Trying to have fun in a game that doesn’t welcome the uninitiated.

Last week I fulfilled an urge that had been brewing for several days, fueled in part by my avid watching of The International, one of the biggest tournaments in eSports and unquestionably the most important and most well-known DOTA 2 tournament, and in part by some sickening and unidentified aspect of my character that drives me towards self-destruction. Classes started on Monday and I should have been focusing my energies on preparing for that, or at least catching up on the enormous amount of writing I have on my plate. But sometimes you’re left at home with a sleeping baby while your wife is out and you play some video games.

These days I prefer to play video games with a heavy story component or a significant artistic theme whenever possible; although I enjoy playing video games free of such trappings (see: Spelunky), time is limited. I have a job that demands a lot of time and mental energy, I have a family I love spending time with, and I like to read fiction outside of work. Still, instead of booting up Alien: Isolation as I should have (it’s been wonderful so far as I inch forward tentatively in short chunks after the baby has been put to bed) I decided to give DOTA 2 another shot.

I played about ten games of DOTA a year ago, around the time of last year’s International, TI4. I had thought it was more, but then it’s an involving game; typically speaking a single match will take roughly forty-five minutes of game-time and often longer, not including the time it takes to find a match, pick player characters and the like, and there’s not much downtime once the match has started. DOTA matches separate into distinct phases, all of which demand varying levels of hunching over while clawing the mouse around a small area of your desk.

I had recently been playing Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm, a MOBA (Massively Online Battle Arena game) designed, I believe successfully, to be more accessible to a broader audience. I like HoTS very much, and will write about it, and it’s friendliness to the parents of young children, before too long. However, I craved DOTA 2. It has a wider array of characters and it benefits from magnificent support both from developer/publisher Valve and its community that results in excellent sites like DOTAfire and DOTAbuff that both educate and entice, speaking of a world of enjoyment that you can’t find elsewhere.

You can, obviously. I mean, life is full of opportunity, if we’re willing to get literal. DOTA 2 brings something else to the table for video game players, a sense of team play that isn’t matched by cooperative shooters full of cooperative shooting. When you’re on the same “team” in a First Person Shooter you’re often all working together in a manner general enough to elicit coordination but not specific enough to punish your team for not working with the precision of a SWAT team. DOTA 2 falls somewhere in the middle of all that, at its best offering the sedentary pudgy mass that is the game playing public (I’m not so much relying on stereotype here as approximating my pudgy self to the typical) a chance at the kind of life-affirming, results-based gosh darned teamwork that is usually only offered on grassy fields overseen by a person with a whistle yelling angrily.

It’s in the middle that I get lost, though. You see, DOTA’s sheer depth is rather paradoxically both enticing and intimidating. Intimidating and bewildering, actually. Intimidating and bewildering and arcane. Intimidating and bewildering and arcane and annoying. The annoying part is supplied not by the game itself but by its experts, who thanks to the cloak of anonymity we all wear while playing online can claim to be so with little or no evidence. If pushed they can make up the evidence of course, and in the end it’s irrelevant as they clearly know more than I. In a world where video games have become so popular that the old elitisms are graduating from frustrating to vestigial, DOTA stands defiant. In DOTA, there are still noobs.

I’ve found that a lot of people that have played an awful lot of DOTA are not the enforcers of that regime, however, that they themselves can feel useless too, after hundreds of hours of playing the game. Unfortunately there are plenty of people playing the game who feel the need to comment on the apparent refusal of a player to simply KNOW as much as they. This happened to me last week, though I didn’t bear the brunt of it. While waiting for the match to load, I confessed in chat that I hadn’t played in a year and that I wasn’t expecting much. My plan was to avoid “feeding”, i.e. dying repeatedly and handing experience and gold to the opposing team. Feeding is the original sin of people who don’t know how to play DOTA. Frankly, the best advice I could offer to someone interested in the game is just to avoid dying. Just don’t do it.

A friendly teammate laughed at this (well, he seemed to; this being text chat I was relying a lot on inference or, if you will, inventing a human being on the other end), and as the match started it turned out the friendly teammate had a voice, and was supportive from the off. I typically turn off voice-chat, a habit initiated when I heard a middle-aged man call a teenager a “stupid nigger” in an online session of Grand Theft Auto IV on the Xbox 360 quite a few years ago. I was startled to hear a pleasant human being encouraging us.

It was this pleasant voice that first alerted me to the fact that one of our teammates was wading waist-deep into enemies and immediate death at every given opportunity. He was “feeding” like a madman, a frenzied waiter flinging fried chicken at football fans in the third quarter. It was actually quite difficult to figure out, or at least would be if you had forgotten what DOTA is like at first; it’s arcane to a degree difficult to describe. The first time I ever tried to play the game is the closest I’ve experienced outside of language study to trying to read a foreign language at a level you are about a year away from reaching. It was nuts. That’s where this player was.

He activated his voice chat, and was very clearly a young boy who seemed utterly overwhelmed by the game, by his character repeatedly dying, and by the two remaining players verbally abusing him over text chat. The revelation that he was inexperienced (this was his first game) and that he was a child did very little to ease the rage of our teammates. They told him to quit, repeatedly, and when I imparted my little nugget of advice (“just don’t die! and have fun”) I received a bit of abuse myself. This was repeated, later, when I was accosted for having “terrible gear”, an accusation that doesn’t take into account the possibility that someone might not be entirely sure which is the better option between a Drum of Endurance and a Pipe of Insight when purchasing imaginary objects from a fictional shop that sends out delivery by flying donkey.

The less vocal abuser randomly ran around intentionally doing as little as possible in an attempt to sabotage us, for some reason.

Then we won the match.

Those of you reading this who know nothing to very little about DOTA 2 have most likely come to the conclusion that it is insane. You’re right! So why do I still want to play it? Why, when I know I need to get my behind to bed if I want a productive morning before teaching am I seriously considering playing a round of DOTA 2? I can’t tell you. I can tell you that I will probably play HoTS instead, because it will be over soon and it is unlikely anyone will be mean to me. And yet my yearning will continue. Whence, to DOTA indeed.

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