We should probably mention that even in its own circles, dota is not always seen as an infallible behemoth. Awesome? Sure. Perfect? No. As a point of contention, dota games are often placed in the same breath as the StarCraft series, the current figurehead for real-time strategy games and a mainstay in the world of videogame tournaments.1 The series follows in the stead of many early RTS games and is known for its rather insane emphasis on Actions Per Minute, and merely developing the mouse speed to keep up with the best players can take years of practice. Even in a culture of videogames that has an unhealthy obsession with the matter of “skill”—where ego demands you are playing the “most demanding and skilled game”—many dota players will admit that the StarCraft series demands more from the individual than a League of Legends or a Dota 2.
However, the totem pole in the StarCraft series is settled through the one-on-one format, and the games can be taken to task for their mediocre team formats.2 And with the philosophy of the modern StarCraft map intended for battles between two individuals, it has resigned team matches to a relaxed state of play. In response, dota players have created a narrative that their genre is defined by “teamwork”. Where RTS games, arena shooters, and fighting games commonly focus on the might of the individual, the argument is that dota is fundamentally different than other multiplayer games because it presents greater complexity and depth through a team format, and demands players work with each other in order to achieve success. And to this, I laugh out loud. When someone tells you their game is about “teamwork”, it should set off the reddest of all red flags. Let’s tear this one apart.
You see, the “teamwork” argument is nothing new, becoming popular when 2000’s Counter-Strike and 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved redefined the wider conventions for the first-person shooter. These games were praised for their focus on teamwork, even though the genre had already seen team-based shooters like Team Fortress and Starsiege: Tribes. Consequently, we now have people arguing that the difference between dota and StarCraft is teamwork, and it is to announce “I have never played any RTS other than StarCraft or StarCraft II and I do not know what I am talking about.” Shocking as it may be for an audience which invests most of their time and energy into a small handful of a games, StarCraft is not the only RTS ever made, and there are countless RTS games with excellent team game modes.3 So let’s just explain how the creators of Defense of the Ancients transformed Warcraft III into a “genre of teamwork”. And from there, we can explain what “teamwork” actually means.
While many RTS games share Warcraft III‘s focus on small-scale tactics, they do not share the same approach to “lethality”. Because the nature of war entails powerful tools that can cut through armor and flesh, the lethality in most RTS games is very high, and most soldiers can be cut down in seconds. But the men and women who fight the battles of Warcraft III can take exceptional amounts of punishment before dropping dead. Even workers, long the punching bag of the RTS genre, can stand up to a surprising amount of punishment. While the game was ostensibly a Blizzard response to concerns that the genre had become too fast and too complex for wider audiences, Warcraft III allows players to explore concepts and tactics that cannot be engaged or considered in faster, more brutal RTS games, and players are given a comical level of agency to shape outcomes in their favor.
When Defense of the Ancients adapted the Warcraft III game model to its own ends, it made two significant changes. We’ve already talked about the first one. Interesting depth in Blizzard-style RTS games stems from the effort required to manage tactics, resource gathering, supply lines, and unit production on multiple fronts in real time. Compare this with the dota genre, where the model is defined by the management of one unit on one front. Because there was no real effort to make the individual chess pieces more interesting, the number of possible skillful permutations has been significantly reduced. Quite simply, there is going to be more room for the expert to separate himself in the game that features dozens or hundreds of moving parts than the one that is defined by the management of one unit on one front.4
This played into the second change, where Defense of the Ancients increased the lethality of the Warcraft III game model. Now, most of the battlefield participants in the dota genre hit harder than their Warcraft III counterparts. But because of the reduced complexity, there are fewer options for the player to defend themselves from coordinated and surprise attacks. On top of this, most of the options for in-combat healing that were present in Warcraft III have been eliminated.5 So, much as Halo and Counter-Strike did away with most of the defensive options in first-person shooters—where you dodge the rockets and move in a way that makes it difficult for opponents to hit you—Defense of the Ancients has done away with most of the defensive options in Warcraft III.6 Under the correct circumstances, a battle in Warcraft III could take minutes. But through proper and expected use of special abilities, fights in the dota genre can be decisive in seconds.
The dota genre has been categorized as “hardcore” due in-part to how immediate and unforgiving engagements can feel, and in many cases, players can be wiped off the battlefield before they’ve even had a chance to reasonably evaluate the situation.7 But this is a total misunderstanding of difficulty, and it assumes that anything which slaps you on the hand harder is somehow more compelling. By this logic, the unbreakable infinite combos in fighting games and the one-shot “Instagib” modes in shooters are the high mark for their respective genres. In reality, these things merely dumb down their respective games, because you are reducing the amount of time that you have to create favorable outcomes.8 Much the same applies to dota. In scaling damage upward, reducing the number of pieces you have to work with, and reducing the time you have to make them count, they have significantly reduced the depth in a prior game. This is not theory, this is not speculation. This is a cold, hard fact.9
This reduction in depth has significantly lowered the barrier for optimal or “perfect” play. As a result, it becomes more important for players to wring every last drop of blood out of the store, to find improvement in other places. With “perfect play” being much easier to attain, and with players unable to separate themselves through individual ability, that “thing” ends up becoming your teammates. This is the reason that dota games are placed in the same breath as team sports. But there’s a difference: Team sports have incalculable skill curves at the individual level. The “skill cap” in athletics is so high that two-hundred years of organized sports leagues, advances in training techniques, and breakthroughs in science have not come close to conquering them, because we have not conquered our physical limitations as human beings. In these sports, there are still significant individual boundaries to be conquered, let alone the machinations which lead to “perfect team play”. And even if teamwork is an important part of many sports, individuals can continue to personally better themselves in order to overcome the limitations of the other participants.
On the contrary, the complexity of the interactions in videogames are trivial and basic, for the simple reason that the human body is a far more complex input scheme than a game controller, and the physical demands of the real world are far more complex than any videogame. Even in the “most competitive” videogames, top players are usually scraping razor-thin margins, where Counter-Strike players spend significant time optimizing their mouse and monitor settings, where StarCraft players are mapping out build orders so they can shave seconds off of a timing push.10 But in a game where you must rely on your teammates, the optimal becomes much easier to attain. If you lower the “skill ceiling” even further, a weaker player (or a boneheaded mistake) now becomes a significantly greater liability because the stronger player’s consistently excellent play now reaps smaller dividends.
So, do you get where I’m going with this? “Teamwork”, as it has been popularly manifested, was never about building more complex games. Today’s team games are merely dumbing down the lessons of prior games, and in order to regain that complexity, they must standardize the experience around large teams of human participants. The older games with excellent team modes were providing enough complexity and depth to individuals that they could be identified by the one-on-one modes. Whereas games like Halo, Team Fortress 2, Defense of the Ancients, and League of Legends have to be identified by their team formats, because if you play them in smaller formats with fewer participants, then they are a complete waste of time. None of this means that the games which emphasize or showcase teamwork cannot be interesting.11 But much as complexity in choice is intended to provide the illusion of depth in the absence of well-designed game systems, “teamwork” is intended to provide the illusion of complexity in the absence of a deep skillset for the individual.
What makes it appealing to players? A game of teamwork decreases your own stake in a match, marginalizing the impact of your meager contribution to the outcome and allowing you to participate in favorable outcomes that far, far outstrip your actual ability to perform. This makes these team modes ideal to new players, weaker players, and players who have no interest in getting better, because they can coattail the efforts of stronger players in the pursuit of winning. But at the same time, that marginalization can become an excuse. While the skilled player will recognize that the management of his teammates is a skill like any other, the popular perception is that the actions of those teammates are “outside of your control”. The player who thinks he’s god’s gift to man—but plays team modes precisely because he is not—can now use the poor play of his teammates as a crutch for his own failed efforts.12
Today’s videogame player views the dominating individual as a design flaw, and players can vote with enough financial force that developers will hear them out.13 Modern multiplayer games have become the manifestation of 1975’s Rollerball, the movie about a team sport which is manufactured to demonstrate the futility of individual achievement, and dota is the genre which most takes this lesson to heart.14 It’s a genre where tenths of a second can be the difference between success and failure, where tenths of a second can cause your entire team to die and become the thing that ruins a sixty-minute match. In this model, where success depends on the razor-thin margins of other players, it is inevitable that your teammates will make more mistakes than you could ever hope to make on your own.15 And it’s no surprise that lower levels of play in Dota 2 are known as “the trench”. As the level of play gets worse, your teammates will make so many mistakes that your ability to shape the match becomes marginal, as though they’re stuck in a trench.16
To make the matter of shared accountability even worse, dota compounds these issues by punishing players with its ruleset. Many games in the dota genre provide the player with a significant bonus for killing enemy heroes, an extension of the last-hitting mechanics. The bonus is usually a chunk of experience and resources, and on rare occasions, select items that will be dropped by a player if they die. So death not only wipes out your own team’s initiative and spacing, but it hands resources over to the enemy team, forcing teammates to work harder in order to cover for the mistakes of a “feeder” who gets killed over and over. Making excuses and handing out blame simply becomes too easy.
“But that’s what score is for. Score can measure who contributed the most to the fight!” Well, back in the day, at least. The team games of yesteryear usually left no ambiguity as to who contributed the most in the team effort. The general idea was that you were given equal skillsets, and you had to adapt your robust skillset for the situation.17 But as games more specifically move towards the idea that everyone selects a different skillset, this curve is thrown completely out of whack. Blame can be passed out in dota games because there are so many specialized strategies that can have an impact on your statistics. You can “carry”, “support”, “solo”, “jungle”, and so forth. You are expected to play a role within the team whose relative value often goes well beyond the score screen.18 This has created a sloppy, messy format where it is nearly impossible to hold players accountable for anything.
In essence, “teamwork” is not unlike the rallying cry of “strategy” that is common to discussion of RTS games, the idea that the genre should focus on broad decision-making and cast aside the fast action common to games like StarCraft and Command and Conquer. But in dumbing down the action component, the RTS game that focuses on strategy will compare unfavorably to the games that do both strategy and action well. Quite similarly, a game of “teamwork” will compare unfavorably with the game that uses team action as a framework for complex, satisfying interactions between individuals. While centralizing dota around this teamwork may obscure the simplistic interactions generated by the basic chess pieces, it will simply bore the players who demand more from their action games, team or elsewise. In other words, dota is defined by “teamwork” because its creators have failed to provide anything but teamwork.