Dota: The biggest computer game nobody knows about
12 million fanatics play this free online multiplayer game every month.
Let me introduce you to Dota. This Valve Corporation game is sort of like Capture the Flag: two teams compete to destroy each other's home base, called "ancients" (Dota stands for "defense of the ancients").
During really close matches, games will "pull your soul out of you," said Uri, an Israeli member of the Dota community who has been playing the game for a couple years.
Unless you're into gaming, there's a good chance you've never heard of Dota. That's pretty remarkable, considering how incredibly popular it is. More than 3 million people "like" it on Facebook, and Dota 2 is the 141st largest subreddit, with 268,385 subscribers (World of Warcraft's subreddit has 264,070 subscribers). Twelve million people played it this month, more than the populations of Ireland and New Zealand combined.
Why is this game so popular? It's all about being accessible. Dota is free, and it's also easy on your computer. You can play it in a coffeeshop without a problem. Plus, games are short – if you have a free hour, you can boot up and play a match.
Dota's low time commitment is what sucked Uri in. He happened upon it by chance and played it only sparsely for a few weeks but was soon drawn deeper.
"The game is very expansive and incredibly complex, it's very difficult not to get fully invested in it, even if from the outside it appears repetitive," explained Uri, who considers himself only "half decent" at the game, despite having played it for two years. "I am still learning new things all the time, and there's always room to improve."
Indeed, in addition to fighting other players, users take down "creeps" that automatically spawn and race toward enemy bases, beasts that hide in caves and hoard the secret to immortality and deathly towers that target opposing players. They also capture precious gold, which buys them items that make them fight better.
Each player operates a "hero" character. (Photo: Screenshot/Youtube)
Lots of players even just like to watch the best players compete, and some people even make movies based on Dota tournaments.
"Whether it's watching my favorite team pull off the most amazing comeback I could have ever imagine, and qualify into a big tournament, or watching the 10 best players in the world battle out for the title of World Champion in the most incredible series of games, professional Dota is really just amazing," Uri said.
Players sometimes gather together to hold big, in-person tournaments. They bring their computers to a central location and play face-to-face. Some of these gatherings are relatively casual, but sometimes they compete for millions of dollars, leading to moments like this one, when a Swedish Dota team beat a Ukrainian one in 2013.
Though the community is giant, Uri says it has the feel of a smaller group; the most professional players are still quite down to earth.
"We have our fair share of drama, sometimes jokingly, sometimes serious stuff when it comes to money and all that, but at the end of the day, we're all just there to watch and talk about some good Dota," Uri emphasized.
Dota's community is truly global. In addition to having huge numbers of players in the U.S., England and Australia – pretty much throughout the English-speaking world – players can be found in almost every corner of the earth, from Israel to Sweden to Japan.
According to Uri, the Chinese community has been quite prominent, but the southeast Asian community is growing rapidly. Russian and Ukrainian users really affected the community's culture. "You have to credit them as a pushing force behind the liveliness of the game," Uri said.
They're all after the thrill of a close match. "Every player will tell you that for every 50 boring games, there's that one match that makes your heart race, and justifies it all," Uri said.
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