Art by Sam Woolley
"I wanted a game that hated me." That was how Sean Plott, also known as "Day9" in the professional gaming world, described the allure of Dota 2. Plott had made a name for himself in the days of StarCraft, where he taught players new and old how to better themselves at the strategy game. Now, he's the student again, trying to wrap his head around a game that's popularity is rivaled only by its vast and complicated intricacies.
Launched in full release in 2013, Dota 2 is the spiritual successor to a mod for WarCraft III, a standalone game produced by Valve that has become one of the titans in the esports scene. Pitting two teams of five players against each other, the goal is simple: destroy the enemy's ancient to win. How that plays out is what makes Dota interesting. The myriad of different heroes players can utilise and the tactics they can employ to win stacks up, creating layer-upon-layer of theory and strategy.
Like chess, you can know in what manner a knight moves, but add on the layers of castling, different opening moves and schools of thought, and the concepts go well beyond the surface.
Plott is being led through the gauntlet that is Dota 101 by Kevin "Purge" Godec, the writer of "Welcome To Dota, You Suck." The pair have started a web series called "Day9 Learns Dota," in which Godec teaches Plott everything there is to know about the game. Godec teaches his pupil basic concepts of Dota — laning, farming, itemization and mechanics — and introduces him to high-level concepts like power curves and hero manipulation.
Both are seasoned educators in the gaming world: Plott's StarCraft Dailies is still one of the most lauded StarCraft video series around, and Godec's "Welcome To Dota," alongside his "weatherman" segments and newbie streams at The International, have helped break down high-level Dota for years. The two have a charming chemistry, with Godec playing the role of the stoic but patient master and Plott being the eager and gregarious apprentice.
"I think that there is a tremendous pressure that people feel to not look stupid when they're playing games, and most of what I do when I am playing Dota is look dumb," said Plott. "I have moments of brilliance, moments of horribleness, but that's ok. It's all totally ok, because that's what it means to try to get good at something. So that is the big sentiment I want people to take from this show, that it is totally ok to be shitty at something, but to take it seriously and to openly struggle, and fail and succeed."
Each week, these two sit down for a session, with Godec leading Plott through another concept. It's not pandering and it doesn't hand-hold, but it allows viewers to learn the intricacies of one of esports' most intimidating games, and reminds you that it's ok to be bad at something; It's the first step towards being kind-of good at something.
There is no question that Dota 2 is a difficult game to learn. It's steeped in over a decade of design decisions and fraught with nuance built up since developer IceFrog took over the original Defence of the Ancients in 2005. Learning the lingo is one thing, memorising the names and abilities of the 117 playable heroes and maintaining a mental catalogue of strategies, play styles, and item builds is something else entirely. Imagine dropping a 700-page NFL playbook into the lap of someone who's never seen a football game before, and you'll start to understand what it feels like to be a Dota newcomer.
Purge breaks down the concept of time-to-kill for a creep, to illustrate the importance of timing attacks in lane.
The good news is that the game's difficulty and nuance doesn't preclude beginners from having fun. "Honestly, I was dead surprised that within two or three games, I was able to have a shitload of fun," said Plott. "I didn't know anything, and I was really surprised why everyone always called the game so hard. I think that there is a lot to know, but it's extremely easy to have a blast in the game. Basically immediately."
The effectiveness of Plott and Godec's sessions comes from their ability to recognising the needs of their audience. They explain concepts and then reinforce them with examples, using visual aids along the way. Plott is then tested to gauge his level of retention, which tells Godec what subjects could use reinforcement and how the course should be shaped moving forward.
In essence, that's what this series is: a course. These are the two men writing Dota 101, the intro class for a difficult major. In building the roadmap for the series, Godec made sure that he wouldn't be overloading Plott with information that wouldn't help him in the here and now. Knowing armour and magic resistance stats is "min-maxing," or optimising play to the most minute detail, according to Godec, whereas learning the basics of how to get gold and kill enemy players is much more important.
Watch the clip below, and see how Godec walks Plott through a series of starting item choices. He's put up several different starting item builds as a lead-in to his lesson for the week, and asks Plott to analyse them. Notice he never says that there's anything right or wrong about the builds, just that he wants to know if anything jumps out. Plott, and by proxy the viewer, is given the chance to draw on the weeks of knowledge he's already received and make his own conclusions.
"He wants me to teach him how to figure things out himself, which I think is really important, because if you watch most guides for a hero, it would be like, 'this is exactly how you should play Doombringer,'" said Godec. "'You should be getting this skill build, you should be getting this item build, you should play in this sort of way around the game, these are the ways you might alter your gameplay a little bit.' But it's all answers, it's not really developing that stuff for yourself. So that's the framework for all the episodes we write, is that we're trying to lay a good groundwork."
"I think the biggest thing is that I understand what it is that I want to learn, and how it is that I want to learn," said Plott. "That I think is probably my biggest frustration with all of the material that I've seen from Dota before this series began. All the videos that I would see out there were all the educational content or materials or posts... they were things that would make sense to someone who already got it. They were not things that would help a player along a path to getting it."
Godec distills information, reducing heroes like Ogre Magi to attributes. Ogre has many different aspects to what he does, and on any given day, you could hear him described as a roamer, ganker, support, or walking personification of a slot machine. For Godec and Plott's purposes, Ogre is distilled to Bloodlust; Ogre's greatest boon is the amplification he gives to your team. From that basic understanding, Godec can start to expand his lesson outward.
When getting into the more complex stuff, the key for Godec is to make sure that Plott understands the why of what he's learning more than the how. "It's really important, because the average player that is high MMR [matchmaking rating] doesn't fully understand why they know what they know," said Godec.
"I find myself finding that as well when I'm writing guides. You have to break down that logic and then write a guide about it. It's quite fun, because it feels like undeveloped territory. I'm sure lots of other people have sat down and done this personally, but to do it yourself it's very enjoyable. It feels like you're discovering something, you're understanding why people do this rather than just knowing that you should."
For example, a well-known intricacy among Dota players who have been playing long enough is the concept of tread swapping. A popular item in Dota 2 is Power Treads, boots that let you run faster and boost some of your attributes.
You can change which attributes it boosts by toggling the item — giving you extra health, attack speed and armour, or mana for casting spells — by swapping through the three main attributes of Strength, Agility and Intelligence. Most players leave it on Strength, as it (usually) defaults to that. Here, Godec breaks down why swapping treads around is important, something that's as useful for a high-level player as it is for a newbie like Plott:
The equations and numbers are intimidating, but Godec breaks it down simply and explains the process behind tread swapping. If you swap your treads to Intelligence, you get to cast more spells. If you swap your treads to a certain attribute, it will raise or lower your maximum mana — in doing so, you can trick the game into thinking you have a certain per cent of mana, and gain more back than intended.
If you're new to Dota and need to re-read that a few times, that's fine. These are high-level concepts, built out of the small intricacies found by players trying to endlessly optimise their play. What's noteworthy is that this is all mechanical to players like Godec, who have been involved in the game for a long time.
For Plott, he identifies it in the video simply: "I used to not care about this stuff, until I realised it let me cast [my spells] a lot more." Bridging the gap of knowledge, identifying not just the "what" but the "why," means you're understanding the thought process rather than just the end result.
This kind of work is important to growth of esports because it grabs players and pulls them in. Instead of just forcing knowledge down the viewers' throats, Godec and Plott invite them to really dive into the mechanics of the game and understand it from the inside out. This is a great way to chip away at the idea that Dota is impenetrable to outsiders, and Plott's presence as the willing student who isn't afraid to stumble along the way makes the videos inviting.
These videos can be just as useful to spectators as they are players. If playing Dota seems intimidating, you should try watching a match. Most people's first impression of Dota is that it is a foreign language, a visual mess that can only be vaguely deciphered by those with even a robust knowledge of video games.
Esports broadcasts constantly struggle with trying to convey the information and host an entertaining broadcast while not alienating the increasingly broad audience it has to speak to. The difficulties with compromising and finding middle ground is a struggle that Godec says has existed since the early days of Dota 2.
"So back then everybody was trying really hard to come off as saying the right things, being high-skilled, getting respect that way because they knew it affected their careers," said Godec. "So everybody continues on this, you don't want to say something that's really basic because then everybody's like, 'Oh he's just saying something basic because that's his level of understanding.' But being a broadcaster, it is a harder thing to balance.
"Once I started doing the newbie stream, it opened my brain a little bit more to this. Because you spend so many years talking about as high-level stuff as you can and skirting the basics. Then you remember that 20 per cent of your viewers are below — actually it's more like 30 to 40 per cent of your viewers — are below [2000 matchmaking rating]. Some of them are also gonna be completely brand new to the game, don't even understand it, so covering those super-basics is really important, and I really think more broadcasters need to do it once in a while."
Plott brings up a more interesting point. Whereas Godec, as the teacher, wants broadcasters to explain a little more, the student doesn't want broadcasts like The International to appeal to the lowest-common denominator. To exhibit his point, he brings up American football.
Think for a moment about the rules of American football. What are downs? What's an onside kick? What's a blitz? Delve just a little bit deeper, and suddenly you get into things like rout trees, zone coverage, and myriad formations. The difference between football and Dota is less about complexity and more about a lack of ingrained knowledge, what Plott describes as a "cultural stepping stone." You watch the NFL every week with your family, absorbing the ins and outs. American football is a part of American culture, Dota is not.
"I do think that any game that is legitimately interesting and compelling requires some heavy lifting to get it, just by virtue of being interesting," said Plott. "It takes some time to get there. Maybe the rules are complicated, and they will take time to learn the rules. Maybe the strategy is complicated, so it will take some time to explain the strategy enough to where someone can appreciate it, but it will just take some time. I think that it's easy to say traditional sports don't have this, but also it's completely incorrect, because all traditional sports, if you view them as games you've never heard of, they're fucking insane man."
People like Plott and Godec, who are building up the knowledge base and creating pathways for people to start seeing Dota as even a little less daunting, have the potential to make esports approachable for everyone. In Godec's view, his job is not to train the next generation of esports pros, but to grow the base of casual players and spectators.
In the same manner that Godec is laying the groundwork of Dota for Plott, both of them are establishing a foundation for hundreds or thousands to get involved in Dota, and to overcome their fear of playing.
That all begins with Plott showing people that it's possible to dive headfirst into the game and learn as you go. The most important lesson Plott and Godec can teach anyone who is hesitant to engage with the game is that the first and most important step is admitting they know nothing and be unafraid to struggle. Welcome to Dota, you suck, and that's ok.