Trust – A DotA Story

I started playing DotA at an in-between period of my gaming. I had stopped playing Quake and only occasionally dabbled in Warsow when there was activity outside of Europe, so I was looking for another game to play. At this time there were few options for the kind of thing I liked to play, and I was prepared to set my expectations low. I had played StarCraft just like everyone else, and I played Warcraft 3 all the way from the original cracked private beta tests when Night Elves could spawn unlimited trees and rush everyone with buildings without having to even build units. I played the custom maps later, and I remembered Hero Arena, in which players each chose a hero and battled it out on a small map. I figured DotA would be a lot like that. So I bought my WarCraft 3 Battlechest (never on sale!) and played some AI maps with a friend to get a general idea of what was going on. Seemed simple enough, and I enjoyed it, so the decision was made and I started playing DotA.

I viewed the game at the time the same way most traditional WarCraft and StarCraft players did: a funtimes casual map for when there were no good new tower defence maps and nobody wanted to play ladder. Except for the ladder part, since I rarely played that (I tried for a while to get that 30 wins or whatever for a TDA vouch, but even though my Night Elf Huntress + tower rushes worked a few times it was too much of a slog and I gave up.). Defence of the Ancients is a game where all the obvious strategy and mechanical depth had been stripped away. It was treated the same way Quake players treated Rocket Arena, and with the same whining from the Rocket Arena and DotA players about never being taken seriously. In my mind DotA was a less stressful, less active downgrade from the games I was used to playing, and I was fine with that because it meant I didn’t have to play duels.

I’ve never enjoyed duelling, not in any game I played, whether I won or lost (Excepting fighting games, obviously, but I think that’s a result of playing them in arcades and locally.). That doesn’t mean I think duelling is bad; every day I lament its death in FPS games. Duelling is the ultimate test of skill, the ultimate test of wills, and way better for spectators. But it is for people who at least pretend to have that killer instinct. As much as I’m an introvert when alone, I’ve always been more attracted to the shared experience and camaraderie of team games when playing. For me gaming is a social activity, so if the only person I have to share it with is a single opponent then I’m missing out.

Like most other players at the time, I tooled around from one banlist to another, hopping into whatever DotA game hit the top of the custom games list first. As with Threewave, DotA was something I did on my own. My friends were mostly playing MMOs at the time. But unlike Threewave, DotA was something I came at from the bottom. I had spent years playing FPS games and the sudden transition back to RTS took a lot of getting used to. I had less of a foundation since most of my RTS experience was with Brood War, and that was almost all late night 4v4 LAN games. Being terrible was not a big deal, though. I was prepared for that, and DotA was the only multiplayer game I had real interest in, so I was going to stick with it.

When I approach a new game I play expecting to lose. I think it’s healthy to do that. My instinct is to test, and I find pleasure in the small things. When I thought DotA’s relative simplicity would be a problem for me, I found instead that the rich mechanical backdrop was what really pulled me in. I have never understood complaints about a supposed burden of knowledge, because for me learning is where most of the fun is. Even for the good singleplayer and cooperative games the same holds true. I play games not to role play a character or to experience a story, or even to look at the latest hardware-pushing pixels and effects. I play them to be immersed in systems and mechanics. I was drawn to RPGs not because I could explore worlds and have meaningless chatter with NPCs, but because I had 40+ hours to play around with a new combat system. Everything else was icing. That’s why I have preferred the Ninja Gaiden reboot games to God of War. Even though God of War has much better production values, storytelling, world-building, voice acting, and art direction, it is boring as shit to mash through, while I could play Ninja Gaiden Black for hours and hours, always trying to improve on something. (This is also one of the reasons I blew all of my disposable income on CCGs when I was younger, and why I avoid them now because they are like crack cocaine to me and I don’t want to lose more money.)

So I dutifully made my way through most of DotA’s roster until I found the things that I liked. Eventually I got noticed, and this was in the old days, where getting noticed happened and meant something. Back then the process was less formal, and way less organized, so when I carried a game as Krobelus the 4 player stack who owned the bot I was playing on decided to take me in, and that was when I genuinely began to enjoy the game outside of the learning process. I suddenly moved from playing unorganized pubs to being on Ventrilo with half a dozen actually good players, talking trash and learning at an exponential rate. I formed a new circle of friends, and regained that social experience that I’d been longing for.

Unfortunately, my hardware conspired to hold me back. The PC I was using was secondhand from a friend who had upgraded. I didn’t mind because I’d only wanted to play Quake at the time and it got me 125 FPS, which is all any Quake player really needs. By the time I was getting into DotA things were getting bad, though. My graphics card died after a particularly gruelling series of games, then half my RAM went bad. It was becoming harder and harder to keep up with the substandard replacement parts I could find, and while I was saving up for a completely new system, that was a long way off. When the team I was playing with decided they wanted to get more active in competitive games I was left out. I was already the worst player there and my hardware problems meant that the most I could do was play lane support during scrims. Mostly I became a mascot, cheering the team on from the sidelines, sitting in during Garena scrims, offering encouragement on Ventrilo, and then being around after the serious games for the inevitable rounds of funtimes mods and maps we used to wind down (We were always on the hunt for the latest, greatest TD and RPG maps, and also played a lot of inhouse -RADMAR OMG DotA, which was good times.).

During this time I learned that DotA’s team dynamics were a little different from what I was used to. This was partly because of my outsider role on the team and partly because of DotA itself. As is often identified, there is the time factor in DotA, as most games take at least 40 minutes to play, while a typical Quake match is timed to last 15 or 20 minutes, depending on the game type being played. It wasn’t so much that, though, as it was the actual structure and pacing of the games. I’d been party to my fair share of stomps in Quake, both giving them out and receiving, but I’d never seen quite the same reaction to them as I did to DotA matches. A series of bad games could prematurely end a practice session in Quake, but it didn’t seem to leave the same bad taste as poor DotA performance. Perhaps because there was less downtime in Quake matches during which players could work up their anxiety. Perhaps because there were always clear reasons for a loss, and a scoreboard that didn’t lie about the state of the game. A team was either winning or they were losing, there was no obtuse flux of game states, power curves, and attrition to account for.

The people I played with were mostly real life friends with each other, but there were still egos clashing and recriminations being tossed out over Ventrilo when a game started to go south, and the worst part was that there would inevitably be another 20 minutes of that spiral before the game ended and everyone had the chance to cool off. But playing as a team means taking the bad with the good, and while those losing games were hard to play, hard to watch, and hard to listen to, the wins put them into perspective and made it all worthwhile. The ubiquitous use of voice communication both in and out of games was also new for me. I’d used voice communications a few times while playing Quake, but it was uncommon and we rarely bothered to even set it up. There were plenty of chat macros, and it was North American Quake, so everyone thought they were the star player anyway and was fine with going it alone. Ventrilo replaced mIRC as a means of pre- and post-game chatting, helping everyone to get to know each other, and they expressed their personalities in different ways. Even if it didn’t help everyone play better with each other it was a social tool that added intrinsic value to the game and being part of a team, so I was all over it.

By now I was trying to find my own niche within the game. It had been enough to do what I wanted, to play the heroes I wanted, while I was learning the games in pubs, but now I wanted to contribute to a greater effort. I knew I was mostly kept around just because, but I still wanted to be a part of things. Even when I sat out most games I still spectated, I still wanted to learn. I started to learn support, since that was all I could manage with my terrible performance and weak internet connection. I learned to measure performance through proxies, so that watching the carry that I had won my lane for get kills was as satisfying as if I’d done it myself. Or more satisfying, since I soon lost all desire to play carries myself, after seeing the work needed to perform on a competent level. Besides, I figured I had my chance to be competitive with Quake, and DotA was still the game I played for fun. Listening to the triumphant battle cries of our carry player as he went to work in a scrim was more than enough to put a smile on my face for the rest of the game.

As there are no truly stable states in this reality, the end had to come, and it didn’t come with a bang, but instead it mirrored the heat death of an expanding universe. The team I was playing with started to win some games in small tournaments, and even got a sponsor, only to quickly fall apart under the pressure and real life commitments, scattering the players to the wind. The sponsor then replaced them with Ben’s Fuck Buddies (one of Merlini’s later day teams). After that my PC finally gave up completely, and it was a while before I could get something running again. By the time I recovered it was too late. The Ventrilo server was gone, the Warcraft 3 clan channel was empty, and I’d lost my Garena information. I was on my own again. I had vague impressions of where a couple of the players had moved to, with one of them taking up residence at the newly formed Throneit (THR) pub league, so I joined that and dutifully plugged away at my rankings in the hopes of running into him again, but we never reconnected.

Back in the pub leagues I was confronted with a new problem, which was stacking. Even with bots in there to check everyone’s ratings most people would not let the game start if they thought their team was going to lose. Quickly switching sides and reconnecting to end up on the favoured team became as much of a skill as actually playing DotA, as long as people could scrutinize the ratings of everyone else in the game. After a couple weeks of that, with the average time it took to get a game started climbing, I decided that if I was going to play DotA for fun then I’d have to play it for fun. I had my taste of organized games, and while I enjoyed that a lot, I knew that had probably been my only chance. So I stopped caring. I joined whichever team was open and I played whatever role was needed, and I listened to some music and I stopped worrying about who won.

Unfortunately, this has had a lasting effect on my game. I never found that spark again, even after I got my DotA 2 invite. I play for the fun of playing, which makes me selfish and stubborn. I have no ambition even though there’s far more room for advancement in DotA 2 than there ever was in the original. It’s true that I never let the game make me mad (Which isn’t that big of a deal; I haven’t let a game make me mad since I was a kid, and I think that was only because I blew my allowance on Mario is Missing.), but I also don’t let it bring me the kind of joy that it could, either.

After I was the victim of a crashing bug that persisted for something like 6 months I had to stop solo queuing and instead only played when people invited me to groups. I started to lose my sense of perspective. When I’d been solo queuing I’d actually been matched up against (and with) good players, and there were times when I genuinely tried. Now I play against anyone and I either win because I’m better than them, or I lose because I play poorly and am too lazy to do anything about it. I feel the frustration of my team, because they want more from me, but the best strategy I have to offer is waiting for the other team to do something stupid and then punishing them for it. Which is a valid enough strategy in pubs, but will only carry you as far as a team’s ability to recognize and punish those mistakes.

What draws the line between pub DotA (and pretty much every other team game as well) and organized DotA is not as simple as skill or communication. It’s trust. That is what I lost with my old team. When the support player trusts their carry they are willing to ward for them, and walk around with nothing but boots for 25 minutes, and use their TPs to sacrifice themselves so that their carry can live. When the support player doesn’t trust their carry then they are either unwilling to do those things, or at least resentful for being forced to, and every time the carry doesn’t deliver the support chalks up another reason to not trust carries, a vicious cycle fuelled by cynical confirmation bias. That’s why when I play DotA 2 I play full-on pub DotA, trying to do everything or nothing, expecting that at any time I’ll have to be roaming, pushing, farming, and winning team fights. I can barely be bothered to buy wards when I have no idea whether or not anyone will even take advantage of the vision they provide. Why would I spend my gold on that when I can buy myself something that will help me have fun even if I lose? People who don’t trust each other have a hard time sharing, obviously, and that extends even to sharing emotional states. When my pub carry gets a triple kill I feel nothing.

I still have fun playing DotA 2, and I like the people I play with, but the fun I have is based on doing the things that I like to do, rather than doing whatever I can to make sure that my team comes out ahead. I replaced the peaks of victory and the valleys of defeat with the plains of apathy, and though my journey is smoother and easier, I don’t get the euphoria that comes with finally reaching that new height.

As a game, DotA 2 has been put in a unique position, having to cater to so many disparate groups of players, and also be a blockbuster Valve release. There are things that DotA 1 players expect, things that Free-to-Play players expect, things that competitive players expect, things that Valve customers expect, things that people who have only played games like League of Legends expect, and also things that people who have no idea what the game is expect, and and if there was ever a Venn diagram with fewer overlapping circles it was probably a Twister mat that was mislabelled in the factory.

The real problem DotA 2 has is that, since Allstars overtook Warcraft 3 ladder games as the primary competitive gametype, DotA has been designed by and for a very select group of players. There is barely any comparison between even most 5-stack pub games and what it means to actually play DotA with a team, so to many players the way things work seems arbitrary when it doesn’t seem wilfully obtuse. There is such a thing as pub DotA, and the way it’s done is quite different from competitive, role-based DotA. Neither is inherently more fun than the other, or even better, but it can be hard for a player to go from watching organized competitive games to playing pubs and not feel like there’s something wrong with the entire process.

But there’s another thing about DotA that escapes many: it’s a game that is about means more than ends. It’s a process of evolution, and like actual evolution there is no singular driving notion of perfection that can ever be reached. Like any truly good competitive game it cannot be solved. There is no point where a team, or a player, or the developers, can declare that they’ve won and then put it away. What competitive play does for pub players is give them goals and ideas. It’s the striving that matters, because that is where the fun is. Winning is just passing a road marker. That’s how the game should be approached: as an ever-changing series of puzzles. Even if most players never get to experience even the basic levels of competitive play (though they should all try), they can still keep learning, and through that learning improve how they play, and eventually raise the skill floor for both themselves and everyone around them. The only truly discouraging thing would be playing without ever learning something new.

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