When I looked at Dota 2 like a game, I wasn't interested. When I started looking at it like a sport, it hooked me deeply.
There are multiple reasons I started playing Dota 2, but the main inspiration came from an unexpected source: televised sports. Specifically HBO, whose otherwise-excellent Real Sports program ran a very well balanced segment on League of Legends last fall, only to follow it up with an awkward argument between hosts as to whether or not LoL is a sport at all.
This is the same program that ran an exposé on the American Kennel Club's breeding standards this year, all without any discussion of its sports-ness, but I digress.
Getting back into sports as a gateway to video games
The last year has been a sort of renaissance for my interest in sports, and this is entirely due to HBO's phenomenal packaging and editorial direction for sports television. HBO pursues human stories, making everything about the people who participate, whether in a high-profile, organizational manner or otherwise.
They do this so well that I have, over time, made it a point to watch just about anything sports-related HBO broadcasts — they're telling better stories than anybody else in that arena. Other people get excited for the new Game of Thrones. One of my favorite things each month is the new episode of Real Sports.
This has had the side effect of drawing me into the sports that HBO covers more and more. I don't watch hockey or particularly care about it, but their 24/7 series coverage of the 2013 Winter Classic made two teams' mirrored struggles on the way to that legendary annual event got me.
It was about people working together to make something happen. It was about the human story of a team working towards a common goal. And coverage like this has largely shifted my view of team sports, along with, I think, the increased patience for things I've developed as I've gotten older. And though I didn't know it, this laid the groundwork for my introduction to, and expanding interest in Dota 2.
A number of colleagues and friends have picked it up, perhaps in response to last year's The International 3, and they've kept playing. But even then, I've remained skeptical, even dickish about friends' experiences with both Dota 2 and LoL. I didn't think either game was bad, exactly, but the scene around them seemed juvenile from the outside, and, more specifically — and embarrassingly — I think I was jealous of the time friends were spending playing games that I wasn't invested in playing.
I was in over my head right away
But after much resistance, I finally caved late last year. After the disastrous launch of Battlefield 4 and the resounding "meh" that was Call of Duty: Ghosts, it was the only thing anyone I knew was regularly playing. I got tired of waiting around to see if people would get over it. So I found some friends who played together regularly, who had other friends who also played regularly, and did the Dota 2 equivalent of The Sandlot-style tag-along — I was Smalls all the way.
In many ways, I found what I had always assumed Dota 2 and League of Legends were all along: a team-based game where matches took a really, really long time. It was daunting and complicated and I was in over my head right away. I was never intentionally feeding, exactly — what MOBA players call it when a teammate is greedy to the point of getting killed over and over again, feeding the opposing team's heroes gold and experience — but I was not good.
You are a part of a team, and you have a role
It took me a while to realize my biggest challenge was one of mindset, rather than basic skill. But earlier this year, something clicked, and I got it. And the "it" in question is that I was playing Dota 2 like any other multiplayer game, trying to excel the way I would try in any other game. And when I started looking at Dota 2 like a sport, it changed just about everything about how I understood the game.
I stopped asking how I could do well and starting investigating how I could help my team. I got better, but, more importantly, I had more fun. In Dota 2, going rogue, diving after kills, even if I was keeping a "positive" kill to death ratio, could really screw my team. It wasn't just dying that rewarded the other side. "Succeeding" in the wrong way could deprive my teammates of the resources they needed to make late game plays happen.
Yes, I just said plays. Because I've found more and more that Dota 2 often behaves more like a hybrid of soccer, American football, and Diablo-style action RPGs games than any multiplayer shooter or even the realtime strategy titles that were modded to create the MOBA genre. One player can help a team win, for sure. But that player often needs everyone else to play their roles well to make sure that can happen.
Strategy and communication between five different people is the foundation of Dota 2 in a way that it has never been for any other multiplayer game I've gotten into. Dota 2's single map looks more and more like a court and less like a "level" every time I see it.
Dota 2 behaves like a hybrid of soccer, American football, and Diablo-style action RPGs
I think I'm starting to get it. And now I have a new problem. I think about the game a lot. I'm watching replays of professional matches, watching live broadcasts of pro tournaments. I stepped out of my comfort zone out of what could probably be called desperation and now I've stumbled into this whole world, and I'm constantly surprised by how much I don't yet know after putting what Steam claims is around 300 hours into Dota 2 in the last six months.
Just this weekend, I listened to several episodes of Campo Santo's Sean Vanaman and Double Fine's Brad Muir's very personable, very fun podcast Dota Today.
I'm even involved in a recreational games press/game devs Dota 2 tournament in August called The Rektreational, lovingly and jokingly modeled after Valve's upcoming Dota 2 championship The International 4. Meanwhile, preliminary matches for TI4 start today in Seattle, for a prize pool in excess of 10 million dollars, a take-home competitive with any professional sports championship cup in existence. And next weekend, I'm flying to Seattle to see the TI4 finals.
Clearly, I've developed a problem. And I'm more than a little excited about that.