I have spent more hours stuck in games of Dota 2 that I couldn't possibly win than I've played any other game this year.
Let me rewind for a minute, to give some context.
After this year's International Dota 2 championship, there's been a lot of analysis from people much smarter than I am about the game's "meta." The meta of Dota 2 relates to the relationships between characters, the nature of its current balance: what characters work competitively; which characters don't; what strategies are most viable; etc.
I especially enjoyed Chris Thursten of PC Gamer's analysis of the state of the game in his breakdown of the International's grand final between Chinese teams Newbee and ViCi Gaming, which resonated with me on several levels.
[The current patch] isn't friendly to strategies that rely on being able to fight back into the game if the early game goes south. Comebacks are much harder and the majority of matches are decided in the laning phase. On Twitter I joked at the beginning of game one that winning lanes meant winning games meant winning the tournament. That's a glib point but it's true: all but one game of the four played yesterday was won by the team that secured first blood. Only one lane of barracks was destroyed in the entire match because normally the losing side would know that it had lost when the first tier two tower fell. In a way, Vici's firm understanding of the game is what made those early GG calls inevitable: when you know enough to know that you're beaten, why continue?
Some quick clarification for those who are confused: Dota 2 matches start in the "laning phase," where players each move to one of the three paths, or lanes, on the map. After 6-10 minutes, usually once one of the frontline towers for either side has come down, the laning phase is over, and characters move more fluidly around the map. First blood is, unremarkably, the first kill in any match. And "barracks" are the structures in a team's base that generate the NPC "creeps" that go down each lane. To destroy a barracks, you need to destroy the three towers in front of it. Losing barracks in a lane means the enemy team is deep into your territory and actively threatening your base.
There are other things the International has me contemplating about Dota 2's meta. For example, what does eight teams in the final stage of the tournament essentially picking or banning the same set of 20 heroes say about current character balance? Almost every Dota 2 character was picked at least once over the course of the entire International, but that's counting hundreds of games. There was a very clear core of heroes who were deemed by all involved to be the best potential solutions to what Chris more or less calls the equation of Dota 2.
There was a clear core of heroes identified as the best 'solution' to Dota 2
Is that a problem? I can't answer that question, since first, even at 400 hours clocked in the Dota 2 client, I'm still a novice with regards to its idiosyncrasies and the finer points of the meta, and second, no one can really know what Valve and Dota 2 design czar Icefrog want Dota 2 to be. I do know that it seems strange to me, that such a specific group of heroes became the focus of the International, whether it be in picking them or preventing other players from using them. But as many have pointed out, pro Dota 2 isn't the same as amateur play. There are plenty of popular characters in public matches that were rarely seen at TI4 (like Riki, Bloodseeker, Pudge, and Ursa, for example).
But Chris points out another thing, which was common throughout the tournament. Most games at the International didn't go until one side's base was destroyed. Instead, a team would be absolutely certain they'd lost, confer quickly with one another, and concede to the other team by typing "GG" into the client chat. In competitive Dota 2 play, this is common. Teams know when they've lost, and it's often better to forfeit, take a breath, and regroup instead of enduring an additional 15-45 minutes of further stomping from the winning team.
To be clear, this isn't a gentleman's agreement — it's a feature of Dota 2 for non-ranked, non-public matches between two parties. Typing "GG" brings up a warning that the game will be forfeited with a large "cancel" button. If there's no cancellation after 10 seconds, the losing team's Ancient collapses.
This is how tournaments in Dota 2 are played. And you absolutely cannot do this in any match in Dota 2 other than scrimmages with friends.
Most games at the international ended with a 'GG'
I have at least a few games every week where the outcome is, like many of TI4's matches, determined 10-15 minutes in. But unlike the professional games that so many people watched this month, my teammates and I are expected to wait out the duration of the ass-kicking the current Dota 2 meta makes it almost impossible to subvert or turn around.
This is further exacerbated by the infuriating tendency of teams who have won this kind of early game to use that dominance to delay the inevitable end. They'll often "farm" the entire map, killing neutral NPC monsters for gold and experience to buy more items and gain additional levels to further snowball into an irresistible force. In this scenario, the losing team has almost no recourse, save for hoping for a massive blunder from the other side. Note: this can happen. It happened during TI4 in a Saturday night match between Chinese teams LGD and DK in what many players are referring to as the worst "throw" (read: waste of a lead) in International history.
In the hundreds of hours I've played Dota 2 with friends, it's almost never losing that breaks our momentum and ends our evening — it's these prolonged beatings that we're powerless to escape from. If we abandon the match, we're in turn matched with players who have also abandoned, a player pool that may charitably be called unpleasant. It's punishment designed to keep players from ditching matches if they don't get their way, which, to be fair, *is* a problem.
But a bigger problem by far is the amount of time I've been forced to spend in matches of Dota 2 that I've already lost. Conservatively I'd put this at 40 hours, but the reality is probably significantly higher. In Dota 2, a game I appreciate in particular because almost every game is a chance to learn more about the game and how to play it, this is the only time I really feel like I've wasted. And it's enough time for me to have played several other games to completion. There's even a term for when a losing team decides not to fight back anymore, instead sitting at their spawn point away from the practical reach of the other team: the "fountain party."
There's a name for it when one team stops fighting back and waits in their spawn: the fountain party
(Unless, of course, the other team has leveled and farmed so much that they can reach into that spawn area, which provides mana and health regen bonuses to friendly characters and shoots death lasers at intruders, and "fountain dive," securing even more kills.)
This is in direct contrast to League of Legends, which does include a surrender option that must be agreed to by multiple players on one side. This presents its own challenges, especially when trying to convince random online teammates that a game is over. But it's something, and for players of Dota 2 like me, who mainly roll with three or more friends on my team, it would be a welcome shift. Instead, we slog through an unwinnable endgame.
This is not newcomer or old-hat friendly. This is not productive in view of the current state of Dota 2's meta. This is bullshit. It makes me angrier than losing would on its own, because time is the one resource I will always have less of.
And it's an issue that Valve's own official world championship broadcast on ESPN demonstrated, as every game of the Grand Final ended not with conquest, but with the opposing team typing "GG." And I don't think the winners of TI4, Newbee, felt like they had accomplished any less because they weren't allowed to do victory laps outside of second-place finishers ViCi's base, buying items, gathering experience, and generally rubbing it in.
Valve can make the changes to Dota 2's meta that they wish, and I'll continue to try to adapt and explore a game I've come to enjoy a great deal. But I shouldn't have to fight so many battles I've already lost to do that.