GG WP, DotA
I quit DotA today. (31st March at the time of writing.) Again. After a year. Again. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 2005, having just completed our schooling, a few friends and I began visiting a new specialty gaming café owned by a rich kid. We would spend hours shooting virtual bullets at each other in Counterstrike. It was a great way to stay in touch and pass the time before we scattered ourselves across the world for our college years.
I kept it up until my family, too, left for Canada in 2006, with the intention of emigrating. We were back the next year, having discovered that life in Canada was not for us. Most of my friends were gone, but the café, its manager, and its patrons remained, so I resumed my weekly visits. It was then that someone introduced me to a new game: Defense of the Ancients (‘DotA’), in its ‘DotA Allstars’ incarnation. It was an intriguing evolution of the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) and Role-Playing Game (RPG) genres.
A digression: Strategy games and Shiv
I’ve always been partial to strategy games. My introduction was probably Command & Conquer: Red Alert, but, long after that, I recall playing the demo for a medieval-themed RTS whose first mission had you control a ninja-esque character. I remember almost nothing of it except that it used a fancy new engine which let your character walk up to a gate and vault over it. He didn’t simply appear on the other side, and it wasn’t a cutscene: there was just a regular animation showing him hop over. This was fascinating. All of a sudden, strategy games seemed to have more than just two verbs (moving and shooting), and the environments might no longer be interchangeable static paintings. I only played the demo, so the game itself has faded in my memory, but I’ve never forgotten that important little moment.
When Blizzard Entertainment released the superlative Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (WC3: RoC) in 2002, it was love at first sight for me. This was a far cry from the two-dimensional battlefield of Command & Conquer. The warring factions had few units in play at any given time, and each individual combatant was important. Different kinds of units even had different abilities: some could make other units stronger, others could raise the dead, others still could use spells to directly damage units, and so on and so forth. All that without even mentioning the hero units, like the Priestess of the Moon, who unlocked special abilities and increased their strength as they gained experience, and of whom you could only have one at a time. Even the very terrain and vegetation placed on the map affected your ability to see through the fog of war. The singleplayer campaign—my sole interest, as I never ventured into the world of online multiplayer—was a revolution, with luscious computer-generated cutscenes between missions and superb voice acting telling a compelling tale featuring characters whose struggles and aspirations had the power to move you.
A year later, Blizzard released an expansion pack called The Frozen Throne. This took everything about the existing game and added to it or improved it. It shipped with a special campaign called ‘The Founding of Durotar’, an innovative and exciting melding of RTS and RPG that heralded the future of the genre, though we didn’t know it yet.
WC3 set the bar high for strategy games. Imitators followed; some I enjoyed, but none stood out. I suppose the world was awaiting the next step. Which brings us back to 2007.
Back to the future of the past and the past of the present
It was easy to transition to playing DotA. It used The Frozen Throne’s extremely capable map editor to create a new sort of game (known now as a MOBA or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), more in the vein of the aforementioned The Founding of Durotar than a proper RPG or RTS, with its focus on a single playable hero character and computer-controlled units carrying out their predefined orders. I loved it, once the basics were explained to me—and were they ever basic, in those days. Where once I devoted my time to alternately planting and defusing bombs in Counterstrike, now I spent hours throwing spells at my opponents in DotA, which I saw as a game of endless depth and strategy.
I was drawn further into the game when I discovered the professional circuit, where (apparently) world-famous teams and players tested their mettle at a level far above my understanding: the everyday strategies of the café and Garena (a platform that functioned as a VPN of sorts, deceiving your computer into thinking you were in the same room as people from anywhere in the world, with myriad unavoidable flaws and limitations) were laughed at, and the pool of ‘viable’ heroes was a fraction of the roster. I started to eat, sleep, and breathe DotA. I befriended fellow Garena players. I would play at the café once a week, from home the rest of the time. It became an obsession. And then, around 2008 or 2009, I quit.
It really was quite abrupt. One day, I found myself matched by chance against a friend. I lost badly. It drove home just how unskilled I really was, even after a year of practically seeing the DotA map every time my eyes closed. I realized I was investing my time unwisely. And so I decided, on the spur of the moment, that it was time to end my obsession. I can still remember my friend asking me with some amusement whether this was because I lost. I denied it at the time, but, in retrospect, it was obviously part of the reason.
I spent a day saying goodbye to the people I knew, then uninstalled Garena and Warcraft III. I moved on to other games, never intending to return to DotA.
I did, however, remain a passionate gamer, and followed with interest the battle between Blizzard and Valve as they vied for control over what was rapidly becoming one of the most popular games in the world. I would sometimes miss DotA and toy with the idea of reinstalling it, but the memory of how it took over my life kept my resolve firm.
Then the DotA 2 beta showed up in 2012 and I couldn’t resist the temptation to explore it. I don’t remember much of this, except that I was evidently a worse player than before. This was a brief flirtation. According to my Dotabuff profile, my first game was on the 4th of November, and I kept playing a game or three a day until the 3rd of January. Losing my father in the intervening period, combined with my burgeoning theatre career, had me rethinking my habits, and in January I made the decision to give up gaming entirely.
I didn’t expect to ever take it up again. Sure, I kept following Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but only because I enjoyed their writing and didn’t want to feel cut off from the gaming world. And sure, there were dozens of intriguing trailers and great articles that made me itch to break my vow of abstinence—so to speak—but I was strong.
Until 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill and India was collectively placed under house arrest.
The slow and inexorable return
On the 23rd of March, 2020, India entered a lockdown. It was meant to last three weeks, but this was a bleak, uncertain time. With little hesitation, I installed Sid Meier’s Civilization VI and buried myself in the rise and fall of empires to hide from the outside world.
I’d remained in touch with one of my friends from my schooldays (let us call him Osiris, to protect the identity of my enabler). He had been my occasional partner in the early DotA days. He was living abroad when the lockdown began and his family was dealing with a personal tragedy. Two days in, I asked him if he wanted to play ‘something turn-based’ to keep us occupied—Civilization being foremost in my mind. That was when he tentatively suggested DotA.
I demurred at first on account of how long it had been, but I didn’t put up much of a fight. It was all too easy to reinstall the game I had eyed with yearning every time I opened Steam. I marvelled at all the polish it had acquired in the past eight years. Osiris had been following competitive DotA for the past year or two and was familiar with its newest incarnation, so he invited me to party with him and created a private game with what were apparently much better computer-controlled allies & opponents (bots) than I had ever encountered. I picked Dragon Knight, probably the easiest hero in the game to play; the match started; and then he paused for 20 minutes while he explained the significant changes since my day. I was champing at the bit to get to the fighting, but once we resumed, it became clear just how necessary his explanations had been. Regardless, being back in the game brought all my past knowledge and muscle memory back, and we were soon having a rollicking good time.
After that, DotA became our nightly ritual. Osiris roped in his brother—Darth, let us say—to join us. Darth had been playing since 2013. His skill and experience meant playing from the US on a server in Dubai, with a ping of 200 milliseconds, was a minor inconvenience, especially against bots. A couple of weeks after we started, Osiris introduced me to a pair of friends who were also DotA players (one very new and one with some experience), so we found ourselves making up anywhere from a duo to a quintet on the average night.
We played two disastrous pub games (unranked games against humans), but otherwise restricted ourselves to playing against bots for a solid one-and-a-half to two months. At first, none of us expected the pandemic to last. DotA was meant to be an enjoyable diversion during a brief interlude. As time passed, however, and the future became murkier, we came to look at it differently. Osiris showing us the exhilarating True Sight documentaries from The International 2018 and The International 2019 was a crucial milestone. It was then that I decided I had to work hard at getting better. I wanted to play competitively and, of course, win The International.
The pub game
Having said that, the real catalyst for change was the release of the Battle Pass on the 26th of May. I looked at all the amazing rewards on offer, thought about how much time I had invested in DotA, immediately bought the basic pass—well, as soon as the game would let me, given the massive volume of apparently normal server issues that accompanied it—and promised myself I would only play against humans from then on to unlock everything. Apart from Darth (who had, of course, been playing ranked games for years), my friends were apprehensive, but I had clear goals: play pubs, unlock content, and become the best. My confidence was bolstered by a perfect game I had played just before the release, my first solo victory, which left me exultant and unable to believe how easy it had been.
So, armed with my newfound determination, I entered the fray and lost 20 pubs in a row.
With that sort of record, I abandoned all hope of ever attaining any rewards, what with winning the game being a universal precondition. Nevertheless, disappointment & dejection notwithstanding, I persevered… and found my way to a few genuine, honest-to-God victories. Just a few. Then some losses. Then more victories. And then a cycle of winning a lot, losing a lot, winning a bit, losing a bit, then going back to winning a lot. It was enough to keep the rewards flowing.
Eventually, I had completed the requisite 100 hours of playtime in unranked games, so I gathered all my courage and waded a little further, into ranked games. On the 23rd of June, I completed my 10th ranked match and calibrated at 720 MMR (matchmaking ranking), earning the title of Herald V.
I can’t deny I was secretly hoping DotA would recognize me for the prodigy I was and place me directly amongst the exalted Immortals, but at least I had made a start, even if it was only a step above the bottom rung of the ladder. On the same day, I took over the top of the guild leaderboard.
I never relinquished this lead as long as I was in the guild. Meanwhile, on the 25th of August, I completed one of my goals:
I had unlocked all six Cavern Crawl outfits. I was the only one of our group still playing on the regular by then. For one reason or another, each of the others had more or less stopped. I keenly felt the absence of our little virtual soirées, especially with the exigencies of the interminable pandemic filling my days & nights and no relief in sight.
About a month before the end of the Battle Pass, I got into a game with a few skilled and friendly teammates. We relished decimating our opponents while nattering away and complimenting each other. The next day, I received an invitation to their guild. This put me in a bit of a bind. I was already in a guild with my friends, but ever since the Battle Pass began, I had been frustrated by how little I was able to participate in group activities, because it seemed as if all other guild members (of whom there were a number) were active during exactly those times when I wasn’t. Thanks to my friends having abandoned me and my guildmates being absent, I was never able to complete those challenges which required three or more guild members to play together. I spent two days weighing my options.
In the end, I accepted and joined the other guild. (I explained all this to Osiris, who was taken by surprise but not offended in the least.) Its members were mostly from in or around Dubai. They were active, friendly, and playing on a schedule that suited me. We played together nearly every day. Our games were good, bad, mediocre, wonderful, terrible, embarrassing, delightful—the whole spectrum. Naturally, we quickly became friends. I never regretted my choice.
By the end of the Battle Pass, I had unlocked everything I could through playing and bought my way to the few things I hadn’t. I believe I was at around level 1,300. I kept playing mostly unranked games, but I did sprinkle in some ranked now and then. My MMR didn’t budge from the 700–800 range, which I attributed to the limited time I had spent playing ranked games. I’d had two truly horrible experiences, with my team unfairly pinning the entirety of the blame on me—a common experience for any player, and not one I will miss—which was enough to keep me playing the safer pubs.
Sadly, with time, my new guildmates, too, played less. One left for mandatory military service. Another started working. Yet another would still come online regularly, but we would only occasionally play together. I once again resigned myself to being primarily a solo player. Over the span of a month, I even managed to climb up to 950 MMR, a new high for me… then plummeted to a new low of 670 or 690. ‘The trench’ was a well-known DotA concept with no real definition; like nearly every other player, I felt I was stuck in it, and if only I were able to escape this part of it, I’d easily ascend the rest of the way. I began to despair and avoided ranked matchmaking. Even when the option to recalibrate was made available, I waited; but in December, I activated it out of sheer desperation. I was much relieved when I finished my 10 recalibration matches and found I was now at 1,050 MMR. This motivated me to save ranked for when I was in the right frame of mind, and in this way I carefully made my way to 1,350 MMR. I was on the right path.
Anyone want a boost?
It was around the last week of December. I got into my first ranked game of the day. In the past week, I had decided to play the safe lane more, after realizing I had been avoiding it because of the pressure. Our mid player turned out to be a god compared to the rest of us, and genial & friendly to boot. The match was one of the easiest I ever played. As the game was ending, he commented that games in ‘this bracket’ were ‘so boring’. I asked him if he was smurfing. He said yes.
Afterwards, he asked if anyone wanted a free boost. I was sorely tempted, given how poorly I had been doing recently, but I was well aware that, at best, boosting could only temporarily give me a higher rank. I thanked him for the invitation and politely declined. He insisted. I could only hold out for so long: after the third invitation, I caved, reasoning that it would only be a game or two, after which I’d be back to playing on my own.
We had a few great games, as expected. I thanked him. We bade each other farewell as if it was unlikely we would play again together, even though we were now Steam friends. The next day, I saw him come online and immediately invited him to party. I can’t say I was thinking any more about the futility or morality of boosting. All I knew was that I was enjoying having a teammate who knew what he was doing, and, through it all, we were becoming friends. I learnt more about him. He was from the Phillipines. He was boosting the account for a friend. He had only done it once before, for his girlfriend, and found it tedious. I could sympathize: it seemed a repetitive and boring undertaking.
My new friend took me under his wing and continually imparted excellent advice and guidance before, during, and after our matches. I would ask him many questions about the rationale behind his advice, but only to understand better. I trusted him implicitly.
After that first day, we didn’t play as many games in a day, but we managed to play regularly until around the middle of January. At that point, he regretfully told me he was preparing for a critical undertaking in a few months, and so wouldn’t be able to play much DotA any more. I had continued ascending through the rankings through all this; with his help, I easily gained a few hundred MMR. Now I was back to being on my own and avoiding ranked games, until I was invited to a 5-man party by someone I’d once played against.
Keep your enemies closer
Back when I played with my Dubai-based guildmates, we would on rare occasion dip our toes into the waters of ranked games. Once, we managed to make up a full team of five and felt quite confident, so we got into a ranked game against a team of Indians where I played Mars and destroyed them. Our mid player enjoyed taunting them and gloating. They, on the other hand, were relaxed and amicable. By chance, we ended up playing against them again in the very next game, and this time, with the help of a roster change, they completely reversed our roles. Their mid player returned our mid’s banter from the previous game in a friendly spirit. My teammate didn’t take it well. I, on the other hand, thought our opponents were decent, fun people, based on our conversations in the chat, so I was agreeable when they suggested playing 5v5 lobbies and added us on Steam. Nothing had come of it until now, however.
I accepted their invitation with some trepidation as I knew, from having seen them on my friends list all this time, that they only played ranked. Nevertheless, in spite of my misgivings, we had a very good game. Then another. Then some more. The next day, we did it again. And again, and again. I gladly joined them on Discord at the end of February. It was a nice change to have friends I could talk to about how things were going in India.
In the mean time, some of the new guildmates from last year resurfaced and I resumed playing unranked games with them, even as my smurf friend returned to DotA with his girlfriend in tow. I had more people to play with in March than ever before! Between my solo games, the unranked games with my guildmates, the occasional games with my no-longer-smurfing friend, and these ranked games, I achieved a career high of 1,970 MMR, only two victories away from no longer being ‘a 1K player’. (One victory if I played solo.)
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Rather than claim a couple of easy victories, I steadily, inexorably descended from the 1900s to the 1800s and then the 1700s.
A natural transition
The 25th of March marked a year since I started playing DotA again. It had been a long year, the most difficult of my life, filled with loss and trauma. I had tried to lose myself in DotA and it had worked. The community was awful and reprehensible as a rule rather than the exception, and I lost about half of all the matches I played, as most people do, but the game… the game was beautiful. It entranced me and consumed my waking hours. For that one year.
I noticed midway through March that I wasn’t enjoying my games as much. I was losing too many games and my confidence was ebbing. Even most of my victories failed to satisfy. DotA was starting to feel tedious instead of exciting. Some days, playing the game even seemed like work I was dreading rather than a fun pastime. The sort of behaviour most players displayed, allies and enemies alike, would have been considered execrable in any other situation. Moreover, I was beginning to understand just how much time and effort I would have to devote to the game for years to come if I wanted to even approach the level of a professional. I certainly wasn’t enjoying being as unskilled and low-ranked as I was; no matter whom I played with or against, I lost MMR. Nor was I capable of putting winning or losing out of my head and playing for the fun of it.
I already had a longstanding habit of taking occasional breaks from the game when it became too much. Sometimes it would only last a day; rarely, a week or two. I decided I needed another on the 28th of March. Even though I had just taken a break at the beginning of the month and would have one again at the start of April because of travel, I felt the need to escape DotA. So I uninstalled the game (as I always did on my breaks) and contented myself with catching up on the DPC League qualifiers, which I had nearly finished watching.
The last few rounds of those DPC matches were great. As a new Team Liquid fan, I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting, thrilling, or satisfying ending. Watching this team of spectacularly skilled friends battle their way out of the consecutive 3-way tiebreaker Best-Of-1 games by outdrafting and outplaying their opponents, despite the occasional stumble, was a magnificent treat. I finished the series a day or two after the DPC League proper had started… and I felt no need to see any more. Neither did I feel the constant urge to return to DotA, as on my previous breaks. I had been wondering since the beginning of this break whether it was in truth the end; now I knew.
I was done.
I gave myself a day to be certain. On the 31st of March, I briefly reinstalled DotA 2 for the last time, took some screenshots, and uninstalled it for the last time. Since I enjoy making a fuss over endings, I sent messages to all my friends to let them know I had quit. It took another couple of days to finish those conversations, some brief and some long. Many seemed to think I’d be back. Others didn’t understand why I wouldn’t just play less obsessively. I did my best to explain, but there was only so much I could say. When you know, you know.
Portrait of the Artist as a DotA Player
Here I am, then: officially the last of a quintet of friends to stop playing DotA (though Darth apparently returned to the game exactly as I was leaving, so perhaps I was only the last in the first round of departures!). Allow me to describe myself in DotA terms:
Aankhen was a 1,970 MMR Crusader III (at his peak; 1.7K Crusader II when he quit) player. He mostly played offlane, especially Underlord and Timbersaw (and, once upon a time, Tusk), but he also enjoyed safe laners like Wraith King, Lifestealer, and Drow Ranger. He played a terrible Faceless Void and, surprisingly, either an excellent or a very lucky pre-nerf Spectre. He also enjoyed playing support, particularly Jakiro, one of his favourite heroes, though he’d usually stick to pos 4s like Lina and Dark Willow. He loved Templar Assassin but avoided playing her after coming back to DotA 2 because of how popular she was with more skilled players. He tried to mind the genders when he talked about heroes, while everyone else just kept confusing him. He tried to be positive and was never toxic on his own but had an inane habit of trying to fight toxicity with toxicity. There was a time when he really enjoyed playing Lone Druid. As players, pretty much of all Team Liquid were his heroes, even more ’cause they seemed like genuine, chill friends.
He started playing Morphling very late in his career, but he did have this one great hour-long game (even though he didn’t think he played that well) against an Anti-Mage and a Storm Spirit that he won with a Divine Rapier simply because he itemized for right-click damage. You totally should have seen that one.
Oh, and he really loved his cosmetics, taunts, and the chat wheel. He was way too chatty.
It’s taken me
two weeks over three weeks nearly a month to finish this entry. I haven’t once
felt like I made the wrong decision. Something inside me recoils at even the thought of playing.
Like everyone else on Earth, I would give anything for Covid-19 to never have existed and for me to never have voluntarily resumed the DotA life. So much of my life has regressed. It will take sustained, diligent effort over a long period of time to claw my way back to where I was at the start of 2020, if that ever even becomes a possibility. But there was and is a pandemic, and I embraced DotA wholeheartedly because I needed it. I don’t regret that. I don’t know how I would have survived without it.
One year later, the situation in India is worse than ever before, but it’s time for me to stop just trying to cope. I’m eternally grateful to DotA for having been there for me. Now it’s time to move on and I can’t imagine myself ever coming back, short of another pandemic-like apocalyptic event. I’m too busy doing the work.
GG WP, DotA. GL next.
- A demo! I don’t think I’ve seen one of those in a decade and a half.↩
- Well, I did hang on to Kingdom of Loathing for a few more months. You might almost say I was… loath to leave. Indeed, I’m sure that, had it not been for KoL, I would have been spending most of my day in DotA instead of limiting myself to a few matches each day.↩
- There are eight ranks, from Herald to Immortal, and all but Immortal are divided into five tiers (I through V). From Immortal, the next step is a rank on the leaderboard for the region. The difference between my Herald V and the top ranks of Immortal were around 8,000 MMR at the time and roughly 10,000 when I quit; the difference in skill was night and day.↩
- A smurf is a high-ranked player on a different, low-ranked account—extremely common, for a multitude of reasons.↩
- Boosting refers to a higher-skilled player helping a lower-skilled player unfairly increase their rank, normally by using a smurf account to team up with the lower-skilled player in games the higher-skilled player can easily win, but sometimes through the higher-skilled player taking over the other’s account for a period.↩
- This was soon after watching a BananaSlamJamma ‘Mars educational smurf, 9K player in a 4K game’ video well as his guide to playing the hero. The way he put it, carrying games seemed so simple. I went on a bit of a Mars kick after that.↩
- There had come a time with every friend I had ever made when I saw them overcome by frustration and indulging in the sort of behaviour we all reviled; even I myself would sometimes lose sight of the game in anger at another player’s behaviour, though I always set boundaries I would not cross.↩