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The Flying Courier’s newcomer guide to watching Dota 2

If you’re ready to dive into Dota 2, start here

Valve

Many forms of competitive video gaming have taken place throughout the year, from the arcade to today’s massive, sold-out stadium events. Few, if any, games have the combined international history, prestige and respect of Dota 2.

Formerly a fan-made and fan-maintained custom game, the community hit turned into an international craze, with players across the world taking part. But it’s a complicated game, to be honest. With 115 pickable characters, dozens of items and an in-game map full of little quirks and secrets, even dedicated viewers are constantly learning — and surprised — about what professional players can manage.

With recurring events like The International, it brings in a lot of curious visitors but it’s absolutely a difficult game to penetrate. We know the struggle, and so, present you with a primer on how to watch Dota 2 on the most basic level.

It’s a lot to take in, still, so don’t be ashamed if you don’t get it all the first time. And if you want to play it... well, that’s for another time.

How do you play Dota 2?

Dota 2 is a real-time, multiplayer, five-versus-five battle for control of the other team’s side of the map.

It’s like king of the hill, only you’re trying to take their territory instead of “neutral” turf. You’ll march down with five unique characters, called “heroes” in this game, per team, with the teams’ picks completely unique as well.

The winner is whoever reaches the other side and destroys the other team’s Ancient, a giant, well-guarded structure... hence, “Defense of the Ancients,” the original name “Dota” derived from. (Everyone just says “Dota” nowadays, but don’t be ashamed either way.)

Of course, you also need to fight through a series of obstacles: damage-dealing towers, small armies of non-hero computer characters, a giant dragon-thing and, of course, the other team. But with time and good gameplay, you’ll get buff and loot the dead along the way, earning items, strengths and abilities. You want to get more ripped and rich than the other team to win.

To understand how that plays out, it’s good to look at the game’s general map, more recognized as the game’s “mini-map” within the game, first:

Teams start out on their own side, then must move around the map to earn gold, which provide a wide array of items, and experience, which allows players to learn abilities and make their character stronger. They also, of course, need to “push” into the other team, meaning destroy their structures to reach the Ancient.

When the horn sounds, players settle into the three major paths called “lanes,” or between lanes in spaces called “jungles” (which are actually technically forests but whatever).

Computer-controlled characters populate the map for a number of purposes. For now, just remember that lane creeps march down each lane every 30 seconds and are used for basic gold and experience, plus attacking the enemy base.

The last thing that’s good to know for the basics is how heroes work, of course! Heroes have a few fundamental basics: Health, mana, attributes (don’t worry about this) and abilities. Health is their “lifespan,” indicating how much they can get hit, and mana is a “cost” for abilities. No health is bad. No mana is also bad, but not the end of the world.

Abilities are unique skills that allow a variety of skills with a number of effects. You can stun, damage and heal players and creeps. Some even allow you to prevent others from using skills! The most important for most is the “Ultimate,” which is far more powerful, but often has drawbacks in usage time or mana or something.

Oh my gosh, that’s a doozy. Can you sum it up quickly?

Oh, okay!

  • Five versus five. Everyone’s a different wizard.
  • Goal is to defend your Ancient. When an Ancient gets beat up, or a team surrenders knowing loss is inevitable, it’s game over.
  • You repeatedly beat down on the other team (and random computer characters) to get buff and steal Gold for cool upgrade items.
  • When you’re buff enough, you try beat up their base too. Hopefully their Ancient.

It’s really just a succession of turf war fights with giant, shiny spells by weird-looking wizards. It’s a great time, I promise, just shout when people start fighting.

Why is it Dota 2? Where’s the “2” from?

Dota 2 began technically as a remastered version of DotA: All-Stars, a custom, fanmade game in Warcraft 3. (Yes, that’s a capital “A;” it stands for “Defense of the Ancients.”)

DotA: All-Stars relied a lot on community input in order to make the game better, and while it had a paywall, the custom game itself was free. It’s been around for over fourteen years; the actual date of the Defense of the Ancients’s first games aren’t too clear.

About a decade ago, Valve picked up developer “Icefrog,” then immediately trademarked the word “Dota.” (Since then, they and Blizzard, the developer of WC3, have been in a constant legal battle about the whole situation.) Valve soon announced Dota 2, which would remain free-to-play. For a while, Icefrog even updated the original Dota: All-Stars.

So no... you don’t need to know “Dota 1.” But still, a few rogue WC3 players will pick up a WC3 edition of the game.

I’ve heard there are so many characters! How do they get picked?

You’re right — there are 115 pickable characters in the game right now. Sometimes, there are characters being fixed for usability that are banned, but that’s not the case this year.

Dota 2 | Valve

Of course, these pro players can only pick five, and so can the other team, and you can’t pick the same heroes. And it’d be a doozy if it were a free-for-all picking session — what if a character is just way too good? So in each individual game of professional Dota 2, there’s a drafting phase.

Each team begins by picking three heroes they respectively do not want to see on the field. It can be for any reason, whether because it’s too powerful or the other team has a player specializing in it. In some cases, it’s because the hero is strong against one a team wants to play.

Then the picking begins, along with a few more bans along the way. The teams go back and forth, trying to figure out what sort of strategy is being formed based on what’s being picked or banned.

In terms of strategy, teams are choosing five heroes that not only synergize with each other (or counter the other team well enough), but also that fill five “farming priority” roles, the “one to five system.” It’s pretty straightforward — it has to do with how much gold each player requires in the long run, called “farming priority.”

  • Roles 1 and 2 are “cores” or “carries,” meaning they require the most gold in the long run. They’ll take all the lane creeps in the mid and safe lanes. Note: The mid lane hero is often left alone to get as much gold and experience as possible, and is chosen for their ability to deal with the opponent’s mid hero as well.
  • Role 3 is “offlane,” also a core but... different. Like the mid lane, typically they play alone in the offlane because it gets them more experience, but they can fend for themselves a little better. So, many “offlane heroes” are playmakers that use abilities to get ahead or just stay safe.
  • Finally, 4 and 5 are “supports,” meaning they don’t need gold as much, often because their abilities require less items, but they’ll pick up some helpful stuff like healing items or vision wards.

Once all five have been chosen, the players appear on the field, and the game begins.

What’s the deal with Dota 2 being such a long game?

Dota 2 is a game about gradual gains in gold and experience. These gains are actually a fundamental part of how the game flows, even in regards to time. In fact, it shapes the “phases” that you’ll keep hearing about.

Dota 2 | Valve

Dota 2 has phases that typically revolve around how well their core/carry is doing:

  • The “laning phase,” or “early game,” during which the core farms mostly off lane creeps;
  • the “mid game,” when the teams leave lanes for a myriad of objectives to benefit everyone and push closer to the enemy; and
  • “late game,” when the core is actually strong and rich, or “fat,” enough to take the other team on in their own base.

For the most part, it takes about 30 minutes to reach the first hints of late game, so an average game will take about 35 to 40 minutes. On the shorter end, more powerful and tactical teams can take down teams with little struggle, bringing down the game time to a mere 15 to 20 minutes. However, some teams may pick “heavier carries,” or heroes which require more time because they’re weak on their own, so some times will try to drag it out longer.

Some games are just long because both teams drafted heroes similarly, play similarly or are just really damn good. These rare games can last as long as an hour and a half.

How do I know which side is winning?

You won’t know exactly who will come out on top for sure because, much like a real sport, anything can happen. However, also much like a real sport, there are a few surefire indicators:

  • Gold lead — Shown as yellow text on top of the screen, his is your most helpful indicator, indicating how much gold one team has over the other. The gold lead is always shown to spectators, and it usually tells a story of who’s done the best in the mix of objectives: creeps, kills, towers and more. Over 3k is good early game, 7k mid-game and 14k late game. But a “swing” can always happen, closing that deficit.
  • Kill count — Those are the big white numbers on top, one for each team. Kills do help get experience and gold, but they’re not the end-all by any means.
  • Tower deficit — Who has more towers? Typically, that team is doing better. But that’s not always the case, as a team or powerful player can hide away, quietly build up gold and re-emerge without warning. But objectives do tend to be a good indicator.

What’s a Roshan and why is it important?

Roshan? I’ve heard of ‘im. Big guy. Creep without a team. Middle of the map. Stuns. Hurts. But he’s also loaded with perks like you’ve never seen.

The team responsible for getting the last hit on Roshan gets a sum of gold for the entire team.

Just as importantly, he drops the Aegis of the Immortal, which allows you to near-instantly revive on the spot. That’s a blessing or a curse, because you just died and there are enemies around still maybe? But teams that utilize it well bring it in for big teamfights and pushes, giving it to someone who may die easily but can get plenty of damage in before then, as it’s effectively a second chance. It expires after a bit of time, so teams need to use it or lose it.

After the second time, he drops Cheese, which is pretty much an instant regeneration of the player’s health and mana.

The third death and beyond, he drops a one-time Refresher Orb, which allows a one-time reset on every ability the player has on cooldown — even the big-time Ultimates. Yes, that means you may see two mega-stun Black Holes in a row or four giant Golems marching down the lane. We’re just as excited as you are.

Teams will fight each other for control over the area in which Roshan resides, which can cause the game to sway one way or the other. And by the way — the other team can steal any of the non-gold items. It makes for some fantastic plays.

Roshan, Axe and Sniper in the splash art for the official custom game mode The Underhollow.
Valve

What’s the jargon I NEED to know?

Even if you’ve tried to read all of the above, it’s a lot to take in. If you just want to jump in and listen, there are things you’ll be hearing pretty much every game. Here’s a quick list:

Talking about players

  • Core, or carry — The player(s) who need(s) the gold and experience the most, and will dish out the most damage later
  • Support — Player who needs gold less and provides cheaper items
  • Farming — Killing non-player units to get gold and experience
  • Fat — Extremely, extremely well-farmed
  • Gank(ing) — Going out of one’s way to kill an enemy player
  • Active vs passive — Abilities that you press a button to use, versus abilities that work or activate without prompt; both can be part of a hero, player-controlled unit or item
  • Ultimate, or ult — The “Ultimate ability” of a hero. It’s usually more impactful, or it activates a key feature of the hero. Teams will center their entire strategies around synergizing these
  • Talent — Beginning at level 10, every five levels, players can choose between two quirks that can upgrade abilities, strengths, gold etc.

Buildings

  • Shop (fountain, secret, side) — You must be in one of these areas to buy items. The secret shop provides items that only exist there, and are typically more powerful or useful
  • “Tier ___” tower — Dishes damage if an enemy gets near, and provides small defense bonuses to its own team. “Tiers” are named in the order in which you’ll encounter them; one must be destroyed before the next tier is able to be attacked
  • Shrine — Two wells providing a powerful (but not perfect) heal to their team
  • Barracks, or “racks;” super and mega creeps — While it’s not necessary to take the barracks down, all teams do so because it allows their lane creeps to be more powerful. Super creeps spawn in the respective lane when one or two enemy lanes’ barracks are down; mega creeps spawn when all three are down
  • Ancient — The point of the game. If this dies, it’s game over. Can’t be attacked until both tier four towers are down, and it slowly regenerates health
  • Glyph, or fortify/fortification — Makes towers immune for five seconds. Has a five-minute cooldown in most cases, but will reset when a tier-one tower falls

Items

  • Runes — Small gems littered across the map that give payer perks, which spawn every few minutes. Bounty runes are important as they give the whole team a gold boost, but there are runes that give speed, invisibility and more
  • Courier — Player-owned unit that brings items to players across the map (and what this site is named after!). Killing one deactivates it for three minutes, but the killer’s whole team gets gold
  • Teleport scroll, or TP — Item that allows players to near-instantly move to any building owned by that team
  • Wards/Sentries — Some casters will conflate the two types, but wards are invisible units that allow you to see in certain ways. Observer wards provide raw vision, and Sentry wards unveil most invisible units
  • Smoke — Shields all players in a small radius from being seen by anything; used to gank
  • Divine Rapier — The most powerful damage item in the game. Gives 300 damage, but will drop on the ground immediately if the player that owns it dies. It’s a Hail Mary type of item, and it means the stakes are higher — but the buying player is confident it will help them win

Advanced player control

  • Buyback — After death, you can buy to respawn instantly. However, the price increases with time and level, and it always has an eight-minute cooldown. It’s a near-mandatory ability, but teams must use it wisely, as initiating that eight-minute cooldown can make or break a game
  • Micro(ing) — Controlling player-owned units beyond the hero
  • Illusion — Replica/clone of a player character, usually player-controlled, that takes more damage, deals less damage and gives a small amount of gold
  • Roshan, or Aegis of the Immortal — An important computer unit and its resulting item. Its perks are too long for this section; see the above question
  • Map control — A team has such good ward vision, awareness of their enemy and sheer power that the other team risks dying just by moving around normally
  • Ratting — Ratting is when a team hyper-focuses on the tower-killing gold
  • Base race — Both teams are throwing each other’s players at the final row of towers and the Ancient; strap in, friends
Valve

I play [other MOBA/game], what are the big differences?

Every character is considered to be absolutely broken in some manner.

Jungle creeps are not a necessary objective. They’re actually quite risky, as they do a lot of damage, and farming them leaves players vulnerable. They’re typically done if a player feels safe and powerful enough with map control to do so.

A common complaint is that movement looks “clunkier.” For one, the map’s pretty big, so it takes a while to get across. As for smaller movements, each hero has a “turn rate” — how long it takes a hero to do a full turn. This essentially nerfs the power of many otherwise-frightening characters, especially carries.

Skillshots and important abilities have an extremely long buffer time (relatively speaking), whether from “channeling” or animation delay, or some other perk that makes them difficult to land in a pinch. Usually, if a crowd or commentator freaks out when one hits, that means it’s impressive.

Buyback is also a game-changer, especially this International.

What’s all this high-noised pinging?

Oh, that. So the spectator client shows all the players’ “pinging,” which is an in-game indicator for a number of things. It may mean to start a fight, be careful or “hey this person is here, just so you know.”

No, they’re not getting rid of it, probably. Sorry.

Where are these random shouting voices coming from? They don’t sound like the casters.

That... too... sorry.

It’s a “chat wheel” “voice line,” available for The International’s season. These are actual things Dota 2 casters have said on-air during matches. They implement it as usable communication options for either the team or the entire game (all ten players).

Players love to spam it. Really, really love it.

What if I don't get it all at once?

That is extremely okay! Like many video games and even sports, Dota 2 is difficult to watch on the first go, and there are a lot of rules, intricacies and idiosyncrasies. Even players that have been around for a few years are still learning. But there’s no better time to start than now, as Valve has been trying to take an active role in making the game viable in the long run.

The International’s newcomer stream is usually full of great people willing to answer questions, and the Dota 2 Reddit community can help with deeper concepts (and memes).

You can also download the game client for free and follow along live (also for free), allowing you to review what’s going on, rewind, or read abilities. You won’t have in-game pop-ups or the post-game commentary, but if you want to take your time, that’s a great option.

If it makes you feel better, personally, I only learned how to watch American football just over a year ago.