PC Gamer

Valve has announced that tickets for the 2015 edition of the Dota 2 International will go on sale on March 27 in two separate "waves," the first beginning at 10 am PDT and the second at 10 pm PDT.

Fans who want to make the trip to Seattle to see the big event live and in person may buy tickets from either or both waves, but will be limited to a maximum of five per household. Tickets will sell for $99 each and seating will be general admission only (please don't fight), although Valve said that information about "the VIP experience" will be released at some point in the future. Last year's VIP package cost $499 per person, so you can likely expect something in a similar range this time around.

This year's International, pitting the top 16 teams against one another in a take-no-prisoners brawl for the belt, will run from August 3-8 at the KeyArena in Seattle, Washington. Tickets may be purchased via this link to Ticketmaster; if you're not comfortable with time zone conversions, hit up this handy automatic converter to find out when you need to be in line.

PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.

League of Legends has one. StarCraft II has one. Hearthstone has one. Smite has one. Seasonal ladders are a standard component of most modern competitive games, and lately I've been wondering why Dota 2 is absent from that list—particularly as Valve continue to tweak the MMR system.

I'm no fan of the way the MMR system has been implemented, nor do like the effect it's had, over time, on the Dota community. Valve's approach has always been inconsistent—or at least, they've not been transparent about their reasoning. Way back when, your matchmaking rating was hidden, the thought being that a visible rating would just lead players to obsess over it (that thought was correct). Later it was made visible and now the average MMR of each team is displayed at the start of the match, with the highest-rated players indicated in each case. Valve's slow U-turn is finally reaching its end.

I imagine we'll see the obvious problems that this has introduced shake themselves out over time—people will stop granting mid automatically to the highest-rated player, games will become less about ensuring that the enemy's best guy has a bad time—but, to me, it feels like Dota 2 has arrived at a strange middle ground. Competitive rating systems have two purposes: to ensure that players are matched with equally-skilled opponents, and to provide players with a goal—a way to gauge their improvement. Dota 2's system works reasonably well for the former, but it's terrible at the latter.

The current MMR system is visible enough to define how most people perceive their value as players, but the task of significantly altering your MMR is so monumental that it's out of reach of all but the most dedicated. Plenty of studies have been done that show that, eventually, your MMR will rise or fall appropriately—it is certainly possible to improve your rank as long as you're sufficiently dedicated and capable. That isn't in doubt, nor is the achievement of those players who have managed to significantly improve their position.

It certainly is an achievement—improving your rating by a notable amount (normally a matter of thousands of points) takes months and requires a huge investment of time. It is a marathon: grueling, unforgiving, and, a lot of the time, really unpleasant. The Dota community gets some of its best qualities from that process. It also gets a lot of its worst ones. Playing the MMR game feels a lot like wading through a mire: progress is incremental and your destination is always very far away. Also, the mire is full of dickheads. You look down; the mire is dickheads.

Personally, I see no reason why the current system couldn't work as the basis for a faster, more gratifying ladder system. In addition to improving my MMR slowly over time, I'd love the ability to play for a position within a monthly ladder, with tiers of performance—master, diamond, gold, and so on—that give you a sense of your general skill level at that time. In particular, I think being able to do this with a dedicated stack would fill in a gap between pub play and in-house leagues that Dota 2 currently desperately lacks. The best option available to beginner teams at the moment is JoinDota League, and that's both sporadic and a competitive tier above what most people will be looking for.

The great thing about time-limited ladders is that they provide a clear goal and they let you know whether you've succeeded or failed in a reasonable amount of time. That simply doesn't exist for Dota 2 at the moment: you're either in for the long haul or you're not in at all. While you could argue that Dota 2 is set aside from its competitors by this very fact—that it's Dota because there's no 'quick' option—I don't think ladders would make the game any less competitive. In fact, I think it'd make it more competitive. And—crucially—I think it'd make it friendlier.

The lie of MMR—and I've said this before—is the idea that it represents you all of the time. Your MMR is an average—that means that you will sometimes play better than your rating, and you will sometimes play worse than it. If your rating says '4000', you are not a 4K player every day, or even every game. An awful lot goes into a game of Dota, and you're only as good as you are capable of being in that moment.

The problem with the current system is that it suggests that MMR is forever: this is only true if you only play ranked, and you play it all the time. The advantage of a ladder is that it is located in time. I can say 'I was a rank 12 Hearthstone player in March last year' and that will remain true regardless of my current skill level. This encourages a bit of necessary perspective—each new ladder is proof of whether you've improved or slipped—and discourages you from obsessing over any particular rating. People still do, of course—but the system itself plays against it.

This can only be healthy for Dota 2. I'd love to see Valve make the switch—or explain, in a detailed way, what they're hoping to achieve with the current system.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer
Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.

The International is less than six months away. That doesn't feel quite right—I'm pretty sure last year's tournament was two weeks ago, but whatever. It's coming in August, it's very likely to be back at KeyArena in Seattle, and a lot of fans, myself included, will be looking for the event to recapture a bit of the spirit that was lost in 2014.

That's not to say that TI4 was a bad event—not at all. It felt like a much bigger deal than the Benaroya Hall Internationals did. The scope of everything involved was larger, from the prize pool to the merchandise. But it was also a colder event, less intimate, which perhaps goes with the increase in size but does not necessarily need to. Having more fans in the building should make for a more energetic show, but TI4 moved in the opposite direction.

With that in mind, there are a few changes I'd like to see this year. The key thing, though, is that the Valve need to re-establish an understanding of what type of event The International is. Esports tournaments traditionally fall somewhere on a spectrum between 'fan convention' and 'sporting event', and Dota 2 has been no exception to that. In the main, however, it comes down closer to 'sporting event', with less emphasis on things like cosplay competitions and, over time, a reduced focus on the Steam Workshop or voice actor meet-and-greets.

TI4's biggest problems emerged when the 'convention' part of the equation started to intrude upon the 'sport' part. That's where I'd start.

Rethink the Secret Shop

If you needed any more evidence that cosmetic items have a strange, powerfully detrimental affect on esports, look at last year's International. The Secret Shop was a very slick, efficient operation with a two part ordering system designed to move people in with their money and back out with their stuff as fast as possible.

Even this, however, was not enough to prevent the line for the Secret Shop from occupying most of KeyArena's mezzanine for the full duration of every day. When huge chunks of your audience are standing in line for hats (actual hats, this time) rather than watching the sport they came to see, something has gone wrong. Unless you're trying to create a live-action version of the Year Beast event, in which case good job.

The issue is ultimately that the Secret Shop will always draw people away from the main event regardless of how efficient it becomes. The lure of hats is like a gas; it expands to fill the available space. The only answer, I think, is to turn the Secret Shop into a mail order service. You should order and pay for goods online and, in the case of International-specific items, be given a collection time at the event when you can go and pick up your stuff. If you miss it, have general 'free for all' periods at the end of the day when all of the games have been played.

The Secret Shop needs to become something that you jump up from your seat and do in 20 minutes between games, not something you commit an afternoon to. And that means giving Valve as much control as possible over how many people arrive and when. Ultimately, it'd be awesome if they looked into something like Disney's MagicBand. They have the resources for it, after all.

Every team plays on the main stage

I hope that this one is already in the bag: after all, this year's event will run for a full six days. The problem with 2014's structure was that it underestimated the value of pre-existing narratives to sport. They can be limiting, sometimes: teams, scenes and metagames change, and fans should be encouraged to change along with them and not expect the same 'el clasico' matches every year.

On the other hand, those events have a unifying effect that helps the community cohere. Even if it takes place in the opening stages of a long bracket, people will pack the stands to watch EG vs. Secret as they would have packed the stands for Na'Vi vs. Alliance last year. You need those moments, and you can't reliably get them if the majority of the tournament happens in a hotel a week before the live event.

Having a structure that guarantees at least one main stage game for every team vastly reduces the risk involved. Functionally, it insures the tournament against sudden changes—which is exactly what happened in 2014, when the competitive meta shifted a few times and left fan-favourite teams behind. I'd say that was less likely this year, but it's never off the table and the event needs to account for it.

Figure out how to make All Star matches work

They're such a no-brainer on paper, but it's weird how often just-for-fun 'All Star' matches fall flat. There's a lot to account for: players not being invested in the games, the audience feeling disconnected from whatever is going on in the booths, the games running too long, the games running too short, the showrunners having a particular gag in mind, and so on.

There are two I can think of has having worked well: The International 2013 and The Summit 2. In both cases it's because there's a strong link between the teams and the audience—either directly, in TI3's case, or implied by BTS' 'this could be happening in your house' deal.

That's harder to achieve in a larger arena, and it can be a real energy-sapper if the match enters a slow midgame—which is what happened last year. Nontheless, I don't think gimmicks are the solution—the solution is ensuring that the players are into it and that the audience get a sense of that. Part of that is down to the selection of players (which may well be down to a Compendium vote) and part of it is down to timing. If there isn't a time when it makes sense to have an All Star event without eating into players' schedules, it might not be worth doing.

All Star matches are, ultimately, part of the 'fan convention' part of the equation—and you can tell when it's being treated like an obligation rather than a fun diversion. Like The International as a whole, what I'd like to see in 2015 is an approach that identifies what makes these events special and makes a concerted effort to not only capture that spirit, but ultimately exceed it. The odd slightly-flat event is fine, but two in a row signifies a troubling loss of momentum.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

Show us your rig

Each week on Show Us Your Rig, we feature PC gaming's best and brightest as they show us the systems they use to work and play.

This week's Show Us Your Rig is a special one as we feature our first—and hopefully not last—e-sports player. Jimmy "DeMoN" Ho is a professional Dota 2 player who's been playing DOTA and Dota 2 competitively since 2011. His rig and setup are slim but very powerful, sporting a GTX Titan Black. DeMoN was nice enough to take some time to tell us about he setup and how, predictably, he plays a lot of Dota 2. Classic Jimmy. 

What's in your PC?

  • PC - Falcon Northwest Tiki 2014
  • CPU - Intel Core i7-4770K processor
  • MOBO - Asus Z78I Deluxe motherboard
  • Ram - 16GB of RAM
  • GFX - EVGA GeForce GTX Titan Black GPU
  • 450W power supply
  • 8x DVD+-RW drive, along with two 1TB Corsair M550 SSDs, striped in RAID 0.
  • Windows 8.1, 64 bit
  • Keyboard - Logitech G710+
  • Mouse - Logitech G302 Daedalus Prime
  • Headset - HyperX Cloud ll
  • Webcam - Logitech C920

What's the most interesting/unique part of your setup?

The fact it's not your traditional large desktop and can fit just about anywhere measuring in a measly 14" x 4" x 14" being accommodating for smaller offices/rooms.

What's always within arm's reach on your desk?

My tower fan to keep me cool from the Southern California heat outside of Winter time.

My portable Dr Dre Speaker Pill to bump some music whenever I'm not gaming.

Water bottle and Red Bull to keep me hydrated and energized in case of those long hours of practice games, matches or streaming.

Phone, always got to have the phone by your side.

[Update: Jimmy sent us some extended answers to following two questions.]

What are you playing right now?

Right now I'm only playing Dota 2. We are preparing for a couple of major events such as Red Bull Battle Grounds which has a $75,000 base prize pool and I-League which has a $200,000+ prize pool. My team and I are are practicing at least 6+ hours a day and even more individually, playing in house or pub games.

What s your favorite game and why?

Before Dota came around, my love for gaming came from Pokemon Red and Blue on GameBoy which was almost 15+ years ago now haha. Now my favorite of all time is Dota 2, because of how the game is consistently changing whether it be buffs/nerfs to heroes or significant changes to the map alone. I've been playing this game for over 11 years now and it's still entertaining to play after all these years. 

PC Gamer

You may think Goat Simulator is a lighthearted game about goats doing un-goatlike things, but it's actually a vehicle for a much more sinister ploy. Soon goats will takeover the virtual world. Instead of Minecraft Creepers there will be Minecraft goats. Instead of Final Fantasy Chocobos there will be Final Fantasy goats. Instead of Kevin Spacey there will be a goat. 

With the help of Goat Simulator devs Coffee Stain Studios, goats may soon feature in Dota 2 in the form of a courier. The twist is that users have to vote the goat in. If you want to be complicit in the goat takeover, you can vote here

If you need convincing (and you do), then here's a video. Just think this through carefully before casting your vote, okay? 

PC Gamer
Clockwerk. Because, you know, clocks. Time. Clocks.
Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.

A confession: I've not had a huge amount of time for Dota 2 this past week. I've found myself playing more Heroes of the Storm than I expected—despite my misgivings about the game's business model, it's picked up a following among friends who wouldn't touch this genre in any other form. Short on time, I've also been dipping into Smite's single-lane, three-on-three Joust mode. This, also, is a game I'm just learning. Between these two experiences, I've spent a bunch of time thinking about the few genuinely transferable skills that two thousand hours of Dota has given me, and the foremost of those is timing.

Timing is, I think, the most important single thing that newcomers to lane-pushing games need to get a handle on. Until you understand concepts like tempo and how it relates to overall strategy, a huge part of the skill of winning will be beyond you. When you lose and you don't know why, it's very likely a timing issue. This is particularly true of Heroes of the Storm, a game that has taken the Dota formula and sanded the edges off to the point where timing and basic ability management are all that's left. Heroes of the Storm is about simple plays made against an ever-ticking clock.

Having found myself explaining these concepts over and over in different contexts, I figured that I'd dry to boil them down to a couple of key lessons. These are they. If you're already experienced in these games, you might not find much to learn here: but I hope it provides you with some ideas about how you might pass that knowledge on.

There are more 'cooldowns' than just the ones the game shows you

Time is a resource equivalent to gold and experience (I'm pretty sure there's an aphorism about that, somewhere.) The most visible example of this is an ability cooldown—such as the two and a half minutes between Tidehunter Ravages—and the attendant need to use long-cooldown abilities intelligently. There are other 'hard' cooldowns, like Roshan's respawn time, the refreshing of jungle camps, and, in Smite or League of Legends, the rate at which Phoenixes and Inhibitors return. Each of Heroes of the Storm's maps add a bunch more, like the gold chests in Blackheart's Bay or the mines opening in Haunted Mines.

You need to eventually have a handle on all of these, but that's obvious—it's book-learning, ultimately, information displayed on the screen waiting to be understood. The notion of a 'cooldown' can be usefully applied to more abstract concepts as well. Regardless of who you are playing, your character will have a rate at which it can reasonably expect to return to combat-viability after a fight. You might regain health through consumables, lifesteal, or base regeneration values, but however you do it there will be a basic amount of time it takes. Likewise mana. You need to learn to perceive your character's regeneration as a kind of soft cooldown, because otherwise you will find yourself unable to take advantage of all those more-visible hard cooldowns: if you know when Roshan's due to respawn but haven't accounted for the time it'll take you to get your health to the point where you can fight for it, you've lost track of arguably the more important 'cooldown' of the two.

Another example concerns experience and gold efficiency. This will vary on a role-by-role basis, but generally speaking the moment you leave an environment where your character is gaining either of the above then a timer begins. You have a certain amount of time to either achieve an objective (for example, warding) or picking up gold and experience from another source before it begins to eat into your efficiency. The moment you start to see the sand trickling out of an invisible timer whenever you leave your lane is the moment that you really understand what 'carrying' entails.

Figure out what you need to do, then do the thing that comes before that

Rule two stems naturally from what I've just written. As soon as you get a handle on the various timers that determine what you can achieve in the game, you need to learn to sync them up—to make sure that you have health, mana and your ultimate when Roshan respawns, for example. Getting this right means making a conscious effort to not only choose what your team's next play is going to be, but to identify what sequence of actions you need to do now to ensure that it happens.

A pre-emptive play might be returning to the fountain to regen or it might be as simple as walking across the map, but there's always something—and it always takes time, and you need to be able to account for that time. How many times have you lost Roshan because your team started to get ready when Roshan respawned, rather than one minute before? Exactly.

This is really obvious in Heroes of the Storm, where games can turn entirely on how well teams prepare for the plays they want to make. If you're winning Haunted Mines but you burn away all of your health on a mercenary camp right before the undead spawn, then you might have just thrown away the game. By failing to prepare for the more important play, you've negatively achieved—got something done, but the wrong thing, and given your opponent a shot at something bigger. Something, often, game-turning.

These games get complicated when you realise that preparatory actions themselves come with their own set of timers and, in turn, their own necessary prep-work. And then even more so when you realise that every single timer in the game is related to every single other timer, even if the relationship isn't obvious at first. In Dota 2, pushing a lane might draw out a TP response. That TP has a timer, and the mana spent to use it has a timer, and the distance travelled comes with a timer too. Those timers, in turn, determine the defender's ability to respond to other timers—like Roshan. Mastery means not just recognising these connections, but making them work for you.

Apply the inverse to your opponent, always

You will know what bad timing feels like before you get a sense for good timing, and that is an important experience to hold on to—because your goal, always, should be to put the other team in a position where they feel like they've lost their tempo. If you know how to make the rhythm of the game suit you, then you know what's required to make it not suit your opponent. Often, the two go hand in hand.

If you can force someone to burn all of their health or mana without giving them time to regen before an important timer ticks over, you've won even if you haven't killed them. If you can score a single kill against the enemy team and force them to attack you four vs. five, then you'll probably get another kill even if you are, more broadly, losing. This is how you force them to tilt: not just by killing their dudes, but by killing their dudes in a way that forces them to dance to your beat. Items and levels will always arrive, eventually, but they count for exactly nothing if you're unable to synergise them with your whole team because somebody is always waiting to respawn.

This is why you push out a lane right before going for Roshan: because you've planned both, and will likely have enough time to get from one to another efficiently. If your enemy reacts to the push, then chances are they're sacrificing something in terms of efficiency or responsiveness. Even if they do repel the push and immediately run to contest Roshan, they will be doing all of this a few precious seconds short of ideal. And those few seconds, added up over time, will win you the game.

Congratulations. You are now better at Dota. Let's all celebrate by dressing in wetsuits and dancing in a flaming refinery somewhere in Germany in 1992.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.

Virtual reality is coming. Again. It was coming in 2012, and then in many ways it came in 2012, but then it wandered off again, resurfaced in 2014, got sold to Facebook, vanished, and now it's back. Virtual reality! The announcement of HTC's Vive marks a fresh beginning for both the wearable tech industry and the desperately optimistic tech op-ed industry.

It looks like a robot spider's face and sounds like an off-brand tropical juice drink that you might buy from a roadside van in the early hours of a Saturday morning. It will require you to carve out hitherto unheard-off leagues of floorspace, a volume of territory alien to anybody this side of North America's cavernous suburbs. It will smartly account for the possibility that you might wander into a bookshelf, but you will nontheless eventually wander into a bookshelf. None of this matters. Virtual reality is coming, and this time Valve are making it, and everything is going to be fine. You would walk into any number of bookshelves if it meant seeing Alyx Vance's face again.

What, though, does all of this mean for Dota 2? Valve's most popular game is also its most resistant to new technologies. Dota is a hard kernel of old-school PC design, rooted in the medium's past and utterly resistant to change. Its durability is key to its global appeal: you can play it on almost anything. It is Valve (and Steam's) ambassador to gaming markets that will be slower to adopt something as exorbitant as VR: Russia, South East Asia, South America.

Any application of VR to Dota 2 will always be a matter of luxury, not necessity. The game doesn't need it. But it could make use of it, and here is how.

Experience a replay in first person

You're never going to actually play Dota 2 in the first person. Even something simple, like changing your point-of-view using the minimap, wouldn't work. Dota 2's design piles complexity on top of the already-complex isometric RTS, and you can't just strip out those foundations and expect a playable game.

However! Going on a tour of the map in first person would work, and would be of interest to anybody who has ever wondered how their heroes actually experience that space. Extrapolate that out a little further and you've got a novel (if ultimately limited) new spectator mode. Witness your own best plays from the perspective of somebody who was hiding behind a nearby tree. Run into a bookshelf in your living room while trying to get the best possible angle on a pro teamfight.

Perhaps VR spectators could see each other inside the game, rendered as ghosts or perhaps as the little frogs and birds that already hop around the map. You could turn to the guy next to you and exclaim "did you see that?", pointing excitedly at a dynamically-intercepted Roshan attempt and/or a nearby bookshelf. Imagine sharing the experience of live sport with other people within the game itself, feeling the swell of the crowd with every play and encountering, for the first time in a digital context, the uniquely immersive inconvenience of not being able to see very well.

Pretend that Dota 2 is a living board game

Imagine if you could project an entire Dota 2 match—running in real time—onto a flat surface, either simulated or in your actual house. Imagine peering over it, like a god or a terrarium owner, watching these little animated miniatures run about and cast magic spells and yell at each other.

Imagine tracing the course of the river with your finger, seeing where it tumbles off the edge of the map—off the edge of the table—and down to the floor below. Imagine catching the water in your cupped hands and casting it into the air, letting it rain down onto your virtual face, laughing and laughing.

I am stretching this because I suspect that virtual boardgame Dota would actually work. It is not, in and of itself, totally ridiculous, and therefore I would both like it to happen and find it to be of limited utility to this column.

Endure the terrifying life of a creep

Here's a better one: an on-rails melee combat game like those arcade games you sometimes find where you wave a foam bat (see also: 'sword') at skeletons until you run out of money or dignity. Imagine something like that, but you're an actual creep in an actual game of Dota 2. You spawn in a barracks and run with your little brothers and sisters down a long lane, mighty heroes striding to either side. You encounter vile enemy creeps coming in the opposite direction and—swing! swing!—begin to chop at them in immersive first person.

The chaos of battle. The odds stacked against you. A tower at your back, a tower ahead. All of your kills are stolen by colourful characters with more power than you could ever hope to have. Then, as the battle looks won, as you surge forward, low on health but vitally, desperately alive, blooded in battle but never bowed, a shadow looms over you. You turn. There she is. Crystal Maiden. An ally, You think. She swings her staff: there is a bolt of blue light, and then there is nothing. Denied!

Try on cosmetic items before you buy them

Somebody once wrote a desperately optimistic op-ed about how we may one day use augmented reality technology to dress ourselves in the clothes we aspire to buy. I haven't actually read it: I assume that it exists. Nonetheless, I think this may form the basis of a fun addition to Dota 2's item store.

Imagine that you've got a modest sum of Steam-bucks to spend and you're not sure what to splash out on. At present you can preview new sets and you can cycle couriers through their various forms: you can rotate them and look at them and make a decision based on something as mundane as 'what the item actually looks like, on the character that it is designed for'. Yawn.

I'd like to try the items on myself: to be placed in a virtual store with a big mirror and parade around in the latest sets for my own amusement. I would like to attempt to wear some Broodmother armour and experience what it might be like to don Crystal Maiden's arcana cape, floating around with a dog and terrible frostbite. I'd like to try out Legion Commander's Arcana swords, and find out—once and for all—if it is actually possible to see anything when your eyes are on fire.

I'd like to pet the couriers before I buy one, and perhaps go for a ride on their flying variants. Having made my purchasing decision, I'd like to hand over virtual money to the shopkeeper himself, and take my items back to an actual Armory: this may, at last, provide a reason for me to interact with my shelves.

Stand in the player booths at The International

Let's assume that is possible to use a lot of combined camera feeds to place a virtual participant inside a different room in real time. Should this be the case, the natural next step is to give Dota 2 fans unprecedented access to the competitive scene. Valve have been slow to deliver their promise of International 2014 booth audio, so why not overcompensate with the technically unsound and deeply invasive application of VR?

Imagine how muted and awkward the players would feel, knowing that their every word and gesture was being picked apart by thousands of invisible, intangible spectators. Imagine hovering eerily behind your favourite players, listening to them alternately yell the words 'back' and 'nice'. Imagine seeing yourself as their equal despite staggering mounting evidence to the contrary. You think you know back-seat Dota? Not like this. Not like this.

Experience the life of the guy you're about to report

Let's get ambitious, here. Virtual reality could provide new perspectives on Dota 2—allow you to explore your hobby from a different angle. But what if it could make the community itself a better place? What if—and there are no bad ideas in this space, people, this is the future we're talking about—virtual reality could fix people.

I'm going to hypothesise a scenario. You are in a pub game. You are this ready to report somebody. Your mid has no gank. No gank at all! He has feed. For fuck's sake and so on. You type 'nooooooooooooob', and hold down the 'o' key just that little bit longer than you need to, grinding out your frustration like a pointless cigarette stub in the manky ashtray of your personality. You right click the player in question and select report.

But then! Your VR headset flips into a new mode. You are given a vision—a strange sensation, at first—of the same game from the reportee's perspective. You see, vividly, the lack of wards that meant that they could not realibly roam. You see that their opponent in mid was simply really good, better than you could deal with, and that they did their best but found themselves outmatched. I've been there too, you think.

Then, the headset takes you deeper. You see a scene from earlier the same day, because presumably everybody wears cameras on their faces all the time in the future or something. Your midlaner's boss is a total dick. There's a line at the bus stop. The post has been delivered to a neighbour. The pizza they were saving is missing from the fridge. The goldfish is dead.

All this, and all they wanted was a single good game of Dota. Instead, they got you—and all you did was add to the number of things they had to deal with that day. You are experiencing It's A Wonderful Life for the post-social age, if It's A Wonderful Life was a movie where Jimmy Stewart is repeatedly told to kill himself by a chorus of moronic teenagers. You do not get to descend the stairs to a town full of people who love you, in this scenario, but you may experience a moment of separation from the people whose lack of self-awareness, empathy or decency places them a few taxonomic rungs short of that sad, lost, incompetent baby seal whose only recourse is to honk stupidly into a vast empty wilderness that it will never understand. This is, presently, the best that you can hope for.

You are abruptly returned to the report screen. Your finger hovers over the 'submit' button. You close the window. Crestfallen, contrite but wiser than you have ever been, you wander into a bookshelf.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2 and related games.

One of the best things I read about Dota 2 this week was this JoinDota article about the impact of cosmetic item bundles on the competitive scene. Their evidence is compelling, and it's hard to read through the entire thing without wanting Valve to rethink the way that tournament tickets are marketed and sold.

The article both rests upon and reveals the fact that players really covet cosmetic items. That's not a groundbreaking observation by any stretch, but it's one of those things that gets weirder the more you think about it. I mean, I collect Dota items and I'm not even entirely sure why. I am guilty of buying tournament tickets for the cosmetics first and the tournament itself second.

Players desire this stuff to the point where that desire eclipses the game it supports. I gestured at this last week—Dota events traditionally stumble because players will do literally anything, even if it isn't fun, to get a shot at free stuff—even if it makes them less likely to continue playing the game those items are for. I sometimes wonder if we're guilty, generally, of just assuming that 'hats are popular' without interrogating why—of missing a broader point about the game itself because the mania that surrounds cosmetic items has become a running joke.

A pet theory: collecting cosmetic items provides everything that traditional Dota 2 does not. They allow you to make clear, visible progress in a way that is quick and easily broadcast to other players. You can work on it entirely alone, and the factors that might mitigate your progress—money, time, luck—are all nontheless things that you can control. The ineptitude of four other people does affect your chances of getting items unless there's an event on, and the way the community behaves during events backs up what I'm saying.

(This doesn't mean that collecting items is always compensatory—it's perfectly reasonable to covet something because you, you know, like it. This is more about figuring out why collection gets taken so seriously, how it ends up valued above and beyond aspects of the game that, if pressed, most players would agree are more 'important'.)

In this sense, the negative influence of cosmetics on e-sports is symptomatic of a broader malaise experienced by Dota players: the drive to derive instant gratification from a game where almost everything you aspire to do or be takes significant time and effort. Watching a tournament requires engagement, investment of energy, learning, and so on. Collecting hats requires clicking on the hats.

The only thing that makes you better at Dota is playing more Dota. The best way to show your commitment to e-sports is to watch more e-sports. These are easy notions to forget, or at least it's easy to be distracted from them. It's so tempting to look for shortcuts to that feeling of progression that you may not even realise that you're doing it—at least, that's been my experience of this hobby over the last couple of years.

I had this fact hammered home late last week. I'd spent a week teaching four total newcomers to play Dota, colleagues from PCG's UK office with less than ten games played between them. We faced off against Rock Paper Shotgun's more experienced lineup—two and a half experienced players, two and a half total newcomers (one had played the game years ago for a hundred hours, but not returned since.)

I'd theorised that it was possible to break Dota down into general, easily-remembered principles that would ultimately give my wizard-babies the edge even if they had no idea what the majority of heroes did, how the majority of items worked, or even how their roles functioned. I attempted to explain what a gold and experience advantage looked like, what staying safe looked like, what map control was and how you got it—and I think I succeeded, to a limited extent.

What I realised, though, as we lost that game, was just how much Dota has passed into the lower, reactive levels of my brain. As I attempted to formulate a simplified conscious approach to Dota, I remained ignorant of just how much I'd picked up simply by playing a lot of the game for a long time. I can see it, now, in every screenshot of that match. A level 4 Sniper pushing a tower right next to an incoming TP belonging to a level 7 Puck who would inevitably kill him. I realised how natural it was for a new player to think nothing of another glowing effect among so many glowing effects; I realised how many different experiences contribute to me seeing that image in such a powerfully divergent way. Where the Sniper sees nothing wrong, I see imminent disaster: and I see it because I've lived it, in thousands of different ways, over the course of thousands of hours.

As our ancient exploded, I realised that there's no shortcut to that kind of experience—no way for me to simply beam it into the heads of my newbies with a couple of simple instructions. I realised, also, that there was no way I was going to get better through anything other than more experience. I had been on a losing streak, otherwise, from the finals of the Rektreational industry tournament (3-2, damn!) to my recent return to solo ranked. And all of it comes back to the same thing: hours invested, energy committed, losses accepted, lessons learned. It is so, so tempting to go back to 'proving' myself with a hat collection, to amass the badges and stack up the tournament ticket stubs and get the cosmetics that say this guy cares. But that is, I think, a placebo. It's a behaviour pattern that resembles nothing less than a mid-life crisis: the attempt to spend your way out of some broader sense of inadequacy.

It's actually kind of a relief to arrive at that understanding. It takes the pressure off. You really probably don't need every item set that comes out. You probably don't even need to worry about your MMR, or your winrate, or your all-time records. You probably just need to play more, and that is the least demanding thing Dota ever asks of you.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

The ESL has announced a $1 million prize pool for the 2015 ESL One Dota 2 tournament series, which it says represents a quadrupling of its investment in the series last year.

"We re starting with ESL One Frankfurt 2015 in June this year, where the prize money has been raised from US$150,000 to US$250,000 - and this is just the beginning," Ulrich Schulze, ESL's managing director of pro gaming, said in a statement. "ESL One is here to set a new standard for professional Dota 2 events at this level. We re dedicated to pushing the boundaries, and giving players from around the world more chances to make their careers as professional gamers is a key aspect of that."

As MCV UK pointed out, last year's Dota 2 series consisted of two events, in Frankfurt and New York. Assuming my math is correct, 2015 will see that number at least double, with tournaments set to take place "in some of the world's most iconic stadiums and arenas."

The news follows closely behind last week's announcement that the ESL will hold the world's largest Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament in Cologne, Germany, with its own $250,000 prize pool funded entirely by the ESL. I'd say it sounds like things are going pretty well over there.

PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2 and related games.

Everybody is angry about a seasonal Dota 2 event. This does not tell you very much. Events have always made players angry, and not entirely without reason—traditionally, they are not very good. That said, the angriest the Dota community has ever been was when a seasonal event didn't happen. This complicates things, somewhat. If the community is equally enraged by events that exist and events that don't exist, what have we learned? Primarily, that hardcore gaming communities are often angry about something, and that 'something' may or may not map fully onto reality. This is not a revelation, and nor is it news. Don't let that stop you, though—it's op-ed season! Grab your gun, honey, there's fish in that barrel.

Valve continue to make weird decisions about how they implement optional modes into Dota 2. Generally, knowing Valve, you can assume that this is a form of experimentation—discerning what the community will accept, what it won't. The company's weaknesses has always been that this experimentation takes place in isolation from what other companies have learned and, sometimes, in isolation from common sense. Valve give the impression of a company that is attempting to invent community events from scratch—a homebrew approach with its roots in lush, organic data. I wonder how they store and process that data, sometimes; how they account for the significant portion that is just the phrase 'FUCK THIS' over and over. It's all useful, I suppose. Nothing grows that isn't fertilised at least in part by the shit that came before it.

Where Manifold Paradox's problem was that it affected how people play regular Dota, Year Beast's issue is that it allows players to purchase an advantage in new, optional Dota. If you have lots of points your team gets a better Year Beast and that's kind of shitty to deal with. I think you'd have to attempt some pretty tricky rhetorical gymastics to take criticism further than that: Year Beast does not mean that Dota as a whole is 'pay to win'. 'Pay to win' is not a force with its own agency: it cannot creep out of one game mode and alter another. It cannot slip off the whiteboard and infect a room full of designers, it does not corrupt its hosts from within and you will never find yourself approaching Icefrog in the street only for him to raise a finger and honk "PAY TO WIIIIIIIIIN" at you like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In short: it's bad, you don't have to play it, you definitely don't have to spend any money, and you probably wasted any time you spent sharpening pitchforks (do you sharpen pitchforks? I guess you must.) Lasting impact on Dota, the decade-old fantasy wizard sport you play every day of your life for some reason? Nil.

What does concern me about Year Beast is that it demonstrates that Valve haven't really learned their lesson regarding event rewards. In every case, the outcry over an event has ultimately been grounded in the assumption that you have to do whatever terrible thing the event is making you do, and that you have to do it because otherwise you don't get whatever reward is being dangled in front of you. During Manifold Paradox, people had to bend their entire strategy around helping or thwarting Phantom Assassin because otherwise they wouldn't get items. Now, people have to build the best Year Beast because otherwise they don't get item sets.

In gaming communities, 'material' rewards tend to override every other incentive to play. People ruin their experience of Dragon Age: Inquisition's opening hours because they convince themselves that they need all of the stuff in the Hinterlands before they allow themselves to progress. Over in console-land, hand-wringing about Destiny's loot system has eclipsed the game's successes (and failures) as a shooter to such an extent that it might as well be a Faberge handle on a slot machine. This is the age of people saying 'I had an amazing time but I didn't get the right space hat so fuck it' without irony, a sentiment that is for some reason taken seriously and not laughed at like we laugh at those teenagers publishing tearful video blogs when they don't get the right car for their birthday.

In short: the chance to win stuff tends to make gaming communities behave in some really weird ways and Valve have been naive in their approach to that. On paper, giving a reward to winners makes sense. In practice, it changes the emotional register of the entire thing. It introduces entitlement, irrationality and negativity. They made the same mistake with the first-ever Compendium, which gave every owner a different Immortal item from a limited set. Technically, they were all equally valuable. In practice, everybody wanted the Pudge hook or the Kunkka sword. The system created winners and losers, and the result was much wailing.

If every Year Beast participant had the same chance of getting a reward regardless of the match outcome then nobody would care much that it was pay to win. Well, some might, but it would be those few that are genuinely concerned with the health of the game in abstract and that tends to be a far more level-headed set. It'd also mean that fewer people would feel the need to spend money on points alone (as opposed to the points that come with the Arcana), but if Valve are serious about steering clear of Bad Free To Play then they'd have to accept that.

The goal with a community event shouldn't just be to raise a bit of extra money, nor should it be to experiment with what the community will enjoy or invest in. The aim should always be to create a sense of communal attachment—to stick a pin in the calendar at a certain point and encourage people to invest that time with meaning. You should look back on a seasonal event and think 'remember that? That was cool. That's where I got this hat.'

That goal is not incompatible with an experimental approach, nor is it incompatible with making money. But Valve need to get better at it. At the moment, the memory they are creating is closer to 'god, remember that? That was awful. I spent half an hour of my life convincing one guy not to abandon the game because he wasn't going to win a hat. I can't believe I spent actual money on momentarily enhancing my team's magical rhino-dragon so that it might win me a Sand King set from two years ago that I didn't even want'.

The key is distributing rewards evenly to create a sense that everybody wins out just by participating. By doing so, the event becomes a pinata that everybody gets an even whack at—and, like at the very best children's birthday parties, every attendee is guaranteed some candy or a toy. Have you seen what happens when a parent underestimates the importance of egalitarian distribution? It's exactly like what is happening in the Dota community at the moment, only with real six year olds instead of functional six year olds.

Here, then, is how you fix Year Beast. Remove the points system, and give both winners and losers an equal chance to earn whole sets. Match this with a reliable progression track that you move along with every game you play, unlocking scaling rewards as you go. You should know roughly what you stand to gain when you start a Year Beast match, not when it ends. That way, players go in feeling positive.

Instead of selling points, sell tickets for the mode itself. Give every player one free ticket for every day they log in and scale reward distribution with that in mind. Give extra tickets to Arcana owners, and give players who play with an Arcana owner a chance to earn tickets through playing regular Dota matches. Ticket prices should be slightly lower than the lowest-value reward from a given Year Beast game, because there's no reason why the player should stand to lose: Valve have learned this lesson before, with item chests.

Then, watch a happy seasonal event unfold and watch players flock back to the next one. If there is a next one. You might have handed the whole thing over to the community by then by adding custom game tools. In which case, it's their problem. Let the little shits run their own birthday party. Uncork a bottle and bar the kitchen door: you've earned it!

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.


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