Three Lane Highway: learning to take a hit, and other thoughts on trying too hard

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

Yesterday I discovered a phrase that I like. I was reading this article about faster-than-light travel in the Washington Post, an article that includes probably the most exciting picture of a spaceship on the internet at the moment. The article links back to a previous interview between io9 and leading NASA engineer Harold White in which he describes the search for his "Chicago Pile moment".

"Chicago Pile moment" is his own coinage, and refers to the development of the first nuclear reactor in Chicago in 1942. It generated very little power, looked like a stack of bricks, and took up most of a large room—but it was proof that nuclear power was a possibility in practical terms. After the Chicago Pile, building a viable reactor was a matter of improving on proven principles. It's the difference between trying to tame the yeti in your garden and trying to prove that the yeti exists at all.

That's a terrible analogy, which is why I'm glad that I can say "Chicago Pile moment" instead. I like the phrase so much that I'm now going to hang a column about internet wizards off it, because, you know, this is the point that I'm at in my life.

I lost a game of Dota 2 last night. This happens quite a lot. Just over fifty percent of the time, if I'm honest. Last night's loss was special, though—exciting. If it's possible for a loss to be energising, that's what this was.

The match was between the team I'm in, Hot Dukes—who I've written about before, briefly —and Dwayne The John Rockson , one of the best teams in the UK circuit. It was our first game in anything resembling a proper competition. The match was a stomp; the XP and gold graphs both look like a ski slope in our opponent's favour. I'd entered us into the ESL Dota 2 Challenge to get a sense of where we fit in the food chain, and we discovered that we were minnows at the bottom of a small pond. But that wasn't what I was afraid of.

My biggest fear was that we'd lose in a way that disproved the possibility of future success. That we'd be beaten by strategies and methodologies that we had no hope of replicating ourselves, that we'd be up against people playing a different game than we were. That our hours of practice would be shown to be totally without purpose. That's how it went the first time I entered a tournament: not just outclassed but discredited, the road ahead veering up sharply and becoming a wall. The team I entered with didn't last long after that because we couldn't wrap our heads around just how bad we were; the number of things we didn't know exceeded the bounds of computable mathematics.

After last night's match my new team watched the replay, howling with embarrassment at some of our incredible blunders. Here are some hot tips that I can share with you as a newly-minted competitive gamer: don't teleport two people onto a besieged tier one tower for no particular reason. Don't wander into the side shop assuming that it'll be fine. Don't put an Ion Shell on the creep that the enemy tower is about to target. Don't dive two towers against a team that knows what a teleport scroll is. If you have to ask whether Chronosphere is off cooldown, it's probably too late. And so on.

We're going to have to try hard to make good on all of this new information. We're going to have to be tryhards, and I'm keenly aware of how much all of this—forming a team, giving the team a name that we like, thinking about the team, practicing as a team, having hopes and dreams at all—is likely to attract that word. I'm not totally convinced that I care.

Competitive Dota, even at this low level, reminds me of the comedy scene. I made the comparison between Dota and improv only a few weeks after I started playing, and that connection has deepened since. I was an improviser for a couple of years, and my group followed the American method—the Chicago style, as it happens—and that meant lots of trust exercises and lessons in mutual respect and selflessness and putting the show before yourself and so on.

Stand-up was different: nastier, much of the time, with a lot more ego floating around, particularly among men. A culture of being pointedly dismissive because you were afraid of being pointedly dismissed. Competitive to the extreme. Young competitive men have a habit of cloaking everything they do in irony, because it's uncool to try and uncool to trust and deeply uncool to give a shit.

The reason that this is not something to clasp your hands and look concerned about is that it gets results. It produces sharp, funny, uncompromising comedians just as it creates assertive, entertaining Dota pros. But it is not the only way to get results, which is something that the comedy scene has understood for a while but that pro gaming, with its different balance of age, gender and attitude, has been slower to catch up on—at least in the west. With the Dukes I wanted to build a Dota team with the attitude of an improv group, so I pulled together people with a very particular attitude: cooperative, relaxed, moderate. I wanted to prove to myself that it was possible to build a competitive apparatus without the strife and ego and snark that'd put me off e-sports in the past.

One of the first things we did as a team was establish a structure for giving and receiving criticism after a loss. We're not allowed to flame each other, even in the heat of the moment. Criticism has to be simple and direct and grounded in practical instructions. We've not got a perfect track record, but we're getting better at it, and most importantly it's this attitude that has allowed us to absorb last night's big loss and walk away smiling with a plan for the future. No arguments, no ego. Well, some ego.

And that was our Chicago Pile moment. The theory can be reproduced in reality. We lost soundly but understood why, and have arrived at a point where we were capable of quickly and collectively processing a negative result into something we can work with. There's a long road ahead, but at least the road exists - and we've already taken a few tiny steps along it. We've proven the existence of success in microscale, a few flickering watts of winning in a hollow chamber full of fail. The yeti is in the garden.

That is still a shitty metaphor.

Click here to read previous Three Lane Highway columns.

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.