When a friend asked me a couple weeks ago if I wanted to play Dota 2, the first thing that came to mind were nightmares. I hadn't played the game in four years (beta), and instantly remembered staying up day and night in 2012 playing matches, regularly finding reason to scream at my monitor or throw a pillow.
But I caved.
My first game back was a great reminder of why my brain houses so many Dota 2 nightmares. The match wouldn't go well, to put it lightly. Between not having keybindings set up in a familiar manner, forgetting which items to buy and how to use the courier, as well as neglecting small yet important details like conserving mana, I fed the other team like a caregiver. One hour later, I had a big fat L on my recent match history along with confirmation of my noob status.
I might have over 178 hours logged in the game, and even more than that spent observing pro matches, but I'm still at the bottom of what is a very tall totem pole. This means a lot of things, including raising more questions than answers while playing, and serving as a risk on a team that will accept nothing less than a victory screen at the end of the match.
Yet, no matter how severe of a blow my first game had on my Dota 2 self-esteem, I found myself more drawn to the game than ever before.
I've been playing the game every day since then with a focus on getting better. I'm fortunate that our very own JamalR is a bit of an expert in the field of Dota 2, and we started playing matches together last night. Even with the moral support, every game digs into my soul like a grim reaper's scythe, constantly reiterating that I have a lot to learn. Given my years of Counter-Strike experience (CS 1.6 tournaments, CS: GO Legendary Eagle rank) it's not something completely alien to me, but evokes the best and worst of my personality.
The psychology of Dota 2's attraction is one that is difficult to understand, but pervasive. Not a single player will deny that the game is a cause for frustration, sometimes anger, regularly resulting in fiery arguments in voice and text chat. Yes, you can scream at your teammates on the microphone, and while that is an attribute unique to Dota 2 among the top-shelf MOBAs, sometimes that means hearing a livid South American lay waste to you. You'll only know how bad what they're saying is if you're fluent in Portugese profanity, thankfully.
A lot of Dota 2's charm comes from the same complexity that makes it so unpleasant to play. Whether its the hero pool of over 110 characters, massive list of items to buy and furnish your character with, or deep metagame that includes warding and last hitting creep, there's a lot to think about when playing. You're constantly processing information and reacting to what's happening; there's no time to relax.
Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in the game having an incredibly successful eSports presence. Its tournaments enjoy multi million dollar prize pools that only League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive can compete with. Although initially this seems like a non-factor for many new players, it eventually serves as both an additional element of entertainment value while also validating thousands of hours of investment in the game.
No matter how different personalities can range in Dota 2, everyone shares one quality: they love to win. On average games last anywhere between 35 and 50 minutes. During that length of time you become drawn into the experience, absorbing information such as what items the 10 characters on the battlemap are equipped with, player tendencies, which teammates you can rely on, and especially which teammates are a liability. When the word "victory" doesn't show up next to your teams name, it's a painful reality of the highest order.
But when you win it's one of the greatest things in the world. I can only compare it to other intense games, such as the Dark Souls franchise or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive where success can literally make your day. The only thing better than winning is winning because you played well. For a brief moment in time you're the king of the world.
Even two weeks and a couple victories later I still hate Dota 2. It's a cruel game, and one that will never give back more than I put in. But I also love it and can't stop playing. This might be a dysfunctional relationship, but I wouldn't have it any other way.