Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2 and related games.
One of the best things I read about Dota 2 this week was this JoinDota article about the impact of cosmetic item bundles on the competitive scene. Their evidence is compelling, and it's hard to read through the entire thing without wanting Valve to rethink the way that tournament tickets are marketed and sold.
The article both rests upon and reveals the fact that players really covet cosmetic items. That's not a groundbreaking observation by any stretch, but it's one of those things that gets weirder the more you think about it. I mean, I collect Dota items and I'm not even entirely sure why. I am guilty of buying tournament tickets for the cosmetics first and the tournament itself second.
Players desire this stuff to the point where that desire eclipses the game it supports. I gestured at this last week—Dota events traditionally stumble because players will do literally anything, even if it isn't fun, to get a shot at free stuff—even if it makes them less likely to continue playing the game those items are for. I sometimes wonder if we're guilty, generally, of just assuming that 'hats are popular' without interrogating why—of missing a broader point about the game itself because the mania that surrounds cosmetic items has become a running joke.
A pet theory: collecting cosmetic items provides everything that traditional Dota 2 does not. They allow you to make clear, visible progress in a way that is quick and easily broadcast to other players. You can work on it entirely alone, and the factors that might mitigate your progress—money, time, luck—are all nontheless things that you can control. The ineptitude of four other people does affect your chances of getting items unless there's an event on, and the way the community behaves during events backs up what I'm saying.
(This doesn't mean that collecting items is always compensatory—it's perfectly reasonable to covet something because you, you know, like it. This is more about figuring out why collection gets taken so seriously, how it ends up valued above and beyond aspects of the game that, if pressed, most players would agree are more 'important'.)
In this sense, the negative influence of cosmetics on e-sports is symptomatic of a broader malaise experienced by Dota players: the drive to derive instant gratification from a game where almost everything you aspire to do or be takes significant time and effort. Watching a tournament requires engagement, investment of energy, learning, and so on. Collecting hats requires clicking on the hats.
The only thing that makes you better at Dota is playing more Dota. The best way to show your commitment to e-sports is to watch more e-sports. These are easy notions to forget, or at least it's easy to be distracted from them. It's so tempting to look for shortcuts to that feeling of progression that you may not even realise that you're doing it—at least, that's been my experience of this hobby over the last couple of years.
I had this fact hammered home late last week. I'd spent a week teaching four total newcomers to play Dota, colleagues from PCG's UK office with less than ten games played between them. We faced off against Rock Paper Shotgun's more experienced lineup—two and a half experienced players, two and a half total newcomers (one had played the game years ago for a hundred hours, but not returned since.)
I'd theorised that it was possible to break Dota down into general, easily-remembered principles that would ultimately give my wizard-babies the edge even if they had no idea what the majority of heroes did, how the majority of items worked, or even how their roles functioned. I attempted to explain what a gold and experience advantage looked like, what staying safe looked like, what map control was and how you got it—and I think I succeeded, to a limited extent.
What I realised, though, as we lost that game, was just how much Dota has passed into the lower, reactive levels of my brain. As I attempted to formulate a simplified conscious approach to Dota, I remained ignorant of just how much I'd picked up simply by playing a lot of the game for a long time. I can see it, now, in every screenshot of that match. A level 4 Sniper pushing a tower right next to an incoming TP belonging to a level 7 Puck who would inevitably kill him. I realised how natural it was for a new player to think nothing of another glowing effect among so many glowing effects; I realised how many different experiences contribute to me seeing that image in such a powerfully divergent way. Where the Sniper sees nothing wrong, I see imminent disaster: and I see it because I've lived it, in thousands of different ways, over the course of thousands of hours.
As our ancient exploded, I realised that there's no shortcut to that kind of experience—no way for me to simply beam it into the heads of my newbies with a couple of simple instructions. I realised, also, that there was no way I was going to get better through anything other than more experience. I had been on a losing streak, otherwise, from the finals of the Rektreational industry tournament (3-2, damn!) to my recent return to solo ranked. And all of it comes back to the same thing: hours invested, energy committed, losses accepted, lessons learned. It is so, so tempting to go back to 'proving' myself with a hat collection, to amass the badges and stack up the tournament ticket stubs and get the cosmetics that say this guy cares. But that is, I think, a placebo. It's a behaviour pattern that resembles nothing less than a mid-life crisis: the attempt to spend your way out of some broader sense of inadequacy.
It's actually kind of a relief to arrive at that understanding. It takes the pressure off. You really probably don't need every item set that comes out. You probably don't even need to worry about your MMR, or your winrate, or your all-time records. You probably just need to play more, and that is the least demanding thing Dota ever asks of you.
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