Before we can tear apart the dota genre, we need to address an issue important enough that it is worth giving its own chapter.
Instead of engaging the ideas which are being presented in this book, many critics and long-time fans of dota will simply choose to place my “qualifications” under the magnifying glass. Why? It’s easier than providing a proper rebuttal. They’ll ask: How many hours have I played dota? What skill level have I played dota at? Have I ever worked on a dota game? In spite of the fact that I have spent well over a thousand hours researching and writing this book, played the games which will be discussed, and given as much thought to the genre as anybody out there, many of my critics will claim that I am simply unqualified to present an argument. In a culture of competition where players invest thousands of hours into individual dota games—often because it is their job—they will claim I’m not good enough at dota and that I haven’t played enough dota. So, in order to provide a foundation for the thoughts in this book, we must deconstruct the culture of competition which has led to this nonsense and obliterate this approach to videogame “expertise”. In doing this, I will set the groundrules and explain why I am most certainly an expert on the topic of dota.
League of Legends and Dota 2 are the current figureheads for the growing world of “e-Sports”, a marketing buzzword for today’s organized and professional videogame tournaments.1 And let me begin by saying that I have no issue with videogame competitions as either a hobby or profession. The idea of playing excellent games in an organized or tournament format is a great way to gain even more enjoyment out of those excellent games, to raise the stakes and make the things happening in those virtual worlds more important. I also find that the peer review process created by these communities is very valuable in determining the merits of these games. While there is no substitute for merely playing a game and seeing how it holds up, the efforts of skilled players can help to confirm or deny how a game holds to scrutiny as human input scales upward. Unfortunately, e-Sports and the websites dedicated to these competitions have begun to have a nasty impact on game criticism.
While videogame competitions have been a mainstay of the medium since the early eighties, the limited success of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty as a spectator sport—a cannibalization of professional StarCraft: Brood War2—began a widespread commercial movement to use these tournaments as a form of advertising that runs concurrent with the game’s shelf life. Where videogame tournaments were once about pursuing the games that you enjoyed, e-Sports is little more than a marketing scheme,3 and companies have discovered that they can disguise this advertising and hype as community outreach and company goodwill.4 In many cases, the tournaments and cash prizes that were once a celebration of the achievement now appear well before the game has been released to the public, lest we forget that Dota 2 was revealed to the public in August of 2011 as part of a million-dollar tournament. Now, you can say what you want about the motives, but these tournaments have been a wild success. They’ve legitimized the subset of Western game culture that champions videogames as a vehicle for human competition and done it in a way that organizations like TwinGalaxies could have never dreamed of.
This marketing model has become a very successful one, but the endgoal is not to merely advertise the game and sell the software. As you may expect from a racket known as “e-Sports”, these games are analogous to sports, and the “experts” are those who put their knowledge and understanding of videogames into a march towards the top of one mountain. Using these tournaments, the goal is to create a culture of competition that hammers down on a game, providing the illusion5 of a game that holds to intense scrutiny as the best players in the world tear it apart. This apparatus turns talented players into celebrities, and since you could never beat them at their chosen game, who are you to tell them that the game sucks? In other words, these tournaments and the voracious competition surrounding these games are designed to be a buffer zone against criticism. And with the help of top players, game creators are casting the notion that your ability to play one game is equal to your understanding of what makes the game interesting and engaging.
Players have settled on two lines of thought. The first is that you must have played the game in question at a “high level”. Quite simply, if the player is not playing the game at an optimal or “intended” level, then he’s probably not playing the same game the experts are playing and should be ignored. The first argument is then closely tied to the second, the idea that you must meet a certain threshold for playtime. In a widely-disseminated piece of writing, an author for ESFI World made the assertion that you must have a minimum of 150 hours of playtime in order to provide criticism of Dota 2.6 This has been a defense mechanism used by MMORPG fans to defend the largely mediocre state of their genre, and prior to that, Japanese turn-based role-playing games.7 And I am sure there is an entire generation of arcade videogame players, an audience which had to make a flash judgment on whether any game was worth a second credit, that openly weeps at these assertions.
To compound the matter, the modern videogame business model accepts no finality in the development of a videogame. The goal is to continue supporting a game until it is no longer financially viable to do so, and this results in an endless stream of game updates which are designed to “fix the game”.8 Very often, this means that firm knowledge of game variables—how much health certain characters have, how hard certain characters hit, what strategies are popular—will have no relevance and no value in the months and years to come. Even new maps and game modes will come and go, requiring both supporters and critics to become familiar with them.9 And many of these persistently-developed games, including Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and Wargaming.net’s World of Tanks, are now significantly different than the games which were originally released. Unless you have the desire and passion to continue playing, “expertise”—as defined by your knowledge of the game content—quickly becomes a lost title.
These players have taken the same approach as professional athletes, who will take opposition arguments to task by arguing the player (or coach, or commentator) making an assertion was never good at the sport.10 In the case of a StarCraft II or a League of Legends, the argument is that the voracious competition and persistent developer support offered to these games has resulted in something similar to a sports league. Just like those sports leagues, the rules of these videogames change on a regular basis, and the best strategies and tactics may very well change every couple of months. With it, the argument is that the games affiliated with the e-Sports culture are fundamentally different than those that preceded them. These games transcend the conventional rules of game criticism, and these games can only be judged by their most capable players. So whether I have been playing videogames for twenty-five years, playing the genre that birthed dota for twenty years, and demonstrated a high degree of comprehension for many genres is irrelevant, because I have not satisfied criteria for their game and their sport.
Now, let’s be clear: I do not think it is a bad idea to find lessons in an excellent game or series, nor would I dismiss the opinion of a top StarCraft or Dota player because that is the game he pours most of his time and energy into. But what people need to understand is that the traditional role of the “videogame expert” was a jack-of-all-trades. The expert played and beat lots of games, and by doing this, became knowledgeable across a number of genres. Anyone who read Nintendo Power in its heyday knows about Howard Phillips, the company-appointed “Game Master” who played nearly every game for Nintendo hardware and conquered a great percentage of the Nintendo software lineup before his 1991 departure from the company.11 When Nintendo Power gave praise to “Power Players”, the magazine recognized skill across multiple games and genres. And when Nintendo held their World Championships, it was a contest which required players to compete in multiple games. While it was wise for Nintendo to recognize these accolades across their entire software library, television shows that doubled as videogame competitions—Starcade, Video Power, Nick Arcade—also asked players to demonstrate their talents across the spectrum.
But over the last three decades, the complexity of videogames has expanded by significant orders of magnitude. The games are bigger, there’s more of them, they demand much more of your time, and completely new genres have emerged in order to take advantage of the new technology. Versus multiplayer games now go beyond the novelty of a Pong or a Karate Champ, and players can network and compete against each other from across the planet, gaining insight into how one game operates. Much as medical specialists become more important in a world of exponentially-increasing medical knowledge, it can be more appealing to become familiar with certain games and pool that expertise into a larger discussion. While a varied perspective remains valuable, becoming familiar with a game or genre means doing it at the expense of other games.12
Today’s e-Sports are the extreme end of that model, and fall much in line with the “gated community” nature of today’s internet, where people forge togetherness from a single interest. And what tends to happen in these communities is that everyone genuinely begins to believe that Game X or Series X is the greatest thing ever. There’s no debate to be had on whether a game is “good” or “bad” because everyone already thinks the game is great. That’s why they showed up for the discussion in the first place. As a result, these communities are exploring these games with a manner and methodology where they have begun to forget what made the game so appealing (relative to other games) in the first place. And because players are pouring so much time and energy into their current passion, this perspective will become even more narrow, as they miss out on new games and their new approaches to that genre.
So, where StarCraft may be one of many excellent real-time strategy games, you would not know this by reading a web site like TeamLiquid.net, the Western figurehead for coverage of professional and organized StarCraft. The web site doesn’t merely give extended airtime to the StarCraft series, nearly all discussion of RTS theory is centered around StarCraft. Discussion threads for fantastic RTS games such as Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance and the Wargame series are largely ignored.13 The web site now propagandizes the myth that StarCraft: Brood War is the best game in its genre and the myth that StarCraft II is a top-notch RTS. If competing design theory is drawn from elsewhere, it is drawn from League of Legends and Dota 2, the rival e-Sports that draw money and attention away from professional StarCraft II.14 And, much as in other message boards and communities, the echo chamber grows louder as the minority gives up hope and seeks shelter elsewhere.
In providing incentive and acclaim to those who pour their time and efforts into one game, the e-Sports marketing machine has embraced their insular knowledge of the topic, and it has made these communities very dangerous to the pursuit of game criticism. In order for these players to invoke authority on the topic when they are playing such a limited range of games, they are attempting to redefine the qualifications for game criticism to suit their own purposes. In order to hold ground against videogame players who have played and hold perspective on hundreds and even thousands of games, they have to. Fans of e-Sports will claim this criteria is about objectivity, to make sure the games are being approached by those who have the knowledge base to discuss them. It is not. It is meant to wall the community against criticism of their chosen game from qualified outsiders. It facilitates a body of criticism in which only those who like the game are “qualified” to comment on it, and is meant to delegitimize those who can stand against the machine.15
What these players have failed to understand is that “good” and “bad” are not declarations which exist independently of themselves. To say something is “good” is to say that it is better than the “bad” stuff. What is the good and the bad stuff? In this case, it’s the other videogames out there. If you do not have a solid perspective for the body of videogame history, then it will be difficult to say whether a game belongs near the bottom or the top, or whether it is worth playing at all. Fans of Dota 2 and League of Legends may fancy their games as sports, but in a lot of ways, game criticism is the process of comparing different sports, to understand what makes those games appealing and what certain sports do better than others. You just need to develop the worldview—and greater understanding of games—in order to explore these concepts.
But on top of this, we should point out that playing games, understanding games, and writing about games requires three connected but distinct skill sets. Being good at a game does not mean you understand the theory behind the concepts or have the skills to communicate your knowledge of the concepts. And no, I am not claiming that the game critic should be an everyman. But if you are genuinely knowledgeable about a game or genre, you need to demonstrate that you understand theory and concepts, and not just strategies and numbers. There is no doubt in my mind that many skilled players understand the theory of the games they pour their time and energy into. However, it is a whole different story to explain how that theory works, use it to make relevant comparisons, and then place those comparisons in a format that will provide benefit to others.
And to follow on that, the amount of time you have spent with one game has nothing to do with how well you can play the game or how well you understand it. Hell, “time spent” does not even determine whether you would recommend a game to someone else. I spent hundreds of hours with both Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock and Rock Band, in part because they filled a niche for rhythm gaming in a multiplayer environment. But I would never recommend either of those games over Vanquish, where my twenty hours with the game amounted to the most fun that I ever had with a third-person shooter. Sometimes, I feel comfortable casting judgment on a game after an hour or two, typically because it does something which is a fundamental no-no.16 Other times, a game will demand much more of my time. However, that usually comes down to whether the game has earned my attention in the first place.
Once you have spent enough time trying to understand videogames, what you will find is that the success and failure of a videogame is typically settled in the higher levels of game design, the design choices which provide the foundation for a game. Is the game built on an interesting concept? Does the game world provide a convincing atmosphere? Do those mechanics provide satisfying audio and visual feedback? Is the game inherently liberating and exciting? Does the game present a solid grasp of the design theory that made the genre so interesting in the first place? A game must succeed at these tenets of design before things like the metagame begin to remotely matter. You will hear people praise dota games for their “polish”, the process of tweaking and refining a game’s systems until they are as close to “perfect” as one can ideally hope for. Well, polish can make a good foundation great, but it can’t make a bad foundation good.
And very often, you will hear high praise for the “depth” of the dota genre. But I don’t think people understand that if you have enough players trying to be the best at one game, you will find pedantic subtleties and depth in any game. Angry Birds and Bejeweled have enough random chance in their outcomes that there is no satisfaction in playing either of these games. In spite of this, these games have significant depth curves between their best and worst players.17 “Speedruns” of older videogames demonstrate a level of comprehension and understanding that most players will never even see or consider, leading to fierce competition in games which were never intended for such scrutiny.18 If you have enough people hammering away at one game, and you set up criteria that measures a full range of skill levels, then any game can be “skilled” or “deep”. The goal in game design is to make sure that the skillful elements lead to more engaging outcomes than those in competing games.19
In arguing my case, I will make it very clear that I do not think it is the design of the subtle low-level interactions that hold back the dota genre. The problem lay in the higher-level designs which provide the foundation for tactics, strategy, the control scheme, the targeting interface, the camera, and the aesthetic design choices. As I said at the beginning of this book: I think that the philosophy of the dota genre is the problem. I am not attacking the concepts that are only available to those who have attained mastery of dota, and I am not attacking concepts that require hundreds of hours of play in order to approach or consider. I will be making breakdowns and comparisons of concepts that can be observed and understood by those who have never even touched the genre. This is not a series of nitpicks. These issues are a long line of fundamental flaws.
So you see, I do not have to “master” dota or meet some sort of make-believe qualification in order to demonstrate that the genre is dysfunctional. In the course of videogame discussion and criticism, it doesn’t matter how many hours you’ve played, it doesn’t matter how high your score is, and it doesn’t matter whether you can beat the best player in the world. Skilled play is simply one means to exploring and understanding the games in question. What matters is whether or not you know what the hell you’re talking about. In order to demonstrate that I do, I am presenting this book as a cogent, complex argument outlining my grievances with the genre. From here, the only thing that will determine whether I am an expert is the arguments presented in this book. And by the time you have finished reading it, I will have most certainly demonstrated that expertise. Not just on dota, but on the entire world of videogames that surround that one genre.
I believe that I have been diligent in researching this topic, in playing the games which I will discuss in this writing, and in drawing strong, relevant conclusions from these games. If my arguments don’t hold water, then you should be able to explain why, drawing from the skills and knowledge that you have developed as both a videogame player and a human being. Now, through the coming series of chapters, I will allow you to decide whether I have done this topic justice.