No matter how many hours of Dota 2 you’ve played, it’s never enough. No matter the days you’ve sunk into Valve’s free-to-play MOBA, no matter how many of its hundred-plus heroes you’ve got to grips with, no matter how deep your understanding of its nuanced combat, Dota’s waters will always run deeper. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t jump in.
Dota 2’s difficulty for new players stems from two root causes, the first of which is complexity. Two teams of five face off on a map that never changes. That map is trisected by three lanes – one on the top, one on the bottom, one in the middle – down which streams of AI ‘creeps’ are endlessly regurgitated. Enter Dota 2’s heroes, controlled by players, to turn the tide of battle.
Heroes help creeps by killing other creeps and destroying structures, but Dota 2’s pivotal moments come when heroes clash, using their personal suite of active and passive skills to drain an opponent’s health bar. Killing an enemy hero rewards your character with gold, experience and access to better items and skills. Conversely, die during an enemy assault and you’ll lose gold and find yourself in a respawn process of 30 seconds or more. This acts as a sort of ‘sin bin’, keeping you isolated from your friends and away from the steady dripfeed of experience points you’ll earn from fighting in your chosen lane.
Heroes vary wildly in playstyle, skillset and mechanics. Each has a few designations, terms to define their ideal battlefield role: Supports, for example, are best played in tandem with tougher heroes, providing healing and crowd control; Carries are flimsy in the early game but ramp up their damage output quickly if successfully babysat until late in the match.
Those are Dota 2’s core concepts, and after a short acclimatisation period they feel good. Combat at its simplest level is made satisfying by punchy, easily read animations and tactile attacks. Fights between more skilled players are like fencing matches, where feints and ducks are as important as strikes in endlessly nuanced bust-ups. With more than 100 heroes available, and modes that often restrict their selection to keep team makeups fresh, few scuffles are ever alike.
There’s a consistent thrill in getting a handle on a new hero, something only obtainable through actually playing with them. Dota 2 has basic tutorials, but getting some games under your belt is vital. Dota’s structure means this process is sometimes painful. Unlike League Of Legends, there’s no way to leave a game your team is obviously losing: quit early, in fact, and Valve will punish you by lumping you in a pool with other quitters. This leads to Dota 2 at its worst: 40 minutes of inescapable slaughter as a demonstrably superior team races ahead in level and item loadout, killing you and yours in a few hits.
This hard education is one you’ll have to suffer through: Dota 2 is worse for having little support for low- to medium-skilled players beyond bashing their heads against repeated losses. Punch through and survive this often demoralising experience, and… you’re still not home free. As you become comfortable with Dota’s simpler concepts, you’ll find there’s also an arcane set of rules and traditions that can feel wilfully counterintuitive at the second layer.
‘Pushing’ a lane – the act of helping your creep wave wipe out an enemy’s in an attempt to reach a hostile tower – appears to be an empirically positive concept on paper. But in practice canny players will often do everything to prevent their creeps from storming forward. They’ll physically block them, using their character’s hitbox to halt walking animations. They’ll even kill their own troops – ‘denying’ being the act of attacking your own AI friends to remove the last of their health bar, stopping the experience points their death would pay out from going to an opposing hero.
It’s the kind of complexity that demands its own sub-language: a world of ‘SS’ and ‘RE’ and ‘wards’ and ‘sheep sticks’. It’s a language born of necessity, from describing some of Dota 2’s less intuitive concepts, but it’s also one nurtured by a long-serving, fearsomely dedicated community. That community has been playing Dota for a decade, and that player involvement is the second barrier to entry for new players.
It has had positive and negative effects, although it’s the latter that’s the more visible. Opponents and team-mates – selected by a matchmaking system that does a decent job of choosing peers of a similar skill level – are often coarse, cruel or offensive. Minor indiscretions, both real and imagined, are stringently punished through text and voice chat. Thankfully, Valve’s counter-insurgency tactics feel positive. Players can report transgressors, and if action is taken the reporter is rewarded with a notification of thanks – a karmic pop-up that’s almost as satisfying as a hard-earned win.
But Dota 2’s community involvement has vast upsides, too. There’s a healthy professional scene for the game, and Valve has built it into the menu system, allowing players to buy tickets to watch live streams of pro-level matches. International tournaments are a microtransaction away, making Dota 2 feel important and vital in a way few games do.
You’ll never be able to play enough Dota 2 to totally master it, and although it’s an F2P game it can be too cruel and unusual for some. But persist through the tough start and accept the idiosyncrasies, and you’ll start to understand why so many have stuck with it for more than a decade. Why would they need something new when they’ve got this incredibly deep, rewarding multiplayer experience? Why would they need to play anything else when they’ve got Dota?
Dota 2 is out now on Steam.