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2013 in Review: Why Being the Game No One Actually Wins is So Good For Dota 2

By virtue of being impossible to truly master, Valve's Dota 2 is also impossible to put down.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

As of yesterday, Dota 2, which once required pink-cheeked greenhorns to queue for access, is properly, irrevocably launched. Which feels totally peculiar to say as everyone who is anyone with even a smidgeon of interest in the mod has already been playing since all the way to the first Sunday.

I could be a little biased, though. The idea of even contemplating Dota 2 needs "releasing" weirds me out to no end. Under the fresh coat of paint, the pitch-perfect voice acting, the UI improvements and everything else, it's still the same game to me. Sharper, sleeker and so much more sublimely dressed, maybe, but essentially unchanged from the bastard child of a mod which dug its hooks into me a decade ago.

Why the hell am I still playing this?

With 2013 wrapping up and everyone in USGamer launching into incisive examinations of hits from across the year, I decided to sit down and really, really think about this ten-year addiction. Why do I still fire up a match every other night? Why the devotion when other games exhaust my interest so quickly? How the Holy Carpfish of Good Judgement does this still inspire ill-advised benders in someone tottering on the brink of her thirties? In a retrospective from July, I posited part of this affection stems from the knowledge that Dota 2 is a game I will never win. And you know what? It's statistically impossible for anyone ever to do so.

I know, I know. That sounded a little crazy. Hear me out. There's a valid hypothesis here somewhere. (I think.) "Winning" a game is usually contiguous with experiencing most if not all of its components. By the end of Torchlight II, for example, an average player will probably be cognizant of how the bosses work, how some classes function more optimally with certain weapons, how the terrain is randomly generated and why they should be excited at the prospect of golden chests. They'd have learned to read the underlining rhythms, to cultivate set responses to various scenarios. Boredom, at some point or another, invariably sets in, relegating what may have once been an addiction to a periodic, co-op diversion.

Every game totally feels this epic. / Image credit

But here's the thing about Dota 2. At first glance, it's a simple contrivance. Two teams. Five Heroes on each side. A base positioned on diagonal ends of the map. Nine towers. One Ancient to protect, one Ancient to destroy. The first to wreck havoc on the other's glowy crystal thing wins. You could teach anyone the premise in ten minutes. The idea is that straightforward. Once you move into specifics, however, things change. To begin with, the chances of you playing against the same team match-up is roughly 1 in, wait for it -

5 909 102 214 621 606

Evolution fish! That's a big, big number. The statistical probabilities orbiting Dota 2 are kind of brain-bending and relevant to this discussion. We'll dive into that in a moment. Let's scrutinize those numerals first. Given that Dota 2 pivots on a very basic formula, do those 5.9 quadrillion or so combinations really matter?


Putting personal skill and item build aside for a moment, each group of five is a catalyst for entirely different strategems. A line-up composed of Enigma, Tidehunter, Sand King, Dazzle and Drow Ranger, for example will likely attempt to capitalize on their potential for group fights. If you were to replace Tidehunter with Nature's Prophet, however, chances are that team, while still capable of great team clashes, may decide instead to focus on simply "pushing" towers. Think you might have a handle on those match-ups? Great! It won't necessarily save you against a Crystal Maiden and Juggernaut wombo-combo who, if they know what they're doing, will probably be pressing for an early-game advantage. Similarly, Lina and Lion working in partnership is reason enough for tears. And Ursa and Wisp? Nightmares, I tell you. Nightmares. (Teleporting bears and disco balls are only funny in theory, not in practice.)

The possibilities are nigh infinite. As much as it might sound like a generalization, the truth is that you're never playing the same game twice. Every Hero is capable of functioning in a variety of roles, every match potentially altered by the skill level of your team and the competence of your enemies, every encounter shaped by the kind of items present within that fight. While common sense suggests that an Agility carry is unlikely to be seen running around with, say, a Refresher Orb, it might still happen. To use an Internet-ism, they could be doing it "for lolz". Or because of stupidity. Either works. And because statistics are fun to wield, we'll pause here to look into all the possible item combinations we might potentially see on a six-slotted Hero. Assuming repeats are kosher (we've all toyed with the idea of purchasing multiple Divine Rapiers) and ignoring anything that doesn't require a recipe, that's about 1,586,874,322,944 variants. To be fair, chances are that most probably rely on the Dota 2's recommended list for guidance, thus narrowing the spectrum of possibilities, but still. Numbers.

(Fun fact: it would purportedly take you 415 700 000 000 years or so to play every possible line-up.)

For all intents and purposes, Dota 2 keeps its players caged at the threshold of being good enough. While Dota 2 might be happy to teach you how to better approach the next match, it seems stoically against the idea of being mastered. Whatever you do, however long you've played, there's always something new to learn be it something as trivial as the placement of a specific item in the shop listings or as meaningful as how to initiate flawlessly as Axe. In some ways, you could argue that Dota 2 is just an extended tutorial system, built on "practical" applications of new skills rather than long-winded explanations. But while such a Sisyphean routine would normally be frustrating, Dota 2 mitigates it with instant feedback. Performed a perfect Ravage? Watch in delight as five opposing Heroes are flung up into the air and left too stunned to reciprocate? Dropped a Shallow Grave on your Rubick an instant before the enemy Sniper's Assassinate connected? Be ready to grin as the projectile thumps harmlessly into your ally, waylaid by your greased lightning-like reflexes.

? ? ?_? ?? Give DIRETIDE

You can't "win" because there's virtually no end to the variations you must learn to completely master the game. You can, however, triumph over a thousand smaller conflicts and reap the emotional and the educational benefits of those victories. Dota 2's supply of dangling carrots is as boundless as the vitriol of its players and far more delicious.

I get a little giddy thinking about the direction that Valve is shepherding Dota 2 towards. Valve is Valve, after all. The Great A'tuin on which so much of PC Gaming rests, the digital distribution monolith we log onto every day like supplicants in daily worship of a pot-bellied God of Gaming Fortunes. Certainly, they've got the whole free-to-play model figured out. Over the last year, I come to learn that more than a few Dota 2 content creators are now subsiding exclusively on revenue from their projects. I've also blown one too many dollars flippantly opening a time-sensitive chest. That 2.50 bucks per key? They add up. Similarly, it seems unlikely that the community will ever truly permit Valve to steer off-course. Not too long ago, the Dota 2 fanbase went into an uproar over the absence of a certain Halloween event, so much so that automobile manufacturers Volvo joined in the plea to "Give Diretide". Not the most amiable performance, perhaps, but certainly effective enough.

Like it or not, good or bad, Dota 2 is here to stay.

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