attacking the ancient: a send-off to dota 2

Last weekend heralded the finals of The International, a gigantic Dota 2 tournament that ran yearly, with an exception for last year due to the pandemic. I stopped playing the game in January 2019, but I still watched the August 2019 finals, and had watched every single one since they started in 2011. I even had planned (when I still played) to go to one of them, because it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime thing to do and I had positive experiences from previous events. This year, however, was the first year that I didn’t watch any of it. In fact, I had almost completely forgotten that it was on, and only realised that the finals had happened because I happened to look at the twitch frontpage on Sunday. For that reason, this seems like a good time to put down my vague thoughts on the game, which dominated a large portion of my life for over ten years.

I started playing Dota 2 from closed beta in 2011, when I transitioned from Heroes of Newerth; a game that had been a safe harbour for people who wanted a dota experience, but didn’t want to play League of Legends. At the time, HoN was the sweatier, grittier partner to LoL’s more user friendly, shinier experience. It had its own…unique problems, poor balance, “early access heroes” (yes, as terrible as it sounds), and a questionable hero design theme the moment they ran out of original dota designs to use. It was essentially killed the moment that Dota 2 appeared, though its zombie has shambled around ever since, not quite dead, not quite alive.

Through Dota I met and played with many people from many different countries, leaving me with a web of friends that is very difficult to explain to anyone who doesn’t come from similar online spheres. It wouldn’t be wrong for me to say that Dota changed the path of my life in a huge way, and I wonder where I would be if I hadn’t known the people that I knew from it. My first forays into the vocal arts were in the Dota 2 sphere, as I casted a couple of very small tournaments and dipped my toe into streaming. I did in-person casts, with the biggest one being an Irish LAN tournament held by one of the bigger names in the community at the time, and I did some online casting alongside it. I never did anything large, but I had reached a point where there were people I knew who only knew me through those casts, which feels like some sort of milestone. It was only after the Irish in-person LAN tournament that I decided a life as a professional caster was not for me (if it was even possible in the first place), and essentially stopped pushing in that direction. The short summary of why was, “casting was ludicrously tiring, and I’m actually not that big a fan of people”. So I stopped, and transitioned into a dedicated player and watcher of Dota.

I watched tournaments: though I wasn’t a huge dota esports person, I enjoyed the in-person events and enjoyed talking about it. I had no shortage of friends who played the game, no shortage of people online who played the game, and no shortage of game content to consume through other avenues as they became available. All of these things are fond memories to me, if not seeming like a bit of a fever dream compared to now. Weird to think that only a few years ago, I was sat at a casters desk belting out surface-level commentary through an increasingly busted internet connection with a group of people I largely didn’t know. Even weirder to think that I went from that, to where I am now.

I throw the word “hate” around a lot, but I genuinely believe it when it comes to Dota. I have developed a deep-seated hatred of the game, which rears its head whenever there’s a chance to vent some of it. This isn’t going to be a post explaining why, because it’d be quite long and only interesting to myself, but the biggest reason is that I felt like I had wasted my time. It had turned from a game that I had thoroughly enjoyed, and through which I had gained many friends, into an absolute chore which made me a more irritable and dislikable human being. This isn’t a unique reason for disliking the game, and in fact, is probably the most common among the group of people I know who went cold turkey. Nobody came out of it feeling like a better person, nobody thinks back on the thousands of hours and goes “that was a valuable use of my time”. These complaints aren’t even coming from a boomer-sphere, “I wish I’d done something other than play those god damned video games!”, they’re an expression of “I wish I had done anything else”. A different video game, board games, card games, other hobbies, anything other than Dota.

It really sits as one of those things where you only realised how sick it was, once you stood outside it. I would look at dotabuff to see my hero winrates, reminisce over previous games, laugh at previous failures. Now I just look at the totality of it, the volume of it, and almost feel a sort of shame. There were days when I played nothing but dota, but didn’t enjoy any of the matches. The whole thing was a self-destructive cycle of “just one more match, just one more match”, needing to justify how shit the experience is right now with the possibility of reaching a high in the next. Friends got angry, I got angry; the whole thing was a perverse nightmare of our own creation. We sought out any explanation for our woes that we could affect: we simply weren’t playing well today, we were using the wrong strats, we were playing with X or Y person, we played with 4 people instead of 5, etc. Everything, except for the actual cause, which was the game itself. We weren’t the problem, Dota was the problem.

After a string of particularly bad matches, I quit. I was playing less frequently at that point, one or two matches every couple of days, but I went completely cold turkey after those games. With most games that I’ve stopped playing, I have a fondness for the time that I did, even when I would never play them again. With Dota however, it seemed like the further out I got from that last game, the more I realised what I had actually been doing. The further out we got, the more I looked at the people who were still looking to play as a sort of drug dealer, someone trying to push another fix onto me. Alternatively as someone who was still stuck on it themselves, and I saw them as someone to be pitied. These negative feelings shouldn’t come about as a result of a video game, but here they were. As I said, I am not the only one to feel this way. In fact, the majority of people I talk to about this say that they’ve felt the same way, which is somewhat comforting if nothing else.

The biggest fear when stopping was that I’d be left with a dota-shaped hole. The friends that I primarily interacted with through Dota would disappear, I’d be longing for some singular thing to fill that gap in the same way that dota did. Neither of these things happened, and I genuinely believe that I’ve become a better person for having stopped playing. I’ve taken up other hobbies, gotten more involved with TTRPGs, played other games; none of which have instilled the same feelings of misery and anger that dota would regularly provide from match to match. I’m coming up on three years since that last match, a number that I wear with a sense of pride, which seems so incredibly theatrical for a video game. I cringe to think of what the pandemic would have been like if I was paying the mental health tax that the game inflicts upon people.

So that’s it really. I liked a video game, I now hate that video game. I could have written a long post, detailing each and every design problem I have with Dota, but I won’t. That would require thinking more about the game than I care to. Happy Monday everyone!

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