Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2 and wizards in general. To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.
On the morning of Christmas Eve I played a game of Dota. I had an idea—actually, an idea that was supposed to form the basis of this post. It’s not so easy to spread gifts around the Dota community, these days, so I’d decided to spread the spirit of the season rather simply: I’d end everything I said in chat with ‘merry Christmas’.
I loaded into a game of solo ranked and picked Witch Doctor. I bought wards and the courier and gave a ward to Kunkka, who was headed to the offlane (because this was a solo ranked game). “gave u a ward, kunkka” I typed. “Merry Christmas.”
He said thank you. Somebody else typed “lol”. Then, our mid said something over voice that did not sound threatening or angry but was certainly not in English. It may have been Russian, I didn’t know or mind. Kunkka assumed it was Russian, and made his objections clear over voice chat.
“Fucking Russian mother ass fuck you” were his exact words. He continued along those lines for a little bit. They started shouting at each other. The zero-minute runes spawned.
The opening few minutes of the game went well. Omniknight, my fellow support, successfully stacked and pulled. We got first blood, and then another kill, and then I rotated mid and helped Pudge kill the other team’s mid Meepo. Then I did some more warding, then helped get a kill top. I felt pretty good. The yelling did not stop.
Meepo abandoned. Two members of the enemy team followed. They were left with Keeper of the Light and Earthshaker at ten minutes.
They managed to defend for twenty more.
I spent the rest of that Dota game listening to Kunkka scream at Pudge who screamed at Weaver, our safelane carry. Nobody wanted to work together for long enough to break base, or even take Roshan. It was miserable: Omniknight and I supported in silence while Weaver dove tier four towers and died, Pudge screamed at him, did the same, and so on. I didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, as we finally took down a lane of barracks and then a second, I realised that I’d have preferred it if the other team had won.
“Well defended guys” I typed. “You probably deserve to win this one. Merry Christmas.”
Earthshaker responded in Russian. Kunkka lost it, again.
We won the game, I got my +25 MMR, and I thought: man, why does anybody play this game.
The next game ended with a very salty Tiny throwing his own teammates (me) into the enemy team, forever, until the game ended. The one after that wasn’t any better. My hopes of a heartwarming Christmas Dota diary faded. Some communities are Christmas-proof, and I suspect that Dota is one of them.
So instead I’m going to write about why I do play this game.
I started playing Dota in 2012 because we needed somebody to write about Dota. I’d played StarCraft II for a year or so and PvP in various hotbar MMOs for longer. I’d just come off a long Star Wars: The Old Republic habit, and going from three 12-action quickbars to just four abilities per character felt quaint, easy even.
It didn’t take long for that impression to be proven staggeringly wrong. The first hero I played was Lion, in an easy bot game along with four friends. We won, but it took forever. We thought we’d wait a few weeks before braving actual matchmaking, but we lasted a few days. The first hero I played against other people was Gyrocopter. I bought an Aghanim’s Scepter, because global-range Call Down seemed like the most overpowered the thing in the game. It wasn’t. This game also took forever. We grouped up and used Treant Protector’s Nature’s Guise to attempt to sneak into the enemy base and destroy the ancient. It didn’t work, because that doesn’t work, and we lost. It was brilliant.
I had discovered a game that wasn’t a set of fixed strategies that had to be mastered and repeated, as most competitive games I’d played were. Dota 2 is a sandbox, an opportunity to be creative, and although there is a lot to learn, the purpose of that learning is to expand your options—not close them off. And when you start to apply that creativity, the solutions you come up with are solutions that you own. There are orthodoxies, yes—what role a hero plays, what items they should probably buy—but no rules, in the way that games traditionally enforce rules.
This was a game where you were really responsible for your ideas, your performance, your moments of success (and failure.) There’s something specifically compelling about that: the knowledge that the only thing stopping you from improving is your own willingness to improve, and that when you do get better your friends will watch it happen.
That was what prompted my deepest-ever investment in a competitive game, compounded by this sense that Dota is—no matter how toxic the community—unavoidably social. You need to work with others, and so you need to learn with others, and it’s hard not to make friends as you do that. This is a game that is essentially very human, from the professional scene down. It inspires jokes, arguments, friendships, rivalries, dumb songs, anxiety, tryharding, shitposting, unlike any other game I’ve played. It’s not just an ARTS, or a MOBA, or whatever: it’s a giant social sandbox, a stage for people to play on which uses strategy as the basis for a shared vocabulary.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some really shitty people playing Dota. There are a lot of shitty people playing Dota. And sometimes, like yesterday, it doesn’t really feel worth it. The lesson here is partly the same old: solo ranked is a disaster, play with a group. But it’s also helpful to remember why I’ve dumped so much time (and hat money) on this ridiculous game. Because Dota is unique. And there are a lot of games that try to be a bit like Dota, and they don’t succeed, because this is the only game in the world where a first-time player can try to use a talking tree’s tree magic to sneak an invisible helicopter into a fortress.
Merry Christmas, Dota. You’re weird.
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