Dote Night: Navigating The Friendship Skill Gap

Can't speak French but lets the funky warding do the talking

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.

There’s a sensation I think a lot of people who play multiplayer games with friends will recognise. It’s that moment of realisation that the skill and interest levels of your friendship group have started to diverge.

There were a large number of people who arrived at Dota 2’s doors a couple of years ago in a flurry of excitement. This was back when the game was in beta. Every now and again Steam would joyfully announce you had new items in your inventory and you would rush to check them out. It would always be five new keys for Dota 2. Honestly, that game was basically the digital game distribution platform version of Tribbles.

Friends were introduced by other friends and people with perhaps a few hours more experience to their name would end up taking on the role of muddled but enthusiastic mother duck to a number of muddled but enthusiastic ducklings. Every so often you’d encounter someone who turned out to have been playing DotA for years already and would say impenetrable things using the old names for heroes or items.

In the very beginning the matches veered towards the chaotic or messy. They weren’t displays of outrageous competence as much as they were opportunities to experiment with game mechanics and re-word pop songs to feature various digital wizards. That’s not to say it was some kind of magical community of unshakeable positivity. It wasn’t. It’s more that when you’re getting to grips with a complex game it takes a while to get a sense of both the metagame and your own limits.

Pretty quickly you started to get a sense of who was excelling and who was falling behind, though, Or perhaps it’s fairer to say that you got a sense of who was playing with a similar mindset and approach to your own. There were people who poured hours into improving and obsessed over statistical differences. They tended to rub up the wrong way those people who wanted it to stay an unscientific kickabout and chatroom. Some got interested in the professional scene and brought in strategies or concepts they’d seen play out in matches far above our tier, others actually ended up on teams at LAN events. A handful of people even decided to go back to other games or hobbies or Socialising With Real People In The Evenings.

Only 106?

After the first few weeks the playerbase around me distilled into particular groups and roles. I know who tends to play relatively conservatively, just as I know who tends to go off-piste and pick a random hero regardless of the consequences. But beyond this, people started to drift away from each other based on perceived or actual skill. It’s not an absolute truth but the tendency seems to be that you gravitate towards people around the same level as you are. In some cases that’s actually enforced by the game itself. One friend’s MMR is so far above mine it actually precludes us playing ranked matches together – Dota 2’s systems simply won’t allow it.

The emergence of these groups is a gradual thing. I only really thought about it when a friend asked “Why do we never play together anymore?” Skill difference wasn’t actually the reason in that case but I was suddenly aware of how many people I used to play with and simply no longer do. I don’t want to babysit, neither do I want to feel like the kid sister lagging behind the group and having the bigger kids get to do all the fun or impactful stuff.

Assuming this would be even more noticeable to professional gamers regardless of the specific game I’ve been adding a question to any interviews I conduct with them – “Does being one of the best players in the world at this game mean you can no longer play with your non-pro gamer friends?”

Matt ‘Impaler’ Taylor is a professional League of Legends player with Supa Hot Crew. I asked him about how he found playing with friends now that he was part of the LCS. “After you’ve competed a lot and you want to win all the time it’s no longer fun messing around unless it’s messing round with friends, and then you’re not really there for the game. You’re there just to play with your friends. Then League of Legends is a side topic. I can’t look at League of Legends or any competitive game the same having played competitively because I’ve got that hunger to win now.”

Emil “EmilZy” Nielsen is the coach for Team Coast Blue’s Smite team. I met him at the kick-off LAN for the Smite EU pro league. “I played a lot with friends but now – they’re actually pretty good at the game but they’re not at my level at all so I play a lot solo and then of course with the Team Coast guys,” he said. “It’s never going to get boring to play with friends because you could go troll and have fun but it was more fun when you were on the same level. Now I might get a bit frustrated if someone does [something] I would never do.”

It can be hard not to feel frustrated when the skill or mentality of the people you previously enjoyed playing with doesn’t quite mesh with your own. Probably the healthiest responses would either be to use it as impetus to improve your own game (if you’re lagging) or enjoy playing with new people (if you’ve accelerated). There’s also a lot to be said for learning to deal with your own frustrations when it comes to playing a multiplayer game. The thing I found most positive in the pro player responses – and one which I try to implement myself – is that rather than losing their friends entirely as teammates they just find other ways to think about those games which ensure the time spent is still enjoyable.


  1. Jamison Dance says:

    I’ve seen this myself. Every few months I’ll notice people on my friends list that I haven’t played in a while, click on their profiles, and then just unfriend them if their MMR is way (1000+) different from mine. It seems harsh, but I only do this with people I only know from Dota, where the only reason to play with them is because games could be fun together.

  2. Shockeh says:

    Pip’s column made me sad I keep asking her to play, and she never does. :(

    (I’m keenly aware the given reasons may be nothing to do with it, but still!)

  3. Shockeh says:

    Apparently we can’t edit posts any more?
    *Casts Summon RPS Support, 2 Black Mana*

    Content: But I did get to have my avatar in an RPS post, hugely tenuous link, away!

    • Asurmen says:

      I was thinking that the avatar could be the one and only Dave :)

  4. gruia says:

    its all based on individual personality. MBTI , study it, know yourself
    im intp. i don’t go out much, so playing dota with some1 is like having a beer with him. just that I don’t even play dota anymore )

    • Premium User Badge

      Malarious says:

      Meyers-Briggs is pretty much astrology for nerds. There’s no factual basis behind it whatsoever.

      • Kitsunin says:

        Yeah, it’s definitely fun to go along with, but it doesn’t actually tell you much of anything.

        I understand the perspective of, playing some games with a friend is like enjoying a beer with them (that’s how I feel!) it has nothing to do with Myers-Briggs.

  5. Gog Magog says:

    Cormac McCarthy had this to say about the scorned Invoker on our team in the last game I played:

    “He dreamt that night that he rode through woods on a low ridge. Below him he could
    see deer in a meadow where the sun fell on the grass. The grass was still wet and
    the deer stood in it to their elbows. He could feel the spine of the mule rolling under
    him and he gripped the mule’s barrel with his legs. Each leaf that brushed his face
    deepened his sadness and dread.
    Each leaf he passed he’d never pass again. They rode over his face like veils,
    already some yellow, their veins like slender bones where the sun shone through
    them. He had resolved himself to ride on for he could not turn back and the world
    that day was as lovely as any day that ever was and he was riding to his death.”

  6. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    I played a lot with a friend with a massive skill gap. In LoL, but I suspect the principle is the same. I learnt so much about how to play from teaching that I improved as a result. Going pure support to feed my friend so his lower skill was ameliorated taught me how to truly support selflessly, feed the carry, relieve pressure during ganks, support his attacks without kill-stealing… It allowed me to reach a new level of support play that brought (and still brings) me enjoyment.

    • vivlo says:

      ye, i’m pretty sure that playing with someone not as good and having to correct his mistakes is an important way to improve – especially as a supprot maybe

  7. piratmonkey says:

    I often find myself wrestling with how to play with lower skilled friends in Destiny’s Crucible. I like playing competitively and it’s fun to do well so it’s frustrating when someone makes bad decisions consistently. It’s super not fun to be the guy who tells other people how to play, and it’s super duper not fun to be on the receiving end of it (no matter how it’s said).

  8. Lichtbringer says:

    My problem is I want my friends to enjoy Dota. But thats not possible if they play with me.
    Because they are more Beginner level, the game itself is hard enough to learn. If I am in their Team, we are gonna get Enemys that are way better than they are.

    And lets be honest. The games were your Team gets Steamrolled aren’t the worst ones. The worst games are where you personally get Steamrolled and your Team gets so pressured that they can’t help you out, but still hang in there. After 20 minutes you know the game is lost, but your Team stretches the game to 50 minutes of base defense. And you are useless. Can’t do nothing. And then you still loose. Or your Team pulls out a victory after 60 minutes? Still not fun.

    Also, what heroes should my friends play? If they want to play Carries, they will be useless and feel week, because they don’t get lasthits, and the enemys always focus a weak carry player. If they play Supports, they will also feel powerless, because good Supporting is probably even harder, plus lategame they will get eaten by the likes of Lifestealer.

    What should i tell them? If they want to play a carry, I don’t want to say: “Don’t play a carry.” For me personally the whole game is about playing your favorite hero. …. )=

    • Kitsunin says:

      The big issue is, the game matchmakes for groups based on the assumption that the skilled players of said group will be carries, therefore as the most experienced player you’re supposed to let your friends take the less critical roles, and barely hang on and not have fun while you eventually turn things around. At least, that’s what the matchmaking thinks (I recall reading this some months ago, at any rate).

      Basically the fix is, make a smurf account and only play support with friends on said account, because matchmaking doesn’t give a damn about you playing with friends :/

      • Lichtbringer says:

        Yeah, probably the best Idea.

      • sophof says:

        A bad support can easily have as much impact on the game as a bad carry. I understand why this mistake is made, but many people fall into the traps that supports are somehow ‘less’. If that was somehow true, you should never pick them of course.

        Actually, when me and some friends just started out, we noticed quite quickly that any game we played always went late. In accordance we started picking way more carries or at least supports which needed some items, instead of the 4 protect 1 that was normal at the time. We won so many games in a row, it was crazy. until people simply started finishing early of course, because they were now smarter opponents.

        My point is, you shouldn’t follow too harsh a composition with new players. I think even for average players the full support role often doesn’t makes sense and for new players it doesn’t make sense at all, since they will never have the impact such a role requires.
        For instance, go carry and give them a sniper or something like that. Sniper can be more than useful as a sort of support in such games, has a nice nuke with his ult and can deal damage later with items. And of course he doesn’t have a lot of spells to use. All the ifs and buts why you’d normally not do that usually don’t apply at lower MMR.

        The pro-meta is followed way too strictly imo, what is true for them isn’t necessarily true for the game in general.

        • Kitsunin says:

          I’m just talking about matchmaking, IIRC there was a video with Purge in which he talked about how when playing with his friends he always has to play a carry because otherwise the games will be unfair. Again IIRC he was talking about what he heard directly from a person who works on the matchmaking, who said that this is the only way to ensure premades with large elo disparities within them don’t get put against teams which they vastly outskill.

          I’m not saying that a support isn’t just as important as a carry in an equally skilled game, and yeah, in many ways there are more skills required to play a support (which is exactly why a newbie is better playing…in the current meta probably a semi-carry) however consider a game with a total newbie Bounty Hunter and a skilled Crystal Maiden. She can play as well as she wants, get as many kills as a support can nab solo and help the BH as much as is possible but if they still feed and don’t get farm, she won’t be able to utilize any of her advantage to actually push for the win, plus the BH isn’t having a good time. If their roles were reversed the skilled BH could absolutely compensate for the lack of support, get fed and then bring the game to a win, which is why MM considers the better player’s elo much more important — it assumes they will not support.

          Of course, if the game had all even players, the CM would be just as important, but if you don’t have any half-decent carries, you just can’t win unless you really go hard for that early win, and you need decent pushers for that.

          • vivlo says:

            i don’t know… if you’re an excellent babysitter, and you take on you to teach your carry a lot, you stack for him, you secure kills, u facilitate last hits, give him vision, summon him when he’s needed etc… then you’re better off as beeing a support, and him, a carry.

  9. Gothnak says:

    I played LoL every day at lunch with a workmate against Bots for about 7 months. We kept getting asked by other highly ranked workmates and friends to join in their competitive matches, but the whole vs other Players with trash talking and stress just wasn’t for us. The most fun games for us was when we were pitted against AI with 3 n00bs who constantly died with scores of 0-3-13 and still scraping out a win. Much more fun than getting ganked by other Players all the time and having to play properly :).

    For us it was just having fun together.

  10. Malk_Content says:

    I find a certain odd kind of joy in being the third person on Pips list of “friends who also play Dota2” whilst having not played since April and using a profile pic of a character from a different MOBA.

  11. ssh83 says:

    That’s when you should just play against bots. lol. Or play other games where a strong player can easily carry and the newbie friend can’t contribute negatively (ex: feeding).

  12. robber9000 says:

    “Now I might get a bit frustrated if someone does [something] I would never do.”

    That’s one the hardest things doing. I’m straight in the middle of the skill divide unfortunately.

  13. markdavo says:

    I’m still very much a rookie in the world of Dota, but having been introduced to it by a friend, and having since introduced it to my wife and another friend, we’ve found almost the opposite of this post. My friend who has 500+ matches under his belt loves playing with us in Normal Unranked MM because the game will normally only match us with one good/experienced player like him, the rest seem to be rookies like us and he’s able to dominate as a result. I also reckon it helps having him on voice chat telling us what to do which can help make us better than the equivalently ranked players on their team.

    An issue I have is that I don’t enjoy playing a game by myself with strangers. Even though I know I’m getting better at the game, it just isn’t any fun for me without people I know. A bit like the difference between playing football with my friends and turning up in the park for a kickabout with strangers.

    Anyway, I guess it’s whatever works for you. I still play a lot with bots (with friends) so I can test out new characters, and not have the pressure of a pub game (even if there’s only 1/2 strangers on our team) every time I play.

    In summary, I guess most of the enjoyment of the game for me IS having friends to play with. Although I guess that might change if they were way better than me, and my being on the team kept costing us the match. Thankfully I havne’t reached that stage yet.