Game Culture: Dota 2’s Potential Toxic Source

It’s no secret that Dota 2 has a toxic community. Customer reviews acknowledge it and the community talks about it nonchalantly. People on internet boards joke that Dota is an addiction and the suffering caused by the other players is the harmful part of the substance. That’s an extreme analogy to laugh about, but the very existence of this running joke shows a much greater understanding of how toxic the player experience can get. There is no one reason that the community developed in this way, but I think there are a few factors that certainly contributed over the course of this game’s long history.

Each Dota match is designed to last anywhere from thirty minutes to over seventy. This is quite long by gaming standards, and it forces the same five people to communicate and work together. While partnered by an algorithm that tries its best to combine compatible players, the matchmaking has its flaws: It only takes one incident between two players to cause a ripple effect that ruins the experience for everyone. This could be anything from an attack about somebody’s poor play to a quarrel about a username, which can happen as soon as the hero selection screen. The conflict can even draw the other team members into the mix, heightening the problem. What’s worse is the game punishes innocent players for leaving toxic games, trapping them in an unhealthy environment.

The game’s attempt to curb toxicity is disappointing, especially as this kind of environment existed even with Dota 2’s predecessor, DOTA. Unlike modern-style matchmaking, DOTA matches were hosted on people’s personal servers. Dealing with difficult players had to be handled by hand, and nothing stopped the difficult players from just finding another server. While Dota 2 did come with a reporting system, it insufficiently dealt with player issues and shows a lack of preparedness by the developers.

At launch, Dota 2 punished players who got too many bad-conduct reports by putting them into the Low Priority Queue. Players in Low Priority had a longer queue time and were required to play a certain number of games with other people in Low Priority before they could return to the normal queue. This punishment didn’t really deter offenders. An extended queue time means nothing to players who are accustomed to devoting an hour to a singular match. The repeat offenders even created methods to complete the required number of games as quickly as possible, sometimes in 20 minutes or less. As the goal in Dota is to destroy the enemy’s main structure, both teams picked heroes who could destroy structures as fast as possible, and the two teams then raced without interfering with each other.

Eventually, Valve revised the Low Priority system to be more strict and solve the problems of the old model. The extended queue time remains, but players are now required to win games rather than just play. In addition, the game mode is set to restrict each player to a choice of three heroes, making it incredibly unlikely that they can focus solely on taking map objectives as fast as possible. A new conduct report was also added to the main menu, reinforcing good behavior and discouraging destructive behavior. If the effective new system had been implemented from the very beginning, the toxic mentality may have looked much less appealing. Now that players are already accustomed to this mentality, no punishment system would be able to change their ways.

The pro scene also fuels the toxicity. Typically pros will create a meta out of the dozen or so heroes that are most abusable to create powerful strategies that will be commonplace at high-level play. This mentality works very well for pros, but the advantages are lost on less skilled players. Many common players ignore this and demand players follow the meta, even though almost any hero is viable at the average skill rank. Anyone who doesn’t conform is labeled as a “thrower” (someone who doesn’t care about winning), gaining them hostility from teammates.

Above all, players don’t seem to respect how serious an issue toxicity is. Screenshots of people aggressively using the text chat do not cause outrage - it’s just considered par for the course. Until the community cares about dealing with toxic players, there aren’t any steps that can be taken to correct the problem. The people need to want change before the game can support them.