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Can't Dote, Will Dote

Finally learning to play that which I fear

As we’ve all learned the hard way, the longer you leave something you’re anxious about, the more terrifying it becomes. (I really must get that thing on my foot looked at). (And the car in for its MOT). (And oh God all those emails to people who wrote nice things whenever I mentioned difficult times). Case in point: Dota 2.

Here is my experience with mobas until last week:

- Laughing in disbelief at Basshunter’s Dota video some six years ago

Watch on YouTube

- Playing Demigod a few times, while the multiplayer was still broken, so only as a singleplayer game.

I have been a games ‘journalist’ (speech marks added to save sarcastic toerags the effort) since 2001, yet I’ve managed to entirely sidestep a phenomenon. There’s other stuff I broadly don’t look at – racing games, flight sims, games about people having far more sex than I could ever hope to – but at least I had enough working knowledge of ‘em to say it was choice rather than ignorance. Mobas, though, barely a clue, beyond a vague sense that it had bits of tower defence and RTS in it.
The longer I left it, the more impenetrable it seemed. I started off with a certain ugly elitism, looking at League of Legends and thinking it seemed some gaudy, boisterous horror for people with no attention span, but that shifted when Valve got into the lanes business. Clearly, it was something to take seriously.

My first proper experience of Dota 2 was at the first International tournament, held at GamesCom 2011. As far as I knew, Dota 2 was as unknown a quality to the rest of the world at that point as it was to me (it wasn’t yet publicly released). Surely the tournaments would be chilled out and educational.

But no. No. Already it was steeped in unfathomable language, the noise of the matches drowned out by cheering for actions I couldn’t even locate on screen, let alone understand. I was none the wiser as I headed grimly into what proved to be a somewhat awkward interview with Valve’s Erik Johnson about their plans for Dota 2. I asked a combination of vague observations and futile attempts to make him comment on a perceived rivalry with Blizzard (the original Dota is a Warcraft 3 mod), getting nowhere, feeling increasingly self-conscious.

He didn’t say anything of the sort, but from his body language and tone I have little doubt he was thinking “you don’t know a thing about Dota. Why are you interviewing me?” (Because it was Valve and because I was RPS’ man at Gamescom, is the answer). This upset, coupled with the way online talk about the game so rapidly became characterised by terms and names I’d never heard of, I took the coward’s way out.

For four years.

Many times, I thought of taking a look. Enough people I respect were playing Dota 2 that I knew it wasn’t some madly shallow thing for sweary teenagers, despite the many reports of a mean-spirited community, but the longer I left it the more of a mountain to climb it seemed.

Tomorrow, myself, Adam, Alice, Pip and a TBC ringer will battle cheery RPS fansite PC Gamer in a Dota 2 match [update: this happened. We won! See here]. I don’t have the highest of hopes if I’m honest, but I do know that I’ll know roughly what I’m doing. That isn’t something I ever quite expected to happen.

I haven’t played against other humans yet, just bot matches with Pip ordering us about and showing us the main ropes. She’s pretty good at it, even though she thinks she isn’t. As I understand all but our opponents’ leader are similarly uneducated, but even so a trial by far seems inevitable. And I’m looking forwards to it, not fearing it. I know what the lanes are, I know how to use two characters (on a basic level), I know what items I have to buy in which order, and I even know a few variants on that, I know about last hits and denies, side shops and secret shops. I know that my questions to Pip will be ‘where should I be right now?’, not ‘what the hell do I do?’

I doubt I’d have got there without a friendly voice taking me through it, or without a specific motivation to finally fight the fear (i.e. wouldn’t it be nice to beat those dead tree fetishists at PCG). I’ve done the official tutorials subsequently, but while they explain some of the key mechanics they can’t come close to hearing someone talk the language and you be able to ask for explanations. I was lucky enough to have someone seasoned and with a calm manner on hand (though she did offer the occasional steam of astonishing invective on occasion). So, I’m in.

I’m so pleased. Not of myself, but for myself. Whatever I do or don’t end up doing with Dota 2 or any other moba from this moment on, I’ve faced my fears and I know what it’s about, how it works and, most of all, why so many people like it so much. It’s exciting, it’s complicated, it requires patience and understanding, and doing things almost completely differently from what any RPG or RTS has taught me. I have to eat trees! I have to not attack things! I have to build boots by buying gloves! I love that something made out of frankly ridiculous parts is also this immaculate, precise engine. VIDEOGAMES.

And that was what I’d forgotten every time I felt scared of Dota. Videogames.

And for what happened next, please see here.

This article was first published as part of, and thanks to, The RPS Supporter Program.

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