This is the first part in a new series looking at contemporary multiplayer gaming and the e-sports phenomenon.
Since Steam’s inception, just a handful of marvellous gems have topped the Steam Stats page. Games like Counter-Strike, Team Fortress 2 and Sid Meier’s Civilization V have earned accolades, snared players in their thousands, and then hovered around the 50,000 mark. For Valve’s Dota 2, now just wrapping its beta period, that figure currently sits at 500,000 concurrent users (not including China and South Korea). Five hundred thousand!
More users play Dota 2 simultaneously than the nine other ranked games combined and it is only going up from there. Why?
Despite the growing popularity of Dota 2, there are still many people on the outside who peer in on those multiplayer matches and just don't understand what they're seeing. Is it a real-time strategy game? Is it like an episodic form of a MMO? Is it something entirely new? Or something old and misunderstood? A little of all of these things, and I think that's part of why it is so popular: it's a broad recipe.
In essence, ARTS stands for Arena Real-Time Strategy game, which is a brief description of the elements of this offshoot of the strategy genre. Dota 2 is a team-based multiplayer game that revolves around the concept of tri-lane tug-of-war style gameplay. In short: a team of five players choose specific heroes to overcome their five-strong foes on the other side of the map. Automatic waves of minions called "creeps" spawn consistently to help these heroes push their respective lanes; which are roads that lead up to the enemy base. Each hero has a selection of four abilities to both work cooperatively with one another as well as to overcome their foes through a variety of spells or direct physical attacks. Destruction of tiered defensive towers on these "roads", as well the death of your foes, earns you a reward of gold to which you can purchase items to further bolster your character's capabilities. Fairly straightforward, right?
Though the concept is simple, the amount of knowledge about the game, the mechanics, each heroes' capabilities, limitations, exceptions, and strengths can be overwhelming. Arguably, it's this almanac of knowledge that provides much of the appeal of playing. There's so much to know. Dota is multileveled in its difficulty and understanding of that difficulty. It is a delicious learning curve, and it's that curve which grips players from their first moments. Initially, you learn how to lane; a beginning phase of tiptoeing near foes to hit creeps (known as farming). Later on, ganking (grouping up with allies to jump on foes who are away from their team) becomes an important part in gaining an advantage over your foes, experience and gold-wise. Later in the game, pushing and full team engagements become a hectic, but exhilarating sequence of pulling off combinations of abilties, strategy and ultimately: communication. This is only an outline of how each match progresses without going into of techniques and roles within these phases, but the point is: this is a game which rewards persistence. Like the best games, the basics are easily grasped, while the mastery of far off, thanks to the vast array of possibilities its rules create.
Terms such as "stacking" and "pulling jungle creeps", "initiation" and "counter-initiation" and "denying your own creeps" all refer to the tiny sets of actions you can master as you play, and each helps you earn small advantages during these sections of each match that could lead to large victories. Regardless of how much you know about the game, the overall appeal of Dota 2 and ARTS/MOBA games in general is the feeling of coming together with friends or strangers and working towards a common goal of overcoming adversity and executing what you know in a real and challenging setting. For players in this genre, no other game type can invoke that feeling of achievement where you spent 20 to 30 minutes farming, ganking and the result of coming out of a huge 5 vs. 5 hero fight with you pushing straight through the middle path into their base to destroy their Ancient (final base establishment to defeat your opponents). That sense of victory is another reason why Dota 2 is so big. But we'll come back to that.
Valve’s dedication to keeping Dota 2 just as similar to Defense of the Ancients - the original Warcraft mode on which it is based - and to their enhancement and facilitation of the contemporary shift of competitive games into eSports, is what makes them and their players not just fans of the game, but devotees. Valve are providing their players with a deeply featured service, and that makes playing the game - committing to it long-term - all the easier.
While Dota 2 remains, mostly, unchanged as DotA, the features the client has to offer are formidable, and perhaps offer some insight into how the game has grasped such a huge and persistent playerbase. For new users logging into the client for the first-time, they are offered more than just the game; they are given an array of tools to enjoy Dota 2 on any level of interest: spectating, matchmaking with the A.I or other players, finding a game to suit their skills. In addition, features are offered for newcomers easing them into the series of depths that is of Dota 2’s difficulty such as the tutorial areas, in-game specific hero and item guides and a table of information for all the heroes and items. The utility of offering such a diverse base of areas for the user to engage with allows them to be as playful or serious as they want to be. In terms of spectating, a person can watch a friend's match with a small two-minute delay, directly in-game and can see every cursor and camera movement of the friend, their vision and what menus they access.
It's almost as if you were at home with your friend watching him or her play! For tournament matches, you can hear the shoutcasters drumming up excitement directly within the client, offering easy-to-read in-game stats of the players' heroes net worth, experience gains and various important graphs to help you better understand the situation and match. It's these fine touches that keep players returning and relying on the Dota 2 client for all of their interest in eSports and Dota 2. For users disinterested in eSports, the matchmaking system is greatly diversified. Ranging from solo queue (where you queue up only with other non-partied strangers) to specific regions and matchmaking preferences (All Random – where all the heroes are randomly chosen, Random Draft, Captain's Mode, All Pick and Least Picked) a mode can be found for anyone depending on how dedicated they are to the game.
The fine balance between maintaining the unique quirks of Defense of the Ancients back when it was a custom game in WarCraft III, to updating its visuals and demonstration of abilities is a slow and steady process for Valve. Bugs that were once exploited during the game also emerged new strategies and dimensions to the original custom game and for some heroes. Strategies such as stacking the jungle creeps (so that more would spawn in one area, allowing a player to farm a specific camp faster and with a better reward) were once exploitation of the WarCraft III engine but then later became an integral part of the game and rectified to be more consistent and balanced. This is one of the foundational innovations of DotA and Dota 2, where interesting mishaps of interaction between heroes, due to how the WarCraft III engine mishandled certain interactions, become part of the game and improved for consistency. This same effect of community finding and exploitation is replicated in Dota 2, sometimes unintentionally, but also creating new strategies that were never once intended or could be replicated in the original DotA. A strong example of this is when professional player Dendi and the Pudge Hook/Chen combination was publicly shown, where, if coordinated exactly right, the hero Pudge can hook another hero to him as he is getting teleported back to base thanks to Chen's ability (see video below):
Within that video are two bugs, one that will be repaired and the other offers an incredible combination that would require a lot of effort to pull off. Less fantastical bugs such as a type in the range of the Illuminate ability from the hero: Keeper of the Light seemed imbalanced, but instead of immediately rectifying the issue, developers started seeing the worth of giving such range to the ability and how much it impacted certain phases of the game. Balance remains a constant battle as the game aims to make all heroes viable working with one another rather than self-completing in their array of abilities. In keeping with their dedication to the original custom game, Valve hired IceFrog, the original developer of DotA back in 2005 (since the departure of Steve Freak), as their lead game designer. An assurance to long-time fans that the game would be recreated properly and also extended in the same tradition and goals that everyone has been familiar with since the early 2000s.
Although Dota 2 honors its past, Valve looks to the future of competitive gaming to inform how the game should grow. Despite the company only hosting one major event a year; The International, their constant progress towards creating a constant flow of earnings to tournament organizers and teams is unlike any other. Cosmetic items such as team pennants, couriers created by the team organizations themselves, and tournament tickets to be able to watch exclusive tournament broadcasts within the Dota 2 client are sold for real money to fans in the virtual store. These virtual items create revenue for the team and an underground financial livelihood to help support organizations getting interested in Dota 2. For the customers who buy some of these items, they may be rewarded during broadcasts of their favourite players if they equip their pennants or bought an exclusive tournament ticket, earning them a chance to earn more items through randomized item drops. These forms of fundraising are also what raised the prize-pool of the international tournament: The International to a whopping 2.8 million dollars thanks to ideas such as the interactive compendium.
The compendium is a great display of both the amount of users who are generally interested in eSports but are also looking to support it. Valve has hit a fine line of finding rewards that appeal to the greater mass of their userbase and propelling funding of eSports major prizes through the players. Many tournament organizations rely on the ticket sales made through the Dota 2 store to support their causes and further propel opportunity for professional players. Instead of being at the forefront of funding entire seasons for their game, Valve aims to unify their playerbase with their client as an outlet to advertise both legitimate competitions and the broadcasters who aim to take eSports to an even higher professional level of earnings and marketable stature. Common players are starting to see how exciting competitive matches are and are getting behind it for the right reasons. Valve is a big part of that reason.
If eSports gains more and more popularity, so will interest in these games. That seems to be happening. Newcomers are starting to see the hype of each match, regardless of how unfamiliar they are with the game names and faces, because the right stories are being shown: the major cash prize, the epic tales of defeat and comebacks, the storylines of individual players and how far they've come and prepared for these matches. People are seeing an athleticism not in terms of physical achievement or gain, but in determination and dedication to perfecting their strategy, ability to perform and to outplay their foes. The height of these competitions is an adrenaline rush for viewers and fans of the game. eSports is marketing and with good marketing comes a new wave of curious folks. If you are going to ask why Dota 2 is so popular, you might as well ask why any sport is popular, and why that sport perpetuates. Football doesn't get superceded and abandoned, it moves from generation to generation. Something similar is true here.
New people are getting interested all the time. For these newer players, Valve offers a variety of assistance in understanding the mechanics of Dota 2 through a structured tutorial system and limited hero pool mode (20 easy-to-understand heros are selected from a pool of over 100 for newcomers to learn and play) as well as in-game Dota 2 hero guides that you can subscribe and use directly in the game. Additionally, Valve has future modes coming such as mentoring, where more experienced players can mentor others similar to how they do in Team Fortress 2 as well as a last-hit single player mode where players can practice their “last-hitting”. It is mastering the skills of this game - and winning with the skills you've learned - that bring players their greatest pleasure.
Sadly, the ecology of ARTS games seems to attract trolls and aggressive players. Teaching these players to behave, while also rewarding people for cooperative play and good behavior, can be a finicky procedure. It's perhaps a measure of DOTA 2's understanding of this problem that it has retained players in spite of some anti-social atmospheres. In Dota 2, players are punished for aggressive language, trolling, abandoning matches early and also for failing to ready up for their match. Set punishments range according to the infraction: abusive language can have the player muted up to a week. Failing to ready up can be a 2-minute lock-out from queuing against for matches, while abandoning matches can lead up to a low-priority queue where one essentially plays for no points or earnings and are against other punished users. These steps in toning down the impulsive negative attitudes is just the starting point for Valve as they ramp up development of these details.
Dota 2's size on Steam is also, of course, partly down to it being free. The genre that the original Dota inspired has proven this model across several games, and it is one of the most successful approaches to sustaining large multiplayer populations. (To raise the sport analogy again, if you have the equipment available, then anyone can play. You don't have to pay to get in through the sportsfield gate.) As the game maintains its free-to-play status, so do the amount of people who consider and try the game out. Valve's dice roll is its monetary system in which everything that is a part of the game is provided automatically: no real-money purchasing of buffs or elements, heroes to play or anything beyond cosmetics. Unlike in Team Fortress 2 where players can purchase weapons to offer more variability in play, all of Dota 2's items are purely for aesthetic purposes, yet generate enough for community members to make a living off of it. Nearly all aesthetics in the shop are made by community members and earn a cut of the pay from Valve for each purchase. The idea of the community building off each other through either financially supporting eSports or custom item workshop artists further propels the omnipresent role of Valve and their outreach to all forms of users who access and use the workshop. Valve makes the game a fair playing field for all users, no matter how deep their pockets are, emphasizing just how free it is to play Dota 2.
The root of DOTA 2's enormity, however, is perhaps due to the game, and the genre, already commanding an enduring hardcore audience. Without the hardcore to champion and sustain a game like this, it has nothing. During the early 2000s, Defense of the Ancient was amongst the most popular games to be played around the world, and part of Valve's brilliance was in identifying that this was a vast, unseen community that required a well-funded developmental core to step in and make it whole. What Brood War was to the Koreans in terms of competitions, was rivaled by China’s adoration for Dota and WarCraft III.
This, perhaps, is the true answer: it is that passion for the game that has truly made it the biggest game on Steam. Without people, without absolutely devotees, no game like this could ever reach such heights. This is no casual game, after all. Valve understood that. Just as they did with Counter-Strike, and just as they likely will with other games.
Though Dota 2 has a late-start in this new global market compared to other strategy games, its approach and strategy from a business standpoint and a design perspective is careful and steady. It is, like so many games that evolve over time, something that is less like a product, and more like a series of events: were you there when X happened? It's a tale you'll tell other DOTA 2 players, if not your grandchildren. With heroes still left to port over and Valve continuing to churn out great ideas to ease players into the game, Valve is looking at a very good year ahead.
So too are DOTA 2 players. However many millions of them there may soon be.