Alec has been asking me to come to Brighton to teach him Dota 2 for a while now. Thus far scheduling had made the trip impossible (plus I'm still not entirely convinced it isn't an elaborate childcare trap), But then an opportunity presented itself. A chat with their deputy editor let me know that cheery RPS fanzine, PC Gamer had decided to learn to play Dota 2. The one problem was that they needed a team to face off against – a team of similar skill, or at least sufficiently inexperienced that four Dota babbies with between four and ten hours of play under their belts wouldn't just get ground into a fine paste over the course of eight minutes...
I volunteered RPS.
I then emailed RPS to explain what I'd done and to bill it as a fun and good thing we could learn at lunchtimes and in the evenings. The email concluded: "We are better than them and nicer than them and have better beards than them so this is totally do-able."
Our core team was in place – Adam, Alec, Alice, me and… oh dear. We really needed a third neophyte to go alongside Adam and Alec. Alice has played Dota since it was DotA and I've spent over 1,700 hours on the thing so we were already skewing the team's experience upwards. Sure, I wanted to win but I didn't want it to be one of those stompy wins that makes the other people never want to play again and makes pub trips awkward. Graham was out because he had conveniently decided to move house and would be without internet. John and Jim opted out too.
We turned to freelancer Rich Stanton – he likes a spot of Heroes of the Storm but isn't a fan of Dota. I hoped that would mean he understood the broad sweep of what was going on in case we couldn't fit any practice around his childcare obligations but wouldn't put us too far ahead in terms of dedicated time learning the ins and outs of the game. I also named our team "Tiny Treant Morphling" because it seemed like a sufficiently nerdy Dota joke.
Teaching was incredibly weird. I tend not to assume leadership in Dota. I prefer to listen and often like to ask questions or just do my own thing, getting into a last-hitting rhythm or trying to zone opponents out while denying. Now I was giving a little tour of the map via that Steam watch a friend option, babysitting a lane buddy, explaining about primary attributes and GET AWAY FROM THAT TOWER! Being the recipient of questions and the decider of people's actions felt odd. Not unpleasant, just odd.
It also put me face to face with some of Dota's more "because videogames" aspects. "Why do I have to buy gloves and a belt to get these boots," from Alec. "Why do I have to eat a tree with a bean again?"
Initially I put Alec on Sniper and Adam on Witch Doctor. I know both characters well so I figured it would be easier to advise on item buying and skill builds while also needing to play a role myself. Besides, Adam had wanted to try his hand at healing and Witch Doctor ticks that box nicely. I was worried the other team might have had similar ideas given both are newbie-friendly heroes so my backups were Drow Ranger for Alec (a pain to last-hit with at first but you can get to grips with her skillset pretty easily, I find) and Lich for Adam (his Sacrifice is a bit tricky at first but the ultimate ability is a joy and works well if the enemy are bunched up which I thought they might end up doing for safety).
During those practice sessions I was very aware that I was the repeater of the phrase "stay behind the creep wave – let them take the damage so you don't have to". I wondered if it was annoying but kept on because, frankly, I wanted my Dota babbies to beat the ones from PC Lamer (I am great at sick burns). We went through basic item builds, I explained about the courier and how you choose which items to buy first when there are several parts to the item you want to end up with, I showed them what stacking and pulling means, we walked around the warding spots and looked at the vision you got from them, we talked about positioning (BEHIND THE CREEP WAVE AND NOT DIRECTLY UNDER A TOWER) and mana and health …
And that's pretty much all we had time for before the big day was upon us.
It started with Adam recounting a dream he had had the previous night. A dream "in which Boris Johnson had been mauled by a pack of dogs and was dying. I was the only person willing to comfort him as he bled out. "HE'S A HUMAN BEING FOR GOD'S SAKE" I shouted at the crowds who'd gathered to watch."
I wasn't sure how to interpret that given the upcoming match. Was I Boris Johnson? Was PCG?
As match time neared I tried to get in touch with Rich. PCG had requested a delay because something to do with print journalism or whatever. As I later learned Rich had taken a nap and would not wake up for another few hours, sending an apologetic text as we picked our heroes and promising to cheerlead for us instead.
I used to time for some last-minute lecturing:
1. The creeps are your friends - hide behind them where you can and let them take the damage for you. The GREEN creeps. The red ones are dicks.
2. Enemy towers are AWFUL and do LOTS OF DAMAGE so stay back. Only go near them with your friends from 1. – the green healthbar creeps.
3. If you cannot see the area around you and you cannot see all the enemy heroes on the minimap you may not be safe so CAUTION CAUTION
Alice was also offering to "help". The fact that I have played Dota with Alice and the fact she literally put the word "help" in quote marks gave me pause. Alice will tend to do what is more entertaining for her in games and has a formidable contrarian streak. I had my fingers crossed for the entertaining thing being destroying PCG's mid lane. I figured early on that's where the most experienced PCG person (Chris) would be because it's harder to teach a newcomer all the different timings and it's a vantage point from which you can protect your new charges. I'd asked Alice to take that lane because I'm only learning mid myself at the moment and I didn't want to throw the game for Alec and Adam if I could help it. I didn't want them to see me being nervous or beating myself up over a bad lane. Morale and whatever.
Speaking of morale it was time for a pep talk:
"I totally believe we can crush them," I started. But then what if we lost and Adam and Alec never wanted to play again? The pep talk took a turn for the weird as I added that REGARDLESS we were also better at everything than our enemies including making sandwiches. "That means that regardless of the actual outcome we have already won. A victory would just be the icing on the cake. We are the red velvet. A cream cheese coating would be amazing but we are still delicious from the start. And we will fuck them right up."
At that point Alice took advantage of the delayed start time to head to a bakery for actual red velvet cake.
QUINNS! Quinns is technically linked to RPS. Would he be able to fill the fifth spot on the team? It was getting late as I messaged him. He explained that he had 100ish hours to his name but couldn't remember any of the hot keys and hadn't touched the game for two years. I conferred with PCG and they agreed to the substitution.
Time to be the best red velvet cakes we could be.
PCG instapick Sniper leaving Alec with Drow Ranger. I'm really pleased as this means he knows what he might be up against in terms of skills and has a backup option. I later learned that my happiness had an equal and opposite manifestation in Alec who was both wrongfooted and a bit narked.
"Uh – I did not mean to pick that," says Alice as we look at her Puck selection. "Should have gone Outworld Devourer…"
We're on the Dire side so I take my Viper (TANKY FLYING SNAKE WITH BACKWARD WINGS IS LOVE) and head to the bottom lane with Adam's Witch Doctor. We're up against Phil on Crystal Maiden and Tom Senior on Sven. Alec takes Drow to the safe lane with Quinns' Shadow Shaman. They're facing off against Sam's Lich (hooray – another thing my newbies can possibly deal with) and Andy on Sniper. Chris is mid on Invoker against Alice as Puck.
Adam slips slightly too far forward trying to cast a spell and gets smacked with a stun by Sven. PCG get him down to a sliver of health – 6HP – and I advise he enjoy a lovely salve to repair the damage. We shake it off and go back to our familiar laning rhythm. At this point Chris is moving around the map trying to facilitate kills for his side.
I didn't realise this as the time but Quinns nearly first-blooded Sniper in that first five minutes. I'd still thought he was working out what was going on with his hotkeys because chat was peppered with "how do I…". In fact I only realised exactly how much muscle memory he had for the game when he asked "what's a refresher orb and why have I just bought one?" before going on to land a double ward trap on the folk of PCG.
"Oh shit! Sorry…"
Chris had nipped bottom with a haste rune to help kill Adam or I. He hadn't managed to make good on that but without a trip home to heal before going forward again Witch Doctor was an easy target for Sven's stun and Crystal Maiden picked up the kill. It was met shortly afterwards by a kill from Alice on Chris but Sam picked off Quinns as he headed to the side shop and a low-health Alec was subjected to an Invoker sunstrike making it 3 – 1 to them at the ten minute mark.
"Is there a lane where people are weak and I could murder them?" asked Alice. She hides in the trees by the radiant tier 1 tower leaping out when Phil and Tom appear It looks like she might actually be in trouble but Adam steps up with a lovely Witch Doctor ultimate that takes care of Phil and then Alice and I finish off Tom in the jungle.
By about 17 minutes we're even on kills but pulling ahead in terms of items and levels. It still feels pretty even to me in terms of what we're getting done though. PCG are now roaming as a five and head for our top tower.
Sniper throws out some shrapnel to start whittling us down but we move out of the way. Alec silences Lich meaning he won't be able to cast his ultimate – excellent. The tower and I do the rest (sorry Sam) and Alice lands a dream coil on Invoker, Sven and Crystal Maiden. Crystal Maiden starts channeling her ultimate but as she does so Quinns drops a set of serpent wards… It ends up being a team wipe for them.
I feel like our experience difference is showing at this point and I worry that even though Adam and Alec are making me proud they might not feel quite part of things. We're also still making mistakes ("I turned the wrong thing into a chicken!") and I'm really impressed by the PCG newbies, but it feels more and more lopsided as the game progresses. There's also a point where I realise Alice's Puck has a level 5 dagon. She does pay for the aggression at various points – like when she attempts to take on four heroes at once, though and takes three separate ultimates to the face.
Watching the replay I see Tom Senior jungling when everything else was unsafe to try and stay in the game which was cool, I also see that I really needed to explain how sunstrikes worked and how to run to minimise your chances of being hit. We end up losing all of our tier one and two towers and the match goes for nearly an hour. In the end PCG are overwhelmed and drowning in megacreeps as we push over their Ancient.
From the mood in chat I get the impression that Adam enjoyed the game and had pockets where he felt he was making a difference. Alec was less enthused. His mood reminded me of all the times I've played a carry but we've either won or lost before I had time to really achieve anything, or games where I was repeatedly focused by the enemy team and ended up struggling for gold and items. A win in those conditions is nice and all but you end up not really having ownership of the victory, having been in your own bubble of Things Not Going Quite Right for so long. I want to tell them both I'm really pleased with them and they did well but I don't want to sound like a patronising asshat. I also don't want to go on about it on Twitter given we had three people who had played before but secretly, in my room, I do a little airpunch because we won!
I'm going to try and get a video of the match in some watchable form online soon but in the meantime here's what Adam and Alec thought, in their own words:
I am the Denier.
When Pip told me that I'd mainly be killing our creeps rather than unleashing hell in the general direction of PCG, I went along with it. I work well in a hierarchical structure, particularly when I have a unique task to perform. Stick me right at the bottom of a pyramid, alongside a thousand other grunts, and I'm likely to get creative - which is to say, I'm likely to go off-script and fuck everything up. I'd make a terrible cog but I reckon I'd slot into a Megazord fairly well.
I'd never played against humans before and had barely spent any time duffing up bots, so I didn't expect to contribute a great deal but I would have been frustrated if I hadn't been able to understand WHY I was playing badly. That was my fear - that the match would pass me by and I'd be unable to describe what my role should have been. As it turns out, I had a reasonably good idea as to my objectives and even though I didn't manage to kill a single enemy hero, I was very much In Denial.
For those who don't understand what that means (and for those who do and would like to mock my attempt to describe it), denying is the act of killing friendly units before your opponents finish them off. This denies the enemy team the experience that the kill would have granted. It feels to me like a bug that became a feature and at first it didn't seem very sporting - like blasting a ball out of the air with a blunderbuss as it soars toward the Edgbaston boundary. But DOTA, so my imperfect understanding tells me, is rarely a game of discrete actions. The creep line is a conveyor belt of experience to be harvested, as well as a wall of meat to cower behind. Matches take the form of a push toward the higher levels of experience and ability rather than a tally of points scored.
Denying allows teammates to harvest experience knowing that it will count for something, allowing them to break ahead rather than treading water. That was my basic function and I think I carried it out fairly well, considering my lack of experience. As the Witch Doctor, I also acted as a mobile medical station when we clashed with PCG, although I'm not convinced I ever saved a life rather than simply prolonging the inevitable.
Sod efficiency though - the best thing about the Witch Doctor is the dancing. His Ultimate ability is a deadly boogie that blasts any enemy heroes in the vicinity with a barrage of disco flames. It's preposterous and brilliant, and I think I managed to use it effectively maybe one time. I used it ineffectively around ten times. I couldn't help myself. I was dancing and people were running for cover. One member of the PCG team kept lobbing flaming boulders at us, which is a fine party trick and all, but nothing I saw was as spectacular as the dance.
I'll play again, definitely. My prediction is that I'll hit my peak quite early, stubbornly sticking to the easier-to-learn characters rather than taking any risks. I'm wary of ultra-competitive games in digital form because, unlike physical sports, I suspect they can be perfected. The code can be mastered and the correct sequences can be discovered. The push toward an attainable perfection doesn't fascinate me in the same way that the occasional clumsiness and seemingly impossible brilliance of the human body does. That's a train of thought for another time when rigorous analysis is possible, however. For now, I'll look for whatever brilliance and clumsiness I can find between the lanes and I'll carry on dancing.
A month ago, I was terrified of DOTA. By the time we sat down to engage jaunty RPS fan-site PC Gamer in wizardly battle, I was chomping at the bit. Though yet to play against any other humans, I’d learned the ropes thanks to Pip’s tuition, had a clear idea of what I needed to do, and was massively looking forwards to putting it into practice, win or lose.
Then everything fell apart. At the character selection screen I fumbled when I tried to press ‘S’, and the precious milliseconds lost meant one of the auld enemy picked Sniper before I could. While I’d done some rudimentary practice with another carry, Drow, in case just this happened, I’d put a lot more into Sniper. Both in terms of understanding his range, speed and appropriate shopping and in terms of being so committed to him that I’d even bought him a new outfit.
He looked so very RPSy, I’d thought. This was meant to be.
The loss of Steampunkish garments was secondary to the chill knowledge that Drow had less range and lacked the deadly super-shot ultimate skill I’d become accustomed to with Sniper. She might be the same character archetype, but she necessitated getting that little closer to the enemy and her animation speed was slower, making it harder for me to get into the last hitting groove. Clearly established Dota players instinctively adjust expectations for whichever character they used, but my muscle memory was as yet programmed for just one thing, and I suffered for it.
It didn’t help that I went into the game angry at being Drow, but spending most of the middle section of it dead and watching a respawn timer only made my mood blacker. I couldn’t find a safe range to shoot from, kept ending up too far forwards as a result, there was too much going on for my more experienced allies to answer my every “where should I be now?” question, and insult to injury was that I kept getting killed by PCG’s Sniper, shooting safely from further back than I could.
Quintessential Dota, I suspect.
Clearly, I should have bided time more rather than felt I should always be involved, and with a better understanding of the map could have pinged back and forth between where creeps were and enemies weren’t. Live (i.e. die a hell of a lot) and learn.
I wasn’t without use – took out a couple of towers, killed three or four enemies heroes – but man, I spent a lot of time waiting to resurrect.
Fortunately, the rest of my team were positively rampaging. It’s even faintly possible that the time and energy put into repeatedly killing me opened them and their towers up to slaughter – perhaps I was a useful sacrificial lamb.
Victory was bittersweet. I’d felt like a fifth wheel, and I couldn’t get over the resentment of not being ‘my’ character. But I felt so damn proud of my guys for winning on my behalf, especially similar total newbie Adam, and I felt I’d learned a whole lot more about Dota. Enough that I’ll certainly go back. Enough that I understand why Dota is as big as it is. Enough that I want to be much, much better at it.