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Dote Night: 2014 - The Year Of The Noob

Reflecting on Dota 2's Newcomer Stream

Featured post [I'll try to think of witty captions for Pip's pictures -ed]

Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na’Vi’s Dendi at a dessert buffet cart.

Dota, League of Legends, Smite – these are complex games to get your head around and thus a good first impression is key.

Until this point the introductions tended to come via excited friends. People who popped up online or at the pub to announce, “Hey, I’ve found this awesome game which I think you’ll love and which we can play together. Won’t that be great?”

Of course, it was only after downloading and playing said game that you found out that what your friend had secretly meant was, “Hey, I’ve found this awesome game which I really love and which I really need other people to start playing so I’m not forced to partner with total strangers who shout at me for not saving them as they rush solo into a clump of the enemy. Won’t that be great?”

By that point it’s often too late – you’re in too deep. All you can hope as you peer into the hero pool or try to come up with an item build is that your friends are knowledgable and patient teachers, that the game’s subreddit is helpful and that the wikis you alt+tab to consult are comprehensive.

At this year’s International, Valve was offering up something different as a way of introduction: The Newcomer Stream.

The Newcomer Stream was an alternative to the main English language commentary stream which offered a beginner’s guide to the game. When I spoke to one of its contributors, ‘PyrionFlax‘, he explained that the level it was aimed at was people who were familiar with games in general but didn’t know Dota. Basically, it’s not a stream which my mother could watch then understand what I write about for a living, but it’s something I could put my game-literate siblings in front of and have them walk away knowing the broad strokes of the game.

Speaking with another one of the casters, ‘Purge‘, he called the stream ‘revolutionary’ and pointed out that it would make the game accessible to gamers used to the jargon of their own games. If you’re a Dota player tuning into a League of Legends livestream your eardrums are suddenly bathed in Barons and Dragons and buffs and Doran’s something or another. Why is poking important? Why does no one pick any summoner spell besides Flash? Why does it matter that Nidalee got picked?

[These people all appear well-informed -ed]

Even though the broad strokes of the two games are the same – shove your way to the end of the three lanes and crush the buildings there to win – the language which surrounds them can be impenetrable. Then there are the players themselves, their preferences, their histories with particular teams, oh, and the metagame. Which tactics are big at the moment, which hero combinations? Getting to grips with all of this is one of the reasons you can pour thousands of hours into a game. It’s also a reason you’re reluctant to swap to or attempt another. It’s a significant undertaking.

The general assumption up until this point has been that if you’re following the professional scene of a game you’re likely to also be a player. The terminology will be meaningful and you’ll be able to read into the hero selections and omissions, even if it’s not on a nuanced level. The casters can then skim over the actual mechanics at work and offer a play-by-play account with some extra analysis and flavour.

The International 4’s whopping $10.9 million prize pool made it the biggest eSports event in history, financially speaking. With that money came a lot of extra attention from outside the main Dota 2 community. A lot of people were wondering, “What on Earth is this game and why did its community chuck more than $8 million into the prize fund?” It was a situation which lent itself to a new kind of stream – something between casting and tutorial – to cater to the curious new eyeballs.

That’s why Purge was such a logical choice. He’s already one of the first ports of call you’ll have as a newcomer thanks to his Purge Plays… video series, walking you through heroes. He’s also responsible for the “Welcome to Dota, you suck” guide you’ll get pointed to if you ever ask Reddit for tips on how to get started.

In terms of the stream itself, I dipped in and out of it during the play-offs. That was when the stream was still finding its feet and so it tended to oscillate between relatively dry explanation and off-topic jollity. Later, just before the main event it seemed more settled with the presenters hitting a kind of rhythm. They would attempt to explain but perhaps zero in on several important facets of the game rather than attempting to tackle all of them on every stream.

[If I were to caption this 'Push it real good', it would be a reference to the song by Salt-n-Pepa -ed]

I didn’t catch any of the Newcomer Stream while in Seattle but keeping an eye on my friends’ Twitter accounts it seemed that the games were broadly comprehensible, even if some of the specific information wasn’t quite clear. I also know that Valve was actively offering feedback during the event and that the casters themselves were working to improve the stream.

There will likely be an evaluation of all the final feedback as Valve sift through the TI4 data and decide what to do for TI5. But it won’t just be Valve peering at the cascade of Reddit threads, message board comments and tweets. It will be all the other companies with their fingers jammed in the MOBA pie. The Newcomer Stream can’t possibly have escaped the attention of other developers and third-party eSports tournament organisers. It’s a powerful tool for making the games themselves – traditionally thought of as awkward and incomprehensible timesinks – accessible, perhaps even encouraging players to swap their habitual MOBA for something new. Riot, Hi-Rez or Blizzard can’t be oblivious to this potential source of players and so I’d be hugely surprised if we didn’t see the rest of the year spent tinkering with newcomer broadcasting or refining the ideas Valve led with at TI4.

2014 might just be the year of the n00b.

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Philippa Warr

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