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Battle Arenas: Defense of the Ancients, An Introduction

The artist hopefully formerly known as MOBA

Battle Arenas is a series in which Cara looks at Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games, and tries to answer why they might have become so popular. She used to play DOTA. A lot. Like, from back in 2003 when it was first released (she is old). Now DOTA clones are everywhere! THEY MUST BE EXAMINED. But first: a little musing on the intricacies of DOTA, the first, the best.

This is the greatest PC games site on Sid Meier's Civilised earth, and not a fucking sight of a Defense Of The Ancients feature on it. Not one. All those years I spent playing the Warcraft III mod DOTA I never once thought it was unusual that RPS weren't mentioning it.

And then today I looked up the figures. According to DOTA's longest serving designer Icefrog, not counting China, 7-11 million people were playing it in 2010. That's two years ago, and not including China. That is how huge it is. And now everyone is screaming at everyone to cover DOTA 2 because it's coming back stronger. DOTA is relevant now: it has spawned a whole genre referred to by the ugly term 'MOBA' (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena – ugh). We're talking Heroes of Newerth, League of Legends, Bloodline Champions. When I used to talk about 'ganking' and 'farming' no one used to know what the hell I was talking about and now I feel positively embittered that everyone is trying to tell me what a great idea doing those things are.

Allow me a small pause to feel disappointed in my fellow journalists.

Why didn't anyone duck in for a few war stories? What's everyone been doing? I asked around. I asked every games critic I know: why haven't you played DOTA before now? Everyone else's been obsessing over it for years, including myself. Hell, I was so obsessed with DOTA I didn't write anything that even resembled journalism or creative writing between the years of 2003-2007. I didn't have time to write. It would have gotten all up in my DOTA. I did the bare minimum for my English Literature course, did essays in 3 hours drunk, scraped a 2:1, and buggered off to Japan without having regretted a moment farming creeps all day and running around in the enemy base like a weasel on acid. What was everyone else who liked games doing with their time, I wondered? Not playing DOTA? That's absurd.

The answer is: my friends the Proper Journalists were writing, that's why. DOTA sucking up my time or inclination to write was exactly why they weren't playing it. They were finishing games and writing about them. Hell, Keza Macdonald went to the same university as me, is a few years younger than me, and she managed to get really damn good whilst I was engaged in hours of having 'M-M-M-MONSTER KILL!' screamed down my earholes.

I sound like I am describing an addiction: I am. It has set me back several years, at least in any kind of career in writing shit down. (Aside from the fact I can't string a sentence together without the word 'shit' being in it, of course.)

There is no 'finishing' DOTA. You have to invest yourself in DOTA to get something good from it. And once you invest in it, you never really leave the need to play it behind. It's like the mafia. Once you are in, you are in. You're in forever.

You get obsessed at getting better at DOTA, though you will never be good. You get obsessed with the long game. You get obsessed with tactics. You invest your whole being into it in order for that one, giant payoff win at the end. You are questing for an elusive victory. And it happens little enough that it is like that man you can't have, the one who never looks at you, the one who always talks to the other girl, the one who just won't come round.

But you want him.

The DOTA victory is a fucking tease. He reclines at the back of the club, daring you to think you can have him. When you do finally, after plying him with all your wiles, actually attain him, it's so damn good you want it again – oh - immediately. But he's left without giving you his number. And he stood on your glasses on the way out. They were your fucking good pair as well: the ones that made you look like Zooey Deschanel. You put on your other pair and look in the mirror to see that you look like Skrillex. The next victory seems somewhat far off.

The satisfaction, and ultimately, addiction to DOTA comes from the return on the complex investments DOTA asks of you. It's like those little intricacies work themselves electric into your nervous system until you can feel them crackle on your fingertips.

The first investment is in a little knowledge of how the game works. DOTA separates players into two teams of five, and each team's goal is to destroy the other's base, specifically the building in the centre of the base to end the game victorious. Each player picks one of just under 100 (depends on your version) different heroes with special abilities (based on intelligence, agility, or strength skills), and strides forth to do battle on one of three lanes. 'Creeps' (little soldier dudes with not much health) spawn at your base and make their way down the lanes towards the enemy base. Your job, as a hero, is to help them total all the towers on the lanes and finally get into the enemy base to win. But the other heroes are there, and they can seriously kill your ass. For gold and experience. And the same with creeps: you can 'farm' enemy creeps and become strong and powerful by making your hero more decorated with booty than the Queen at a coronation. By the end of the game you're like Snoop Dogg, swaggering around with so much loot in your pockets your trousers are around your ankles.

The heroes are magnificent: not only are they dramatically different from each other, crackling with neon spells, terribly voice-acted puns and grinning at you from their talking avatar, they each must be delicately tuned, as if they were pianos – but pianos who murder. This is part of what Blizzard does: they make RTS units shiny and cute, but really they are designed and balanced for fucking shit up. Take the Tinker character, for example. He's a cute little steampunk goblin with a mech frame attached to him that runs about adorably. His little laser ability might seem cute, before it gets you in the face. His mechanical goblin army might seem lovely from afar, until they rain down on you like a mini robot hell, eradicating creeps and your health bar. And try to run away – you're almost back to base now - and the Tinker will reload all his abilities and send a heat-seeking missile to take the last of your health. MEGAKILL!

Not so cute now, huh?

You need to become roughly familiar with how some of the heroes function, how items can enhance their abilities, and also, how you can avoid being killed by the enemy's heroes. That sounds daunting, but all you need is a little practise. That brings me to the second investment.

The second investment you make is in time. Games of DOTA usually take 30 minutes if one team is awful, an hour if you're all right, and much, much longer, if you're pretty damn good and really well matched. Or, if you want to prolong someone's pain, which (she smirks sadistically), I admit to doing once or twice to players who have been rude in the early game. That means your entire evening will be sucked into a void once you embark on a game: because if you lose, and you likely will, you'll want to play again to win. After four matches, it's like no time at all has passed and you haven't even won a game. But four hours have gone by and the dinner you made is congealing insolently on your desk. A small line of ants has formed to it. The ants are marching over your lap and the Queen Ant has set up shop at your crotch.

Time with the game also buys you something: instinct. After hours and hours of DOTA, you develop a Spider Sense. You're way out killing creeps at a tower, and all of the opposition are hidden by the fog of war: something galls you. You run. Five seconds later, all of the heroes appear where you just were. You thank your Boots of Speed you left, or you'd be a spell-mangled gibbering mess by now. Or, if the opposition disappear for too long, it's likely they're away killing Roshan, the game's most revered NPC, for his treasure. If you get that little DOTA feel, you can raise your team and go and ambush them, smugly, and steal their prize.

Spend enough time, and you'll sense things. You'll know when you are in trouble before it happens. You'll know when you can stay or run. You just get to know. There are not many games you play where you can claim a hunch lead to you winning – but DOTA is one of them.

You also need to allow yourself time to be really bad at DOTA for a while. You will suck. You will not be good at this game. I am not good at it, and at the height of my addiction I was probably playing DOTA every single day for four hours. Being good is not the point, and anyone who tells you different is a dickhead and you should ban him from the server (GET GUD NUB! Whatever – REPORTED). You can be the worst player on the team and still contribute to a stunning win. You're only as good as how well your team works together, and that's all that counts.

…Which is your third investment: your team. In many ways, this is the most important thing about DOTA. It is also my favourite thing about DOTA. There are few things in the world that will plunge you into a really intense hour-long situation where you rely upon someone else doing their absolute best for you every moment they are there whilst you try your utmost to do the same, where if you do it right you both have the time of your lives.

Unless you count sex, but in my experience sex is never anything as long as an hour, and isn't nearly as enjoyable. Also, unless you are extremely lucky, you don't get to do it with four other people at the same time. And yet, and yet, a win in DOTA is more elusive than the female orgasm.

No. The closest good simile for DOTA is that it is like a delicate machine designed by Sun Tzu, to emphasise comradeship in war. You go to war depending on, and looking after your friends. You might even come to like them more than you did before, and get to know them better. People's personalities come through as they play, you get to know who will run in to save you in a fight, who will run in and die if you don't assist, which of your friends is an expert with your particular hero. Because the economy in DOTA is so finely tuned, if your team's heroes are being killed in the early game, you are giving the other team money and experience, which will massively skew the game in their favour, and you'll realise early that they are going to win – but you'll have to wait a full forty minutes until they come and mess up your base. And you're penalised for leaving early (early DOTA matches on Battlenet were emphatically marked 'NO LEAVERZ' and people delighted in kicking you from the lobby if your stats said you were one).

So as a team, you strive to listen, to react, and to stay away from danger as much as you can. You warn each other, coordinate ambushes (affectionately referred to as 'ganks') and yell when an enemy hero is missing from your lane. You ask each other which items would be good for the team: you debate the finer points whilst working your own small corner of the map, a cog in a beautiful intricate mechanism (Mekansm, some might say). If you listen carefully during a game, sometimes you can feel the willpower of your teammates positively striving for a win. Or, perhaps that is just someone jerking off to the Queen of Pain's moans? I can never tell.

I think there is another investment that you slowly make. It might be a side effect of having a regular team you play with. It is the emotional investment. An investment in intimacy. When I first started playing DOTA, I'd just met a whole new group of friends who all played games. I guess it was the first time I felt like I belonged: by the time I'd turned 17, I was ready to fully immerse myself in a pool of people who were exactly as nerdy as myself. I found them. We played ten-player DOTA constantly. And you grow to love that you can play it like it's Sunday afternoon football. It's just a forum for chitchat punctuated with excitement at a kill or exclamations of profanity. Once you're over that learning hump, and the need to constantly talk tactics – once you know which tactic you're playing, it's like watching a film that you're all taking part in, and talking over it. It's like making your own Mystery Theatre 3000. And it makes you happy that you can share that with people. It makes you closer to them. DOTA's like a cement that holds you together. It's like a fraternity with a very strict set of rules, and at least twenty games' worth of hazing and giggling about how you can't stack Powertreads until someone grins and says gently, “Good work.” The quiet glory you feel electrifies. It makes you love the world.

I stopped playing DOTA when I moved to Japan, because I couldn't take my PC. I found other video games to distract me. DOTA was a well preserved memory until a few weeks ago.

Now I feel like a DOTA hipster. I've gone headfirst back into DOTA 2 and it's still addictive – I just feel strange. I feel old when people new to the game talk DOTA 2 tactics. I feel like I have already lived through decades of the teamchat in-game back and forths and arguments, debates over who can counter who, what items would be best, when we should push a lane. When my new friends do this now I feel a lot like this:

Traumatised. Old. Slightly weary.

I feel like the horrors of public matches and the highs of sweeping triumphs no longer belong to me but to a younger generation of bannermen. The interface has changed, but the battles stay the same.

I also get little twinges of this:

You know the sort. The “I have seen things in the original DOTA that you people wouldn't believe”. “I have seen Windrunner attack Techies off the bank of the upper river and die; I have seen heroes on fire off the shoulder of the Tree of Life. I watched spells glitter in the dark near the enemy base. All those moments are lost in battle, like... items off a courier in an AOE nuke.”

I am being dramatic. But there is something there in the format of the DOTA clones that wants to pull me back. Like the returning soldier trying to adjust to civilian life, I remember the bad but the highs and camaraderie are second to none. In the real world I want to use all the old terms. It will get late at the pub, and I will wish I had a town portal. I'll go to the shops and watch my back for ganks. I'll forget my umbrella and want to know where the courier chicken is. It's probably indecent how many in-jokes you can make about these games, so I'll try and keep them to a minimum. (I'm lying, I won't. Do not follow me on Twitter.)

DOTA has left a legacy, and I am going to examine it. I am going to tell you why this thing has got all out of proportion. I'll leave Quinns to explain DOTA 2 to you, as that is his thing now, but I will pproceed to get eaten alive in the other DOTA clones for your reading pleasure. I hope you will join me.

Half of everything in DOTA is sensing where you shouldn't be. I'm going to carry that with me and see where it takes me. You should come! These games are so very sexy when they let you win.

I shall leave you with some theme music to get you in the mood. Until next time, heroes.

Cover image for YouTube video

PS All the DOTA pictures featured here were taken from a replay of a ten player game I had with my regular teammates years ago. Allchat was peppered with in-jokes, such as the insistence that Jeto [under the gentle pseudonym 'Deer Sperm'] is playing terribly just now because he is 'an endgame hero'. He is an endgame hero (what the young 'uns call a 'carry' now, I think). He is also just playing like a douche.

PPS EVERYONE: can we replace the term MOBA with something nicer? Any ideas? Let's have RPS coin a term that is less ugly than 'MOBA'. It sounds like a gynaecological procedure.

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Dota 2

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Heroes of Newerth


League of Legends


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About the Author
Cara Ellison avatar

Cara Ellison


Senior Scottish Correspondent, often known as the Notorious C A E, though mostly by her mum