Anyone who has played a typical game of Dota 2 has likely encountered the handle “Torte de Lini”—no exaggeration. Behind the handle is Michael Cohen, a multi-game esports veteran who’s a jack of all trades, but who found his love and niche in the historic depths of DotA All-Stars—and, of course, its follow-up Dota 2. He’s most known for his in-game hero build guides, a passion project of his that are kept up-to-date as often as he can manage. At the time of publication, his guides have hit 260 million in-game subscriptions total.
Beyond keeping up with patches and the changes they bring, Cohen has done extensive work in esports with work in team management, event organization and editorial positions, leading up to his official presence at The International 7. There, he pitched in with other Dota 2 experts for Valve in this capacity by helping to craft the Newcomer Stream, one of the most highly-demanded features of TIs past.
We sat down with Cohen at the event to unpack his extensive history in esports and Dota 2, and talk about what his goals were for his time in Seattle.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
The Flying Courier: You actually have quite a history in esports — do you want to give a quick history on that?
Michael “Torte De Lini” Cohen: I’ve been playing competitive games for a while now, but I didn’t really understand that esports was sort of a large thing, you know, taken to a higher level that I didn’t understand as a kid. I got into esports back in college when I was playing with someone in a StarCraft II ladder match, and then it turned out he was a friend of someone who played for a competitive team called VT Gaming at the time. A lot of old names were there—people like HuK used to be there; TorcH, who went on to be a Blizzard manager; Frank Fields [Mirhi], who went on to work at IGN, and then Blizzard. So I got into esports by managing players and teams.
During that time, the first three years, when I was finishing my degree in Sociology, I was simultaneously managing different teams. I went across five teams and fifty international players, some pretty achieving and some not-so-achieving. On top of that, I also did event organization, so I organized a lot of popular community and international events. I worked on the BarCraft Montreal Series; I worked on NASL 3, when it was in Toronto, Canada, and that was great.
And, on top of that, I’d also written for a variety of news stations that were popular at the time. I did ESFI World, I did D-Sports, some Team Liquid, that was great too. So that was my first three years, where I did all that in line with my degree!
And then I got my first—well, they were all real first esports jobs, but then I went to a startup over in Berlin. There’s two parts to it, but the one that most people know about is the TV studio we created, ESGN TV. We had a lot of problems there, lot of funding issues, so we became kind of infamous there, and after a year, it closed down. I moved on to creating a digital magazine with Aller Media in 2014-15, out in Denmark for a year, which shut down as well. I continued onto a streaming platform, Azubu TV, which… also had some problems. So I’ve had a lot of professional failures in my lifetime, personal and professional—I always seemed to follow controversy, unfortunately, in one way or another.
After that, I’ve moved to Russia/Berlin to start working with ESForce Holding, for Cybersport.com—and here I am, all those years later!
TFC: You’ve had your own place and history in Dota 2, so what’s been your journey in this game?
MC: I’d played DotA “one”—DotA All-Stars—twelve, ten years ago? My parents were getting divorced, and my brother and I would play custom games, including DotA All-Stars, and we really got into it because of how cooperative the game was, how challenging it was. My brother and I, we’d try to queue together, we had two separate computers in the living room at our father’s place whenever we visited. Queueing together was very difficult at the time because there was no way to just join friends’ games in Warcraft 3. Whenever we weren’t playing, we were just thinking about different hero combos, lane strategies and such.
He had me into that game for a while, and then I eventually stopped playing Warcraft 3, I started playing Starcraft 2, and eventually stopped playing Starcraft 2 and moved onto Heroes of Newerth beta and Season 1, then League of Legends beta and Season 1, and then back to Heroes of Newerth beta, and then Dota 2 came out. I’ve tried a lot of competitive games, looking for my identity or how I would fit in, and I’ve loved them all—I think they’re absolutely great in their own unique way. But Dota 2 has my original love from Warcraft 3, I’d played Warcraft 3 and Age of Empires, and DotA All-Stars had its own unique twist on the RTS game.
So yeah, I got into Dota 2, and then I started making guides in… I started in 2011, so I started making guides two years later, in 2013, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
TFC: What’s your approach to the Newcomer Stream—how are you handling that?
MC:The Newcomer Stream is a collaborative idea between Purge, Valve, myself and a whole bunch of different people who joined in and helped contribute to the broadcaster tools. They developed it, got scripts from Weppas, the servers—they created the ability movies, a video displaying what the moves do and all that.
They did that with Valve, and Purge and I rewrote hundreds and thousands of strings for different heroes, different abilities, some more nuances like: what’s the common combination of items for heroes? We also did that for abilities as well.
So the approach, really, was to treat the viewers like they understood gaming. So we could use common terms like damage over time, DOTS, we could use aggro—ganking was something we considered acceptable at the time. We worked on that for a month or so; I’m sure the broadcaster tools for that were worked on even earlier than that. Then they invited me out here and I started doing a lot of testing, a lot of practicing, to manage that stream for them. We improved the system even more, changed up the UI, added more general strings like last-hitting, denying, all that jazz—it’s been doing great! Good crowd. Pretty satisfied.
TFC: You had a lot to balance between your esports editorial work and your Dota work. How are you managing that?
Oh, it’s difficult. I underestimated—since university, I was juggling three volunteer positions with my university degree, so I thought I could I could swing full time TI7 stream management and also manage Cybersport.com and work with them in completely different time zones. But then I saw the challenges of that, and underestimated the time zone differences between the two. Russia wakes up when I finish work here, so I gotta start the work all the way over there, then I go to bed three hours or four hours, then I wake up, come here, and do broadcaster tools. Yeah, I’ve been doing that now coming up on two weeks.
TFC: You’ve personally been working on the news coverage here at TI too, right?
I’ve been managing it. I outlined the goals, I outlined the approach for it – I’ve been using whatever relationships I have within the industry to get [Cybersport.com writer] Cory the necessary interviews to help him out. He’s been using his own connections as well, to be fair.
I’m not completely hands-on, but I am juggling everything that is company-wide, and also with my passion projects here with Valve at The International.
TFC: As one of the showrunners of the Newbie Stream, what is the biggest takeaway you have for new players or anybody watching the stream?
I think getting them to understand the game is secondary to them enjoying the stream. To enjoy the stream, you have to feel like you’re part of the community. In the past, they had two different broadcasts—one was for newbies explaining stuff. It wasn’t as exciting or as great—-it didn’t have the same excitement as Tobi, or OD, or LD, and then they had the mainstream. All their friends in the game were watching the main stream, the newbies were watching the the newbie stream, they weren’t connecting at all. They weren’t like, ‘Aw shit, that was insane!’ And Tobi with the epic quote! It was like... ‘Oh, they were explaining Culling Blade.’
And so, for this, it’s a balance between the two. New players are not going to understand the game completely. But they’re going to understand enough of it to get the excitement of the game, to want to play, and to eventually build up their experience. So that next year, TI8, is going to be epic for them. They’re going to be like, ‘I know how to play, I’ve seen the game, I know the basics, it’s going to be sweet!’
The takeaway is the newbie stream gives them an inkling of what to follow, what to understand. And the casters deserve all the credit, and Valve deserves all the credit, for hooking people to get excited about the game.