I love competition. Always have. I love the feeling of winning, and hate the pain of losing. At school I played cricket, soccer, rugby, basketball, tennis and more besides. Most of these things I did badly. Some of them, I did OK. I don’t do any of them any more. But the love of competition hasn’t left me.
Now, I choose to compete electronically. The day a friend took me to a LAN cafe and introduced me to Counter-Strike, back in 1999, my world changed. Not long after my internet connection was good enough to play Starcraft on Battle.net. Next came Warcraft 3. Command and Conquer: Generals, Quake 3, Battlefield, COD. Then I was introduced to the king of them all. I was taught what ‘DOTA' stood for.
I learned to play at LAN parties with friends. Eventually we took things online, where we lost, a lot. I have now played DOTA and the other titles it spawned for close to 10 years.
The friends I play with have come and gone. Some of the hardcore from the early days have dropped off. Some of those who learned with me still play - and are great at the game. We recruited friends we found in other online realms: an old WoW guild master, a Starcraft buddy. They brought their friends, we built our little community. We play one or two games a night, most nights.
Recently my colleagues told me that if I had worked a minimum wage job for all the hours I have played DOTA 2, I would be $20,000 richer. I have spent a lot of time competing. I think that people who love competitive sports -- who play weekend rugby at a local club, or soccer at lunch with the guys from work -- I think that they would understand this. The feeling of camaraderie, the friendships you build -- the desire to win and the feeling when you do. If you could do this all the time, why wouldn’t you?
Well, I’m starting to think of a couple reasons.
The DOTA community is toxic. Valve has done a great deal to try to improve it, to weed out the trolls or discourage those who treat others badly, but it hasn’t worked.
Valve has built a system that tries to punish the worst offenders. Players ‘report’ anyone they find abusive, or tries to ruin the game for others. Those players are punished the only way the game can -- they are forced to play in a different matchmaking pool, filled only with other abusers.
What doesn’t the system deal with? Bullying, for one. If someone doesn’t swear at you, or deliberately try to throw the game, there’s not much you can do.
Recently I left a game halfway through, risked a black mark against my name for ‘abandoning’, because I couldn’t take the abuse any longer. Most days I’m strong enough to hit mute and keep playing. This game? I knew I was in bad form. I knew I wasn’t playing my best. I made plenty of mistakes and my team called me on them. They asked me what I was doing. They begged me to stop playing the game. Or to buy boots, or to click the right buttons at the right time, like it was that simple. They yelled at me and cursed at me and I told my friend I’d see him later, and left.
Bless him for understanding. For holding back his own criticisms. He knew I was having a bad day and playing like crap, and he understood that he didn’t need to remind me. He likes to win as much as I do, and I’m sure he was as frustrated by my performance.
What makes this environment so toxic? Why are team sports -- by contrast -- considered to build long-lasting friendships and valuable skills? Why they are viewed so positively, when DOTA (and eSports in general) has such a bad reputation? More importantly, what could be done to fix it? I lay in bed that night, unable to sleep, asking myself these questions.
I thought about how I learned to play DOTA. It’s not like I took lessons. I played a bunch of games with different heroes until I started to understand how they worked. I brought skills I had learned in Warcraft 3 and other RTS games with me I suppose. I knew some of the basics and my knowledge of the game grew from there.
But I never trained in any of this stuff. Neither did most other players.
If you can get better at DOTA just by playing it for thousands of hours, then you’ll get better. But that doesn’t work for everyone. You wouldn’t expect to become a great soccer player just by playing a game a day, or a great guitarist solely by playing shows.
In my head, it started to click. I was looking at DOTA all wrong.
The schedule for all the sports I played as a kid was generally an afternoon or two of practice, and one game on a Saturday, each week. In DOTA I do no practice and have game day twice a night all week. When I win, that’s the best feeling ever. But when I lose, there’s nowhere to turn.
If I’m not playing with four friends, my teammates don’t know me, so they don’t care about supporting me. They’re after the same high I’m chasing, and if they see me preventing them from achieving it, I’ll get the blame. Add to this internet anonymity, and you start to see unpleasant results.
But the internet doesn’t have to foster hate. Neither does online gaming. Some of my best online gaming experiences have been in cooperative games. Journey is praised because (among other things) it took out the communication tools to attack someone else. I love Diablo because I’ve only ever played with friends. World of Warcraft was amazing because it was so complicated you had to join a guild to get the most out of the game.
Wait a second, a guild? People building a network of friends in-game. People with similar interests, in a safe(r) environment. An environment where you challenge yourselves and practice and play and improve at the game you love. You’re a team, and you win and lose together. It’s not a perfect system, but I will cherish those memories and those friendships a lot longer than I will a game of DOTA where I got a great score, but played in a team of people I had never met.
Where are the guilds in DOTA? Why are teams only of five people and only for professionals? Where are the friendly leagues? Where is a team of people based in my city? I want to join a group of players that have my skills and my goals and my interests, I want to bond with them and I want to improve.
And I want to be able to do that in the DOTA 2 client.
Valve must build a community that nurtures new players and builds friendships through the game, the same way traditional sports have done for decades. Like gaming, sports compete for their audience. If DOTA wants to survive, if it wants to build a long-term place for itself alongside League of Legends, or Call of Duty, or Starcraft, it needs to build a community who won’t leave for the latest release in another genre.
Having friends to play with, or leagues to compete in, that’s one thing. But what do I do if I want to practice and improve?
DOTA has basic skills, just like any sport. People learn how to move: they practice juking, they practice staying in range of experience and out of range of enemies. Next, we learn to last hit, to deny, to stack camps and maximise farm. We learn where to place wards, how to initiate, how to support, how to carry. Finally, we can learn the intricacies of all the individual heroes. What are there, 100? A hell of a lot to learn on your own.
But a bit of last hitting practice one night a week? A drill to improve your reactions when you’re trying to avoid a gank? What about a set play with some friends? These things should be available to those who want to learn. And again, they should be available in the client.
Clearly, Valve agrees with me on some level. They just announced the Workshop Tools Alpha, which adds modding tools to allow developers to build custom maps. It’s a feature that has been demanded for years, and for a game born of the Warcraft 3 mod scene, it’s easy to see why.
Practice maps did exist in DOTA 1. Now, developers can build them again, and they can build ‘fun’ maps alongside them. They can build whatever they want. But more importantly, if Valve chooses to, those map makers will have access to a revenue stream.
Valve have long talked about wanting to involve more than just artists making hats in the revenue model for DOTA 2. Allowing the sale and purchase of maps might take a bit of getting used to, but it would continue to build the economy and player investment in the game. For DOTA to thrive, Valve has to do exactly that.
Let people quit whining about matchmaking and ELO hell. Instead, allow them to run drills and learn solid skills that will improve the way they play the game. Or, give them party maps and tower defences. Not everyone wants to end up a pro player, or to practice at a game they play for fun. I can understand that. I just want the choice.
I want an eSport where I can play with people mature enough to respect their teammates and their opponents. Where we can learn together, win together, and lose together. And I don’t want to be limited by the one or two real world friends I bring online with me.
Build me a real community, where people care for one another; where people aren’t so angry and obsessed with winning.
It’s not about whether you win or lose, it’s about how you play the game. I heard that a lot when I was playing sport as a kid. Why should that be forgotten online?