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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

July 26, 2014 at 10:12 PM

Dying for ‘Dota 2’: My newbie attempt to understand the richest game in e-sports

The crowd at KeyArena watches the action on giant screens while teams compete from booths below at the "Dota 2" tournament The International. (ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

The crowd at KeyArena watches the action on giant screens while teams compete from booths below at the “Dota 2” tournament The International. See more tournament photos. (ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)


Ten minutes into my first game of “Dota 2,” I had managed to master one thing.


“SpadeSpouse, back up. Back up, SpadeSpouse. Aaaaand you’re dead.”

“Dota 2,” or “Defense of the Ancients,” is the fantasy-themed team strategy game that sold out Seattle’s KeyArena in less than an hour for the richest video-game tournament ever held, The International.

In-depth tutorials guide new players through the basics of "Dota 2." This one, featuring the hero "Dragon Knight," covers game mechanics. Stupidly, I skipped it. (Screenshot from Valve Software)

In-depth tutorials guide new players through the basics of “Dota 2.” This one, featuring the hero “Dragon Knight,” covers game mechanics. Stupidly, I skipped it. (Screenshot from Valve Software)

I watched from the stands last week as teams of five battled for a piece of the record-breaking $11 million prize pool that Chinese team Newbee would go on to devour with its $5 million tournament win.

For the competition, players leaned into monitors in soundproof booths onstage as their glowing, monstrous avatars, or “heroes,” moved around a wooded map on a giant screen behind them.

Every time the crowds of mostly young, almost all male fans stood up and cheered, I stared at the screen like an idiot.

What the hell just happened? And why is this clash of spells and minions run by Bellevue-based Valve Software so dominant in the rise of professional e-sports?

If watching the game didn’t help me understand, playing it, I thought, might.

So last week, I asked my daily gamer of a husband, known online as “Spade,” to rally a couple of his competitive “Dota 2” buddies to walk me through my first game, blithely skipping the game’s own built-in tutorials.

Of course, I ruined everything.

The first thing to know about “Dota 2” is that like all MOBAs, or multiplayer online battle arena games, it’s terrifyingly social.

Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 10.13.20 PM

In the first 15 minutes, you’re supposed to fan out, kill wandering minions and dodge major threats like opposing heroes as you build your team’s collective powers, money, inventory and magical abilities for use in late-game attacks. You want to be strong enough to bring down the opposing team’s defenses and ultimate bad guy, the “Ancient,” while defending your own.

There’s no restarting. No leaving. No hitting “pause.” Screw things up and you hurt your whole team — not just during the game, but in the rankings that push players to get better.

So all my deaths were kind of a drag.

“You sure these were the easiest bots we could play?” my teammate John, or “jDa,” said from Pennsylvania on the team’s audio channel minutes before we forfeited the game. He was referring to the computer-controlled opponents we took on instead of the standard team of real online players. That, at least, was a mercy.

I’m no complete stranger to online gaming, so it became clear fast that “Dota 2’s” competitive popularity has nothing to do with its being easy.

“It’s very hard to learn,” my teammate Tom, or “StickyFish,” said from Los Angeles, using a ruder two-syllable word for “very.”

“Dota 2” rose on its economics, its community and, most of all, its mechanics.

First off, it’s free. And it’s prominently available on the world’s most powerful gaming distribution channel — Valve’s own Steam platform.

Twenty million people play it, trading tips and items and building thriving subcultures that Valve has encouraged and empowered with grace.

But the biggest reason “Dota 2” is taking e-sports to the edge of the American mainstream, along with other titles like “Starcraft II” and “League of Legends,” is competition. Like any good sport, it’s about skill, not chance — layers and layers of it. Ambitious players build winning strategies in hero deployment, item and ability use, game pacing, team interplay and opponent surveillance.

The fantasy theme? It’s just a costume.

“You think NFL players care what color their uniform is?” Tom said.

After forfeiting the first game, we tried again. This time, I understood how to stay mobile, stay cautious, stay equipped and stay alive.

I’d have gotten nowhere without John, Tom and teammate Jesse’s patient tutorship (thanks, guys) and have hours to go before I get even a remote grasp of the larger strategy.

But when I dealt some of the final blows to the opposing team’s Ancient — just a couple lightning strikes from my glowing blue hero, Razor — I wasn’t so scared of screwing up.

I was having fun.

It’s not a million dollars, but hell, I’ll take it.

Update:In another newbie faux pas, I initially wrote “Dota 2” stood for “Death of the Ancients.” It’s “Defense of the Ancients.” Thanks to the fans who so nicely pointed out a pretty bad error.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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