I had a conversation with my friend Will the other night. He said something along the lines of Dota 2 not actually being "fun", that nobody really plays Dota to have fun.
Maybe he was joking a little bit, but it's an interesting thought — looking back on my 93 hours with Dota 2, I wouldn't exactly describe it as fun. I mean, yes, winning can be fun, getting kills can be fun. But most of the time, I'm not winning. Most of the time, I feel like I'm repeatedly getting my arse handed to me in gruelling no-win matches.
So why do I play? Because it's competitive. Because there's still a lot of strategy involved, even when there's absolutely no chance my team can win. Because it's a complex game that can be highly satisfying to figure out. Because it's a game where I'm always learning, which means it never feels boring. And, frankly, because playing Dota 2 makes me feel cool. If you play Dota 2, you can say that you play Dota 2. It's some King Nerd shit.
This Is Getting Nasty
When things get ugly in a game, you might hear the enemy team trash talk a little. This, unfortunately, is normal — though games like Dota 2 and League of Legends are famed in particular for having a "toxic" playerbase. You know what, though? I've rarely come across folks like that while playing Dota 2. Maybe I've just been lucky. Occasionally I'll see someone say "commend me" at the end of a match (do people who deserve to receive positive feedback for their behaviour in a match ever actually say these words?) What I have noticed, however, is that I totally shit-talk myself while playing. Because Dota is so hard to pick up, I end up constantly berating myself as I play, especially when things get heated.
When I play Dota, I always feel like I'm making a mistake. Maybe I'm not in the right position. Maybe I'm being too aggressive. Maybe I'm not being aggressive enough. Maybe I used the wrong ability. Or maybe I made my least-favourite mistake: I spent all match saving up for an item, purchased it, and then forgot to use it when I needed it. What's wrong with me?? (SEE, I JUST DID THE THING).
Maybe I'm just being paranoid. I never want to mess up and start feeding the other team, since that makes them more powerful. I become a liability for my entire team, since they have to suffer the consequences of my suckage. It's a stark contrast to other more recently released games, like Titanfall. Titanfall does everything in its power to make you feel awesome even if you're not very good. Can't kill the other players? That's cool bro. Here, kill some computer-controlled bots. Go do some cool parkour or something. Really, just don't don't sweat it, you're gonna get a mech in a few minutes and it will be rad.
But in Dota, if you're bad, it's hard not to get into a bad headspace about it. Every time I perform poorly I imagine someone on my team opening up the scoreboard and staring at my name. The only person without a kill, bringing down the entire team. In that moment, they probably consider disconnecting from the game rather than sitting through 45 minutes of torture. At best, my teammates will probably resent me for feeding, or at worst they will actively lash out at me. I can't really blame anyone, though. I definitely hate myself when I'm performing badly, too.
I hate spectating. Or, I don't hate doing it, I hate that it exists. I hate that other people can watch me play. Right now I'm bad enough that even I don't want to watch myself play, nevermind letting other people watch me.
But in Dota 2, you can't avoid having people spectate your matches. If a friend comes online and wants to play with me and I happen to be mid-match, they will probably just watch me play until my match ends. And I understand that decision! We're friends, right? Why wouldn't it be ok for them to watch me? But the entire situation always gives me performance anxiety. Plus, it's not as if we only play games with our close friends or whatever. If you're like me, you add people you may not know very well just to have a healthy list of people that can play with you at any given moment (Months later, you'll look through your friends list and repeatedly say, "who the fuck is that?")
Every Dota player is itching to tell you how to play the game.
Anyway, lately I've been having this uncomfortable thing happen where a semi-stranger watches my matches and then starts telling me how to play. I've never experienced backseat gaming as badly as I do while playing Dota 2. Everyone is itching to tell you how to play the game the "right" way. And again, sometimes it's useful! Let's not pretend like I have much of a clue when it comes to Dota 2. But sometimes spectating and backseat gaming can feel annoying, or even worse, humiliating.
I've thought long and hard about this, and the best solution I can come up with is a mode where the entire screen is black and nobody, friends or strangers alike, can see what is happening on the screen. Hell, in this mode, even I can't even see what's happening. It's just a black screen, and some Dota 2 sound effects. It might sound a little weird, but at least no one's embarrassed.
Alternately, I'd appreciate having the option to choose whether or not other people can watch me play. I'll accept whatever of these options Valve thinks is more reasonable.
Learning = Fun?
If Dota is a game of strategy, I don't actually know what the heck those strategies can be yet. On its most basic level, we're all trying to destroy the turrets and the ancients. But most of the time deciding stuff about coordination seems arbitrary. When is the best time to stop babysitting creeps and start getting aggressive? When is the best time to play defensively? I don't actually know the answer to these questions, especially given that it varies from hero to hero.
I know that some hero pairings work well together, but at this level, there are only certain heroes that I'm familiar with, so it's hard to pick characters that my team "needs" (quotation marks because I'm not sure I know what that means most of the time).
Part of the problem, I think, is that I still don't always know what I don't know. Contrast this with, say, playing a fighting game. In a fighting game, I might run into a situation where I can't actually input a combo, but I still understand how it works. In Dota, it often feels like I'm flying blind, occasionally picking up bits of wisdom that I would have had no way of discovering on my own.
Don't get me wrong, though. Dota 2 can be frustrating, but I'm enjoying how much complexity the game has to offer. I tried Captain's Draft for the first time last night — that mode where a team captain chooses the heroes for your team — and it was something else. My team was coordinating on everything from what items we should buy to when certain attacks should hit. I know that's how you're "supposed" to play the game, but I'd have never picked up on some of this knowledge on my own. Take for example, putting up wards — the items which let you safely monitor areas on the map. I knew they were a good idea: wards grant my team more visibility of the map. But I didn't know that there are traditional spots where people expect wards to go, not until someone told me what the locations were.
I guess I'm going to keep playing and hope for the best — hands-on experience has to be a good learning experience, right?
Here's something I came across that stuck with me. It's not about Dota 2 — in fact, it's coming from someone over at Riot Games in response to a problematic League of Legends player. It's something that I think both Dota and League players alike should read:
You're already a step ahead by asking for help. But the trick here will be how you follow through.
If you're genuinely interested in improving then you need to take a step back and really reflect on why you play League of Legends or any other competitive online game for that matter.
Seriously ask yourself: "Am I even having fun?" Be honest.
To me, it sounds like you're not right now. Even though you admit to it, I bet you don't enjoy calling people "autstic ****s" in game. That sounds incredibly taxing and draining to get so worked up in every game you play.
Chances are, if you're not having fun now; you were at some point. You have A LOT of games played since you started in November 2010. You've been through the irelia nerfs, the UI changes, the server instability, the OP Win Xiao release, S1, S2, and S3 championships and a great many more.
If you're not having fun then reflect to figure out why. Why did you come to League in the first place? Do you have a favourite champion? You love competition? The strats and plays? Maybe an LCS Player or Streamer you look up to and want to mimic?
From what you told me, it sounds like you enjoy winning. And you HATE losing. That's pretty cool. Who doesn't hate losing? If you're going to approach League from that angle, then you need to have reasonable expectations. You need to be honest with yourself.
First thing to keep in mind: You win some. You lose some.
That needs to be your new motto.
If you really think about it like this and then you reflect on your last month or so of games there is only one conclusion. The biggest obstacle in your League of Legends ranked matches is yourself. You're not giving the benefit of the doubt to your team mates. You're not understanding that everyone is flawed. You're not acknowledging that people are inherently good and want to do good.
You can try to "stop committing toxic behaviour", but if you're not going to get at the core philosophical reasons that fuel that toxic behaviour you will never succeed.
What Is This Game Even Doing To Me?
So there's this restaurant in San Francisco that I'd been meaning to go to for months. Every time I tried dropping by, the place was full or something came up. So after many failed attempts, I finally just made reservations for a date night with my girlfriend. I figured, hey, we've both been really stressed lately, and we haven't seen each other in a while, so maybe going out and having a nice dinner would be good for us. Just go out and have a pleasant night, you know? The entire thing was a Reasonably Sized Deal.
An hour before my reservation, I brilliantly decided that it would be a good idea to play some Dota. So I started up a match, only to have half my team disconnect within five minutes. Great! Needless to say, my team didn't do so well against a full enemy team.
During this match, I played as Tiny for the first time — that golem-like creature that hobbles around everywhere. Since I couldn't really make a push by myself, I opted to dutifully farm the enemy creeps for a while. The more experience I gained doing this, the bulkier and more menacing Tiny became. I'd never seen something like that in Dota before. Tiny, by far, has been the most gratifying Dota hero I've ever played: you can watch yourself become more powerful as the game progresses.
Still, regardless of how mesmerising it was watching Tiny transform, I was at something like 0-5. That's...not so great. Eventually, though, I raised enough money to purchase Aghanim's Scepter — which turned me into a beast that could carry around an entire tree with one hand. This item allowed me to single-handedly start turning things around — at one point, I wrecked the entire enemy team by myself. My score became something like 8-5 within minutes. It was amazing. Honestly, I've never had as much fun as I did during this match with Tiny.
...and then I noticed I had like ten minutes left before I had to leave for my date. I figured that, even if I was a powerhouse on my own, being able to destroy the enemy's ancient would probably take at least 25 minutes. So I sat there and seriously thought about how I could make this work. I've made tough situations work before — this one time, my internet crapped out on me mid-match. So I tethered my computer to my mobile phone and kept playing Dota 2 that way. This new situation could probably be solved with some creativity, too, right?
I figured that maybe I could tell my girlfriend to go on without me. I mean, I just needed to finish this one match. That would be ok, right? Hey honey, I'm not at dinner right now because I'm playing a stupid video game. I don't know how long I'll be, but please don't be mad at me. I can't have a disconnect on my profile, baby!!
I ended up quitting the match anyway. But the entire taxi ride to the restaurant, and for the first 15 minutes of the date, I couldn't help but think about that match — how much fun it had been, and how guilty I felt for abandoning my team. I think I even "jokingly" told my girlfriend how sad I was that I disconnected from the match.
Dota 2, what have you done to me?