You’re not a doofus if you don’t understand Dota 2. I’ve put literally thousands of hours into it and I’m not always sure I understand it. But I do know it’s a lot of fun to watch.
With the 2016 International Dota 2 Championships’ main event set to get underway, maybe you’re curious about what all the $20+ million, 13-million-monthly-player hubbub is all about. But maybe you’re also frustrated — Dota 2 is an extremely complicated game, and clicking on a stream of the game to watch is like jumping into the deep end of a pool with a half-inflated flotation device.
But we’re here to help! We want to help you understand what Dota 2 is, what you might see, and how to watch it as quickly and painlessly as possible. Because this week is likely to see some of the best, most exciting competitive gaming of 2016.
(Or: How I learned to stop worrying about MOBAs and watch a competitive action-RPG)
Dota 2 is, in a nutshell, a competitive action role-playing game. It offers more than a hundred characters, referred to as heroes, each with different abilities that can help their teammates or harm their opponents in a variety of ways. Each player gets one character, and no one else can use that character. Players receive gold and experience for killing AI-controlled units on the map, and receive even more experience and gold for killing players on the other team.
If you’ve played any loot-grinding action game, like Diablo or, hell, even Destiny (kind of), you’ve got the basic idea. There’s more to Dota 2 than that, but this is a good starting point. Kill more stuff, level up, get more abilities, buy better gear. If you’re ever confused, just come back to that.
Dota 2 takes place on the same map every game. It’s a field, kind of like a football or soccer field, except there’s an endlessly reincarnated dragon in a pit and the woods are full of monsters that will attack anyone who gets close. The map is split diagonally down the middle by a river. This is important. When someone refers to "the river," this is what they’re talking about. The bottom left half of the Dota 2 map is "The Radiant" side, which is colorful and vibrant. The upper right half of the Dota 2 map is referred to as "The Dire," and looks corrupted and dying. Teams start on either side, and are then referred to as the Dire or Radiant. Dota 2’s map has a time of day as well, which affects things like how far heroes can see. Some heroes even have abilities tied to the time of day.
Each "side" of Dota 2 has a central structure called an "ancient." The Radiant ancient is at the Radiant base in the lower left-hand corner of Dota 2’s map. The Dire ancient is located in the upper-right corner of Dota 2’s map. The ultimate goal of any Dota 2 match is to destroy the other team’s ancient. This is easier said than done.
Dota 2 matches do not have a time limit. Games will go on until one side’s ancient is destroyed. Most professional matches last 30-45 minutes, anecdotally speaking, though hourlong matches — or longer — aren’t uncommon.
The map in Dota 2 has three main paths, called "lanes." The top lane — or just "top" — runs along the left and top sides of Dota 2’s square map. The middle lane — or "mid," as players call it — runs diagonally from the lower left of the map to the upper right. The bottom lane — "bot" for short — runs along the bottom side of the map and then up the right side. In between each lane is "the jungle," which contains small camps of neutral monsters that will attack anyone who gets close.
The Radiant and Dire bases spawn "creeps." Inside each base, there are three sets of "barracks" — or "racks/rax" in Dota 2 shorthand — that spawn friendly units called creeps. Creeps walk down each lane toward the enemy base, mindlessly attacking any enemy or neutral unit. Radiant creeps attack Dire units and structures, while Dire units attack Radiant creeps and structures.
When creeps are killed, they give experience to any enemy hero within a certain range, and they give extra experience and gold to a hero who delivers a killing blow to them. This is called "last-hitting." However, a player can attack a friendly creep that’s below half health. If a player gets the last hit on a friendly creep, killing it, enemy heroes receive no gold for that creep, and only half the experience they’d otherwise receive. This is called a "deny."
Note: In some special circumstances, players can "deny" their teammates, preventing the other team from getting any gold or experience for that kill. Heroes killed by "neutral" units on the map also give no experience or gold. This is a higher-level tactic employed by players in some situations to keep their opponents from gaining an experience or gold advantage from a kill.
Each lane is protected by towers. The lower left side of the map is protected by Radiant towers, and the upper right is protected by Dire towers. Radiant towers attack Dire units, and Dire towers attack Radiant units. There are three towers in each lane. The towers closest to the river are called the "Tier 1" towers. Between the entrance to each base and the Tier 1 towers are "Tier 2" towers, and the entrance to each side’s base is protected by a Tier 3 tower. Towers must be destroyed in order — the Tier 1 tower has to fall before the Tier 2 tower can be attacked, and so on. A team’s ancient is protected by a pair of Tier 4 towers.
Once a lane’s towers fall, barracks can also be destroyed. If a barracks is destroyed, creeps will still spawn in that lane, though they will be weaker, which allows the other team’s stronger creeps to get closer and damage the enemy ancient. If all of a team’s barracks are destroyed, the other team is rewarded with "mega creeps," which are much more powerful units that even many heroes will have difficulty dealing with effectively. Mega creeps can easily destroy buildings, given the opportunity.
These are the basics. With that info, you should be able to watch a game of Dota 2 and have a basic idea of what’s going on.
But there’s a lot more to the game than that, obviously. Dota 2 is as much about the way players interact with each other as anything else. Let me try to explain.
Before the game begins, there’s the draft. During the draft, each team takes turns banning some heroes, which prevents either team from selecting them, and picking heroes for their players. The back-and-forth of the draft is almost a game unto itself as each team’s drafter tries to think steps ahead of the other team, denying them the heroes they want and the strategies they plan to carry out, while securing the tools needed to win. You’ll often hear casters say a game was won or lost in the draft, and this isn’t an exaggeration.
Dota 2 has 111 heroes, each with their own unique sets of abilities and quirks that evolve and grow as they gain experience and level up. Generally speaking, a Dota 2 character has three "normal" abilities and one "ultimate" ability, but they can’t pick them all at once. Instead, players receive one point per level to unlock an ability, to level up an already-unlocked ability to make it more powerful, or to increase their basic attributes, or "stats." Stats determine how much health a hero has, how many spells they can cast (their "mana pool"), how fast they attack, and the degree to which incoming damage is reduced, which is referred to as "armor."
Ultimate abilities, or "ults," aren’t available for most heroes until they reach level six, which is important. The tempo of a Dota 2 match begins to accelerate and change when more and more heroes unlock their ultimate abilities. Ults are usually very powerful, but take more time to become available again than most other abilities.
Heroes in Dota 2 aren’t limited to what they were "born" with. Instead, they can use gold to purchase items from one of Dota 2’s shops. Every player can hold a maximum of six items at a time.
There are three kinds of places for players to purchase items. Basic shops in either base sell consumables, items that can be used a limited number of times for various purposes, like regenerating health or mana out in the map; town portal scrolls, which allow the user to teleport to a friendly structure like one of their towers or their base; and the like. These shops also sell more expensive items that provide boosts to a hero’s stats or actually give them new abilities, like instantly teleporting a short distance — or "blinking" — or pushing themselves or another player. More powerful items can’t be bought outright. Instead, they’re built by buying a specific set of other items that then combine into something new.
You’ll often hear casters or other players refer to specific heroes as "item-dependent." This means that character needs specific items to become truly effective. For example, if a character can cast a spell that completely immobilizes any enemy hero caught within it, but lacks an ability to catch those heroes with that ability, they might want to buy a blink dagger, the item providing the aforementioned instant teleport. Without that item, the player’s ability to use their abilities is diminished. Other heroes can do a lot of damage up close, but can be quickly eliminated by spells. These characters might need a BKB, which will render them immune to all but a few extremely powerful spells for a limited amount of time.
Items are important, is what I’m saying.
Dota 2 teams will play around time-based factors for the duration of every match. If a hero that needs a blink dagger to be effective finally has one, it might be time to catch the other team off guard with that. If an ultimate is available, it might be time to secure a kill or destroy a tower. Conversely, if the other team has used a powerful ult unsuccessfully, that provides their enemies with a window to secure an advantage. And if the other team’s item-dependent heroes aren’t doing as well as they need to in order to make those big purchases, smart opponents put more pressure on that team while they have an advantage. You might hear casters refer to "tempo control" — this means heroes and strategies that allow teams to better force the rhythm of a game.
While Dota 2 heroes can be somewhat flexible in how they’re played, in part due to items, players tend to fall into a few specific roles. Sometimes these roles are referred to by numbers, from Position 1 to Position 5, which refers to their farm priority — that is, who is given the most opportunity to amass gold and experience through killing, or "farming," neutral and enemy units. This is in ascending order of the player who is given the most farm.
Support players are responsible for buying consumable items for the team, like wards, which give their team vision of an area of the map. Support heroes often have healing or defensive abilities that keep their teammates alive. Some supports also have abilities to hold enemy heroes in place, in order to allow their teammates to attack more or prevent enemies from getting away. This is often referred to as crowd control, or "CC" — teams without CC can have a hard time securing kills on enemies that have a means of escape. Support heroes also often have spells that do a lot of comparative damage early on, before their enemies have time to buy more expensive items providing additional health or spell resistance. This makes supports very important in the early going, though they lose some damage potential in later periods of a match.
Supports are either Position 4 or Position 5. Position 5 supports will spend most of a match broke, constantly buying wards and other consumables for their team ahead of their own immediate needs. Position 4 supports are often responsible for starting fights or making sure enemies don’t get away, and are more item- and/or level-dependent to be effective parts of their team.
Offlane or Position 3 players are sent to the bottom lane if Dire, and the top lane if Radiant. "Offlanes" are the most dangerous for each team, with the least safe space to sit next to the constant waves of enemy creep units to earn experience and gold. Offlane roles are often "initiators" — characters that start, or "initiate," a fight with the other team — or even counter-initiators to regain control when the other team attempts to start a fight. Offlane heroes are usually "cores" for their team, responsible for much of a team’s damage in the early- to mid-game period of a match.
Midlane or Position 2 heroes are characters that benefit from having the most farm quickly. Because the middle lane of the Dota 2 map is the shortest distance between the Radiant and Dire sides, creep waves meet in the middle of the lane much more quickly, resulting in more opportunities to secure last hits and experience for players who lane there. Position 2 heroes often have devastating ultimate abilities that can assert an early advantage over the other team, and are almost always the first to reach level six in a game. These players will often be responsible for much of their team’s damage until the late-game stage of a match.
Carry or Position 1 heroes are so called because they "carry" their team. More specifically, carry players select heroes that become very powerful with experience and items, and they usually become the primary damage dealer for their team. Carry heroes are often weaker early in a game, making them a target of the other team’s support heroes, and restricting their progress can be the difference between winning and losing. Carry players tend to be the most exciting to watch, making the riskiest, most dynamic plays — their skill can often turn the game in their team’s favor.
Generally speaking, the most gold and experience in Dota 2 is awarded for killing an enemy hero. But this number, unlike for every other unit in the game, is not static. Instead, heroes are worth more and more gold and experience the higher level they are and more their "net worth" — that is, the higher the overall value of all their items. In addition, as players secure kills, a bounty is added to their head, and the more kills they score without being killed in return, the higher the bounty gets. Heroes with particularly large killstreaks might be worth thousands of gold if killed.
As with enemy creeps, when killed, heroes give experience to enemy players nearby. But unlike with creeps, heroes also give gold to all nearby enemies, and the hero who gets the last hit on an enemy player is awarded the kill and extra gold.
This system introduces one of Dota 2’s comeback mechanics: If a team is losing badly but can win one or two good fights, or secure just a few high-value kills on their opponent, the "gold/experience swing" — that is, the change in net difference between the two teams, economically and experience-wise — can get the losing side back in the game in a meaningful way.
Stacking: Neutral camps around Dota 2’s maps will spawn new creatures if those camps are empty when the in-game clock reaches the :00 mark every minute. If a player can draw a camp’s creatures out at just the right time, this will "stack" the camp, allowing for multiple camps’ worth of neutrals in one camp. Heroes with abilities that allow them to attack multiple enemies at once can often take advantage of this to farm more efficiently.
Ancient creeps: There are special, extra powerful neutral creeps on Dota 2’s map referred to as "ancient creeps." Ancients are much harder to kill, but yield much more gold and experience than other neutral camps. Supports will often stack ancient camps for carry players to farm once they’ve become powerful enough to do so.
Roshan: Roshan, or "Rosh" for short, is a unique ancient unit powerful enough that teams may have to work in concert to destroy him. Killing Roshan yields a great deal of gold and experience, but the main prize is the Aegis of the Immortal. The hero that picks up the Aegis will, when killed, respawn again a few seconds later with full life and full mana. Roshan lives in a "pit" that has only one entrance, making it risky for the team attempting to kill him. If their opponents interrupt, they will generally have a very strong positional advantage. Many games turn on a single bad engagement in "the Rosh pit."
High ground: There are varying degrees of elevation on Dota 2’s map, referred to as high ground and low ground. High ground provides an absolute tactical advantage — heroes on low ground need an allied unit (or ward) on the high ground to see enemy units and to attack them, and attacks uphill have a chance to miss. The entrances to each base are elevated, making it difficult for the opposing team to attack. Many teams have difficulty taking high ground, and the fights they lose doing so can swing the game in their opponents’ favor, thanks to Dota 2’s comeback mechanics.
Fortification: Each team has the ability to make its structures invulnerable for a limited amount of time. You’ll know it by a golden glow (it’s identical to the effect present on heroes with a BKB active). Fortification takes five minutes to recharge, though the destruction of any of a team’s Tier 1 towers will reset the cooldown on fortification immediately.
It’s a lot of stuff. I get it. Even the most basic information about Dota 2 can seem intimidatingly complex. So let’s summarize.