as losing at 3am. The world is a different colour then, in those small hours, with the voices of the people you love in your ears. It becomes something else. It is not a game. It's a conduit.
Facing your shrine, you have a seance with people you know and love, and you raise the totems of cursed monstrosities, and you use them to kill your inner demons. You gorge yourself on camaraderie. You feed on the togetherness of a shared rampage through enemy territory. You kill your diffidence with a little bit of help from your friends, a super-fast university proxy, and some Pro Plus in vodka. There were 11 of us, give or take, and whenever a handful of us were home there was a match on, and someone, somewhere in the DotAsphere was alternately kicking our arses or cursing our stupid nicknames. Maybe a few were chewing gum. It was hard to tell.
I remember that Lavos had a quiet disposition but a sharp wit: his ironic leet speak was next to none, and he could taunt our opponents into such a rage that they'd lose it and make a mistake. When we got frustrated with his dawdling in a lane we'd call him Lavatory, aware that our insult skills were meagre next to his word-smithery. And we were bitter. Lavos works on League of Legends now.
Protoc was a solid player, but he had a temper on him like a pissed-off rhinoceros. He once broke a keyboard and switched off his PC mid-game. Our main job through the years was to keep the other side from provoking the hell out of him so that he wouldn't just suicide on them like a pre-emptive Leeroy Jenkins. His distinctive angry Yorkshire brogue in our ears was the hallmark of a tumultuous game. He was emotional to play with. It was like being in a radio dramatisation of Black Hawk Down when he was around.
When I said that losing a DotA game at 7pm is not the same as losing at 3am, I meant it in the sense that you have seen a journey. When you lose a game together at 7pm, the whole night stretches out before you: it is not a loss. You have the chance to win again. But a loss at 3am is decisive and soul-destroying. This will be your last game.
It's the same with winning. Win too early in the evening and it means nothing to you. But win late at night, your eyes gleaming in the glow of your monitor, and you're a king in the dark; you may sleep undisturbed. Winning late in the night is the best of all worlds. But the temptation will always taunt you: the temptation to play again.
Don't play again. You are already invincible.
Long after I had left university, and had, in a moment of madness, moved to a flat next to a volcano in rural Japan, I found myself craving our easy friendships and wondering if they were still alive. Pottej and I had buried a five-year relationship, Lavos had got married and moved to the US, Vexd was busy ploughing to the top of a development company he'd only been at five minutes.
Protoc was letting me proxy back into the UK for iPlayer because he worked for the London internet hub. One of us had become a doctor, another a ski instructor. The once magnificent giant ginger afro that Airhorse had sported had been shorn off for a job at John Lewis. This last thing was most painful to swallow.(opens in new tab)
Three and a half years after our last DotA game, I put the batsignal out and got the band back together.
It was Christmas, and I want to say that we 'drove for days' to get to the frozen north east of Scotland where my parents were hosting us, but some of us lived quite close to that frigid place. My old friend Sman and I lived in Edinburgh, and Airhorse and his younger brother Jeto roadtripped an hour from Glasgow to pick us up. Cumminz came from Fife with his gang – a three-hour drive – and Vexd came from Dundee on the train, also three hours. Al made the five-hour trip from London. But Lavos and his wife travelled the furthest, all the way from South Carolina in the USA.
My parents were bewildered but accepting. We made a very large stew and LANed solidly for two days.
It was amazing, but it wasn't the same. We had weights on us now: there were things we had to do in the world that weren't this. There were things we wanted to say to each other, but too much time had passed. It was as if no time had passed, and yet all the time in the world had just rushed by, impudent. We were strangers who were fond of each other. There was nothing to say: we didn't want to talk about our responsibilities, but we didn't want to talk about the past either. We just wanted to talk about the game. It was a relief, and it became obvious that the perceived distance between us was not a spiritual or personal distance; it was a distance of time only. We slumped in our chairs gleefully, and didn't talk about our problems, or how Airhorse had no ginger afro. I wanted to cry because Airhorse had no ginger afro.
I'd sat there in Japan, longing for their company, when the very act of making that bond had given me the confidence to swagger through strange cities. I think what convinced me that people could overcome, really overcome, was the fact that people could create such a strong bond by playing a game together.
After the LAN party I felt settled. As I waved them goodbye in the snow, I no longer needed to reassure myself that everyone existed: of course they existed. They were the same. We just had stuff to do now. They had spouses and jobs and holidays to go on. I had my own ambitions to follow. There just wasn't the time to coordinate our matches any more.
I don't need to go back now