So, Dota 2 is out. Like 'officially-released-by-its-developers' out and not 'as-good-as-released-because-everyone-and-their-grandmother-has-access-to-the-beta-anyway-' out. The Workshop is bristling with genius, the Store is overflowing with deceptively cheap shinies, and people keep throwing money at the International. At more than 2, 500, 000 dollars, the prize pool is a dream made fibrous. Dota 2 and, in extension, the original Defense of the Ancients (DotA) has finally arrived - in more than one way.
And man, does that make me feel old. There's a weird dissonance associated with knowing you're one of the old guard. It's like having that wet, slimy thing you saw crawl out of the ocean breeze past you into a Corvette and a well-pressed suit. Whenever someone comments about how the game is a League of Legends clone or looks askance when I type 'DotA' instead of 'Dota', I gape. Don't they know? Don't they understand?
To provide a spot of background, the first incarnation of DotA popped up sometime in 2003. It was a Warcraft III map a guy named Eul built on the bones of custom Starcraft map called Aeon of Strife. The basic conceit was simple: be the first of two teams of five to blow up the other guy's base. Eul installed 32 heroes into this initial version and 39 different items. The mod was fun but flawed; it was ill-balanced and suffused with bugs.
Enter Steve 'Guinsoo' Feak. Exasperated with the original's failings, he came up with DotA Allstars, the map that would later precipitate a global obsession. Guinsoo ironed out the kinks. He added a recipe system and the immortality-granting Roshan which, appropriately enough, was named after a bowling ball. Guinsoo, along with his stable of volunteers, rolled out numerous patches and updates. DotA sprouted. Eventually, the mantle was passed onto the now iconic IceFrog and the rest, well, the rest is modern-day history.
While Valve has Dota 2 positioned as the underground hit that has just entered the mainstream, this isn't really true. Though it was only a blip on American radars, the original DotA was staggeringly popular everywhere else. Asia went nuts over the mod. Europe wrote a virulently infectious song for it. In a 2009 postmortem, Steve 'Pendragon' Mescon, who once reigned over the DotA-Allstars community website, and Steve Feak estimated that DotA had achieved heights of 10 million current active players.
10 million players.
This is the same number of users that World of Warcraft currently trumpets at would-be subscribers. What's mind-boggling about that is that DotA wasn't the product of a big-budget company, it was just a hodgepodge of ideas scrapped together by enthusiasts. In the six years that came after some guy put a Warcraft III spin on a Starcraft map, up to 10 million people across the world had, at one point or another, raged in unison against one other in a battle between darkness and light. DotA wasn't an underground hit. It was a phenomenon.
If you've never tried the original incarnation or any of the subsequent titles that it inspired, the notion of people enjoying it is probably rather strange. Throw in all the stories about how the community encircling the genre is the most vitriolic in existence and you have something that sounds like it shouldn't be handled without bio-hazard gear. Why are so many people in love with it? I'm not going to presume reasons for anyone else but what has kept me enamored of the game for the last decade is simply this: DotA is a game I will never win.
I see DotA as a multi-layered chess board manned by ten players, most of whom are wearing blinders and ear plugs. Communication is, for the most part, largely impossible. There's an over-aching goal, yes, a strategy to be had, but most of the time, everyone is just moving different pieces in a chaotic frenzy. It's the kind of scenario that would have invented hate if it wasn't already a part of our emotional vocabulary. Still, once in a while, a miracle happens. Everyone moves in perfect unison and, against what might seem like impossible odds, there is a moment of perfect beauty. After the first time that happens, it becomes impossible to not crave a second fix.
Under ordinary circumstances, you'll eventually hit a ceiling. You'll become so good that it's suddenly impossible not to see those moments of exquisite splendor as banal occurrences. However, DotA never stops being a bastard. There's always a new hero to learn from scratch, a new strategy to master, a new routine to understand. As you get better and better, you'll find yourself matched up with more and more competent players. With DotA (and Dota 2), you'll never be good enough. It's a game that you can spend a lifetime learning.
The weirdest thing about Dota 2's escalating popularity is, for me, the implications about globalization. Little more than a year ago, the Western hemisphere was only nominally aware of its existence. Now, it hosts the biggest tournament known to the franchise. At the same time, indie games are trickling eastwards. With the assistance of Steam, lesser known titles like Bastion or Rogue Legacy are becoming a fixture within countries which probably would have never heard about those games otherwise. We're ping-ponging our tastes and preferences between one another and it's absolutely grand.
I don't know what's going to happen to Dota 2. There are rumors that Valve has already preemptively trademarked a third iteration. And as someone who has watched the franchise bloom over the last ten years, I can only speculate that this might be what it's like to watch the neighbor's kid grow up. One day, they're just a gap-toothed, tow-headed toddler asking you to play. The next, they're in a car and ready to get on with life, to become something you can't even begin to fathom. In another 10 years, will there be someone quietly laughing at me when I tell them that DotA wasn't originally Valve's brainchild but a mod from an ancient game?
Either way, you've grown up, DotA. Welcome to the big, bright world.
As we tick down to the second (edit: third! I am occasionally a blathering idiot, it seems.) International, here's a question to everyone out there: what were your first DotA experiences like? Do you remember when Manta Style had mana burn? Do you recall a Rikimaru with Death Wards? Let us know in the comments!