Nothing in this entire universe is built to last; entire volumes of speculative fiction and scientific research have put to word the excruciatingly real limits to existence, detailed in dry language the tragic inevitability of the heat death of what humanity understands as reality. Nothing lasts forever because everything is constantly undergoing change, all matter and energy is in a permanent state of flux - not even the hardest rock is devoid of instability.
All of that is to say, no matter how much I love video games and esports, it is, in the end, a fleeting endeavor.
I detailed my beginnings with esports in a blog post on teamliquid.net just two short years ago. In it, I touched on how video games shaped me from a young age, and how that evolved into what it has become now, a major part of my life that has dragged me across the United States to many new experiences I never thought I would have.
At that time, I was still in the infancy of my writing, still ironing out the kinks of my style, and just beginning to write about Dota 2, the game that has had the biggest impact on my life in recent years. Since then, I have been to two iterations of The International, taken thousands of photos of teams, players, and stadiums, and put to words the stories of some of the icons of the scene, people that will be remembered by those involved in the esport for years after they retire.
All of this work has been the most rewarding experience of my entire life. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I have learned more about myself, about my ability to create than I have in the entire rest of my life. I’ve grown as an artist, expanded my repertoire of expression, and overcome personal faults to truly become a better person. It wasn’t all easy, but it was all important, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
This is the part where I say that I’m moving on from esports, that I no longer want to write about Dota 2, that I’ve learned what I’ve learned and now I’m going to do bigger, better things and achieve self-actualization making a difference in the world somehow, except…
That’s not true, is it?
Erick Wright, a YouTuber who has been making The Only Way to Play… guides on the platform for years now, recently released a video titled The Only Way to Play Dota 2 where he discussed, at varying intervals, his analysis of the final two games of The International 2018, his view on Dota 2’s long-term competitive viability, and his own experience as a fan of Dota 2 and more traditional sports. In the end, he announces that he’s going to be moving on, that he’s had a wonderful time with the game but he wants to make new content, and he hopes his audience will follow him down this new path.
The point of this video, however, is not so much an announcement, at least not to me. No, the reason I am writing this today is that at around the 35-minute mark, right after Erick has just shown OG’s victory in game 5 and the resultant celebration, he begins to ruminate on the reality that this game is temporary. Weaved throughout the video, Erick’s questions about the longevity of Dota 2 and the health of its scene for professional players culminate in this final question, what will happen to Dota 2 when the fans that support this wonderful, near-magical esport have, as so many have already, moved on?
Erick purports to give no answers to these questions, but some insight can be gained by looking to esports past, and how they have, or haven’t changed in the intermediate time. Perhaps the game most analogous to Dota 2, at least in the mind of the old guard Dota 2 community, is StarCraft: Brood War. I briefly mentioned that game’s importance to me when I was younger, but I never was an avid watcher of the esport - in its heyday, I was completely unaware of Korea’s leagues and their champions. Regardless, it is important to know that they existed for years, backed by a robust infrastructure of teams and sponsors that supported a large number of professionals for the time and helped develop young talent into future stars.
Looking at Brood War now, it’s a very different scene. Even in Korea, it is a shadow of its former incarnation, a single league ran by a streaming platform that largely features the aging cast of names that left the game years ago for its newer iteration StarCraft 2. Nonetheless, it is surviving, and that fact gives hope to older fans of Dota 2 - even if viewer numbers decline and large organizations leave the scene, the game could theoretically live on through the dedication of the fans and the most passionate players.
Unfortunately, Dota 2 has some major differences from Brood War that both help and hurt its case. First, and foremost, Dota 2 is, by design, not the unchanging stalwart of evolving metagame brilliance that Brood War is. Part of the resilience of Brood War as an esport and its ability to retain dedicated fans and players for almost two decades now lies in its evergreen nature, the fact that it is so mechanically demanding and strategically deep that it still sees adaptations in build orders and movements to this very day.
Part of that evolution, for sure, was due to the powerful map editor that came with the game that allowed the professional scene to experiment with different designs to see how changing the battlefield affected each of the three races and their matchups, effectively ushering in new strategies or forcing certain playstyles that best showed the creativity of the players.
Dota 2, however, has undergone much more drastic and sweeping changes since its inception, and that is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Design philosophy on multiplayer games has shifted dramatically in the years since Brood War was released, games no longer receive one or two expansions and an editor, they are instead regularly updated at varying intervals in an effort to retain players by providing a fresh experience with changes to the game that promise to keep it from becoming stale. Some of these changes are aimed at professional players, toning down strategies that have become dominant in an effort to balance the game and provide strategic depth and diversity to the scene, at least on paper.
There is, of course, an inherent conflict in the idea of changing a game solely to say you’ve changed it so people keep playing, and changing a game so that people who compete in it play on fair terms. Erick discusses this, too, in his video, but he stops short of understanding the true depth of this dichotomy and its relationship with the health of the professional scene.
A piece that I think does explore this dichotomy, at least somewhat, is one by a former teamliquid.net/LiquidDota writer Ver titled League of the Ancients 2. It was, at the time, a controversial piece that argued against the comeback gold mechanics introduced into the game with patch 6.82 by analyzing their effect on both pub matches and professional play. In summary, while the comeback mechanics may have solved a problem in pub play by making every game feel winnable at all stages, it changed how professional players played the game in such a drastic way that its effects are still prevalent in the current metagame, two years after the article was published.
These sorts of changes to the game both help and hurt player retention. For the every-day player, having a new experience with every new patch is a welcome treat, but for returning players or fans of the esport, having your understanding of the game undermined by radical shifts to the core mechanics of the game on a regular basis diminishes enjoyment and makes every stint away from the game longer and more difficult to come back from. These varying reactions can be seen in the comments to the article, with many agreeing with his points and others crying foul.
In today’s video game market, there are more titles than ever that compete for the finite amount of attention that players have to give them, so much so that the influx of games has reached a problematic point, becoming a hot-button issue in games journalism and for digital storefronts like Steam that hosts Dota 2. It’s becoming rarer and rarer to dedicate all of your time to a single game as a player nowadays.
The value that multiplayer games like Dota 2 have is in their community. Even single-player games are tapping into the power that shared experience has, but games like Dota 2 quite literally live and die on their playerbase. The game is free-to-play, and its continued development requires that players like me continue to invest in crowdfunding efforts for The International every year so that its service model can sustain it. The esport is even more inextricably tied to the community, with The International prize pool being such a large portion of the overall money in the game, alongside the need for viewership that drives esports tournament metrics used to convince sponsors to invest in the scene.
Thus, we arrive at the dichotomy. Dota 2 needs its playerbase to continue playing the game and contributing to the prizepool and watching the tournaments, so it continually updates the game to draw them in and keep them there. For professional players, however, these updates are disruptive to their livelihood as competitors. This past season saw the game patched on 2-week cycles for much of the year, and players resoundingly hated it by the end, many calling for the patches to return to being more spaced out so that they would have more time to adapt to new changes.
One could argue endlessly about whether or not the patches were “good for the game” or not, but the ultimate point is that there is a conflict of interest at the heart of Dota 2, where the ever-changing nature of the game is inevitably going to leave some players behind, even as it struggles to retain the ones it has. The writing is on the wall, so to speak, but that’s not the whole story, either.
I stated some number of paragraphs ago that I view Dota 2 as perhaps the most important game in my life. Much of this piece has been meandering, but that is purposeful. I… don’t know how I feel about the game. I’ve played more since The International 2018 than in the entire year between it and TI7, but I’ve never felt more distance between myself and the game. It certainly isn’t the one I fell in love with years ago, or even the one that inspired me to write about its competitors and their exploits in and out of the game.
The professional structure itself has changed, an effort to bring sustainability and stability to a scene that has been defined by its roster swaps and last-minute trades that have changed the outcomes of countless tournaments and provided narratives that drive fans and players to find meaning outside of the server. In the end, perhaps that meaning is more important than anything, perhaps that truth, the understanding forged between the professional players and the members of the community that call themselves the fans of Dota 2, is the only important thing.
Dota 2 will never be to me what it once was. I am, undoubtedly, one of those players that the game has left behind - whether you feel the same way or not, that is a truth that you cannot deny, because it is something that I feel that I cannot shake off. I may never truly leave Dota 2 behind, but this is certainly one of the last things I write about it for some time. It may yet draw me back in, mesmerize me once more with the mechanical mastery of its truest devotees being put on display for all to see with everything on the line.
If not, I want to say this in closing. To everyone I have played Dota 2 with in the past, thank you for the experiences we shared together. To everyone I’ve met at The International the past two years, and especially to those I’ve had drinks with, I’ll never forget my time in Seattle or Vancouver, and I might even see you in Shanghai. Who knows! This game, and the people around it have had immeasurable value to me in my life. May that shared experience be the heart of our memories of this esport, even if it dies tomorrow.
(Cross-posted to LiquidDota and Medium)