What in the hell is a Dota 2? (BSJ will tell you)

October 08 2021

What in the hell is a Dota 2? (BSJ will tell you)

What in the Hell is a Dota 2? This is a question I’ve been avoiding for a while.

I’ve learned about a lot of esports and a lot about learning in general. When I was a freelance writer, I survived off of being able to learn esports quickly. Before I was a freelancer, I was an ESL (English as a second language) teacher. I don’t normally fear learning new things, but Dota 2…

Dota 2 is intimidating.

Dota 2 is immense and old and angry. It is full of heroes (who are full of features and abilities) and items (which are also full of features and abilities). The terrain can be destroyed, there are day and night cycles, heroes have insane powers, and everyone is teleporting everywhere and turning invisible all the time.

Dota 2 may be chaotic, complex, and jarring. But it is an institution and it demands its due.

Lucky for me, Brain “BananaSlamJamma” Canavan’s job is to help people pay those dues.

Dota 2 for those who don’t know what’s going on and are too afraid to ask

BSJ has been called the Gordon Ramsay of Dota 2 - and it kind of fits.

He’s one of the game’s top commentators, content creators, and educators and he speaks from the authority of once being a pro and still being high up on the ranked ladder. He’s brutally frank and occasionally spicy but he’s also good-humored, genuinely savvy, and eager to share his craft.

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(Credit it where it's due, the first I saw this comparison was from YouTube commenter "Peter Winkelmann.")

His player spotlight fittingly arrived with Dota’s biggest tournament - The International - so it made bizarre sense to literally take this interview as a learning experience. So rather than create a linear journey through his career, I planned to build a twisty, curvy viewer’s guide - a sort of “Dota 2 for those who don’t know what’s going on and are too afraid to ask.” Within that, I hoped to show who BSJ is through what he does.

This was the initial goal. In the hour and a half long interview, I did learn Dota 2. But more importantly, I learned why people love Dota 2 and from there, why people love the broken, complex, illegible system that it embodies. So, what proceeds is half an answer to “What the hell is a Dota 2?” and half an answer to “Why the hell is a Dota 2?”

Basic literacy in a game that’s hard to read

To get started in any competitive outlet, there’s a basic literacy.

This is the widest, simplest view of the game - points, HP bars, stocks - how you can tell who’s winning and who’s losing.

“For everyone watching TI, there are probably ten things in a Dota game that tells you who’s winning.” BSJ gives a brief, casual pause. Almost like a punctuation mark. “And 5 of those are things you’ll never understand.”

Turns out, even at the basic level, Dota’s hard as fuck to read.

But BSJ rarely seems put off by it. Part of what makes him a strong commentator, coach, and communicator is that Dota’s depth excites him more than it daunts him. When BSJ tells you that 50% of the macro game will remain arcane to you, the casual viewer, it’s not from any meanness to the newbie.

It’s from a personal understanding. From his own experience of perennially reading the language of Dota and perennially being surprised by new signs and symbols.

“Even at my bracket, there are times [where] every decision you make, you’re thinking, ‘this is going to work!’ [...] And then some hero [character] on the enemy team that you don’t understand stuns you for 6 seconds and you’re like, ‘Well I guess I’m dead. I don’t know what happened but I’ll figure it out.”

“I think that part of Dota can be fun, if you embrace it, “ BSJ continues, “as long as you don’t mind messing up and looking like an idiot sometimes.”

(“I didn’t know it worked that way,” BSJ says as he breaks down an odd interaction in a teamfight.)

As we get to the first reading lesson, this is all vital to keep in mind. Learning a language is a continual lesson in humility, because they are such endlessly deep things and people are not always kind when you trip up. However, the reward is a deep one.

“Something I’ve only really started embracing in the last year or two, is the fact that Dota is an incredibly frustrating puzzle that is incredibly rewarding to solve.”

So, let’s solve this puzzle together. Starting with the metrics we can read.

“5 of those are things you’ll never understand but the other [4 or] 5,” BSJ’s voice sparks with a bit of optimism, “they’re like [1] kills to deaths, [2] net worth [gold] between the teams, [3] how many towers are alive between the teams, [4] how many levels both teams have.”

Dota 2 is a MOBA and If you're truly esports illiterate and don't know what that means, take 2 minutes to watch the video above.

On a higher reading level, MOBAs are primarily battles for resources and for position on the field. In this case, the field being the wider map. It’s akin to American football or rugby, where there’s two goal zones that teams will move out from and a line of scrimmage cut down the middle of the map (in Dota’s case, diagonally, via a river).

The sort of esoteric 5th puzzle piece that makes sense of the other 4 is farm - AKA gold you get from killing creeps or camps on the map. “The biggest thing about Dota is the entire game is about who’s farming more. There’s a lot of intricacy to Dota but if you could give one sentence, both teams are just battling for more gold,” BSJ says.

Each team sets out down 3 lanes and down a kind of roughly neutral jungle space where they get gold and levels by killing creeps that run in fixed patterns down lanes and camps of monsters that spawn along set rules and timers in the jungle. You then spend gold on items that help your hero in one way or another. In pretty much every MOBA, gold is where the endless nuance will begin to unfold. In Dota, gold is less about kills, more about farming.

(BSJ has a whole series on fundamentals, including farming. The whole series helps greatly to play the game but I’ve put the jungling section here since it best visualizes a farming creep waves and jungle camps.)

“The way you get more gold - most of the time - is by creeps on the map. There’s like towers and creeps. It’s not actually hero-to-hero interaction that gives you gold in Dota.”

So BSJ notes that, as you read the game, it’s overall better to do so through net worth (gold) and through which team is destroying more towers and moving past that middle line of the map. When the dust settles, the team that has more gold is the one doing better at farming, tower destruction, and the hero-to-map interaction that matters most.

Even then, net worth can tell tall tales. In that case, it’s best to listen to the experts. “There are games where one team’s up by 10k net worth - which is a lot in Dota - and it’s an even game based on the hero matchups and all that kinda stuff. But on average, that’s the analyst’s job to tell you that.”

Still, many times experts won’t tell you how the game will move from one point to the next. They won’t tell you about the flow of the game because if they did, it’d be like explaining the syntax rules you used in each sentence you said. So, you need to learn the way the game flows yourself.

Syntax and the way the game flows

All games have a certain flow to them - an order along which things usually proceed. If you can understand this rough shape, then you can piece together other things about the game via context.

In language, this is syntax - how you arrange words in a sentence. You know the syntax and you can follow the gist. Even better, if you don’t know a word in a sentence, you can better guess its meaning or its function through the context of sentence structure. The same goes for the flow of the game. It’s easier to fill in any blank when you know stuff usually goes there.

In a MOBA, the syntax moves through phases - often called early, mid, and late game. Like many MOBAs, Dota’s phases move with towers.

(BSJ’s explainer on towers, if you want to go deeper on the topic.)

“Towers are a big part of Dota,” BSJ notes, “because towers make certain parts of the map safer for each team. If you have a tower nearby you feel safe farming there. By killing the tower you’re opening up space for your team to invade more and the enemy team has less space to work with.”

“So, there’s catapults that happen every five minutes. There’s creep waves, and catapults spawn within them, and these catapults do a shit ton of damage to towers. So a lot of Dota early game power spikes and eventful things happen on the 5 minute marks. [...] If [teams] want to get a tower, it would be on the intervals of 5 minutes very often.”

“A lot of Dota is pressure - trying to put more pressure on the opponent team,” BSJ notes. In the early game, the catapults and the set up around them are the major pressure tools. When the pressure starts to crack towers, we’re onto the next part.

“That’s the sign of the end of the early game,” BSJ notes, “when one team is strong enough to start invading a tower. That’s when the laning stage breaks down. When a team thinks they’re strong enough to group up as 2 or 3 and take a tower, they’re not laning normally anymore. They’re not stuck in their top-bottom-mid lane - they’re combining certain resources to get a tower. Often that [laning phase] can end anywhere between 5 to 10 minutes.”

Laning often goes hand in hand with the early stage because players are basically trying to win their lanes by farming more creeps, calling in heroes from other lanes (ganking), or just doing a good old-fashioned murder on the opposing hero. It’s all made possible by tier 1 turrets and how strong they are when heroes are lower level.

(In BSJ’s laning tutorial he succinctly explains the goal of the first 5-10 minutes of a game.)

Tower tiers are a way to communicate how close towers are to the middle of the map and how early they fall - tier 1’s are the closest to the middle and first to fall. They also can protect heroes pretty well early on, which basically forces players to battle each other in lanes until one side gets the pressure to take towers.

“The tier 1 towers [going down] are usually the indication that the laning stage is over. Then the laning stage goes into this early-mid game farming period where both teams are ramping up to their first big item or two. Pretty much every move in the game from the 10-minute mark until maybe 15-20 minutes is a battle for farm.”

Still protected by towers, but now with levels and small items, in this second, early-mid phase heroes team up more often to get kills and farm tougher jungle camps. “Anytime people go for kills, it’s usually because they’re trying to make more space for their team to farm or they’re trying to stop a certain person on the enemy team from farming. Once teams start taking the tier 2s, that’s when they look to advance their strategy.”

For tons of people, this stage is the exciting part of most MOBAs. It’s the teamfights, the wombo combos, and the reversals. Spells are flying, health bars are depleting, particle effects are everywhere, and everyone is yelling - so there’s a lot to like.

(An example of how wild Dota teamfights can get. For fun, try to call when the teamfight will end.)

It’s also the phase where the boss monster - Roshan - comes into play. Roshan is a neutral creature like a creep or jungle camp - but Roshan fights back more fiercely and takes a while to kill. In RPG fashion, Roshan’s worth killing because he drops great loot - namely, an item called the Aegis, which gives a team an extra life in teamfights.

Many MOBAs have these bosses (for League, it’s Baron) and the function is roughly similar - giving each team a reason to engage one another and take risks in later stages. It’s a pretty vital function because as the game goes on and towers fall, there’s less safe space and teams need better rewards if they’re going to risk taking fights.

(In the Grand Finals of The International 8, OG [red] use Roshan to lure in and dismantle LGD [green].)

“That’s when they’re looking to secure complete control of the map, or they’re looking to take Roshan. I would say when a tier 2 dies is when teamfights start to become like, really common. Teams will be much more likely to group [up] because as there becomes less and less space of safety on the map, people don’t want to be by themselves.”

“Most games, if I have all my tier 2’s alive, I’ll feel safe to farm. Once one of those goes down I’m usually starting to be a little bit scared.”

(Despite being close to his base, an OG player lacks the safety of his tier 2 towers and gets hunted down.)

Without the safety of the towers, it’s all too easy to get hunted down by the enemy heroes if you farm alone. This is an interesting byproduct of the MOBA originally being a real time strategy (RTS) mod - where RTS’s all have a fog of war that prevents you from seeing a part of the map if you’ve got no structures or units there - creating an information asymmetry game. Fog of war extends into the MOBA due to that RTS genealogy that is now so old that most MOBA players don't notice it.

Part of the way you get around this fog in Dota - and most MOBA’s - is via warding. Wards are items you can buy that reveal a chunk of the map - and sentry wards, which reveal invisible units. This way, teams can keep track of one another and avoid ambushes - for the price of delaying items and immediate power. If you’re familiar with warding in League, Dota 2 won’t shock you but BSJ notes that wards may be even more important for keeping your team alive in Dota than in most MOBAs.

“Wards are one of the most important aspects of Dota. Since so many heroes have stuns and a lot of damage - every hero in Dota is broken - so if you see someone you have way more ability to kill them. Just comparatively [to other MOBA’s].” It’s a distinction BSJ neatly sums up by pointing out that most stuns in League don’t last past 2 seconds, while some stuns in Dota go up to 9.

(Deep wards lead to LGD killing an OG player not far outside of OG’s base)

BSJ notes that it’s best to link wards with control. Teams will ward to keep control of vital areas they need to farm - or of areas around Roshan so they can pick off enemies nearby or take it while the other team’s away. Once one team does find a pick or advantage and gets Roshan, Dota then becomes a game of cat and mouse.

“Usually the first Roshan is a sheepdog situation. The team with Rosh tries to herd the enemy team into the enemy base, they try to slowly break their will. The enemy team will try to separate and make the [Rosh] team chase them around.

“That usually is a process, at the highest level, that is very intricate and multi-stepped. If both teams know what they’re doing, it’s very difficult to corral the enemy team but eventually it’s possible if the play is good.”

After dying, Roshan will respawn between 8-11 minutes. If the team that lost the first Rosh was elusive enough, that’s their window to strike back. “The second Roshan ends up becoming the way the other team can come back or the way that the team that’s winning can secure victory.”

(LGD have recently secured Aegis, OG respond by splitting up, goading LGD into a chase, then teleporting to safety.)

“If the team that’s winning gets the second Roshan, that’s usually when they start to take barracks and if they don’t get Roshan it makes them really difficult for them to do that.” (Barracks, or racks, are destructible parts of a team’s base that spawn stronger mega creeps when destroyed.)

In Dota, despite snowball mechanics like barracks and Roshan, there's generally more momentum swings and more movement. This is because items themselves shape map movement and game flow in Dota more than they do in many MOBAs.

Probably the two biggest items to point in terms of tempo and game flow are teleport scrolls and smokes of deceit. Not only do these items shape the game’s syntax but they also give a glimpse into the soul of Dota. They give you a sense of how deep and “broken” a game Dota is - and why that’s appealing for so many people.

Smokes, TPs, and being broken by design

“They’re probably the most important item in Dota,” BSJ says of teleports (TPs).

“They have an 80-second cooldown, you get one every time you die. They cost 100 gold - which in Dota is a pretty good amount considering it’s delaying every other item you’re gonna buy. You can use them to TP to any of your structures - any towers that you have or your own base. So you can use them to go forwards or backward.”

If you’re used to any MOBA, you’ll be used to TPs, but what you may not be used to is how often people TP in Dota and how much that shapes the game. In League, even against two or three teleports, getting kills around Baron gets you Baron.

But in Dota, players can more easily contest because everyone has teleport scrolls. Not to mention with buybacks you can spend gold to instantly respawn and then TP. The combo of these two things often gives Dota a chaotic and flexible macro game where one team could ambush and pick off a lone opponent, but with TPs and buyback, this pick landslides into a huge teamfight where everyone is TPing in, buying out of death, and the winner isn’t clear until the dust settles.

(A long chase sequence into a huge teamfight shows how volatile Dota can be.)

It’s all a part of the complex tapestry of strategy that BSJ has fallen in love with. “So much strategy, I honestly think 80% of map play, revolves around forcing the opponent to react to you with TPs,” BSJ’s voice inflates with excitement, “cause if they’re top and you force them to go bottom - that’s one of the best ways to force an engagement in your favor.”

“If we forced someone to TP bottom, they literally cannot be top for the next 80 seconds. Which means we can make a move on that part of the map and they can’t have 5 heroes. Which means if we bring 5, we’re gonna have the advantage.”

“TPs are like an escape plan in a lot of ways - an insurance policy. If I have one available I could be anywhere right now but if I use it I’m stuck where I am. They’re an incredibly powerful tool but if misused, they can be abused really hard.”

This is a general rule about many things in Dota. Many things are overpowered, but so many things are overpowered that most overpowered things can be baited, countered, and punished.

When you watch pro Dota, you’ll see TPs used for tons of things. It can be used both for grouping quickly at Roshan - but also for running from the enemy team when they have Roshan. You’ll regularly see a player split off from his team, lure out a gank, then escape with a TP.

(BSJ breaks down a juke that leads into an escape TP)

This is all in part because Dota’s map is pretty big. It takes a while to traverse it and there’s all kinds of terrain in the way (some of it destructible) - so players can juke in and out of treelines to find a little spot of fog, then TP to safety. The downside is all these tps can be hard to read, but the upside is fights feel more unpredictable and wild because of them.

“As a spectator,” BSJ advises, “if you’re looking at a hero - [the observer] is mousing over it - at the bottom right-hand corner, they have a slot that’s specifically for TPs. Whether that hero has a TP or not is a big deal. Maybe you won’t understand what it means in that instance but it’s worth noting at all times.”

BSJ notes that the smoke of deceit is a similarly important item because it also shapes the game’s flow. A smoke of deceit makes every ally in an area go invisible. While sentry wards can see invisible units, in Dota some things are MORE invisible than other invisible things - so they can’t be detected even by “true sight.”

(These are what BSJ calls “clauses” and they’re all over Dota like fine print on a contract and they’ll be important later.)

(More information on smokes and how they create ganks)

“[Smokes] are not limited because they cost a lot of money, they’re limited because you only get them so often,” BSJ says. In the case of the smoke of deceit, teams start with 2 and can buy a new one every 7 minutes - holding a max stock of 3. Because these smokes have their own timers, they also play into when a team chooses to move and how the phases of the game proceed.

“There’s plays that can specifically be made in the game whether or not that you have smokes. I talk about all the reasons why teams are trying to farm or fight or whatever. Sometimes it’s as simple as ‘we need to wait a minute for our smoke to come back into stock so we can make the move we wanna make.’ ”

With smokes in particular, these moves are often about information, controlling zones on the map and out-thinking the opponent. “The intent of the item, smoke of deceit, when one team smokes that means they think that the opponent has superior information on a certain part of the map. They want to take that part of the map and the only way they can get the informational advantage is by smoking.”

(Trying to take control over the same section of the map, OG and LGD smoke into each other and then brawl.)

“This area is controlled by the enemy team. We want it. If you were to just walk through a ward, you’re probably just gonna die, so you want to be stealthy while you’re going for that play.”

An item that makes the whole team invisible should be wildly powerful, but smokes don’t cause a problem in Dota 2 because it’s fundamentally how the game works. Dota 2 is broken by design.

Broken soul

Before we move on, you need to understand “broken by design” for three reasons:

  • To roughly outline the game by its soul

  • To understand the wider gaming and esports world

  • To understand items

“Soul” is a pretty lofty, squirrely term but esports, languages, and big systems of expression do have an essence to them. Dota 2 players themselves will call Dota 2 broken, much like English speakers themselves will talk about how often English breaks its own rules. There’s a soul there.

Earlier, I called Dota old even though Dota 2 was only released in 2013. But Dota 2 is old because It’s literally made to be the continuation of the original Warcraft 3 mod DOTA (Defense of the Ancients) - one of the grandfathers of the genre.

In the time of mods like the original DOTA, the profit motive wasn’t such a thing. In turn, building up playerbase wasn’t such a thing, either. Nowadays, we see a common trend of cutting the core complexity of games down, making them less densely packed with features, stats, mechanics, in effort to get a bigger playerbase by making the game more readable.

In those early days of gaming, many modders weren’t too concerned about the legibility of the script they were making. They were just throwing ideas at the code and seeing what would break. By following the old path, Dota 2 retained a complexity and brokenness more common to the gaming industry when it was wild and young.

In esports, “broken” explicitly means overpowered but implicitly, it often means rule-breaking. Only, these rules are usually rules of thumb - not tangible, competitive rulesets. For example, when Ornn was broken in League of Legends it was because he broke the implicit meta “rule” that tanks (damage absorbers) aren’t supposed to do damage.

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(A popular thread on the League subreddit bemoans recent rule-breaking changes in League.)

However, some games still succeed by being broken by design. When BSJ explains the game to me, it’s clear that Dota 2 is this kind of game.

“Dota is the most rewarding game to learn,” BSJ gives another punctuating pause, “that I’ve ever played. I’m somebody that gets really bored, getting better at things. But in Dota, there is always something to get better at.”

This “growth eternal” comes in no small part from the “broken” element, because when something consistently breaks a rule, it creates an exception that you have to learn. Smokes serve as a good example. Powerful as they are, BSJ notes that smokes are now a part of the script both teams play around.

“The thing about smokes in Dota is oftentimes, both teams (if they’re really good) can predict that the opponent is smoking - but exactly where they’re going, and why and how they’re doing it - is the difficulty and intricacy of smoking.”

Understanding all of this broken depth can help you understand Dota 2 as well many games with broken souls. For much of the interview, I kept feeling reminded of Super Smash Bros. Melee. A similarly old-path game, Melee’s progression is paved in finding hidden exceptions to long-held rules - and then ways to beat those exceptions.

A broken Melee mechanic like crouch-cancelling lets one player power through an opponent’s weak moves when crouching, and then counterhit right away. Initially, this breaks a big rule of fighting games: you win an interaction by landing a hit. But with time, crouch-cancelling simply becomes another clause.

In Dota 2, the items play with the rules in a similar way.

“All items in the game either make you farm faster or make you do something you weren’t previously able to do. Whether that’s hunt [opponents], teamfight [opponents], end the game. Whatever it is.”

Perhaps no item in Dota better exemplifies this than the Black King Bar - or BKB. The BKB costs a lot of gold, grants a bit of damage to the hero’s attacks, but most importantly, has an ability you can activate that gives you spell immunity for 9 seconds, then one second less with each use - down to 6.

In many mobas, raw spell immunity for 9 seconds would be game-breaking. So naturally, it fits in perfectly with Dota. “It’s very central to the game. The balance of that item is very important. [Valve is] very delicate with it, it’s one of the most patched items for that reason.”

“But it’s necessary. It’s not like a bad part of Dota, it 100% has to exist. There’s too many stuns, too much damage, no way to play around it other than to buy a BKB. [...] But the thing is BKB doesn’t give you [much of] anything else.”

“It’s an expensive enough of an item that if you buy it and you didn’t need it, it can be pretty costly. So it’s not like a default buy every single game. Most games, carries [damage dealers] end up buying one and it’s a matter of when you buy it and that skill alone is very difficult.”

“There is a lot of intricacy to something that is so seemingly cookie cutter,” BSJ concludes, in a statement that applies all over Dota.

Like so many other broken things in Dota, BKB is broken in a generative, creative way. This means that BKB opens up more styles of play and allows more characters/heroes to be viable at many levels of play - creating, not destroying.

(The BKB even created room for an outplay so notable in Dota 2 that it’s simply called “The Play.”)

The negative “broken” comes when there’s a busted element in a game that is too structured for it. One of the best examples is Bayonetta in Super Smash Bros. 4. Unlike Melee, Smash 4 was designed to be less broken, more legible, and with less exceptions to rules. Bayonetta was so broken within such an orderly game that she decimated swathes of the meta and reduced the overall number of viable strategies and characters within the game.

Part of the love a lot of people have for Dota 2 is that it’s a strong standard in the “broken by design” category. Balance issues and bad metas certainly happen, but the game finds many healthy ways to be consistently ludicrous with its heroes and items.

One of these ways is through those clauses on items. Remember how some invisible things are more invisible than other invisible things? Well, some spells are more “spell” than other spells.

“You go into every hero, literally every hero in the game, and on the ability itself, it’ll say ‘pierces spell immunity? Yes or no.’ So BKB gives you spell immunity but there’s a specific clause on every spell, whether or not it pierces it. That’s just one example of many.” BSJ emphasizes the hell out of that “many.”

(Just the process of shopping for items is so complex that BSJ has a 16-minute video on it.)

“The intricacy of itemization is one of the hardest things. Once you get there, it feels so simple.” In these broken games, where complexity abounds, they become what BSJ calls “feel-based.” This is why rather than explain the many important items in Dota 2, I want to acquaint you with the soul behind the design and creation of those items.

When you watch a game, there’s an urge to understand all things right away and tune out if you can’t. It’s something that turns people away from all sports. But the proper way to really absorb a new system - whether it’s a game or a language - is to know it by feel before knowing by detail.

There’s a lot more about items to learn. There are couriers, who deliver items. There are contested shops in the middle of the map which sell unique items. There is a general goal to stay out on the map - since it is so big and so much of the game is about farming for gold and you can have couriers deliver items. There are other fixture items like the blink dagger which gives a hero a jump for mobility. Or a wind waker, which throws a hero in the air - making them untargetable for 2.5 seconds - giving an ally time to dodge spells and damage, or functionally stunning an enemy while your team encircles them.

There is so much to say. But if you’re learning, there’s not that much use in hearing it all right away. Understand the wider goals, take in the general phases of the game, and feel the broken soul of the game first. Then, through osmosis, commentary, even playing the game yourself, you can piece together the puzzle as you go.

Okay, but what about the heroes?

Yeah, yeah the soul of the game. Broken by design. All that lofty stuff is good, but what about the 10 gremlins running around the screen casting spells? What about the heroes??

Much akin to items, heroes are an insanely deep well to go down. If we hopped in there now, we wouldn’t come back up.

“There’s definitely a large barrier when it comes to hero abilities. I would say [that] is probably the hardest barrier to climb over just because there’s 120 characters with unique spells on every single one of them. But that’s the kind of stuff you kinda just learn by playing.”

Like items, if you want to make heroes intelligible, you need to run them through a framework.

In Dota and most Mobas, the common framework is the 5 positions: The Carry/Safe-laner (1), The Mid (2), The Offlaner (3), The Jungler/Roaming Support (4), the Hard Support (5). The 1,2, and 3 are active farming roles, and often called cores. Even here, Dota is notoriously opaque, with them sometimes called by numbers and different names, and with many heroes switching positions in ways that surprise the experts.

“In Dota, there’s drafting picks almost every patch that a hero can be played in 3 or 4 different roles. Like, this game it’s gonna be carry or the next game it’ll be mid, or sometimes even in support. [...] That’s the hardest part about Dota strategically, not necessarily what position goes to what lanes but which hero is playing what role. Until you see the whole draft play out, sometimes you don’t even know.”

These positions are more rules that are made to be broken and BSJ notes that most strong teams will win via discovering new exceptions and clauses.

“TI [The International] 9 was won by OG. They had like 3 or 4 strategies that really won them the tournament and one of them was turning a hero who had been exclusively played as support in the entire history of Dota into a carry. [...] Most tournaments there’s something new that nobody’s ever seen before.”

(The fountain hook is THE example of a game-changing interaction that nobody saw before.)

Still, these positions will help you read a Dota game not because they’ll explain the hero but what the hero’s role is on the team and what their goal is on the map. BSJ likens it to American Football, one of a few sports he played in his youth.

“The carry is like the runner or the wide receiver who’s getting the play set up for them. The quarterback is probably the 2 [Mid] position, while the supports are like the linemen and the offlaner’s probably like the tight end. Sometimes it’s their time to make the play but most of the time they’re part of the blocking formation and setting up for everyone else.”

The carry is very often a team’s win condition and a chief damage dealer, who goes into the safe lane. Since Dota’s map is flipped - not mirrored - players use “safe” or “off” lane because these will be top or bottom depending on which side (Dire or Radiant) you draw. The safe lane has the tower closer to the creep wave. This makes the lane safer because if the enemy brings in other heroes to gank you, it’s less distance to flee to the protection of the tower. The off lane has the opposite situation.

In the safe lane, the carry tries to farm as much as possible while the hard support assists. In the off lane, the offlaner tries to both survive and, often with the help of the jungler or mid, interfere with the carry’s farming. The mid laners duel things out to win their lane and to use their pressure to interrupt the enemy team by roaming into enemy territory and attacking the other lanes.

(This video does a good job of explaining classes, another framework for heroes.)

With this basic structure, even if you’re lost on what most heroes and items do, you can puzzle out the language of the game. You can get a basic literacy of the game by watching the resources - seeing which team gets more kills, destroys more towers, and builds more net worth. Then, you can structure these components via the flow or syntax of the game, which goes from laning (tier 1 towers still up), to farming (tier 1 towers down), to teamfighting (tier 2s down), to late game cat and mouse (fighting over Roshan).

After that, you can feel for the soul of the game - for the way that teams use broken to fight broken. The way that the game see-saws between innovations, opposing ideas, and days of research erupting in that moment. The way teams play inside and out of the rules to make plays that become stories all their own.

I’ve saved heroes and positions for now, because when you get to the positions, you’re almost reading how the players themselves interface with the soul of the game. These positions and heroes are how the best players will look at the map, how they will frame all the complexities in the game, and even how they found their history within it.

BSJ is a carry

When BSJ talks about the game, he always speaks as a player.

As an experienced educator, he’d often return to the perspective of the viewer, the fan. He does so because it’s the perspective that I have and, like most good educators, he aims to speak to it. But no matter what, he’d eventually return to speaking as a player.

I’m sure this comes from him instructing players, building content around players, and grinding the game, but I think that it goes deeper too. BSJ is one of the game’s top commentators, content creators, and educators - but underneath all that, at his very core, he’s a carry.

“Back when I played with my friends, I would play a lot of mid. It was because, with all due respect to my friends, I played a lot more Dota than they did so I was kinda just better than them and I didn’t really want to lane with them.”

“But I realized, without purposely doing it, the way I liked to carry my team is to just have a lot of gold and eventually just 1v5 the game. That’s not really how the mid lane works,” BSJ chuckles. “The mid lane’s job is to use early levels to create momentum and be this interruption for the enemy team. I was basically playing the carry role from mid.”

“I’d like to play the game for efficiency,” BSJ emphasizes. “How much gold can I get in how much time? I realized, when I understood Dota better, that is the carry role.”

Though the carry is often a team’s focal point, they don’t tend to be captains or shot callers. This falls to the support, which is one of the mechanically easiest and mentally hardest roles in the game.

“At TI, there’s one or two non-support captains out of the 18 teams there. To be clear, during the game itself you have to push a lot more buttons per second as a carry or mid laner than you do as a support. It doesn’t mean supporting is easier it’s just more of a conceptual role. [...] It’s really hard to call things while also pushing a hundred buttons a minute. That’s why most of the time the supports are the captains.”

It’s something that lines up very well with in-game leading in a tactical shooter. These players sack their own stats for the sake of the team. It’s a herculean effort, except that you don’t come out of it looking like the hero. It’s a role for the veterans that, by love or knowledge, become completely intertwined with the game.

“To be a tier 1 Dota player, most carries can play 40 to 50 heroes. That’s just what it takes. And support players, they have to understand 120 heroes in the game. They understand every single hero and how it ties into a draft. That’s the tough part about Dota. It’s exhausting but it’s fun at the same time, when you come to embrace it.”

Legendary supports need to know 120 heroes so they can understand how all those heroes interplay around those 40-50 potentially viable carries.

“A lot of support players at the professional level started as cores at one point,” BSJ notes, “and then realized their understanding of the game was good enough to manage 2 or 3 other cores at the same time. I think the communication aspect of it is something that takes so long to develop and that’s why there’s these seasoned captains that are 30 years old. They’ve been playing for 12 years, and they’re irreplaceable.”

Seeing how much BSJ loved the game, studied the game, and communicated the game, I wondered if he ever flirted with becoming a support. He tells me he tried, but not only was the task incredibly large (just learning support heroes could take 15,000 games by his count) but as a streamer, it would lose him viewers. Unfortunately, many people want to learn from him, not with him.

“I don’t exactly know how much I want it,” he admits. “I don’t enjoy supporting as much as I enjoy playing core.” Carry - and recently, off lane appeals more and that appeal matters.

For BSJ - and for many Dota players - their understanding of the game comes from playing it. BSJ’s sense of the game is undoubtedly shaped by being a carry and routing things through farm, gold, items, and efficiency, but this is vital. Once you get past alphabets and syntax and into the advanced stuff, it’s easiest to keep learning something by chasing the things that you love within it. To stay in love with it, if you can.

Love and learning

As you get older, it’s harder to stay curious and it’s harder to fall in love.

I think, for both, it’s partly because it’s harder to learn. This is something that’s both physical and social. I’ve taught English to 4 year olds, 70 year olds, and everywhere in between. With adults, you can tell that the brain is more rigid - it doesn’t absorb as much as easily (this might be particularly true for language).

Adults have the advantage of experience, prior frameworks, and patience - but these students are mothers, fathers, immigrants, workers, and they’re often too tired to leverage all that. Learning stops being this beautiful thing that everybody encourages you to do and it becomes another chore. I had long begrudged doing a Dota article because it might end up my chore.

As an emotion, love is deep and exploratory. When you love something, be it a person or a sport or a craft, you’re always discovering things within it and finding growth through it. When you grow up, it gets hard to find the energy to explore like you did when you’re a kid. You don’t have the same time to fail, the same stamina to make mistakes, the same willingness to get wounded.

BSJ fucking loves Dota. Even before the meaning of his words set in, you know from the tone of his voice. He loves it enough to constantly want to be a part of it - to want to play and to help others play. He loves it enough to fail at it and get wounded by it.

I don’t know if you’ll love Dota. Hell, I don’t know if I’ll love Dota.

I just know that love, when it’s honest and good, can be contagious. When you see how much people care for something, it can drive you to care too. Learning Dota 2 from BSJ, it didn’t feel like a chore because I could also feel in his love for the game, a whisper of a familiar world.

A whisper of that world of Melee, of language, of broken soul systems. What in the hell is a Dota 2? I dunno. Maybe for some people it’s an over-complicated video game. Maybe for others, it’s a whisper of what it means to keep learning.


Aside from winning, what gives you the greatest feeling playing Dota 2?

Suddenly, I just feel like I get a hero. Something I previously didn’t understand, I feel like I understand. There’s a lot of times in Dota where you win or lose and you don’t fully get why. Sometimes I even lose a game and I can find a lot of gratitude in knowing exactly why I lost that game. [...]

There’s a lot of that epiphany moment of learning why and I think that’s the best feeling in Dota, when I’m like damn, I just get it now. I actually get it.

Writer // Austin "Plyff" Ryan
Design // Tiffany "luzufu" Peng
Art // Nicole "nips" Echeverria

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