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Dote Night: The Science And Ice Cream Of Losing Streaks

Methods For Breaking Bad Luck

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.

I am on a horrific Dota 2 losing streak at the moment.

Unrelatedly, this week's Dote Night will be about losing streaks and Dota 2. I've been reading through the wisdom of SCIENCE to find out more about losing streaks and, hopefully, how to fix them.

There's an idea in sports that momentum is an important element in competition. It manifests in both winning and losing streaks as well as the strong or weak performances of individuals. Actual evidence for this momentum, as Roger Vergin points out in his study "Winning Streaks in Sports and the Misperception of Momentum", is elusive. In fact, in the study the streaks occurring across seasons of baseball and basketball were similar to those you would expect if you assumed that each game was unrelated to the outcome of previous games. In other words, although factors like complacency and confidence may play a part in game results, momentum gets given a lot of unjustified significance.

That's something I'd been wondering about. Obviously you can influence the outcome of a game through practice, trying to optimise your decision-making and through skillful play but you still won't win all of your matches. In fact, in the case of Dota 2 most people hover around a fifty percent win-rate. That means you're likely to have runs of games where you push over the other person's rock shrine and runs where they do the same thing to you. The longer these runs are the more likely you are to interpret them as a streak.

I had gone 13 games without a win when I started writing this. That's a whole page of depressing red text on my Dota profile. It's hard to keep it from feeling personal and that's a good and a bad thing. It's good if it means you keep analysing how you play, making adjustments and trying to learn from mistakes. It's terrible if you sit there at your keyboard, choking in a miasma of self-indulgent hatred and queuing for match after match in the hopes of getting one win before bedtime. That way lies a miserable gaming session soundtracked by the dawn chorus.

There are some interesting biological systems which might also be at play when it comes to streaks, particularly involving the hormone testosterone. By analysing the saliva samples and profit and loss statements of financial traders in London, John Coates was able to show that above-average profits were linked with a rise in testosterone. Testosterone levels in the morning were also good predictors of how much profit would be made that day.

Higher levels of testosterone have also been found in the winners of chess tournaments as compared with the losers and increases in the levels of the hormone have been reported pre-game "as if in preparation for the contest". According to sports physiologist Christian Cook, "Testosterone gives you more confidence and motivation and that makes you work harder." The testosterone effect can hang about for a long while so I'm wondering whether a few wins could give you enough of a boost to keep winning, or at least make winning more likely. Applying this to Dota, with increased testosterone levels you might take risks and play more aggressively – something which is rewarded by the current meta.

Of course, none of this is helping me get some green back onto my ALL-RED scoresheet, particularly given the testosterone research findings are generally restricted to dudes. So it was that I attempted some self help.

First up I addressed the temperature problem. There's a heatwave in the UK at the moment and it's making me feel sluggish. To combat this I played Dota while eating half a Vienetta. In case you are not from the UK a Vienetta is a loaf of ice cream. On the negative side we lost the game. On the positive side, uh, there's half a Vienetta in the freezer for later?

Second, I addressed the playlist. When I asked how other people deal with losing streaks in games I received several responses over Twitter saying music had helped – Eye of the Tiger got Christos Reid through Dark Souls, Girls Aloud perks up Dan Bendon's Street Fighter play and so on. Thus it was that on one of the hottest days of the year I took Sniper to the safe lane accompanied by my festive playlist, starting with Elton John's Step Into Christmas. We won. We bloody won!

It's definitely an improvement, but the thing is, it doesn't feel like the losing streak has been solved. Dota actually feels more difficult at the moment. That's why I've done just a little more digging – to find other ideas I can put into practice and help myself get out of the slump.

The most popular solution according to Twitter involves something akin to the incubation effect. The incubation effect is that phenomenon where you take a break from actively trying to solve a problem and do something else. When you return to the problem you'll often find it easier to come up with a solution. Given that the incubation effect has been noted to affect creativity-based tasks, it might be that taking a break from Dota would help you play more creatively when you return or respond to problems differently. It might also help disrupt bad habits you didn't know you were repeating.

But my favourite point, and one which I have found the most useful is by sports psychologist, Eddie O'Connor. In a press release dealing with a Detroit Lions losing streak he says: "Refocus your attention to the process of the game. Focus on what you can control each moment of the match." There's no sense in dwelling on losses beyond parsing them for what you can improve or change in your current play. Similarly there's no point in fixating on the end-goal of winning. The only thing you can control is what you're doing in that moment so anything you can do to get that laser-like focus back is invaluable whether you're winning or losing.

Besides, if all of that fails I still have half a Vienetta.

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