Synopsis: The common narrative for dota’s popularity is a myth that can be debunked with a brief look into the history of Battle.net. The real answer? The genre takes the core impulses that drive players and makes them more appealing. It builds on the bare appeals of many popular computer games. It takes the addictive level-up mechanics and turns them into the central attraction in a versus multiplayer game. It rewards “time played” as the primary vector for early improvement. And in addition, the genre is bound to a distribution model which gives it a huge advantage over prior models and prior games. The end result is a genre with wide appeal that can be distributed around the world with ease. It is important to understand this, because the dota genre (and other games) is waging a full assault on the videogame publishing model, the most important quality control mechanism of the last three decades. The wide popularity that can be achieved with digital distribution will be used to defend these games, and it will be crucial to separate popularity from quality in order to get the most out of this medium.
The common narrative is that dota games were deeper and more complex than the real-time strategy games they emerged from. As a result, dota not only became more popular than RTS games, but one of the most popular genres going. This, at a time when many of the best games in recent memory go unnoticed by the general population, dismissed as “too difficult” or “too complex”. This, at a time when videogames have gotten easier across the board. This, at a time when the popular games worth holding to high praise are making their mark through grand visual and technical leaps, and not the laser-like focus on “gameplay” that defines dota games. In other words, the narrative is that dota became popular by doing the things which almost always lead to smaller audiences.
“Dota became popular because it was deep and complex” is an outright myth, and it can be debunked with a brief look into the history of Battle.net. The number of players on Battle.net in 2004 and 2005 are a fraction of those now playing the games inspired by Defense of the Ancients.1 Most of them were not there for the breaking out party. I was. I watched as the battle lines between Warcraft III and Defense of the Ancients players were being drawn. And I can say with confident, first-hand authority that nobody took the Defense of the Ancients player base seriously. They were considered a laughingstock because they were investing their emotional energy and reputation in a custom map, and even within the custom game scene, those maps were never considered anything less than a way to waste time.
I’ll back this with the most anecdotal of all evidence, and you can take it for what it’s worth. In order to play the desirable Clan TDA matches on Battle.net, you needed to acquire a Warcraft III “icon” for use with your game account. This meant winning twenty-five games with any of the four races (or the “Random” race selection) on the Warcraft III ladder.2 Using the robust sample size that was provided by this system, I would estimate that the vast majority of players—roughly eighty to ninety percent—had losing records in Warcraft III. And most of the time, those losing records were in the “Random Team” modes, where a trained monkey could win half its games. While I am not arguing that videogame skill carries from genre to genre on an equal curve, the evidence consistently showed that these players were terrible at Warcraft III.
Dota players were not videogame experts, they were not masters of their craft, and they didn’t want a more complex calling in life. Quite simply, Warcraft III was too hard for them, so they found something easier.3 In reality, these players were seeking the relaxed social experience, the lower barrier of entry, and range of choice that these disposable maps could provide. The Battle.net custom game scene was little different than the world of low-quality games that you can now find on your phones. (And if you want to perpetuate the myth that amateur content creators could rearrange the Blizzard game assets and create better “games” than a commercial company, then please continue to do so.4) It is from this culture of custom game development that Defense of the Ancients became the golden, shining turd in the toilet bowl of Blizzard custom maps.
So let’s explain the real reason that dota became popular. It has nothing to do with the quality of any dota game. You see, the history of popular videogames is more predictable than one may think. The genres and the faces may change, but the impulsive appeals that drive players do not. As an example, the Japanese turn-based role-playing games of the nineties found wide popularity by prioritizing narrative and level-up mechanics in a medium dominated by shorter, skill-based action games. But once Half-Life and Grand Theft Auto III showed that storytelling could be done in more capable genres, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare could do level-up mechanics in more capable combat systems, and World of Warcraft could transform the RPG into a social affair, players were left to accept the Japanese role-playing games for the simple turn-based games that they are. The genre’s trump card was no longer special or interesting because everyone now played that card, and players dumped the genre in droves.
Dota functions in much the same way, only it is taking the core appeals of prior games and making them more appealing. The novelty of the experience is just an extended hook. The genre builds upon Warcraft III by offering that game’s content-rich backdrop, stylized visuals, and defining concept (the hero unit) in a simpler, more accessible model. It offers fans of the Diablo model the versus multiplayer experience that they have sorely lacked. It provides the fans of popular MMORPGs a “five-man raid” without the significant time investment required by MMORPGs. It offers fans of e-Sports a five-man team sport with the largest tournament scene in the history of videogames, and by extension, the most appealing mountain to climb. And thanks to the low barrier of entry created by the simple control scheme, it offers players a ready-made social gaming venture. In doing this, the dota genre can stand out on a platform where the games that would provide an immediate rebuttal to Defense of the Ancients—particularly fighting games and brawlers—have been a secondary attraction.
On top of this, dota takes the addictive level-up mechanics of gaming’s past and weaponizes them. Level-up mechanics are typically explored in the long playthrough of a role-playing game or a dungeon crawler, and Warcraft III used the concept as a supporting feature. But the dota genre has turned the leveling systems into one of the central attractions in a fast-paced versus multiplayer game. You can now get the adrenaline rush that comes with “making numbers go up” over the course of a sixty-minute match, and then quickly do it all over again. Even the systems outside of a match encourage players to “level up”, whether they’re acquiring Runes in League of Legends, unlocking new characters in Smite, or acquiring loot in Dead Island: Epidemic. Dota can do these addictive leveling systems and do them faster and more efficient than other genres.
And on top of that, dota caters to the long-held misnomer that “time equals skill”. The early learning curve is almost entirely predicated on the memorization of heroes, skills, and items. Because the genre offers so little room to shape a tactical engagement, and getting caught out of position often means death, it means that if you do not know what a certain skill or ability does, then it will cost you dearly. As a result, players can constantly improve by simply learning their available options, because learning what a spell does is another situation that will not resign the player to death. You not only derive pleasure from this illusion of improvement, but from this “improvement”, you will derive pleasure from leveling up faster and more efficiently on a match-to-match basis. And by the time you have learned all of the heroes and items—something which may take hundreds of hours—the game will become a comfortable and known quantity.
But it is not just the game mechanics that make dota popular. Defense of the Ancients was widely perceived to be a “free game” for use with Warcraft III. Because there is no preconceived notion as to what dota loses when it is adapted to the free-to-play format, the genre gains a huge advantage over other distribution models.5 Console videogames are bound to an expensive price point that has to be maintained in order to protect the publisher business model and keep their shareholders happy. Even the videogames which were previously sold in boxes—games which can now be sold for pennies on the dollar through digital outlets like Steam—will have a difficult time matching “free”. “Any price” requires a flash judgment as to whether the game will be worth your money. If you’re a kid, “any price” will require your parents’ money. And “any price” endangers the chance of getting your game into the lucrative Asian videogame market, where rampant piracy has made free-to-play the standard.
This gives the dota genre a huge advantage over the existing multiplayer genres and their existing userbases. These long-time fans understand the destructive impact of free-to-play and will fight the model at every step of the way. Even giving away a demo that can be used against paying customers becomes difficult. Microsoft is put in the position of explaining why a “free-to-play” game like 2013’s Killer Instinct can be purchased just like any other game. And when Epic Games announced that they were working on a new Unreal Tournament game in 2014, they had to stress that their game is “free” and not “free-to-play”.6 The stigma of free-to-play scares off long-time players but is harmless to the younger audiences that are playing dota.
Dota has found the sweet spot in a videogame industry that is trying to get its games in the hands of as many people as possible and finding ways to charge them later. It’s a genre that takes the barest appeals of various games and sandwiches them together. In doing this, it can breach markets that have never exposed players to classic console, arcade, and computer games. (Dota can appear to be the best if you live in a part of the world where you’ve never seen anything better.) As a result, the dota genre has become the figurehead for a movement occupied by World of Tanks, Dungeon Fighter Online, and CrossFire. It’s a movement where anyone with a couple of bucks, a mile of passion, and the right distribution model can self-publish their videogame. And if they play their cards right, they can get it around the world in weeks, win over those who identify as “gamers”, and make millions in the process.
So why is it important to understand this? Today, the dota genre operates almost entirely outside of the videogame publishing model, the most important quality control mechanism in the last three decades of commercial videogames.7 The existence of a console videogame market where it costs tens of millions of dollars to build a competitive product is proof of this. Only a decade removed from the height of publisher control in the game industry, companies no longer need that publishing model to get their game in places where people can find them. And, as many companies have proven, these games can become more popular without the help of Sony or Electronic Arts. Just as journalism has declined into a smattering of corporate-run news outlets and a collection of untrained individuals, videogames are following suit in a lot of ways. More people are making more games than ever before and there’s a hell of a lot more mediocrity to go around.
Yes, today’s videogames still kick ass and they’re still pushing boundaries. But with the decline of the publishing model and a slate of game criticism that has failed everyone, the market will be wholly incapable of separating the chaff from the wheat. You will be asked to evaluate a world where more commercial videogames are released than you could ever hope to engage.8 It will be more important than ever for you to become the content filter, to become the means by which one weeds out the good from the bad. The one thing synonymous with this medium is change. Well, things are changing once again, and you must be equipped to embrace or cope with that change. If you don’t, you risk falling into the same trap as every other generation of consumer. You’ll look only at what’s popular, look only at what gets the most marketing, and assuming there’s nothing left to please you.
The easiest way to become that filter will be to educate yourself. In the coming years, companies will hit you with the next League of Legends and the next Dota 2. They will throw millions of dollars in marketing behind these games. They will run tournaments designed to sell these games as “world-class experiences”. Many of these games will become very, very popular, and claiming they are anything less than perfect will expose you to the wrath of the communities that play them. The pressure to fall in line and accept these games as “classic” or “perfect” will be overwhelming. And while popularity does not disqualify quality, the best means to enjoyment is to judge games with your own instincts, rather than the approval of others. Dota may be popular, but don’t let anyone tell you that makes it good. Make your own decision.