DotA 2: The Choice for Competitive MOBA? Written by Sean “Blazek” Emes, Edited by Jordan “Doomhammer” Kahn

So there was this game called Defense of the Ancients (DotA), and if you know a bit of history about the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre then you have most likely heard of it. To those who have not, DotA was the original MOBA that started as a custom, player-designed map in Warcraft 3 and defined the entire genre of game. An entire generation of MOBA games has followed the design template from DotA and has become incredibly popular, including the competitive circuit title League of Legends (LoL). So after quite a few years, and a generous offer by Valve to the primary developer of DotA, we are now about to be graced with DotA 2, which is currently in some form of invite-only beta. While it has been in this state for some time, I have been quite stubborn with my beta, and after trying it out right away I have refused to play a single match in the last four months.

That may seem strange coming from a gamer who loves the competitive aspect of gaming, why would I ignore the sequel to the game that started its own genre, especially when it’s being refined from the ground up to be competitive? Well, perhaps talking about the game itself and my impressions as a new player will give better insight then just a generic answer, so follow me for a moment, and I will explain.

If you have played other MOBA titles, specifically Heroes of Newerth (HoN) and Blood Line Champions, you will notice the game select screen is extremely similar to what you see in DotA 2. The actual layout has been made to be very user friendly, making icons bold and easy to identify while keeping the overall look simple. This is great for new players as it is easy to make sense and it is easy to learn where to find things. Unfortunately, when you join a game this ease of use seems to go right out the window.

To start, there is really no way for new players to understand how to play DotA 2. Going into the beta it was generally accepted that you at least understood the concept of a MOBA, but I found that it was still confusing for a well-seasoned LoL and HoN player such as myself to understand. Many buttons do not include an explanatory pop-up description, even when you hover over them. This means you have to start clicking to figure out what all the buttons do, which is fine until you hit the button that drops you from your game and makes you start spectating another game... which happened to be the very first button I hit (ok, maybe I’m just unlucky).

After a few more games and some playing around with buttons, understanding leveling, and finding the hidden shops, anyone with a decent background in the genre will at least get enough of a hang of the game to play decently. However, this general lack of tutorials in such a complex game (and I do mean complex) does leave a sense of “what else don’t I know.” This can lead to an increasing sense of frustration that you aren’t learning how to play efficiently or to your highest potential, and this is further compounded when the other players consistently know more than you.

This brings up a point I want to make about modern day eSports, and why some games work and others don’t. The phrase “easy to play, hard to master” is something you may have heard before, but it applies almost directly to this case. When a game is easy to learn, it is able to appeal to a much wider crowd since anyone can have fun right off the bat. This is what causes elitist players to dismiss games like League of Legends as “easy” or “the WoW of MOBA games,” but it’s also what allows the game to generate the biggest casual following and (hand in hand with a large fan base) a massive competitive scene. Plus, once you have an enormous community that follows the competitive scene you get to the “hard to master” part, and the top level competitive play pulls further and further away from the “average” skill level. Converse to that model you have DotA 2 which is extremely challenging and very competitive, but ends up falling much more in line with Heroes of Newerth in terms of spectatorship and number of fans.

When you consider how far ahead League of Legends is in terms of eSports, the advantage of time it has had to develop itself, and the wider audience it appeals to it would actually seem as if DotA 2 can’t help but fall by the wayside along with Heroes of Newerth. There is, however, one distinct advantage: DotA 2 was built with eSports as a primary focus from day one. Because of this, we get a game that meets many requirements for competition, including (and especially) a major focus on the spectator mode during the design and development stage. As of the current beta, any player can find, from the main screen, a match currently being played and jump straight in to watch the game. They can even search for matches based on the player, the hero, the team, etc. and watch replays at any time. This level of spectator integration makes it much easier for players to watch games, research how people play heroes, and generally stay connected to the DotA 2 community without even playing.

This may actually be the saving grace for DotA 2 and give it a much needed edge to be accepted as an eSport by more than just the niche players that started the scene. It does have some areas to work on, especially in terms of welcoming new players, but spectatorship is a massive step towards understanding where eSports is today and working to create a product that will meet the needs of competition. I guess we’ll just have to see what they do next.

UPDATE: Since the original writing of this article, League of Legends developer Riot Games has announced that a more versatile spectator mode will be released soon. This spectator mode will also allow you jump into almost any game and watch, and will feature certain games based on the teams/players that are competing. While not quite as broad in scope as DotA 2’s spectator mode, Riot has made improvements by including an automatic three minute delay between the gameplay and the spectator, as well as giving the audience the power to pause the game, slow it down or speed it up. It looks like Riot has also turned its efforts towards becoming a highly competitive title, and is making great strides in that direction. Your move, DotA 2!