Posted by: markfender | August 13, 2013

A Noob Watches The International

DOTA 2’s International 3 was last week.

International-3-AnnouncementI stumbled across it by accident. Steam was apparently downloading a patch for DOTA 2 which killed my internet connection. Being annoyed, I decided to load up DOTA 2 again to see what the hell was going on. Only to find that I had tuned into the first day of The International.

I know next to nothing about DOTA 2. It’s a MOBA, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game. Two teams of five each control a Hero who has access to various powers and items to make themselves killing machines. There are three lanes on the map guarded by towers. The goal of the game is to level up your Hero until they’re strong enough to destroy all the towers and advance into the opponent’s base and destroy their headquarter building. You are aided by creeps, which are tiny little monsters that spawn at regular intervals. They run down the lanes until they run into a tower, another hero, or an enemy creep group. Then, they attack until they die or the thing they ran into dies. And of course, there’s the enemy heroes who are trying to stop you from you righteous task of destroying their base.

What makes this game so complex is there are over a hundred different heroes to choose from, each with their own powers. That creates a strategic environment, where you need to know what powers everyone is bringing to the table and how to deal with them/use them effectively. Plus, there’s tons of items that will tweak your stats in lots of different ways, maintaining map vision, claiming runes, and all sorts of fiddly little things that require a great depth of knowledge in order to pull off. I do not know any of these things. DOTA 2 has been in beta for two years before finally being released in July. During that time, I managed to procure a beta key (not a difficult feat), but I gave up after attempting a few bot matches and learning that I suck at last hitting – in order to gain gold and experience from your kills, you need to be the last person to hit the enemy. Still, the genre’s popularity has kept me sort of interested and the idea of the game appeals to me more so than a straight real-time strategy game does.

The International 3 is DOTA 2’s big championship. The prize pool was over $2 million, which is apparently the largest prize pool offered in esports ever. It features 16 teams of professional players competing in a bracket system. Since I managed to stumble across the start of the event, I thought it might be interesting to watch it, if only to try to figure out some of the nuances of the game and try to grasp why people seem to love this game.

I’ve written before about the hurdles that esports have to overcome. Valve and DOTA 2 have done a lot to address my complaints. For one, they allow you to watch the games in the actual game client, with the commentator’s audio. There’s also various camera options available so you can follow the commentator’s camera, follow one particular Hero, or even just move the camera yourself. I ended up not watching any of these games in the actual game’s browser because I was mostly watching matches while working and alt-tabbing doesn’t work that well for that. Likewise, there were some audio issues the first day with the in-game matches. Plus, you missed out on the other work Valve was doing in between matches.

One of the things that Valve did was hire a professional video production team, complete with van. This allowed the panel in between matches to have a higher degree of professionalism than I’ve seen previously. This also let them cut to pre- and post-game interviews with the players a lot easier with fancy graphic inlays and all that jazz. Most esports have a fairly decent track record with this sort of stuff. They’ve figured out how to stream the games and have interviews and things, but this seemed to take it to the next level. Sure, there were hiccups a few times, but that’s to be expected with any live event.

The second smart thing that Valve did was hire a professional news anchor for their pre- and post-game interviews, as well as “man on the street” spot interviews with the attendees. Apparently, she is the news anchor for one of the local Seattle stations. This made the interviews far more professional and interesting from an outsider’s perspective. She knew less about the game than I did and deliberately didn’t want to learn about the game itself, only the people involved. Her on-site coaches would provide her with the history of the team and the match-up about to happen and she’d come up with journalistic questions to ask during the interviews. There were a few hiccups (at one point, she confused the phrase “micro skills” with “michael skills”) but she lent an air of professionalism to the whole proceedings that you don’t normally get from another 20-something hobbyist interviewing the 20-something player. Apparently, the audience loved her. I’ve seen numerous threads on various forums about starting a petition to have Valve hire her again for next year. I’m a little surprised that the audience was so welcoming towards an outsider, but I think her natural journalism talents held her in good stead here. While she might not have had the background, she seemed genuinely interested in talking to the participants and saw the whole things as a genuine display of talent – I even saw some comments from her on an entirely unrelated site defending the participants and esports in general (As for that argument, I don’t really care. People will pull out the “sports are physical, games are cerebral” argument, but if that’s true why are they called the Olympic Games? My own definition tends to revolve around whether it involves a team or not. Team=sport. Game=solo. Which makes, in my definition, golf a game and DOTA 2 a sport. Whatever.)

Of course, Valve also hired from the community for the event. The panelists for between-game segments were, in the true spirit of The International, all sporting different accents. I had no idea what they were ever talking about. A sample conversation:

Panelist A: Who does Team X draft in this upcoming match?

Panelist B: I think Hero XB is a strong choice for their playstyle.

Panelist C: But it’s completely countered by Hero CL, which we know Ridiculous Internet Name 27 is a master of.

Panelist B: Which is why Team X needs to make strong ban choices.

Panelist D: Here’s some useless stats!

Okay, to be fair, the stats weren’t completely useless. But for someone who constantly claimed that he was the stats-man, he didn’t seem to offer that many of them that seemed relevant to the conversation at hand. DOTA 2 has a ways to go before they’ve got the ridiculous stats-spouting machines that exist on ESPN.

The in-game commentators weren’t much better. There are way too many slang terms thrown around. Besides my obvious handicap of not knowing what the individual heroes are capable of, I also have to deal with slang terms for many abilities and items in game. This made it difficult sometimes to google what the hell they were talking about. It’s pretty obvious when the draft screen shows all the hero’s names under them and the commentator screams out excitedly, “They picked TA!” I can then read all the names underneath the pictures and see that “TA” is short for “Templar Assassin.” But two heroes in particular were called by the wrong names the entire time! Various commentator kept calling out “Furion.” But there’s no Furion hero. After some research, I discovered that Furion was the name for that particular character in DOTA 1, but it was changed for DOTA 2 to prevent trademark issues with Blizzard. So, maybe the people hired by Valve should use the proper term? Likewise, commentators kept talking about “Wisp” who has been named “Io” in DOTA 2. That one I caught immediately because it was the first pick drafted by a team and I could see the name under the picture did not match what the commentators were saying. There were lots of other terms I had to figure out as the games went on. I quickly figured out that BKB is short for Black King Bar, which is some sort of awesome magic item (I don’t know what it does, though. But apparently it’s great and everyone should have one). I know that Black Hole is an ability used by Enigma and it apparently causes great excitement when it’s used, but I don’t really know what it does (I just see the little life bars clicking down). Perhaps the one that confused me the most was constant calls of “rax,” i.e. “They’re taking the rax!” or “Their rax are in trouble!” I eventually figured out, through inference, that “rax” is short for “barracks,” the things that the creeps spawn from, and is probably spelled “racks.”

I noticed a definite attempt to explain more terminology in the final matches, perhaps because Valve knew that those games would have more viewers and they should try to draw more people in who might not know DOTA 2. However, those explanations only really happened when there was a break in the action. When action started, the commentators went back to their slang terms, lost in the heat of the moment. Good effort, but oh well.

Being completely lost, I fixated on a character I noticed in the first couple of games: Lone Druid. He has a power to summon a bear which does all of his attacking for him. As I’m sure you’re aware, bears are the best animal, so Bear became my new favorite hero. Whichever team had Bear was the one I rooted for. I did eventually look at the team profiles, but they didn’t really mean anything to me. It seemed that Na’vi were the favorites, but I had no idea why. So, I just rooted for the American teams. After they were eliminated, I switched my allegiance to Europeans. Go white people!

Actually, as it turns out, I did not care for how the Asian teams were playing the game. The longest game in DOTA 2 history was one game I happened to watch and it was god awful. The two Chinese teams were apparently playing for the end game so they refused to engage each other until everyone had their best items. What made it particularly bad was that one team was in a dominant position and could have won much earlier. But anytime they’d approach their opponent’s base, Bear would take some damage and they’d retreat the whole team again. Even the announcers were sick of that game. In the greatest display of unprofessionalism I’d seen so far, the commentators began complaining around the 60 minute mark, their cries getting even more vociferous as the match continued for another 40 minutes. While I thought it was kind of funny at the time, it does, in retrospect, strike me as a fairly shitty thing for a commentator to be doing. I noticed the next day that the winner of that particular match was announced by a different commentator pair who spent a great deal of time praising the “patience” of the Chinese teams. I don’t know if that was a deliberate policy change behind the scenes or not.

So, did I learn anything about DOTA 2 while watching? Yes, I think so. For instance, in my few bot matches I had taken the game at face value. The game said that the goal was to destroy the towers and destroy the headquarters so that’s what I focused on doing. This is kind of frustrating because there’s always stupid creeps hanging around and you have to keep killing them to reach the towers and then the towers do horrific damage to you and you end up retreating. Watching these matches, I figured out that, yes, destroying the towers is the end goal, but that it is a supplementary goal to achieving a good farm, that is, an efficient way of killing enough monsters to acquire lots of gold and experience. Once you have gold and experience, you can then take on those towers and advance the game. The primary strategy seems to revolve around getting lots of last hits and preventing the enemy from getting last hits. There’s lots of different ways of accomplishing this, from denying creeps by killing them before your opponent can, to just killing the enemy hero so they spend a lot of time away from things that will give them experience and gold, or forcing them into areas where they will have a difficult time getting what they need. I think I have a better grasp of the fundamentals of the game now. I’m not entirely sure how to implement the things I’ve learned but I guess that would be more of a process of actually playing.

Likewise, I began to see the difference between some of the players and what took them to the next level and made them fan favorites. One of the Chinese players, for instance, was a hideous killing machine in every game he played. I believe he had the record for the most different heroes played as well. Regardless of what he ended up playing, he seemed to have the unerring ability to kill everyone on the screen all the time. While they eventually were eliminated, even in the last game he had more kills than the entire other team combined. And I began to see why people seemed to favor Na’vi.

This clip requires a bit of setup. I, in fact, had to go to the DOTA 2 page and check out some forums to even understand what was happening here. Basically, there’s a hero named Chen, who has a power that lets him send a friendly Hero back to the base. This is intended to get them out of trouble and heal up. There’s another character named Pudge who has a hook shot power. He sends out a chain which pulls an enemy towards him. Apparently, there’s a trick you can do with really good timing in which Pudge uses his hook shot and then Chen sends him back to base. If this is timed exactly right, the hook catches an enemy and then drags them all the way across the map to the opponent’s base, where they are pretty instantly killed. It’s considered an exploit by some but Valve has said they don’t plan on doing anything about it since it’s A) really hard to pull off and B) hilarious. Na’vi team captain Puppey played Chen and Dendi played Pudge in which they managed to pull off this trick six times.

Besides being pretty flashy just for flashy’s sake, one of those kills in particular was an incredibly clutch move. After you kill Roshan, who is a big monster who shows up once every ten minutes, you get an item called the Aegis of the Immortal. Whoever picks that up essentially gets another life, as they immediately reform after dying. In that particular instance, Dendi waited until Gyrocopter had claimed the Aegis and then pulled him back to the base. It was really easy to kill him then. And then, of course, the Aegis brings him back to life in the same spot, so Dendi was able to kill him again, meaning the Aegis of the Immortal was essentially wasted. It’s those sort of moves that have made Na’vi such a fan favorite. They were typically going with offbeat strategies and super aggression the entire time, making all of their games pretty entertaining to watch.

I also learned about the draft. The draft is what happens at the beginning of one of these matches. Each team gets to pick some heroes to ban. Then, each team in turn picks up heroes from the remaining pool. Once a hero is picked, the other team can’t pick that hero. There’s a few more bans and things sprinkled throughout the process. This leads to an exciting ten minutes at the start of every match where the teams gather around a computer and debate forever before picking a hero. Meanwhile, the announcers try to fill the time by discussing the various strategies going into the picks made. This usually consists of:

Announcer A: Wow. Hero X! What does that mean for Team B? What do they draft to counter that?

Announcer B: I have no idea.

With my lack of knowledge on all the heroes and the announcer’s failure to provide any help in that regard, the whole drafting thing is lost on me. It wasn’t until after a game with Alliance and Na’vi that I sort of got it. The game was going Na’vi’s way – they had drafted exactly what they wanted and had destroyed nine towers very early. Alliance, however, came back and destroyed them, turning the game around in about ten minutes. In the post-game interview, the team captain of Alliance stated that they knew exactly what Na’vi were going to do after they saw their first draft pick. They then counter-drafted to execute their game plan. They knew that they were going to lose all of their towers early, but they just needed to get a few core items and levels on certain of their heroes in order to wreck Na’vi. Which they proceeded to do. That sort of opened my eyes as to the importance of drafting. I mean, on an abstract level, I understood the importance of it, but this seemed like practical application of the precepts.

So, the finals came down to Alliance vs. Na’vi. Alliance are from Sweden and Na’vi are from the Ukraine so my white person quota was full. After Alliance’s defeat of Na’vi earlier in the tournament, I’d gained a new respect for them. They were really strong all tournament, having only lost one game. As a best of five series, Alliance crushed Na’vi in the first game. Na’vi called “gg” sixteen minutes in, which basically meant this was the fastest game of the tournament (“gg” means “good game” and is the typical response for a loss). I think Alliance got a little cocky in their next game, when they let Na’vi draft all their best heroes. This was also a route, as Alliance lost in about 20 minutes. Alliance’s “make Bear the awesomest Bear EVAR!!!” strategy in the third game didn’t work either. They managed to win the fourth game, taking the series to the final game.

The final game was pretty damned incredible. It went back and forth several times with both teams coming on incredibly strong at various points throughout the match. It was looking pretty bleak for Alliance as they had lost most of their barracks and Na’vi were trying to push into their base. Instead of fighting it out, however, Alliance pulled a split-push strategy in which two heroes ignored the team fight and went straight for Na’vi’s base. This basically forced Na’vi to back off and retreat to their base to protect it. Alliance had managed to leave Na’vi’s base completely defenseless at this point, which made Na’vi’s next push pretty desperate. When Alliance teleported back into Na’vi’s base and started attacking their headquarters, they had to teleport out and return to their base…except one of the Alliance heroes managed to stun three of them, cancelling their teleports. Which pretty much meant game over.

Here’s the whole game. You probably don’t want to watch it all.

So, that was me watching something I didn’t understand half of. By the time the final game was happening, however, I’d sort of figured a lot out. There were about 30 characters picked over and over so I sort of at least knew the basic abilities available to most of them by the end. I have read from fans that it was the best game of DOTA they’ve ever seen. I guess you can believe them because they’re fans. I enjoyed it, but I don’t have a whole lot to compare it to.

After they won, Loda of Alliance bought the entire gift shop and gave all the merchandise away to fans. Because he’s now a millionaire.

So, what did I learn? I learned that the learning curve on DOTA 2 is immense. I understand a lot more now, but I can’t say if any of that would translate into actual game play. It doesn’t help that I’m terrible at video games (the only game I would lay claim to being awesome at is the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series. And maybe Soul Calibur. But only the Dreamcast version). But I do grasp some basic concepts a lot better now. I’m still unsure on this whole “carry” thing (It just seems like a very strange way to categorize things and I resent the person who came up with that stupid terminology) and I wouldn’t say I have any idea how to play any particular hero any better now. But it was entertaining.

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