If I had to describe the dota genre1 to someone who has never heard of it, I’d say it’s a little like taking the battles in The Lord of the Rings and turning them into a team sport. In this genre, participants take the role of powerful heroes and lead their disposable followers into battlefields more like a football pitch than the fields of war. If that seems a little odd to you, I suggest you get comfortable with it, because it’s getting attention that the old guard in game development would kill for.
Riot Games’ League of Legends is played by tens of millions of people every day2 and Valve Corporation’s Dota 2 is far and away the most popular game on Valve’s wildly popular Steam distribution service.3 Dota hasn’t merely positioned itself as an appeal to the masses, ala a Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. The genre has surpassed the StarCraft and Counter-Strike series as the figurehead in the growing circus of professional videogame tournaments and is getting high praise from some of the most capable videogame players. What was intended to be little more than a series of distractions in the Blizzard Entertainment real-time strategy ecosystem is now the hottest genre in videogames.
So that’s the question: How could the dota genre possibly “suck”?
Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter what you call dota games, it doesn’t matter who is developing them, and I don’t care what anyone else is saying about them. They suck. The genre is so fundamentally dysfunctional that it should have been laughed off the board the second it was considered anything more than a sideshow in the world of Blizzard RTS games. Dota is the Frankenstein of terrible game design concepts, the culmination of every damaging design trend in modern videogames. And yet, dota games—particularly Dota 24—are being held to the same regard as the most beautifully crafted videogames ever assembled. The ongoing narrative for Defense of the Ancients is that a series of amateur content creators with limited programming experience and few financial resources created a Warcraft III map that was not only better than Warcraft III, but surpassed the collective efforts of a billion-dollar videogame industry and its world-class game creators.5 A story that should set off red flags in the mind of any reasonable person has become a rallying cry for transformative change in the world of videogames.
So, here we go. The purpose of “Why Dota Sucks” is to fully deconstruct the history, circumstance, and design of Defense of the Ancients and the games inspired by it, and to show how flawed the genre really is. You may consider the title inflammatory, but quite frankly, it’s the most honest and accurate title that I could come up with. The deconstruction will focus on dota games in the direct lineage of Defense of the Ancients and Aeon of Strife, including League of Legends, Dota 2, Heroes of Newerth, Smite, Demigod, Awesomenauts, and Dead Island: Epidemic. The goal is to put forward the most complex and complete analysis of the dota genre that anyone will ever author and to provide the desperately-needed foundation for a discussion that has gone nowhere over the last decade.
Before we begin discussing the genre, we need to set some groundrules for how this book will approach the topic. And with that, you may have already figured out that this is not an academic piece. I do not intend to subdue my writing style in order to strive for a larger audience. I’ll laugh, I’ll cry, I’ll curse. And in the process, I’m going to take on a lot of targets, including the developers who make these games and the player bases who complete the consumer contract. While I will provide sources as necessary, this is an opinion piece through and through. Much of videogame history has been told through the internet, and the nature of the internet will make many things difficult to source. In many instances, the best that I can do is give you my word and honesty on the topic. I may have a strong opinion on dota, but my opinion is strong enough that I do not need to compromise the integrity of that opinion.
“But all opinions are subjective opinions, and opinions are like assholes! Everyone has one!” You’re absolutely correct. Opinions on game design are subjective. Opinions on television, books, and movies fall under the same brush. In order to understand and compare the concepts in certain videogames, you will have to make good use of math and logic. But at the end of the day, the conclusions drawn from “objective data”—and determining whether or not it makes for a better game—are subjective. And that’s perfectly fine! There is nothing wrong with being biased. We’re all biased towards certain points of view, as impacted by our own life experiences. If the critic is worth his weight, then his goal is to properly outline those biases and to leave as little as possible to interpretation. An opinion is not invalid simply because it is an opinion. If the argument is a bad one, then you should be able to explain why it is bad. Those subjective influences should be apparent in my writing and you can be the judge of them.
In approaching the topic, I’m going to provide a particularly valuable subjective perspective. As you may have figured out, the dota genre owes no small favor to the real-time strategy games created by Blizzard Entertainment. Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and StarCraft developed a rather glowing reputation for their third-party content, and Blizzard’s games provided the backbone and foundation for the dota game model. In providing perspective on this matter, I will tell you that in a past life, I would have been described as a Blizzard fanboy.6 I have been playing Blizzard’s RTS games since Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was released in 1994 and I am very familiar with the content and design in all of their real-time strategy games, leading up through 2010’s StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. I have been playing these games in an online environment since 1999, through services like Battle.net, ICCUP, and Garena.7
Thus, it should be no surprise when I say that this book is written from the perspective of a videogame enthusiast. I have played a ton of different games in many different genres, and played many games at a very competent and skilled level. I haven’t played everything, I haven’t been the best at anything, but I’ve played a lot and done it well. Drawing from this experience, I feel very passionate and certain about many of my opinions. And as a general rule, my writing rejects the popular narrative of videogame criticism. But if you’re aghast that someone could say bad things about dota, this shouldn’t be the least bit surprising. Games like Mario and Zelda have had their moments, but they’re hardly the best thing going year-in and year-out. Sometimes, they’ve even been pretty damn bad. But it’s okay to say that you do not think a “classic game” is good! So don’t feel offended if I go after your favorite game of all-time.8 By the time this is done, I’ll be taking more than one genre to task.
“More than one genre?” Yes, you heard me. This book will not merely discuss dota. You will often see the argument that the dota genre is a hybrid of multiple game genres, meaning that it is not like any one genre, and that it cannot be compared to other genres. And yes, that’s as dumb as it sounds. Fans of dota want people to praise their genre, but they don’t want people to make the comparisons that should ideally lead to that praise. In taking the dota genre to task, I will draw from a body of knowledge that will include discussion of fighting games, brawlers, real-time strategy games, first-person shooters, and other genres as necessary. Cross-genre and cross-game comparisons are the heart of videogame criticism, and in order to understand the dota genre, you have to understand its position and relation in the cosmos.
As a result, this book will read like a general but comprehensive history of certain videogames, genres, and the economic and design models that got projects made. You may occasionally question the lack of focus on the topic of dota, but this is not just a book about dota; this is a book on videogames, and how the lessons of videogames apply to dota.9 These comparisons will be presented on the assumption that most of the people reading this book have experience with videogames and the genres that are being discussed. But I also understand there are long-time videogame players who have never touched the dota genre and may have only heard about it in passing. If you are not familiar with some of the games that will be discussed in this book, my simple recommendation is to try them out.
In taking this approach to the dota genre, I will provide thoughts on what I believe that dota games should do differently. These suggestions and criticisms do not exist in a self-contained bubble. Videogames are holistic. Every game system, art asset, and design choice must be carefully considered against the others. If your knowledge of the genre is centralized around the memorization of numbers, heroes, abilities, and other statistics, you will need to take a step back and grasp the bigger picture. This purpose of this book is to deconstruct the philosophy of dota. Not the “metagame”10 and not the tactics and strategies which are used to win in dota tournaments. The persistent nature of many dota games—in which they are constantly revised by their creators—makes it more crucial than ever to understand the fundamental concepts which define the genre.11
And in finalizing this introduction, I will state that I expect the entire internet to come crashing at my door. There will be a lot of misinformation in the discussion, where the opposition refuses to engage the content and still tries to debunk my point of view. I also expect a lot of people will simply make excuses so they do not have to engage the content. They won’t like the tone of the writing, or that I am not a “notable personality”, or whatever. This will come with a very delicious irony. The dota community often takes a point of view that you must play a dota game for hundreds of hours before commenting on it. It is also expected that new players will read documentation and strategy guides before engaging the game in a multiplayer setting with other human players. New Dota 2 players are commonly directed to Purge Gamers’ “Welcome to Dota, You Suck”, a ten-thousand-word introduction to the dota experience.12 The same community now will sit around claiming that this book is too long and it is not worth their time to read it. They will not do this because they feel the argument is bogus, but because what I have to say will act as a rejection of the time, money, and effort that those players have invested in Defense of the Ancients and its derivatives. It will be a rejection of their personal worldview.
I cannot stop all misinformation, because the internet is misinformation defined. But what I will say is this: I want this to be as controversial as a well-intentioned, well-written argument can be. I want to get this posted on every part of the internet where dota is being discussed. Not just because I love the attention. I want this book to spark a sorely needed debate. Quite honestly, I think that’s what needs to be done to make videogames better. And I don’t just want the typical dota player to read this. I want every notable dota player to emerge from their little bubble, the one where they spend most of their time with one videogame and only one videogame, to tell me how I am not a “videogame expert” or not an “expert on the topic of dota”. I want game developers and powerful people to read it. Or, at the bare minimum, to acknowledge the existence of the book.13 And I want them to do this, because if I have accomplished the things that I believe I have accomplished, I will have demonstrated that I am most certainly an expert. What they have to say will only attract attention to the truth.
I expect some will suggest that a scathing rebuttal of a genre which is being played at prize tournaments and by tens of millions of people means that I do not enjoy videogames. And I’ve heard this comment a lot, the idea that questioning the accepted truths—and championing the games that others aren’t familiar with—means that you hate videogames. When the reality is that I love them enough to take the knife to a popular and emerging game genre and provide a series of answers which demonstrate an incredible love of videogames. Even if dota may suck, this is my way of telling the world that “I love videogames and I want to make videogames better.”