This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 277. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.
Dota is hard. It demands moment to moment skill, collective coordination, and a vast amount of learning. Despite being the most popular game on Steam by an order of magnitude, it s an acquired taste—and one that, despite years of listening to Chris drone on about it, the rest of the PC Gamer team has yet to acquire. Over the course of a week, we set out to see if that might be changed.
In the first case, our goal was to determine just how difficult Dota 2 really is to pick up. Is it possible for newcomers to have fun straight away, or will those first hours always be punishing? What can more experienced players do to lower the barrier to entry, and how do you best go about matching characters and roles to players with a diverse gaming background? How do you introduce Dota as an action game, a strategy game, a sport and a social experience all at once?
More to the point: why make the effort? For some of the team, gaining a new hobby was not incentive enough to pour hours into the game. We needed a goal—something to fight for. We found one. Concurrent with our own efforts, our longtime friends, rivals and (in several cases) former colleagues at Rock, Paper, Shotgun began training their own Dota novices. The stage was set for a showdown that would pitch veteran against veteran, newbie against newbie. We really, really wanted to win.
That meant training. With Chris as our guide, we set about getting our hands on the bottom rung of Dota 2 s daunting ladder. Over the following pages you ll discover what sunk in, what didn t, and how we fared when exposed to public matchmaking. Spoilers: Dota is hard.
CHRIS I ve thought a lot about how to introduce people to Dota. My approach is to simplify as much as possible. I start the first session by ushering the guys into a meeting room where I ve prepared a 15- minute presentation. Instead of focusing on the minutiae, I introduce general concepts. Dota 2 is a numbers game, I explain. Much like an RTS, it s about building and maintaining a resource advantage. How you go about achieving that is as complex as you d like to make it, but as long as you remember that simple concept, you can t go too far wrong.
Sam s role isn t to score kills, but to create opportunities and deny them to our opponents. He s learning to set the tempo of the match in a way that suits us, which takes skill.
I don t know how much of my introduction sinks in with the guys. It is, after all, a powerpoint presentation. When it s over, I assign roles and heroes that I believe suit our fledgling team.
SAMUEL Dota 2 is intimidating to learn, but Chris has been so specific in assigning us roles that we re really only learning the one small part of it we each need to function within his battle plan. I m the muscle, so Chris assigns me Earthshaker, a large hairy creature that turns up in the heat of battle to lay down Fissure, a powerful barricade that will help us control encounters.
Players are given position numbers to determine their place in the resource priority pyramid, with 1 on the top and 5 on the bottom. This doesn t correspond to importance or skill, it s about distributing gold and experience to the people who need it.
PHIL I m playing the support, although we re not calling it support . We re calling it position five, because of graphs. My take on the presentation is that our job as a team is to filter resources in a way that keeps our joint performance stable, even as our individual power shifts. As an intelligence hero, I ll start stronger relative to my teammates. The upshot of this is that I have to buy a donkey.
CHRIS After the presentation, I load us into a private lobby and give the team a tour of the map. They line up behind me like ducklings, and already look confused.
There s an intimidating amount to learn, and the only way to cram it all in is to play more. Eventually, terms like BKB and Heart become second nature, as do their uses and tactical significance.
TOM The strategic overview is useful for clearly laying out our priorities, but I can t help but start to get bogged down in the minutiae when we roam the map. The home shop is different from the side shops, which are different from the secret shops hidden in the jungle. They all have different items that you can combine into better items to give you stat boosts and special powers. These have weird names like the Black King Bar and Heart of Tarrasque . I comfort myself with the fact I m playing Sven. Sven s a blue barbarian guy who hits things with a big sword. I can do that.
ANDY Prior to Chris s presentation, I don t know a thing about Dota. After it, I know a bit more, but I m still very much a member of the Clueless Club. Then we go for a walk around the map and my brain starts to rebel. Why are there so many items for sale? Which ones do I buy? I ve reached a point in my life where I m pretty resistant to learning new things, and Dota is a big thing to learn. I figure that when it s time to play against another team, Chris will just tell me what to do anyway. That I can deal with. I like that I ve been assigned ranged characters, because then I can just hang at the back.
Rise of the robots
CHRIS I ve assigned everybody two heroes. For our initial bot games, I take the middle lane and send Andy and Sam to one lane and Phil and Tom to the other. This gives me a chance to keep an eye on them from a position of relative isolation. Some take to the game faster than others.
Items can be sold back to the store with no penalty immediately after you buy them—just right click and select sell . Try it, Tom.
TOM Phil and I get into a good rhythm. I get used to Sven s attack timing and getting the last hit on creeps—this gets me gold to buy those complicated items. When you first look at a Dota battle, you might assume you ought to help your little guys get to the enemy ancient. In reality, they re RTS minerals to be slurped up, one hit at a time. Just when I think I m starting to get the hang of things, Chris asks why I ve bought two separate pairs of boots. I have no idea how that happened. I blame Phil s donkey.
PHIL You would think, given that my first job is to buy a donkey, that I would be good at buying a donkey. While the transaction itself goes smoothly, I forget to take him out of my inventory. My other job is to place wards. I do this by asking Chris where I should place wards shortly after every time he reminds me to buy and place wards. My job, I assume, is just to help other people be awesome. It s part way through the first bot game that I realise that s not quite right. Chris pings a location and telling me to wait. He draws in the enemy team and I activate Crystal Maiden s ultimate: Freezing Field.
Everything dies in a flurry of snow and dancing. I cackle.
If you re being passive, there s always something else you could be doing. Ask your team how they re faring, buy a teleport scroll and see if the enemy is in position for a kill attempt. Otherwise, get some wards.
SAMUEL I m struggling with Earthshaker. I m not sure what my purpose is in the early game—I die a lot and I m pretty poor at aiming Fissure across groups of enemies. I enjoy teaming up with Andy but he s far more effective. In the next bot game, I switch to Lich, an ice-based long-range mage that seems a bit more well-rounded. This proves a far better fit and I die a lot less. A character fit for a coward!
ANDY As Sniper, the game slowly starts making sense to me. I figure out that if I increase my range, I can attack towers without getting hit. If I keep killing monsters, I can earn money to spend on the thing that gives me lightning bolts. But when we fight tougher bots, everything falls apart.
I die constantly and start to zone out. I lose faith in my ability to get Dota. This isn t for me. I m not into competitive games that you have to play for a thousand hours to get good at. I play games for stories and experiences, not learning.
Oh, the humanity
CHRIS It s time. We need to actually play real people if we re going to stand a chance against RPS. I load us into a match against equally-new strangers, using a fresh account to mask my own rating. I know, I know, that s naughty. I justify it to myself by assuming that the other guys will be doing the same thing. I take Storm Spirit, the first Dota hero I fell in love with, to the midlane.
ANDY Humans! Actual humans. This is the first time I ve played Dota with people I don t work with, and the pressure is rising. But once the match begins, they seem as clueless as me. I dutifully farm away, waiting for Chris to give me instructions. Occasionally I get into a fight with another player, and I don t die every time. That s encouraging. I farm and farm, and I buy the lightning bolt thing, and upgrade my character.
PHIL My assigned heroes were Crystal Maiden and Witch Doctor. After trying out both against bots, I decide to stick with CM from here on out. Witch Doctor s stuns are pretty handy, but I like the more reliable damage over time of Crystal Maiden s Frostbite spell. Also, I just enjoy being a magical snow princess. She starts every game by flirting with Sven, which I think is having an awkward effect on Tom s and my working relationship.
TOM Playing against humans is one thing; the big problem is dealing with new and unpredictable heroes. Phil and I face off against Alchemist, who likes to throw bottles of gunk to stun and hurt enemies. Bounty Hunter can turn invisible, which he uses frequently to gang up on us and then run away. We re spending a lot of time laning against three opponents, and it s miserable. There s no time to mouse over enemy abilities to read their details—the only way you learn how an ability works is to be killed by it.
PHIL Bounty Hunter is awful. Until now, I ve done a good job of faking competence and stoic reliability, but I am not a good Dota player. I struggle to disengage against the enemies I can see, and now I ve got to deal with this shit? Bounty Hunter s damage is mostly to our confidence. He s out there somewhere, and even with Sentry Wards laid down, I m jumping at every shadow.
CHRIS I face Mirana in mid, and it s clear that this is actually a new player and not an asshole on a fake account. I win the lane pretty handily and realise that I am an asshole. I am, however, an asshole with options. I move top and score first blood, then roam the map scoring kills fairly effectively. A highlight is when Bounty Hunter moves in to kill Andy. I catch a glimpse of him on the minimap and know what he s about to do, so I tell Andy to stay still and bait out the kill attempt. I punish it with a flashy Storm Spirit play and feel like Andy s cool magical lightning uncle.
Then, Sam gets called into a meeting and has to leave the game for 20 minutes. Rather than risk him getting pegged with an abandon, I get him to hand control of Earthshaker to me and I play both heroes for a little while. I m used to the notion that you can t quit a Dota game once it s started, but it occurs to me that this wouldn t necessarily be clear to anyone else.
As we approach the midgame, the enemy stacks up items that make it harder for me to control fights: Orchid Malevolence, Black King Bar. That Alchemist has a Shadow Blade; my ducklings are struggling to deal with the invisibility it grants him. They re struggling generally, actually. I feel like I m spinning plates—if I make a play on the top lane, Andy will die on the bottom lane. If I go bot, Tom and Phil will get in trouble top. These games were never supposed to be about me.
Someone always has to go first. If your team lacks a dedicated initiator , communicate clearly and make sure you listen to what others are planning. Once a commitment is made, there s no going back.
TOM We re having a shaky time learning how to fight as a team. A lot of us have stun moves that can start a big fight, but we re hampered by a strange awkwardness, as though we re all trying to fit through the same door. There s a lot of after you, no, after you, and we never quite manage to synchronise our charges. Four out of five of us have no idea whether we re winning or losing a fight, so we disengage in drabs and get picked off individually. Only now do I truly realise how hard this is going to be.
ANDY A player using the Phantom Assassin hero keeps killing me, over and over again, and I start to lose interest. I still haven t fully embraced Dota, and I m reminded why I hate playing competitive games online. Even these low-level newbies we ve been matchmaked with are better than me. I know I could get better if I practised, but I don t want to. I don t want to Dota.
MID NO GANK
Contrary to the belief of many pub players, the role of mid isn t just to bail out the other lanes. Using it to farm is viable too.
CHRIS This is salvageable, I think, but I m daunted by the number of small things I ve got no time to explain. I count off the enemy s full list of stuns and successfully teleport out of a fight gone wrong, but I realise that being able to do that represents the better part of thousands of hours of accumulated experience. It s no good saying teleport when they ve used all their stuns to people who have no idea how many stuns they have.
PHIL We re relying on Chris too much. It s clear he wants us to start taking the initiative, but when he tells us he s coming to gank, we interpret it as him coming to singlehandedly make everything better. Even when he does lay out a step-bystep play, it turns out people are unpredictable. At one point, I hide in the treeline of the safe lane, waiting for Chris to draw the majority of the opposing team into Freezing Field s range. They move in and I pop it, waiting for the glorious snow-death. Instead, they move back. I miss everyone. It s deeply unsatisfying.
CHRIS The game runs long—over 60 minutes—but we re pushed back steadily by Alchemist and Phantom Assassin, who both scale well into the late game. Eventually, our respawn timers run too long; there s nothing else to be done. If we re going to beat RPS, I resolve, we need to focus on fighting as a team
PC Gamer vs RPS
CHRIS I think we ve got what it takes, although Andy is less sure. RPS have an advantage, because two of their players—Alice and Pip—have about as much Dota experience as I do. To make matters worse, one of their newbies takes a nap and doesn t turn up. They get a ringer, Quinns, who was a member of my original Dota group. He hasn t played in years, but a hundred hours of experience two years ago trumps five hours last week. I m sure it ll be fine if we stick to the plan.
I don t stick to the plan. I was going to play Storm Spirit again, but I don t want to beat up newbies with a hero they can t handle. I pick Invoker instead, a flashy mage who combines elements to conjure spells. He s an advanced character and I m merely all right with him—I feel this is a fair compromise. RPS don t compromise. They take Viper and Puck on their experienced players, characters that are very difficult for new players to deal with. Shit!
ANDY The team seems fairly confident about the big finale. I m not. I m just planning to keep my head down, kill monsters, and hopefully not make too many mistakes. But then the match starts and I catch my first glimpse of a rival hero and suddenly all I care about is beating them. I manage to stay alive for the longest I ve ever stayed alive in Dota, even with a Drow Ranger pummelling my hero with magic arrows. This is promising.
TOM This is it. I m a little terrified because I m laning against Pip s Viper. She keeps needling me from a distance, pushing me away from the creep wave. That means fewer last hits and less gold. There s some slightly frantic banter about the whereabouts of the RPS midlaner, who is apparently some sort of rainbow-coloured death fairy. I try to focus on killing creeps.
PHIL Adam from RPS is playing Witch Doctor. I know how to play WD, and that, I realise, means I can respond to what he s doing. At one point, I see his health start to tick up, and realise he s activated Voodoo Restoration. I know for a fact that it s bottomed out his mana, because I once made the same mistake. Annoyingly, I can t do anything—Pip s Viper is too effective for us to get a kill—but I m pleased at myself for knowing a thing.
CHRIS I m nervous. I don t get anywhere near the farm I need. An invisibility rune spawns, and I figure I can use it to make a game-opening play on the top lane. I do so, but Andy and Sam aren t anywhere near close enough to help and the enemy successfully withdraws. The long walk back to the fountain gives Alice plenty of time alone.
SAMUEL Andy and I are gradually getting to grips with the tactical retreat. Early on I take out Alec s Drow Ranger, which is a great boost to my self-esteem. We re working well together. Then Alice arrives to ruin it all.
ANDY Everything seems to be going well, but then I get killed by a giant floating frog fairy, and again, and again, and now I m mad. Every time I see the magic frog I run away, and I spend the next part of the match just hiding in a corner, killing creeps.
PHIL I keep making logistical errors. I m so focused on where to place wards that I forget to buy them. Twice I mis-click, activating my ultimate when I meant to place a ward. It s frustrating, because despite having only played a few games, I already think I should be better than this. I m not the only one getting annoyed. Chris sounds frustrated. I don t know if it s with us or himself, or some combination of the two, but it has a profound effect on morale. Until now, we ve fed off Chris s relentless optimism and belief. We re not long into the match, and it s clear he s behind. His frustration hits me pretty hard. I go very quiet.
CHRIS Alice has built a Dagon, a magical laser wand that allows you to explode underleveled heroes in a single hit. My ducklings are underleveled. It feels like a dick move. Really, though, I m cross at myself. I should have played what I knew, but I tried to both be noble and a show-off in a single stroke. I pull the team off their lanes, into a clump for safety. Regaining a bit of composure, I land a global snipe on Alec s fleeing Drow Ranger with Invoker s Sunstrike. We re still in this, barely.
TOM It s a huge relief to get out of the lanes. I start amassing a bit of gold by chopping away at the wildlife in the jungles. I m gradually building the famed BKB , which I can activate to gain immunity from magic spells for a few precious seconds. I wait, and bide my time killing a colourful jungle ostrich.
ANDY The latter half of a Dota match, I ve learned, is a lot more fun. Once you ve got better items and abilities, the combat feels a lot more satisfying. I m as engaged as I ve ever been in a Dota game. I want to beat these guys.
CHRIS I m running the numbers. Alice is scary, but she s also pushing her luck. She over-extends more than once, and we re able to feint, counter-attack, and kill her. But the big picture looks grim. Quinns has Shadow Shaman, whose ultimate—Serpent Wards—allows him to place a nest of menacing snake-turrets. They re deadly against buildings and deadlier against players, and he s good at trapping people in them. At the beginning of this journey, I assumed I could ignore most of the little details and lead a team to victory by focusing on the major themes. I m wrong. You really need to know how to escape a Serpent Ward trap, how to clear them from a tower, and so on. There s no time to explain. They close on our base.
TOM The mid-game felt like a fragmented mess of half-formed fights. Only now, on the doorstep of our ancient, do we finally rally. We re all in one place, and our mission is clear: kill anything that comes up the steps. That gives us the focus we need to start getting kills. We even manage to wipe their team at one point. We ve lost too many towers, though, and our barracks, which means we re being swarmed by enemy mega-creeps. My items have brought me back into the game, but I have to spend all my time beating back the hordes. It s a valiant last stand, but we can t get out of our base. The end is nigh.
ANDY The RPS army is relentless. They won t stop coming. I m dying a lot, and they re all a higher level than me. Game over. I stand in a corner, lower my rifle, and wait patiently for the match to end. I just don t have Dota in my blood.
PHIL I m distraught—partly at RPS s win, but mostly at myself. I didn t play well. I don t think I can play well yet. As I wallow in post-game ennui, I realise that I d really like to learn how.
CHRIS I m heartbroken. I know this feeling. I look around the office. Phil feels it. Tom feels it. Sam feels it. Andy s already moved on. Something occurs to me: I can tell which of us will keep playing—they re the ones who are utterly, utterly crestfallen. Dota this weekend? Phil asks. I agree. Our next conversation concerns revenge.