Hello, I am a DOTA Dunce. Tim McDonald is the DOTA 2 player around here, but although he’s managed to drag me into a couple of (bot) games I’ve not converted to the cause. That’s probably for the best, since I already don’t have enough time to play the games I actually want to.
I’m not about to pick up DOTA 2 on even a pathetic and amateurish level, but it still interests me professionally. I write about games for a living, and it’s obvious from the sheer number of MOBAs attempting to ram themselves into the marketplace’s metaphorical middle aeroplane seat between the morbidly obese forms of League of Legends and DOTA 2 that this genre is a big deal.
At any given time of day DOTA 2 seems to have upwards of about half a million players online. The International 4 is being held the 17,000-seater KeyArena in Seattle and will be watched online by hundreds of thousands more. ESPN are broadcasting it for god’s sake. Whatever statistics you care to pull out, they speak for themselves. I believe this is something every games writer should at least have a passing familiarity with.
Ever the helpful company (or one eager to ensnare fresh meat,) Valve has set up a special International stream for the DOTA-Deficient people such as myself. It’s called the Newcomer’s Stream (inevitably shorted to the newbie stream, the noob stream or whatever else you want to dub it) and you can watch it over here like the rest of The International 4. You can’t click through to a specific game with the newb stream, which is slightly annoying, so if you have a specific match in mind you have to sift manually through the entire days footage.
Article headlines that end in a question are always pretty annoying if they’re not answered in the text, so I’ll get right to doing that. No, in my experience the newb stream can’t teach DOTA. But also yes, it sort of does. It’s complicated. Sorry.
You won’t learn how to play DOTA 2 to any kind of high-level standard, but it can certainly convey enough information for you not to embarrass yourself in a future DOTA 2 conversation. You know, so when you’re at a dinner party and the Lady Marquess de Duchess asks you what you think of Tidehunter’s ultimate you won’t dishonour your family by looking confused and humiliated.
It’s a process of knowledge osmosis. Just as you won’t suddenly turn into the guy who writes Zonal Marking after watching one World Cup, you won’t be in the running for that $5 million International grand prize after seeing a handful of matches on the newb stream. But you will slowly find yourself recognising things and pre-empting what the presenters on the stream are going to say because, by the magical power of memory retention, you actually know what they are.
The presenters have to engage in a sort of willful regression, where every piece of jargon that would normally flop off the tongue without additional comment (and DOTA 2 has a lot of this) is accompanied by an explanation. It’s quite a skill, describing something you’re knowledgeable about in such a way that people with far less understanding will be able to follow. From what I’ve seen of the Newcomer’s Stream, they do an admirable job.
Every DOTA 2 game opens with the banning / hero selection phase (I guess this is called a “draft” but I’d prefer that term be reserved for beer.) As one of the comparatively ponderous periods in a DOTA 2 match, this is a useful time for the stream to comment on individual heroes and their respective skills. They’re often able to go a bit deeper too, explaining why a pair of heroes might work well together or how one team is set up for a particular strategy. For example, I learned that Bane’s freezing skill and Mirana’s arrow … thing (look, I’m sorry, I didn’t learn specific ability names) were a handy combination. Occasionally you get extra little insights like one player’s special affinity for a particular hero.
This is also the time when there’s talk of whether a hero will be a carry, or a support or maybe some kind of bizarre carry/support hybrid depending on very specific circumstances. The sort of thing Tim discusses in his DOTA 2 guides, basically. Again, it’s the repetition which helps most here. It doesn’t take many viewings before you’re aware that carries are the guys who get much better towards the end of the game but require protection and other team assistance until they reach that point.
All of the above gets reiterated during the matches themselves too, but the presenters have to contend with the fact that at any given moment there might be a surprise 5v5 hero clash. To the untrained eye these just look like an explosion in a particle effects software package, so after the hosts have got excited for a bit they have to calm down and offer some kind of post-fight analysis. These, again, are usually pretty good, focusing on what each team’s hero was trying to do and why the team who came off best was able to do so. It often feeds back into the ability-chat that’s been had throughout the match.
You do pick up some quirks of DOTA 2 strategy too. At one point, a guy playing Sand King just got himself killed in order to get back to the base quicker. Not always an ideal plan, obviously, but it fit those particular circumstances. I also learned about the process of ‘stacking’ creeps for later consumption (and the hilarity that ensues if the opposing team manages to eat them first.)
In one Newbee vs Titan third phase playoff match, there was a super-early Roshan rush that caught Titan by surprise and ultimately led to their rapid defeat. As was often repeated, DOTA 2 is a game where having a one hero advantage in a fight is huge. Roshan’s Aegis of the Immortal items gives teams an effective extra man, so getting away with downing him early was apparently a major boost. Lane tactics, creep (and tower) denying are all dutifully covered when they occur too.
See that paragraph above? It’s almost like I have some vague clue what I’m talking about. That’s not the case when it comes to items though. Despite the best efforts of the newbie commentary teams, I’m not really clear on those. There’s the one where you can eat a tree. Something called a Blink Dagger which is situationally useful. A Black Bar that helps you ward off magic, maybe? Okay, maybe I did pick a couple of things up.
The general newbie stream approach to items seems to be “it’s extremely complicated … so don’t worry about it too much.” Important item usage is described and explained as it happens, which is probably the only sensible way of dealing with DOTA 2‘s myriad item combinations and tactics.
Due to the nature of what was at stake in the Newbee vs Titan third phase playoff (one team going home with $50,000 USD, the other guaranteed at least $500,000,) that particular three match contest was pretty engaging. The fact that the second match was a protracted comeback that kept Titan in the running, followed by an almighty collapse, was also quite a familiar hard-luck story that could’ve come from any sport you care to name. As a fan of an inconsistent League One football side, I can sympathise.
The newb stream hasn’t turned me into a DOTA 2 convert (sorry Tim,) but I got more out of the matches than I was expecting to and it’s undeniable that I learned a thing or two about the game (as well as it’s most professional players) in the process. Other near-impenetrable eSports type game communities could definitely stand to learn from this kind of presentation. Maybe then I’d have a clue what’s going on during top-level FPS encounters or Fighting Game championships.
If you’re looking at the final brackets of The International 4 today and feel a nagging sensation in your head that could be mistaken for interest, give the Newcomer’s Stream a try. It may not convince you to devote hundreds of hours to DOTA 2, but at the very least it’ll portray the game as something significantly less esoteric and alien.