Show, off: learning to communicate more effectively in Dota 2


Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.

You know who's fun at the moment? Beastmaster. Back when I started to take five-man Dota seriously I played him a lot—he was one of my first dedicated solo offlaners. The pushing power. The free ward. The versatile ult. The way he sometimes says 'who's stool is this?' while moving, suggesting that at least one Dota hero spends a certain amount of time shitting in the woods (looking at you, Ursa.)

I fondly refer to him as 'Beefmaster', and he is one of two heroes—the other being Axe—that I have ever committed to fully roleplaying during a solo ranked game of Dota. 'WHO KILLED MY PIG', I'd bellow in all-chat. 'I'M COMING FOR YOU.'

He's great in 6.84, one of my favourite characters to play in the era of level one bounty rune fights. His buffed base damage isn't as absurdly high as Treant Protector, but he's faster and I've found that most players haven't quite internalised just how hard he hits. Encounter a lone enemy moving to secure a bounty rune and you've probably just got first blood. Get the rune too and there's your level 2, your brown boots, and an Orb of Venom. After that, the offlane is a party.

I bring this up because Beastmaster, like Axe and Rubick, is one of my silly heroes. Which isn't to say that these aren't impactful characters, but that I'm noisier when I'm playing them than at any other time. After two thousand hours I'm still amused by the fact that Beastmaster's ult amounts to yelling really loud, and I remain incapable of doing it without trying to reflect some of that bravado. I mean, come on. The guy yells so loud it stuns couriers.

I blink, I ult, and I rely on the fact that I've just bellowed 'BOO' or 'NO' or 'OI' over Skype to let my teammates know that, er, I've probably started a teamfight. This is fine, I think, in the context of a pub game with friends. One important aspect of Dota, something that sits aside from its competitive nature, is the sense in which it is a performance you put on for your friends. It's not just about stomping noobs, or at least it shouldn't be. Dota is also entertainment and a lot of that entertainment is provided by the people you play with.

Not everybody plays that way, of course, but I suspect everybody knows somebody who does. This isn't just limited to the trench: old-Na'Vi were as well known for their sense of style as their ability to win games. There is a whole strata of pro players—Dendi, SingSing, N0tail, AdmiralBulldog, among others—who are entertaining showmen as well as skilled players. They enter into the spirit of the game when it's appropriate.

Yelling along with Beastmaster was something I started doing without really thinking about it—I was having fun, and expressed that in the way I acted. Thinking about it recently, however, I realised that this drive to put on a show affected the way I played in more substantial ways.

I realised that there are certain types of play that I'd avoid declaring to my team before I did them: flashy initiations and silly gambits that I'd launch into without warning to avoid spoiling the surprise. I played not only to win, but for the gratification of delivering a first blood or a multi-kill that nobody else on my side expected. I'd attempt to secretly build Dagons during matches that we were already winning. Sometimes, the instinct to say 'hey guys—watch this' would lose games that we were already winning.

It sounds like the dumbest thing in the world, and it probably is—but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I wasn't alone. This attitude is fairly common in Dota. It determines a lot about which heroes are popular. Everybody wants to be seen landing the star Pudge hooks. Everybody wants to be the Faceless Void that gets the perfect five-man Chronosphere and subsequent rampage. Being seen to succeed is as important, for many, as succeeding.

In identifying this, I identified a gap in the way my team communicated with each other. I've always taken communication a lot more seriously when playing 'properly'—by which I mean team ranked matchmaking, a little JoinDota League, and the forthcoming TI5 Open Qualifiers (we're doomed)—but I'd not really solved the problem of the 'surprise play'. It was a behaviour pattern that both myself, our midlaner and our carry shared. We'd communicate openly until it became more fun not to.

Not intentionally, of course. This is just another unexamined instinct, something you pick up during the thousands of hours it takes to get semi-competent at Dota and that, if you don't face it down directly, can ultimately hold you back.

The solution was to introduce a really simple rule for communication in games that matter: talk constantly about the match. Offer as close to a running commentary as you can. Talk about how your farm is going. Talk about what the enemy supports are doing, how their midlaner is doing. When you see an opening for a play, say something—even if it ruins the 'surprise'.

I've found it helpful to temper this by asking teammates to avoid talking about non-match-related topics (including Dota more broadly) until the game is over. This also means no more Beastmaster-yelling—but we've got random pub matches for that. Organised Dota is about teamwork, and teamwork means communicating continually and openly about your experience of the game.

It also means being selfless. This is an angle I keep coming back to, it seems: that learning to play Dota better often means learning to dial back your own selfish instincts. Anybody who has ever stood on a stage knows that it takes a certain amount of ego to get there, even if the point of that ego is the performance you subsequently deliver to others. Dota 2 is a stage, too, sometimes, but your teammates aren't your audience. They're up there with you. They're not the people you need to impress. And if you're about to do something brave or stupid they should probably know.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.