Dota 2

Something very interesting happened in the world of Dota 2 this weekend, and it wasn't The International. (Although that was obviously pretty big too.) As reported by The Verge, a self-taught AI bot took on pro player Danil "Dendi" Ishutin of Natus Vincere—and won convincingly. 

The bot was designed by OpenAI, a non-profit AI research company founded and funded by, among other people, Tesla and SpaceX guy Elon Musk, who shared his satisfaction with the outcome on Twitter. 

And that's true, but only to a point. It turns out a few conditions heavily arranged the match in the bot's favor, meaning we don't have to worry about robots taking over competitive esports just yet.

The OpenAI game was played under a very specific set of rules: It was a 1v1 contest rather than 5v5, which dramatically reduces the complexity of the gameplay, and both the bot and Dendi played with the same hero, Shadow Fiend, who as this Verge analysis explains relies on "accurate timing and placement of his magical attack ability" to succeed—the type of precision that bots naturally excel at. In fact, that's the only type of game the bot is capable of playing. 

The AI also had access to Dota's bot API, meaning that it would have access to information like the distance between characters, as well as hard-coded player "techniques." So while a human player has to learn and judge distances on the fly and react accordingly, bots can execute the appropriate attacks exactly, every time.   

While that may appear to diminish the significance of the bot's win, Greg Brockman of OpenAI said that it remains a big deal because of the way the AI learned to play the game. Previously, bots have built their knowledge from records of past victories won by humans, but the Dota bot learned primarily through experience. 

"You have this system that has just played against itself, and it has learned robust enough strategies to beat the top pros. That’s not something you should take for granted,” Brockman said. “And it’s a big question for any machine learning system: How does complexity get into the model? Where does it come from?" 

The full story behind the AI victory won't really be known until a thorough analysis is released, but it is worth noting that once players were able to see the bot in action and got to know its tactics, they were able to compensate and beat it fairly handily. Even so, it's unquestionably a step on the path toward bigger and (maybe) better things, a point Musk mused on immediately after tweeting about the OpenAI's Dota 2 victory:   

Dendi, who was a good sport about the competition, is on the same page.

Left 4 Dead 2

The internet is vast and full of streams. The prevalence of YouTube and Twitch ensure that more gaming silliness is being captured and shared than ever. People are still doing amazing work with Source's film making tools and The International 7 produced its share of amusing moments. Here are some of the videos and gifs that tickled us this week.

Rule breaker

An0nymoose, the creator of demented videos like We Like To Party continues to do fine work.

Better luck next time

Via nicky-and-skittles on r/gaming.

That crowd reaction

Valve announced a new game at The International 7 to... let's say a mixed response.

Also at The International

One of Dota 2's most loved players takes on an AI at The International 7. The contender walkouts at 1:36 are perfect. Head to 7:32 to watch the actual contest.

Meanwhile, in War Thunder

Graceful tank action via genericc.

Monster hunter pro skater

Our favourite Witcher 3 mod of the week.

How to stick a landing

Dota 2

Photo Credit: The International 2017

In Dota 2, there are no seasons, no relegations and no league tiers. Teams instead have their eyes on the biggest event of the year—and in esports: The International. After months of preparation, eighteen teams qualified for a grueling week-and-a-half event, but only one could emerge with the $10.8 million crowd-funded top prize. 

This year, two curses were upheld: the East-West flip-flop curse, and the 'no repeat winner' curse. None other could do so with such persuasiveness and prowess as Team Liquid, the winner of this year’s Championship. 

Team Liquid has sponsored champions in games such as Starcraft, League of Legends and more, but none of the organization's Dota 2 iterations have come this far in official Valve events. Formerly, Liquid's Dota squad was American, but this European one took the crown in a more volatile and profitable environment.  

The current roster had varying success throughout the pre-championship season. They performed well in the grand Russian event Epicenter, but failed to do as well in the Dota 2 Asian Championships. Still, their victory was foreshadowed in their victory at DreamLeague Season 7’s Atlanta finals, where they took first over other international teams. 

To claim the Aegis of Champions today, they had to fight through a pool that kept the world at the edge of their seats. Four out of the six top teams were Chinese, and the other two were Liquid itself and Virtus.Pro, regional rivals. Their final battle was against Newbee, and it was certainly a show. 

Photo Credit: The International 2017

Newbee originally entered the tournament as one of the Chinese favorites to win, given its consistent, strong presence throughout the competitive season. However, anything goes at TI, and LGD and LFY quickly rose to the top of their groups during the off-stage matches. LFY specifically went undefeated until the last day, though at that point they had already secured the top Upper Bracket slot for the main event. 

But Newbee came back with a vengeance during the main event when they met LFY during the Upper Bracket Finals, which determined the first Grand Finalist. The match was an explosive back-and-forth between the two Chinese teams, during which Newbee showed absolutely spectacular teamfights and took the spot.

The next day, the scraps of LFY were left to Team Liquid for the taking in the lower bracket finals. Essentially, if Liquid could take down LFY, the slayer of the group stage and upper bracket, it seemed they would have a chance against Newbee. After all, LFY took down Newbee 2-0 in the group stage, and the upper bracket 2-1 Newbee victory was hard-fought. With exciting plays and unusual strategies by Liquid to take down the Chinese dark horse, Liquid eventually took the series 2-1 before the Grand Final later that day. 

Above: The final moments of the Grand Finals.

The Grand Finals, then, were set: Newbee, the slayers of the dominating team, versus Liquid, the up-and-coming assassin which kicked and stomped through the lower bracket to perform on the final day. 

The dominating snowball style of Team Liquid shone in each game of the Grand Finals. For instance, about half an hour into the second game, the Alchemist played by Amer "Miracle-" Al-Barkawi began to ruthlessly slice into Newbee’s base, taking an aggressively objective-focused approach to the situation. It took about two minutes and an Aegis, but on one hand for Newbee, the Alch was finally dead. On the other, Newbee lost the very last of their entire bottom lane, tower and barracks, opening the lane for creeps to move in and start harassing them. This approach carried over into all three games as Liquid worked to control all factors of the game towards the final objective: taking down the Ancient.

In the final game, a series of incredibly coordinated slam-downs by Liquid were the highlights that might have won the European squad the grand prize. But the most impressive—and game winning—was one final Juggernaut slash by Miracle-, superpowered by a Double Damage rune that helped to wipe out the entirety of Newbee. 

Most notably, the series was a 3-0 finish in favor of Liquid—the first time a team has completely swept a Valve event final. The team claimed their Aegis of Championship, popped open a bottle of champagne, and quickly departed to celebrate the historic win.

Dota 2

Valve surprised fans at The International 7 yesterday by revealing two new Dota 2 heroes: one acrobatic, pangolin-inspired* swordsman and a pink fairy. The reveal trailer shows the swordsman rolling between enemies and speaking in an accent that's halfway between Puss in Boots and Zorro.

The fairy—who holds a lantern with a menacing, flying creature inside—seems to match the description of an upcoming hero uncovered in game files from an update from May, called Sylph.

The files suggested Sylph would have abilities called Flash Powder and Shadow Realm. Valve hasn't confirmed the names or skills of the new heroes, but the fairy's appearance in the video fits with those ability names (and a sylph is an air spirit, which ties it all together).

Both heroes will arrive in the Dueling Fates patch, although there's no word on when that's coming out yet. The duo will provide a welcome roster refresh: Valve hasn't added any new heroes to the game since Monkey King in December last year. 

Check them out in the video below:

*I initially wrote that the swordsman was armadillo-inspired, which is incorrect (and I clearly need to read up on my mammals!). Thanks to the eagle-eyed commenters that pointed the error out.

Dota 2

The International 7 has been excellent so far, and the spectator experience watching on Dota2Ti Twitch stream has also been excellent. The production values have improved year-on-year to the point that it feels like a professional sports cast from a major network. Given the money involved you might expect that, but it's still great to see in-line cams on creep stacks and split screen shots at the start of the laning phase, accompanied by shots of the players and earnest little documentary segments between series. Purge looks right at home in front of his magic television, and the hosts mostly at ease—if only someone would give those poor souls some chairs.

The spectator experience within the Dota 2 client falls significantly short, however. There are a few reasons to watch games within the client. There is a small chance you can pick up rewards for witnessing victories and kill streaks. You get to make predictions at the beginning of the battle, which is fun. As someone who prefers to watch Dota 2 than play it, I enjoy being able to rewind a play, take control of the camera and mouse over every element after a fight to figure out exactly what happened. Also even the best stream can't match the quality of watching Dota 2 at 120 frames per second on max settings on a monitor.

What I really want is to be able to catch up with a day of games as though I was watching them live. That means no spoilers, or even hints of spoilers. I reckon a few minor adjustments would make things better, but I wonder what you think. Here are my gripes.

The time scrubber is visible by default

Knowing how long a match lasts is a spoiler if you're trying to preserve that untainted 'live' experience. If a match is 40 minutes long and the pick/ban phase hasn't started, you can infer a lot about how the game is going to play out. You can hide the scrubber at the bottom of the screen by clicking the little arrow icon to the left, but I'd rather it was hidden by default because I can't stop my stupid brain from automatically reading everything on the screen. 

If I do want to bring it up to skip ahead through the picks and bans, I don't want to catch a glimpse of how long the full video is in numbers. If I've accidentally spotted the 30 minute limit I know that the dramatic high ground push at 28 is going to succeed. I want to preserve the tension.

It takes some navigation to get to the replays

There is a great big link to the Twitch stream on the landing page of the Dota 2 client, so the event is easily accessible. If you're determined to view games in the client finding them is a more arduous process. If I click on the International splash I'd like to go to the most current aspect of the tournament. I don't want to have to pick through tabs to get the playoff stages, then select the most recent date, and then select the series I want. 

This is because I'm lazy, granted, but The International is the biggest event of the Dota 2 calendar, and it should be as easy to follow as possible, via both Twitch and the client. Actually this is an opportunity for the client to be better than Twitch, where replays that force you to scrub through huge videos to find the start of a  game or series.

You can sometimes see how many games are contained in a series

This one is confusing because when I loaded up Dota 2 just now to double check this all of yesterday's games were presented in a perfectly spoiler-free way. Empty boxes represent each potential game in a series. You can click to download or see the details of the match and everything else is hidden until you click on the little 'reveal' command for each series. If the series only lasted two games the third block is unresponsive. It's exactly what I want.

However I'm certain this wasn't the case for series earlier in the week. I remember thinking it was a shame knowing that a series went to a third game, because obviously this makes the outcome of the second game obvious once you know the game one result. Is the spoiler guard something that kicks in at the latter stages of the competition? Am I going mad with too much Dota?

If it turns out everything works as I described at the start of this entry then disregard this moan. Job done.

You lose the arena atmosphere

I don't expect in-client games to match the Twitch stream in this regard. Without video of the arena and the players crowding around their captains you're never going to realise the full TI spirit in-game. However there are ways to bring more of the arena atmosphere into the game, starting with the sound. The roar of the crowd after a massive play is a beautiful thing. You get this loud and clear on Twitch, but it's curiously muted in-client. Dota 2's best moments are always accompanied by the sound of an whole arena of fans losing their goddamned minds; everyone should get to enjoy that.

There is no flow from one match to the next, especially when you watch live

Watching live in the Dota 2 client gives you the action slightly before the stream. I know this because I have had TI7 running on my PC and my TV simultaneously this week to take advantage of the in-client benefits while enjoying the production values on Twitch. When a game finishes you have to back out into the browser menu, wait ten minutes until the next game has been created, then find the game and jump in again. Ideally I'd like to be ushered from one game to the next with as little input as possible.

The same goes for replays. When I reach the end of a replay I'd love a 'watch next game' button that downloads and starts playing the next game in the series.

That's all for now. Of course ideally I'd like to have the video feed integrated into the client in some way—as an in-line video that I can expand whenever I want perhaps. That's getting into pipe dream territory, though. How would you improve the in-client spectator experience? Come to think of it, how would you improve the Twitch show? I really like it, but it could always be better, right?

Dota 2

The biggest surprise so far out of The International wasn't a wild play or a surprise upset, but the first game announcement from Valve since 2013. Artifact is a digital Dota card game coming in 2018, and we know almost nothing about it. But from our experience with Valve and tons of other card games on the market, we can make informed guesses about what form Artifact will take. 

Digital card trading and selling

This has to be the huge one. Though there's some precedent for a digital TCG in Magic Online that allows players to swap cards, the likes of Hearthstone, Gwent and the other leading digital CCGs don't. (Also the Magic client is so bad—it's less a fantasy battler than an Excel fever dream—that it can be pretty much discounted from the discussion. At least until we find out what Magic: The Gathering - Arena actually is). 

Whatever your thoughts on in-game items, Steam Market is the most established and trusted exchange for moving cosmetics and other virtual goods between strangers and friends. Gambling controversies aside, it's supported millions of players trading skins in CS:GO, H1Z1, PUBG, and, yeah, Dota 2.

Few of us enjoy opening packs just to earn enough crafting material for the one legendary card we need. As Hearthstone caster Dan "Frodan" Chou noted on Twitter last night, Valve's ability to leverage the bustling Steam Market potentially makes for a very different experience for players looking to build a collection quickly, with an obviously incredibly lucrative upside. Some form of limited trading would add to the current crop of card games. Bigger brains than ours can work out the exact restrictions needed, but it could be that you can only trade a certain amount of cards per calendar month, or only to people who've been on your friends list for a predetermined amount of time. 

Or Valve could just flip the tables and let players go hog wild. Either way it would be exciting, and would eliminate one of the core complaints existing CCG players have which is that your collection retains no value given the rules against account selling. Being able to trade would also open up scope to create especially rare cards, limited promotional runs with alternate art and so on, which would potentially add richness to the scene during the quieter times between expansions.

It might actually use your GPU

Although Elder Scrolls: Legends debuted on PC, sitting on our platform for more than a year before coming to mobile recently, it and other card games are built with all platforms in mind. They make major compromises in order to run on touchscreen devices that don't have an expensive GPU.

There's a real possibility that Artifact will a PC-exclusive game. One of the benefits of this decision would be having the freedom to take better advantage of PC hardware. As things stand in Hearthstone, the state of the art in terms of animation is stuff like the recently revamped Deathwing entrance. Blizzard's artists have to consider how their work will be crammed into mobile phone apps, which must limit the pyrotechnics. (And also explains why many effects, such as Hellfire, Abyssal Enforcer and so on) just use different colourways. Given that phone users already complain bitterly about the size of the app, it seems unlikely that Hearthstone (or other CCGs designed for phone and tablet) will ever be able to go truly ham with the visuals. 

But what if Artifact did? Truly spectacular graphics would make for quite the point of differentiation, but the obvious counterpoint is that this is genre made for mass consumption, and Valve sure does like money. But the counter-counterpoint is that the company has never made a mobile game before. It may not be in a hurry to start now given the vastness of the audience on its own proprietary platform. 

...and your mouse and keyboard

We've actually seen several interesting takes on card games over the past couple of years, from games like Faeria where you and your opponent build a hex-tiled board as you play, to Gwent, which takes health points, mana, and combat out of the equation.

It'd be nice if Artifact was more than Gabestone: Heroes of Dota with an item economy. Valve could push the genre forward by taking advantage of keyboard and mouse in unexpected ways, like, I don't know… hotkeys? Manual shuffling? Real-time elements? Base-building? Whatever happens, it won't be the first card game with lanes

It could be the first CCG to seriously take on Blizzard 

The CCG genre has never been more fertile on more PC, and is arguably already oversaturated with alternatives. But there's a good reasons why none of these games—despite many being mechanically excellent—have take a serious bite out of Hearthstone's market share, and that's Blizzard's big ol' chequebook. Few publishers can compete with the depth of those pockets, and as we've seen even Bethesda has struggled to make a significant dent despite what looks like serious investment. Valve is one of the few companies who can afford to take a real crack at this. And as we've seen from CS:GO and Dota, the model it prefers is to have games that are open to everyone but come with a potentially high skill cap. Again here's Frodan pondering the idea of low barriers to entry... 

It's a chance to take esports seriously from the start 

Notwithstanding the let's say "mixed" reaction from the audience of MOBA fans when Artifact was announced, it's reasonable to assume that if the game takes off it'll eventually become a big part of future iterations of The International. Obviously, without having seen anything of the actual game beyond some animated crystals yet, there's no sense in predicting how competitively Artifact will be balanced. But equally I'd be amazed if Valve hasn't paid close attention to the biggest complaint about Hearthstone being it's reliance on wacky RNG effects. And while Blizzard has put on plenty of tremendous tournaments, the esports scene also sees a lot of grousing from the pros about how things are structured and managed. 

The list of complaints runs from having to grind ladder on New Year's Eve for HCT points, through playing crucial qualifiers in Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants, to the Chinese contingent being given the wrong rules before a recent major event. None of which is to say Valve hasn't made mistakes, or been involved in drama, with how it has handled CS:GO and Dota as esports—but what can't be denied is that those are games have massive, built out, competitive scenes that are taken seriously by viewers. The question is whether the same could be done for any digital CCG, and indeed whether that's a route Valve even wants to go down. But again, it feels like there's huge potential here if they get it right, and the fact the Dota brand is being used has to heavily hint the goal is serious competition.   

Valve could take the concept of 'Twitch Drops' to the next level

The Elder Scrolls: Legends saw significant success from a new scheme which randomly rewarded players with in-game currency in exchange for watching streamers playing the game on Twitch. Until recently these Twitch 'Drops' were insanely generous, helping new players to build their collections fast. Unsurprisingly, they're also hugely popular, dominating chat on most channels. But the idea itself isn't new, and was in fact pioneered by Valve, which was giving viewers 'Souvenir Packages' for watching CS:GO way back in 2014. You can bet that in Bellevue the Artifact design team will have been watching Bethesda's Drops experiment with interest, and working out how the system can be improved upon for their own game.

Dota 2

Valve has just announced a brand new game during its Dota 2 International livestream. And fittingly enough, it's a Dota themed card game. Artifact will release some time in 2018, and that's precisely all we know about it at this stage. The trailer above, while pretty enough, doesn't provide any more clues.

I'll update this story when new facts come to hand. In the meantime, there's a Twitter account, which is already receiving numerous demands for beta access.

Dota 2

You needn't worry about Dota 2 excitement diminishing: this year's International prize pool has managed to eclipse last year's by nearly $4 million. The total is currently sitting on a pretty $24,000,545, and while the International is currently playing out as we speak, players are still able to contribute to it via paying for battle passes.

It's pretty astonishing when you consider that, in 2012, the prize pool was an utterly poverty stricken $1.6 million. It's steadily increased since then, with last year's prize pool coming in at $20,770,460. Alright, I guess.

If you're keen to follow the excitement of The International but have a) never done so before or, b) don't even know what the hell it is, this exhaustive rundown should get you up to scratch.

Dota 2

ESL has announced that ESL One Hamburg, the largest Dota 2 throwdown in Europe, will be the first official Valve Major for the 2017-18 season. It will also be the first major Dota tournament to be held under the new format announced last month, when Valve revealed plans to scrap the previous Major system in favor of directly sponsoring more third-party tournaments. 

ESL One Hamburg will see the top eight Dota 2 teams in the world square off for a share of a $1 million prize pool, as well as qualification points for 2018 edition of The International. Two of the teams taking part will be invited directly, while the rest will fight for placement in online qualifiers in North and South America, Southeast Asia, China, Europe, and the Commonwealth of Independent States.   

"We are extremely proud to see ESL One be named an official Valve Major," ESL senior vice president of product Ulrich Schulze said. "Having ESL One Frankfurt for three years in a row was a great learning experience that showed us how passionate the Dota 2 community is. With this year’s world class Dota 2 event being held in a completely new location, we are expecting to mint many new legendary esports moments in Hamburg." 

ESL One Hamburg will run October 28-29 at the Barclaycard Arena. But before all that comes The International 2017, which will go down August 7-12 at the KeyArena in Seattle. We've got a rundown of all the teams taking part (China and SEA, and America, Europe, and CIS), and also some handy spectating tips for newcomers that you definitely shouldn't miss if this is your first time watching the big show.

Dota 2

The multiplayer online battle arena is not the easiest genre in the world to dip a tentative toe into. There's a lot of information, and learning the ropes in the midst of a hyper-competitive online milieu that's not known for being forgiving to newcomers can be off-putting, to say the least. To help ease new Dota 2 players into the action, Valve recently made a couple of changes to the game that it says are intended to help them "face as few barriers as possible" when they start playing. 

First, the hero selection system has been changed so that players will only have access to a "curated group" of 20 heroes, out of a currently total of 113, for their first 25 games. "This introductory group consists of heroes that we’ve learned are very successful in helping new players learn and enjoy the game," the Dota team explained. 

Even more importantly (in my opinion, anyway) new players will now be matched only against others with "consistently high behavior scores," to ensure that they have "a good social experience while they are first trying to learn the game." 

That's a good idea—I'd go so far as to say it's an excellent one—but it's also a tacit admission that the Dota 2 social situation isn't consistently good, and is in fact so bad that people need to be protected from it. It's hard to be overly critical of the way Valve has handled Dota's evolution so far (it's quite the success, after all) but if you have to lock out a significant portion of your existing player base just so they won't chase away newbies, then maybe that's an issue that needs a more head-on approach. 

The International Dota 2 Championships, or just "The International" as it's better known, begins on August 7, with a total prize pool of more than $23 million. Pick up some practical tips on how to enjoy the spectator side of the game as a newcomer right here.

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