A Beginner’s Guide To Watching Dota 2 Matches

by Daniel Tack on Aug 08, 2015 at 11:14 AM

Dota 2's The International is happening now, and it's all gearing up to the finals. With more than $18 million up for grabs (the biggest for any eSports event) for the participants, this is an event worth watching. If you're unfamiliar, however, with Dota 2's mechanics or the best way to watch, we've got you covered. This feature was originally published on May 11, 2015.

The MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre has exploded over the past few years on the eSports scene, commanding monstrous prize pools, consistent and incredible Twitch/streaming viewer numbers, time on ESPN2, and a ridiculous amount of concurrent players at all hours of the day across the world.

Learning how to wade into the MOBA/ARTS genre pool can be intimidating, and one of the best ways to get your feet wet is by checking out Dota 2 during the upcoming International tournament. This annual Valve spectacle features the best of the best teams from all over the world, with last year’s tournament boasting a prize pool of 10.9 million dollars. This community-funded prize pool has the potential to enter even more dizzying heights this year, as it is already sitting at 7.5 million with plenty of time to go. [Update 8/5/2015: Prize pool is now over $18 million.]

The main event will be held this year on August 3-8 at the KeyArena in Seattle, but you’ll be able to watch the game on various streaming platforms or even within the game client itself (the best option), if you want to have precision control over viewing all the action. You can swap commentary within the games themselves to have no caster at all, find a caster in your preferred language, or even (highly recommended for new viewers) tune into the “beginner” stream, where the casters will often focus on aspects of the game that will be left out of other streams that assume the viewer knows many of the characters, items, and situations that could be happening in any given game.

Before we get started as to HOW you should be watching, let’s tackle WHY real fast. The potential for “big plays” and exciting game-defining team fights is huge within the genre itself, and watching a beautifully executed 5v5 play is an awesome experience. This video from The International 2012 is an amazing illustration of two great teams facing off in an incredibly important team play (Think 4th and goal with the clock running out) and what can happen when both individual player skill and team coordination come together to create impressive spectacles.

What happened there may not make a whole lot of sense now, as it requires some knowledge of gameplay interactions and characters, but you get the point – it’s big plays like that which make the game a blast to watch. Now, there are of course exceptions to this rule, especially when a ton of money is on the line and both teams are trying to play from a point of maximum control with little risk or when things are one-sided, but overall you’re going to get a great show from start to finish as players bring out sleeper picks or secret weapons. That’s when you’ll probably get your first taste of watching competitive Dota 2, during what’s known as the draft phase – a game before the game.

What you’ll be seeing during this phase is teams taking turns both selecting characters for their player roster for the game and banning characters that no one will be allowed to use during that game. The metagame is always shifting, so when certain characters become deemed too powerful in competitive environments, the ban phase will often see some of the same faces during big tournaments like The International. There are also bans that come into play for individual teams and players – if you know an opposing team gravitates toward a certain composition, you may opt to ban those specific characters.

Meet The Team

Team compositions can vary greatly, but over the course of a long tournament like The International, you’ll probably become acutely aware of certain characters and their roles.

Before watching, you’ll want to get a grasp on the broad roles that each character often fulfills and how teams in Dota 2 utilize these roles – think of them as analogous to positions in sports. While there are many nuances to these key roles, once you get the hang of understanding these the more specific roles will fall into place naturally. Characters gravitate toward various playstyles, but again, expect some variation on standard templates especially in professional play.

The carry is the role that often gets much of the glory, but requires plenty of protection and assistance from the rest of the team to become viable. These characters often shine in the endgame due to scaling abilities and items that allow them to tear through opposition in seconds. These characters generally start weak and don’t contribute much to teamplay until the mid-late game when they “come online” after acquiring enough gold and levels to be dangerous. This role will often be partnered with one or two support-style roles in a lane to make sure that they can begin acquiring items safely, so while you’re watching you may see this happen in a duo-or tri-lane composition. You will see these characters destroying entire teams at the end of a game, but they can also be shut down early and kept down if not allowed to grow.

Supports come in a variety of styles, but many are designed to function without large quantities of gold – they will often be the ones on the team purchasing the courier (to deliver items to players on the team without wasting time returning to base) and smorgasbords of wards. These characters have all kinds of functions from disables, buffs, and heals, and over the course of a tournament you will see a healthy dose of different supports doing all kinds of things, but in essence they won’t be the one carrying the team (though they will be doing a ton of work!)

Pushers are designed to destroy towers, creep waves, and base defenses, and they do so incredibly well. If you can get one of these characters alone with a tower for even just a few moments and they are not stopped, this can lead to map control and a significant experience and gold advantage. A “push composition” team can attempt to steal the game early, and in many cases has to – because if things go late, a push-centric team may run out of gas.

Initiators are the ones that start the teamfights. While these can be tanky roles built to handle some punishment as they go in and force things off, there’s a wide range of potential initiation roles – some are even casters that rely on going in with the Blink Dagger item and a big area-of-effect ability. You’ll see various characters referred to as initiators during the tournament, with successful initiations being of utmost important to team battles.

Outside of these key roles there are tons of other various sub-classes and designations, but just knowing the top-level terminology will get you right into watching and understanding what’s going on.

Understanding The Map

Dota 2 is broadly divided into different areas of play, three lanes, with the jungle, river, and Roshan as other main areas. The lanes are each filled with A.I.-automated creatures which are rather weak on their own, but with influence from players, can push into and eventually destroy opposing towers and the enemy base (the actual objective of the game).

There are jungle areas on each side of the map that allow players to kill NPC monsters for additional coin and experience, and some strategies use a dedicated jungle character for some of the early game, putting more pressure on a solo-character in a lane, but offering the potential for more development and experience. The jungle also comes into play through a practice known as creep-stacking. Players, usually in the support role, can time a strike on enemies in the jungle, lead them away so another pack of creatures spawns in that location, leading to two to three packs of enemies all hanging out on top of each other. These spawns can then be led into a lane to kill off a team’s own waves of creatures, essentially denying the enemy team gold and experience and forcing them to move out into the lane into less-safe positions.

The river connects the lanes, cutting a broad swath through the middle of the map. Of important note are the runes that spawn in the river every 2 minutes (and at the 0:00 mark at the beginning of the game) – these offer significant but fleeting buffs that can have a big impact for a team engagement or ambush. You will often hear players, especially those fielding the middle lane (because they will be close to both rune spawns) using “the bottle” to hold these runes for consumption when the time is right.

The river is also the point of access to the giant NPC foe Roshan, who provides a big boost of currency, experience, and the Aegis of the Immortal on death. The Aegis will allow whatever player that picks it up to come back to life after dying, and can be a game winning item in the late game especially when placed on a strong “carry” character. Roshan is an option to help usher in a win when the opponent is forced back to their base and turtling up defensively, and can often be the site of massive team battles – it’s possible for one team to do a ton of damage to Roshan and then have the opposition swoop in and claim the spoils. Sometimes, a daring player may even try to steal the Aegis from right under the Roshan-slaying team using stealth or tricky teleportation. When you’re watching, understand that Roshan is a point of interest that will often instigate team fights.

Map related, you’re going to hear plenty about warding and counter-warding. Wards are a consumable item that can be placed around the map to provide vision of the surrounding areas. These may seem like a waste of gold, but in Dota 2 knowledge is power, and knowing when the enemy team is sneaking around the jungle waiting to ambush you is essential and game-changing information. Wards allow teams to keep tabs on enemy movements, from early game river-rune control to late-game Roshan movements. They can also be used to deny enemy jungle spawns – if a ward is placed in a spawn area, the enemies won’t spawn there, so they can be used as a denial tool as well to hinder enemy junglers and supports capitalizing on creep-pulling tactics. Counter-warding is the practice of using wards to reveal opposing wards and cleaning them out. Vision and the corresponding information is valuable in Dota 2, so watch how the pros use these aspects during International play.

Watching Everything Come Together

There’s a ton going on at all times during a Dota 2 match, and whichever caster you’re watching will likely choose to keep the action on areas there could be a potential ambush or team fight most of the time. You can certainly opt to unlock the camera and watch things yourself, and I’d recommend doing that sometime during the first few matches you view just to get a lay of the land. In Dota 2, level and gold advantage are big factors that indicate how teams are doing, so you’re going to see that referenced quite a bit as teams “score” on each other by accumulating player kills and tower destructions.

The end goal of each team is to destroy the opposing base, and destroying the enemy barracks or “rax” as they are often referred to goes a long way to accomplishing this goal. Each lane has an associated set of barracks, one for ranged monsters and one for melee. Destruction of these barracks will allow your lane minions to become much more powerful and able to push into and destroy the opposing base themselves, so battles involving these barracks are often some of the most important in any given game. If a team manages to destroy all three of the opposing barracks sets, they then spawn what is known as mega creeps, which means in many situations they can actually just sit back and let the monsters end the game.

While you’re watching, try to pay attention to the small scale stuff at first – it will make the big, confusing team fights much more palatable and interesting when you see the puzzle pieces start to connect as you begin to understand ability timing and interaction. Try to keep track of each character’s “ultimate” ability - the fourth one on the bar that usually has a long cooldown. These are often powerful and extremely important during the big defining team fights. It probably won’t take too many games to get the hang of things, especially since you will likely be seeing a lot of the same characters from match to match.

It can be befuddling to try to make sense of everything going on in a Dota 2 match at first, so don’t – break things down to the core elements and just take in a little each game. Despite the perceived challenge of understanding what’s going on, it’s surprisingly easy to get the hang of. Don’t fall prey to trying to understand a complex stream talking about all the nuances of why a player bought one item over another, just focus on the broad strokes at first, and everything else will fall into place. It’s going to be an amazing year for The International, and I can’t wait to watch!