Chinese Dota 2: A Game of Nostalgia and Belief

The defensive towers are down. The throne is exposed. Three teammates are down for at least 50 seconds and not coming back. Ame from PSG.LGD is standing alone in his base, helplessly watching OG push through with a massive onslaught. Despair and anxiety engulf Ame and his teammates. But they don’t call it in just yet, because the game’s not over until it’s over. Should he kill off the creeps or target the enemy heroes first? There’s no more time to think. He marches forward, but at that moment, his throne gets smashed down into pieces. And then—

“THEY HAVE DONE IT,” the announcer’s voice roars across the stadium. “YOUR GRAND CHAMPIONS OF Ti8, OG!” That was how the 2018 international Dota championship ended. Chinese team PSG.LGD lost to European team OG 2-3 in a best of five grand finals series.

Dota 2 Ti8 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, Canada (Source: Dota 2 China)

The rise and fall of video games is quick. Games that used to dominate the PC games sector such as Counterstrike, Starcraft and Warcraft have seen their glorious prime time under the spotlight and have gradually been phased out. In China, the most exposure Dota would ever get during the year is when The International rolls around. But immediately following its conclusion, news of the game and enthusiasm from the players die down quickly and barely anyone talks about it. It’s a wonder how a video game managed to survive this long and maintain its popularity.

For some reasons, Dota did it. It has somehow been able to withstand the test of time and snowball into a bigger influencer in the gaming sector year after year. This peculiar phenomenon can be explained by the way the game was experienced by most Chinese gamers while they were growing up.

More than just a game

Dota, a multiplayer online battle arena, is an important and sentimental part of many young Chinese adults’ lives, both in and out of China, and represents an unfathomable emotional connection between fellow Dota players. Belief and nostalgia can summarize one’s feelings for the game. However, not just the regular nostalgia, but qinghuai (情怀), a Chinese term depicting the personal sentiment or emotional affinity that draws a person towards certain things.

Chinese gamers competing in a Dota tournament (Source: Baidu)

For most Chinese gamers today, Dota constituted a major part of their teenage and high school lives. According to Statista, the majority of the viewers of game video live streaming in China as of the summer of 2017 were aged between 19 to 24 years old, accounting for more than half of the total viewers across the country. Most Chinese gamers who game extensively also fall within this age group and have played Dota on and off throughout their teenage years. When asked what Dota meant to them, most replied, “A big part of my teenage life. It’s a belief; a nostalgia.”

“I love Dota. I am reminded of all the good old times I’ve had playing it, and the people I played it with,” reminisced Janet (pseudonym), a Chinese gamer who was now well into her late 20’s. Janet was introduced to Dota when she was in her second year of middle school by her good friends at school. She has played multiple games on and off including popular mobile titles Asphalt 9 and Onmyoji, but still spends a few hours on Dota every week. “Nowadays people play League of Legends more. To them, people who still play Dota are probably old folks.”

Professional Chinese Dota 2 team Wings Gaming wins Ti6 (Source: Mashable)

Janet’s story was a common one among Chinese teenagers. Irene (pseudonym) is a bank employee and an avid PC and console gamer who spends hours on games every week. She was introduced to Dota back in her sophomore year of college by her boyfriend. “Dota 2 was a companion that stuck with me through good and bad times. It really just represents my youth and a way for us friends to interact.”

The rise of mobile games

Dota’s fall in popularity in China is largely due to the rise of mobile games, which grew at breakneck speeds over the past few years. Mobile titles such as Tencent’s Honor of Kings has a massive player base of over 600 million monthly active users.

“I barely play [Dota] anymore,” said Jack, a game enthusiast who has played Dota ever since 2012. “It’s just so much easier and quicker to play games on your phone right away.”

A hero in Tencent’s mobile game Honor of Kings (Source: Tencent)

Even though Honor of Kings certainly has inspirational roots from Dota and share a similar game mechanics and style with it, the two are wildly different from each other. Honor of Kings is much easier to get into seeing as it features a smaller hero pool, less complicated gaming mechanics, simpler UI and skills set design for the heroes, and it has an easier learning curve for new players to get into. But most importantly, it’s played on a smartphone, which dominates the lives of nearly everyone in developed cities.

Dota on the other hand is played on PC only. It would be an understatement to say that it’s really hard to learn how to play it. There are over 100 heroes to choose from, each with individual skills and unique characteristics that can affect game play when paired up with different heroes. The timing, movement, game meta, item combination and strategy is endless and still constantly morphing today. It’s definitely a not-friendly game for new players to get into. Even for players with experience playing similar games, most of the time when team battles erupt in Dota, the whole screen just looks like a box of heavily shaken up salad with at least ten different sauces and veggies mixed in.

A list of playable heroes in Dota 2 (Source: Dota 2)

Not only is Dota a chaotic mess, it requires a ton of time invested into it to learn to play, which is not what most gamers are willing to do nowadays. Following the rise of ByteDance’s short video app TikTok, people are more willing to watch shorter videos and play shorter games than sit through a draining 50-minute Dota game. The decreasing trend in attention span experienced by people around the world has encouraged more to play shorter and quicker games. The rise of mini-games in WeChat or on other platforms have also contributed to Dota being pushed out of the center of attention.

But even still, Dota manages to keep a strong foothold in the gaming sector thanks to the group of loyal fans who consistently come back to the game every now and then.

A positive outlook

To some, Dota was a dead game. To others, it was still very much alive with lots of room for additional features to be added. But what concerned most players was whether or not Dota will continue to survive in the upcoming era of mobile games dominance, or whether it will slowly die out and be left in the dust like Starcraft and Warcraft. Most remained rather hopeful when asked the question.

Heroes Juggernaut and Sven from Dota 2 (Source: Baidu)

“Dota will never die out,” said Zhou, a student studying e-sports as a major at the Communication University of China. Zhou and his classmates often organize various campus tournaments to introduce Dota to more people and encourage active participation of fellow gamers. “Sure, it has passed its prime and remains as a game catered to a relatively small group of players, it’ll still be there in the future and continue to be a big part of many people’s lives.” A round of interview to the others has shown that Zhou wasn’t alone. Most of the gamers that were interviewed are loyal fans of Dota 2 ever since its predecessor came out as a mod in Starcraft.

Whether or not Dota goes on to break the record of having the largest prize pool in the history of e-sports remain to be seen. Now, fans are just excited for The International 2019 to kick off in about a month at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai.