Feb 20, 2023, 05:55AM

Game Over

My time as a “competitive gamer” was intense, unremarkable, and mercifully brief.

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Illustration by Emily Traynor

We were fine all-around humans, a friend and me. To borrow a nonsensical motto adopted by a former employer, we always labored to "push our limits where there aren't any." Becoming above average at a particular activity, like the kids of disgraced writer Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, was never out of reach.

Until we played Starcraft 2, that is. We sucked at that. The third member of our group, a Starcraft and Warcraft III veteran of considerable skill, drove himself to the brink of madness in the course of micromanaging all our hapless, under-upgraded units. After a few brutal months spent arguing among ourselves, my friend and I took our largely unearned "team Diamond" rankings and called it a career.

That should’ve been it for our gaming exploits, I think. I was a reasonably good hand at the various iterations of Super Smash Brothers, but competitive gaming had never been my bag. Nor was there any compelling reason to thrust myself deeper 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. My friend 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’d 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 wasn't a game that was there simply to be played. 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 would-be 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). The "Ancient" is protected by a ring of towers that must be destroyed over the course of these interminable showdowns between the forces of light (the "Radiant") and dark (the "Dire").

Let's step back. At the time this all transpired, I was 31, in possession of a PhD and a law degree, and teaching history on the tenure track at a crummy branch campus of a state university. My friend designed complicated and largely-untouched web interactives for The New York Times. These were the tasks we were qualified to do. DOTA 2, we assumed, would force us to work on our weaknesses. What weaknesses? Patience, maybe. Macro-level teamwork strategies, perhaps. Using a mouse and keyboard to play video games, surely.


A website called DOTABUFF still contains the records of our accomplishments, which might be fairly called "Ozymandian" if they'd ever amounted to anything. 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 my friend 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 didn't take me 445 hours to type. My friend’s thesis likely didn't occupy that much of his time, either. Nor did it take me 445 hours to achieve decent numbers in the gym, as I was good to go there once puberty commenced. In fact, as I racked my brain, I couldn't think of any activity at which I’dinvested hundreds of hours and seen so little improvement. In most instances I was fine from the start or mindful of my father’s exhortation to pursue competitive advantage at all costs, quit immediately. That’s what kept my friend and me going: after reaching our ceilings at one activity, we’d quickly find another.


Neither one of us was the competitive sort. I'd drop or re-rack 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 percent, I might live to compete another day—I could extend my competitive prime by never reaching my single-repetition potential. As my sports-hero father often remarked, I had no killer instinct, no “fire in my belly.” I was proud of this, given that killer instinct doubtless explains at least in part the extraordinary gender disparity in prison sentencing (90 percentof prison inmates in the US are male).

My friend and I 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’d little to do besides develop our in-game economies to provide troops sufficient for the climactic battles he'd micromanage 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’d bite right through someone's nipple if he thought the tide was turning against him in a wrestling match, as he once did to my cousin.

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. My friend skedaddled just before the Heart of the Swarm expansion dropped, and our overextended mentor followed not long thereafter.


Months would pass before my friend 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 one of which ever corresponded with another. Those 445 hours of “doing the work” of playing the game were just a start.

The rule of thumb at the university where I teach, and at many others, 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, 1000 hours spent on DOTA-related play and accompanying research is a safe albeit conscience-shocking estimate.

Initially we lost a lot, because I was so bad at the game 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. Then my friend would focus on mastering the mid, and 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 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 single-handedly trounce 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 my friend 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).

In time, we recognized that we were hopeless scrubs. 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 point!


Following the realization that nearly 2000 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 classic "pubstomps”—before beginning another long decline.

Nothing could stave off our descent. Captain's Mode facilitated lengthy 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 dumber than even a "minimalist runner" like Flappy Bird. The outcome of Flappy Bird, to its credit, was linked entirely to one's own button-pushing exertions, however repetitive and mindless those might be. DOTA 2, by contrast, depended almost exclusively on factors beyond our control: would a teammate disconnect? Did the other three people have working microphones? Would our microphones 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, 1001 Spikes, and their 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 some sense, yet each claimed that he was so excited to be finally playing with a team that "didn't suck." But we sucked, our teams sucked, and the game sucked—and quite likely there's an algorithm 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 on a “creep” and had Radiances at the 12-minute mark. But I never saw those players, much as I've never seen any mere mortal raw-bench more than 500 pounds with anything approximating good form. That shit happens, but so did—allegedly!—walking on the moon.


Looking back on it, I thought I'd improve as a team player. I thought I'd learn to delegate tasks, share responsibility, grow into the game's various roles. Instead, what I experienced each night was the equivalent of trashy 5-on-5 pick-up basketball at the Y, basketball in the classic "hero" mode in which every player regardless of skill refuses to pass and launches a barrage of three-pointers only because there’s 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.

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 and winning. At the higher tiers of this game, of which videos were frequently posted on YouTube (the only evidence I could uncover to indicate that such a level of play existed at all), e-gaming superstars played like LeBron James-style professionals and strove to accomplish specific objectives. My friend 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 even they!) were doing. Most of the time we were making the wrong moves, too.

I 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, to go to bed happy and fulfilled and perfect and born anew...until I received my next beating of a lifetime. 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 nine 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. When my friend at last 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, and nobody cared," my friend told me the night we quit. 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 never found myself in a position where I’d 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, thegym—the Metroflex in Fort Worth—was a welcoming and 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 merely 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, [and] I'll waste my share of mine," observed Townes Van Zandt. 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 hard on the soul 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. There are things in this world worth fighting for, but fighting for the sake of fighting wasn't one of them.


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