When competing in any team activity, communication is as important as individual skill or experience, maybe even more so at the highest levels. CSL players don’t have the time like professional players, but they still have to learn to cooperate and communicate with each other both in game and out of game. To find out how some teams communicate, I sat down with players from UC Davis, University of Illinois at Chicago, Arizona State University, and Ohio State University.
One of the unspoken difficulties in competing in the CSL, is actually finding the time to compete. Players have busy schedules with classes, homework, studying, exams, part-time jobs, and have to somehow make time for leisure, practice, and official matches. Knowing how time-consuming Dota 2 can be, I wanted to know just how often players discussed Dota in general with each other.
Illinois players Michael “Pk” Pekala and Michael “Gocolts12” Lederer said their team often talk about the game, especially patch notes and speculations while Arizona’s Dillon “kvo” Hopley and Joni “PMAdota” Raisanen said their team talks about past games, mechanics, and concepts. Ohio’s Miruben “Liquidmatt” Ravindran laughed, “Every conversation we have is about Dota really. We talk about everything, what we like, what we dislike, what got us into Dota. We basically live on Dota.”
What kinds of things do these players talk about exactly? “Our international student (Keyoukewu) finds weird interactions more often than everyone else, and we’ll theorycraft stuff together,” said Davis’ Thinh “ch0c0b0” Le. Teammate Tyler “Whiplash” Sun added, “Most of the time our conversations will be about reflecting on our games; how you play your role, how aggressively you play, where you should be on the map, those kinds of things.” Ravindran and his teammate Zachary “Zeomaster” Dowley joked that they flame each other a lot, sometimes a little too hard, but Dowley quickly added, “We’ve all improved a lot from our good natured shit-talking, we’ve gotten some thicker skin for sure.”
Thicker skin is certainly a requirement for most gaming, especially Dota 2 where clashing ideas can sometimes cause a player to tilt for a single game or even a week. Le shared an experience many teams experience in the beginning:
“At the start of this year, we didn’t know how each other played, so things were a little bumpy at first. We usually come to agreements after testing things out and playing the game. For example, we might increase how aggressive we are playing a lane after feeling things out in the first few minutes.”
Both Illinois players mentioned how their team’s collective opinion about hero strengths has changed dramatically over time, Lederer adding, “One of my favorite things about Dota is that if you think a hero is good or bad you can prove it. It goes beyond the concept.” Arizona has similar experiences on their team, gathering data from pro games and streams and discussing their observations. Ravindran is a firm believer in hard evidence, but explains that he enjoys the back and forth he has with his team, “When my teammates disagree with something that I want to do, I’ll start throwing out the facts and they’ll make their case. We’ll talk things back and forth until everyone is on the same page.”
With Dota’s constantly changing environment, keeping up to date with what is and is not played is a skill itself. A hero can be picked in over 50% of all games one week and drop off the face of the earth the next because of a counter or an item build that makes that hero fall off. Because of this unstable environment, drafting can be incredibly challenging. When a team picks the best hero for each position or the most comfortable hero for each player is a tricky balance to achieve.
Davis’ players believe at a certain point most heroes are “figured out” so they prefer to pick the heroes that are “good” while Illinois prefer the opposite, picking niche/comfort heroes, especially against teams they consider to be better than themselves. Lederer explains, “It’s a lot different depending on the skills of the players. Higher skilled players have greater flexibility so we’re more likely to pick [meta heroes] on our better players.”
Ravindran prefers comfort picks for his team, yet acknowledged the need to play heroes popular in the current meta. Hopley shares a similar thought, “It’s a big aspect in how I like to draft. In my head I know heroes my teammates like/dislike, but there are heroes that I will flat out not pick despite it being a comfort pick.”
While on the topic of hero pools, I asked how each team assigns practice time, or “hero homework” so to speak. Davis players will sometimes ask each other to practice a meta hero if the respective player isn’t comfortable with it and play pubs together to hash things out. Lederer brought up a time that Pekala had a certain hero position in mind and pitched it to their teammate to see if it worked, “We don’t really try to force our teammates to learn things... We’re not really ‘on the clock’ so we try to be reasonable of our expectations of our players.” Ohio and Arizona also ask their teammates to play certain heroes, more or less giving them a list of heroes they are expected to play and trusting them to put in the work required to get it up to snuff.
The last question I put before the players was the matter of versatility: how important versatility was to them in general, and how deep of a hero pool they thought was acceptable. Davis didn’t think versatility was that important with Sun saying, “It’s fine if someone can play 4 heroes for their role. For safelane, even fewer is fine, heroes like TB, Troll, etc.” Le added, “Sometimes you can try to pull out something rarely picked, but you can’t ban out every hero. You can ban out one lane, but the other lanes will have their things.”
Lederer thinks it makes drafting easier if his players have larger hero pools, “We had a problem in the past with small hero pools, but this year we’re much better off. We’re not afraid to try things out in scrims or officials.” Pekala echoed his captain, “We’re confident with our heroes, we all have at least 5 heroes we’re really comfortable with, but we’re always pushing each other to try other things out so we can find something strong for our officials.”
Arizona believes the importance of versatility is position dependant with drafts typically going the same way from game to game, although Ravindran says he fell into that trap against the University of Michigan earlier this season when their opponent drafted in an unexpected order.
Ohio thinks a pool of 6 heroes is ideal, but 3-4 is more likely, “Having only 4 heroes is probably the minimum these days so you don’t get Bulldogged. You can easily lose a game if you pick a hero that someone isn’t comfortable [with],” says Dowley. Ravindran adding, “The quicker you come to an understanding with your team, the quicker you can establish each player’s comfort picks and the easier time you’ll have when drafting.”
Communication is a tricky skill to develop for Dota 2, especially if you’re “stuck” playing with the same group of players for a season. I thoroughly enjoyed talking with these teams and finding out just how high their communication MMRs were. The best thing was finding out that most of these teams -and others I have talked with in the past not mentioned here - have created friendships outside of the battlefield. “CSL is more about playing games with each other than the competition. I’ve met a lot of friends through the community at my school as well as in the CSL,” said Pekal. Lederer mused, “When I recruit players, I pitch it more as ‘finding a community of people to play games with,’ treating it like a traditional club rather than a purely serious competitive mentality.”
Each team made it clear that the competition goes beyond meeting up to play Dota once a week for a cash prize, or as Dowley puts it best:
“I think we’ve played together so long, we’re used to each other and our eccentricities. We are friends and spend a lot of time together outside of the game, we’ll have dinner together and go to the pub together, it really helps.”