Oliver Lee Bateman thought he was immune to the ill effects of competitiveness. Then he got involved in e-gaming.
We were decent all-around humans, my friend Erik Hinton and I. To borrow a nonsensical motto recently adopted by my current employer, we had “pushed our limits where there aren’t any.” Above average-dom, defined rather generically as one standard deviation past the mean, was never out of reach.
Until we played Starcraft 2, that is. We sucked at that. The third member of our group, a Starcraft/Warcraft III veteran of considerable skill, drove himself to the brink of madness in the course of micro-ing all of our hapless, under-upgraded units. After a few brutal months spent arguing among ourselves, Erik and I took our largely unearned “team Diamond” rankings and called it a career.
Which should have been it, I think. I was a reasonably good hand at the latest iteration of Super Smash Brothers, but competitive gaming had never been my bag. I’d held my own in the early days of Warcraft II, but that was the extent of it. There was no compelling reason to thrust myself into such a white-knuckle universe.
Then came DOTA 2. With its complicated mechanics and plethora of playable characters, this seemed like the game for us. Erik encountered it somehow–maybe at work, maybe during a passing conversation with friends, maybe on Reddit. We could master this game the same way we had mastered esoteric subjects in school: by dint of hard work and obsessive concentration. Lazy cheese tactics and button-mashing wouldn’t stop us. We’d win because we, like former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, were “fucking smart.”
DOTA 2, you see, wasn’t a game that was there simply to be played, as Ian Bogost put it so eloquently in his Atlantic essay about App Store flavor-of-the-month Flappy Bird. No, this was serious shit. A nut waiting to be cracked. A code that could be unscrambled. A Gordian knot waiting to be sliced by us, the Alexanders of the e-gaming world.
Except it wasn’t like that at all. DOTA 2, if you don’t know, is a mutant offshoot of the Warcraft III engine–a custom-made “hero battle” map that grew far beyond the imagination of its original creators. Ten random players are assigned to two teams of five and tasked with guarding a structure called the “Ancient” (hence the title–“Defense of the Ancient,” although no one calls it that nor is there any conceivable reason for ever doing so). The “Ancient” is protected by a ring of powerful towers that must be destroyed over the course of these nigh-interminable showdowns between the forces of light (the “Radiant”) and dark (the “Dire”).
Let’s step back for a second. I’m 31 years old, have a PhD and a law degree, and teach history at a university. Erik designs web interactives for The New York Times. These are the tasks we’re paid to do and the tasks we’re actually somewhat okay at doing. DOTA 2, we assumed, would take us out of our comfort zones and force us to work on our weaknesses. What weaknesses? Patience, maybe. Macro-level teamwork strategies, perhaps. Using a mouse and keyboard, surely.
Welcome to DOTA 2. You suck.
A website called DOTABUFF contains the records of our accomplishments, which might be fairly called “ozymandian” if they’d ever amounted to anything in the first place. I posted a glittering 2100 overall player rating (about as low as a person can sink, if all the Reddit misinformation about this e-sport is correct), while Erik fared somewhat better, achieving a near-average 2700 rating over the course of 668 matches that saw this number fluctuate between 2600 and 3100. 668 games played over the course of four months, from October to February, or an average of five games a day. Assuming that each of these games took at least 40 minutes–and many of them, the worst of them, lasted far longer–we’re talking over 445 hours invested in this game.
My dissertation sure as hell didn’t take me 445 hours to type. Erik’s honors thesis likely didn’t occupy that much of his time, either. Nor did it take me 445 hours to achieve serviceable numbers in the gym, as I was pretty much “good 2 go” from the very second that puberty commenced. In fact, as I racked my brain, I couldn’t think of any activity at which I had invested hundreds of hours and seen so little improvement. In most instances I was fine from the start…or I quit immediately. That had been what kept me and Erik going: after reaching our ceilings at one avocation, we would quickly find another.
Neither one of us was the competitive sort, at least not in the conventional way that competitiveness is coded as “masculine” in our culture.*** I’d drop the weight if I felt I was going to injure myself rather than complete the lift. I wouldn’t go the extra mile, or even the extra foot, to win a game of any kind. I would, however, go out of my way to get along with everyone, to appear collegial and engaging, because I believed such behavior would defer or perhaps even completely defuse a burgeoning conflict.
All of this was “competitive” in some vague sense, I suppose. By giving 80%, I might live to compete another day. As my sports hero of a father often remarked, I had no killer instinct. I was proud of this, given that said “killer instinct” doubtless explains at least in part the extraordinary gender disparity in prison sentencing (92.9% of inmates in the US are male).
We got our first taste of the stakes of modern e-gaming during our long apprenticeship at Starcraft 2. We were shielded somewhat by our mutual friend’s proficiency at the game. We had to do little besides develop our in-game economies in order to provide troops sufficient for the climactic battles he’d micro with zeal and aplomb. This friend hated losing in a way I hadn’t encountered since I lived with my father, a man who turned every handshake into a ferocious contest of wills and who would bite through someone’s nipple if he thought the tide was turning against him in a wrestling match.
We won far more often than we lost in Starcraft, but the defeats were cataclysmic. Each beating felt like the beating of a lifetime. Soul-searching and consternation followed in the wake of these catastrophes. Eventually, the emotional weight of this proved too much to bear. Erik skedaddled just before the Heart of the Swarm expansion dropped, and our overextended companion followed not long thereafter.
Months would pass before Erik discovered DOTA 2. More to the point, before he discovered the efflorescence of DOTA self-help literature on the web. “Learn to play DOTA” vids by the thousands. Playthroughs by dedicated gamers who spoke in varying degrees of monotone. Build guides, not a one of which every corresponded with another. Those 445 hours were just a start. The rule of thumb at the university where I teach, and at many others besides, is that for every hour spent in the classroom, three hours should be devoted to homework. When it came to DOTA 2, we followed this to the letter. For each of us, a thousand hours spent on DOTA-related play and research is a safe albeit horrifying estimate.
Initially we lost a lot, because I was so bad there aren’t even words, but as my performance progressed toward the mean, we alternated between winning and losing streaks. The winning streaks occasioned great joy, the kind of high provided by premium narcotics; the losing streaks demanded further study and reflection. The modifications and tweaks never ceased. One week, we’d play only hard carries. Another week, one support and one semi-carry. Erik would focus on mastering the mid. I’d become a lane specialist.
Most of our worst beatings came in “all pick,” the generic catch-all mode that most people choose because they’d prefer to meekly accept their hidings and move on to the next game as soon as humanly possible. This was a terrible way to play; canny players would simply wait until you’d picked (you could wait as long as you liked, even past the start of the game) and then select the five heroes most adept at killing your guys. Others would hurry to secure “broken” heroes that could singlehandedly roll an entire opposition lineup, usually new additions to the selection matrix that hadn’t been balanced properly. In fact, our longest “all pick” winning streak came when Erik mastered just such a “broken” character…and came to a close when he decided he preferred to play fair (i.e., to win with complicated and difficult-to-use characters).
The “all pick” era ended shortly after we read Sirlin’s legendary “Playing to Win” article:
The scrub is only willing to play to win within his own made-up mental set of rules. These rules can be staggeringly arbitrary. If you beat a scrub by throwing projectile attacks at him, keeping your distance and preventing him from getting near you…that’s cheap. If you throw him repeatedly, that’s cheap, too. We’ve covered that one. If you sit in block for 50 seconds doing no moves, that’s cheap. Nearly anything you do that ends up making you win is a prime candidate for being called cheap. Doing one move or sequence over and over and over is another great way to get called cheap. This goes right to the heart of the matter: why can the scrub not defeat something so obvious and telegraphed as a single move done over and over? Is he such a poor player that he can’t counter that move? And if the move is, for whatever reason, extremely difficult to counter, then wouldn’t I be a fool for not using that move? The first step in becoming a top player is the realization that playing to win means doing whatever most increases your chances of winning. The game knows no rules of “honor” or of “cheapness.” The game only knows winning and losing.
We had seen the scrubs, and they were us. Us and everyone we played against. It was a scrub-fest of lower-tier games played by 10 randomly chosen players, many of whom didn’t even speak the same language and each of whom marched to the tune of his or her own arbitrary set of rules. Of course there was a gentleman’s agreement not to ward! Of course nobody ever bought the gem to reveal invisible characters! Of course Earth Spirit was broken and crushed everybody–that was the freaking point!
Pub Dota 2 was just an endless series of fails, one after the other, with “victory” being bestowed upon whatever five-stack of humans sucked less.
Following the realization that nearly two thousand combined hours of hard work hadn’t made us anything better than mere scrubs, we switched to “Captain’s Mode,” a structured draft that lets you pick and ban characters in an orderly manner. Initially, we won a bunch of these matches–a few were even classic “pub stomps“–before beginning another long decline.
Nothing could stave off our descent. Captain’s Mode facilitated interminable discussions about the ideal lineup, often with players even more clueless than we were. Maybe we needed to play Bristleback to counter Riki. But wasn’t the best counter to Bristleback a good, farmed-up Riki? No, no, what we needed was Enigma, someone else would say. Except when he said Enigma, he meant Nightstalker.
Which brought us to the scariest conclusion of all: many people, even ones who ostensibly spoke English, knew nothing about anything, including the game. I mean, they knew how to install it, but that was the end of the matter. And so DOTA 2, which we had envisioned as 10-man chess, finally proved itself to be far more random and far more stupid than even a “minimalist runner” like Flappy Bird. The outcome of Flappy Bird, to its credit, was linked entirely to one’s own exertions, however repetitive and mindless those might be. DOTA 2, by contrast, depended almost exclusively on factors beyond your control: Would a teammate disconnect? Did the other three people have working microphones? Would your microphone work? Were the other people in this game rage-filled lunatics who would quit after “first blood?” Would you stink up the joint during the laning phase and make the next 45 minutes hell for everyone?
That, for me, was the worst part of it. Flappy Bird and its ilk are over in seconds–minutes at most. But DOTA 2 was almost always terrible for somebody, and it lasted forever. You won when you were stacked with one or two other players with pulses and discernible brainwave activity; you lost when you weren’t. Everyone we played with was a “scrub” in Sirlin’s sense, yet each claimed that he was so excited to be finally playing with a team that “didn’t suck.” But we sucked, and our teams sucked, and the game sucked, and quite likely there’s a mathematical formula in place that ensures that everybody, from the worst to the best player, will suck 48 to 56 percent of the time. It was a mug’s game, to say the least. There were, I suppose, outstanding players in the world, players who never missed a last hit and had Radiances at the twelve-minute mark. But I never saw those players, much as I’ve never seen anyone raw-bench more than 5 plates (495 pounds) with anything approximating good form and regardless of his size. That shit happens, but so did walking on the moon.
Each new game of DOTA 2 brought the promise of great success and the reality of inevitable failure.
I thought I’d improve as a team player. I thought I’d learn to delegate tasks, to share responsibility, to grow into the game’s various roles. Oh what a goose I was. What I got each night was the equivalent of trashy 5-on-5 pick-up basketball at the Y, basketball in the classic “hero” mode wherein every player regardless of skill refused to pass and launched a barrage of three-pointers only because there was no such thing as a four-pointer. Wherein every player’s every decision, however trivial, amounted to the most selfish, lazy, and stupid decision imaginable under the circumstances.
And yet everyone wanted to win. My goodness how they wanted to win. A focus on process was impossible; there was no process, only button-mashing. At the higher tiers of this game, of which videos were frequently posted on Reddit (the only evidence I could uncover to indicate that such a level of play existed at all), e-gaming superstars played like honest-to-goodness LeBron James-style professionals and strove to accomplish specific objectives. Erik and I also worked to accomplish objectives, but rarely did so and in most instances faced fierce opposition from teammates who neither knew nor cared what we (or they!) were doing. Hell, most of the time we were making the wrong moves, too.
I had always despised gambling and the strange attitudes toward winning and losing that it engendered, but I was now as hooked as any veteran of the Atlantic City keno boards. I wanted to win, damn it, to go to bed happy and fulfilled and perfect and born anew…until I received my next beating of a lifetime. And yet winning or losing was almost completely out of my hands. It was as if I only got to manipulate the Flappy Bird for a second or two, over one pipe at most, before its fate was left to monkeys, or in the case of the all-too-common mass-disconnects, to no one. Around 9 p.m. each night, I’d be champing at the bit for the next opportunity to redeem myself.
It finally stopped. I didn’t think that it could, and I certainly couldn’t quit alone. As was the case with Starcraft 2, the other players helped make my decision for me. When Erik concluded that no strategy could offset such randomness, at least not with our skill gains occurring at such a meager rate, we decided to devote our combined energies to something better, which in this case was anything.
“I would try to talk to people about DOTA,” Erik told me the other day, “and nobody cared.” And why should they care? We were torturing ourselves each night, sometimes for three or four hours, because we wanted to win. Needed to win. Had to win, or else the next 24 hours would become the shittiest of hells for us and anyone who happened to be around us.
I had never found myself in a position where I would gladly bite someone’s nipple off to win a match, but I was fast approaching that point. DOTA’s anger-filled, almost exclusively male environment was tougher on the nerves than what obtained in the dankest, dirtiest warehouse strongman gym (in my case, said gym–the Metroflex in Fort Worth–was actually a welcoming and extremely user-friendly training center). Rather, it was like those aforementioned b-ball pick-up games: no one ran basic plays, played man to man defense, or demonstrated proper jump-shot form. The competitors just went full-throttle from beginning to end, with winning or losing left entirely to fortuity.
I can’t believe I wasted so much time engaged in such a puerile activity, but in a perverse way I’m glad that I did it. “Living’s mostly wasting time,” observed Townes Van Zandt, “[and] I’ll waste my share of mine.” Never before had I perceived so clearly the pitfalls of a monomaniacal obsession with winning. Never before had I recognized how painful a life lived in this manner could be. I now comprehended the anger and fury at the heart of a real competitor like my father, and how grueling such emotions could be. I didn’t need to win at this or Settlers of Catan or Monopoly or Jeopardy! or the father-son three-legged race. I just wanted to get through each day doing more or less as I pleased, following my own interests to whatever conclusions I deemed logical. Certainly there are things in this world worth fighting for, but fighting for the sake of fighting isn’t one of them.
***Note: I’m not saying that this is primarily a male or female trait, merely that we embodied carriers of culture frequently discuss competitiveness as if it were synonymous with maleness. A particularly glaring example of this is women’s tennis, in which an announcer such as John McEnroe might simultaneously praise the “testosterone-fueled play” of Serena Williams while also making time to discuss her “graceful” and “balletic” movements. I had never been “testosterone-fueled” in this sense or any other, but that was about to change.