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Rumble Between the Junglers: How the DotA fight began

Mathew McCurley
Mathew McCurley|February 17, 2012 3:00 PM
Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Mathew McCurley takes you through the world running parallel to the games we love and enjoy, full of rules, regulations, and esoteroic topics that slip through the cracks.

Defense of the Ancients is a genre all unique to itself. Sure, the concepts are not brand new and the bulk of the original game was created using the Warcraft III World Editor, but the lasting appeal and standing reverence of the DotA genre continues today and shows no sign of slowing down. Part tower defense, part real-time strategy unit movement, this game type has experienced astounding growth all over the world over the last decade. As the genre grows, Defense of the Ancients-style games, or MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas), or ARTS (action real-time strategy), or... wait... what are we calling this genre?

My initial reaction to the entire naming fiasco was wonderfully summed up by Joystiq's own JC Fletcher: "Which giant company has the rights to the fan-created, community-promoted word 'Dota?'" He's right to be cynical -- justice will be meted out over a word that was born in the Blizzard maps community because of the actions of two super-huge gaming companies. That's not all there is to the story, however.

Therein lies the crux of the hot topic of the day -- Blizzard has finally thrown in its opposition of Valve's attempt to trademark the name Dota for its upcoming release of DOTA 2, a literal successor to the original DotA throne. The problem is that there are a whole bunch more facts, people, and anecdotes in this story than most people know.

I wrote a short post on the Dota trademark issue a few days ago that served as the basic of basics, what the news was about. Here's the short version: Valve is attempting to trademark a name that many gamers (and companies) consider to be a general term for the genre rather than the proper name for the game that spawned the genre. Hell, it could be both.

Defense of the Ancients is a game where two teams of five players fight to break down the defenses and structures of the opposing team in three lanes of action, top, middle, and bottom. There is a neutral area in between these lanes called the jungle where one player mixes a bit of PvE into his PvP, fighting computer-controlled creatures and using tactics to flank other lanes and help drive the enemy back. Through the match, you will be assisted by NPC creeps who just suicide into oncoming traffic, so to speak, but can be instrumental in dealing damage to the other team. One team wins when it successfully destroys the opposing team's main building.

Before we get to the actual fight over the Dota trademark, we need to explore the past relationships, the exact moments in 2003 when the DotA genre was first birthed in the world.

The DotA story

Defense of the Ancients began as an astonishing number of games do, sort of an accident as a user-created mod. Interestingly, the first piece of the puzzle isn't DotA itself but rather Warcraft III, the game that allowed all of this to happen. Blizzard's development of StarCraft and Warcraft III featured the use of map editors and utilities that allowed players the same flexibility and creation (or near to it) that Blizzard itself had when designing new missions for its games. These world editor tools gave creative people outside of Blizzard the freedom to tinker with their games and create brand new experiences, all while still living inside the original game.

In 2003, a popular mod for StarCraft called Aeon of Strife (AoS) was recreated in Warcraft. After various offshoots were abandoned, the leader of the pack, DotA-Allstars, was the clear champion, fighting its way out of the pile to become one of the most popular games ever. This Defense of the Ancients was created by Steve Feak (the original being created by an elusive map maker named Eul), a modder using the handle Guinsoo, while the distribution site for the game was created by Steve Mescon, now director of communications for Riot Games.

Over time, the game's development drew in many new faces and the fandom grew to a massive scale. Blizzard hosted a DotA tournament at BlizzCon in 2005. Basshunter wrote a song about it; not only does it has over 30 million views on YouTube, but it made him a star. Dota was so huge that the mod even fueled sales of Warcraft III, much how Counter-Strike pushed many copies of Half Life for Valve. Oh, irony. The game was huge, and nothing could stop it.

Where are they now?

After version 6.01 of DotA, Feak passed development to IceFrog. IceFrog is currently employed by Valve developing DOTA 2, a near-recreation of the original DotA with better graphics, updated character models, a new stand-alone matchmaking system, and new features. Steve Feak, Steve Mescon, and other Dota developers went on to work for Riot Games and build League of Legends, which currently boasts over 30 million subscriptions and meteoric success in China. This genre is huge, and the numbers prove it.

The fight begins

Valve began development of DOTA 2 and hired IceFrog to make it in 2009. Then, Valve filed for the Dota trademark a year later in 2010. At first, Steve Mescon from Riot Games filed his own objection and counter application to the trademark on behalf of his company DotA-Allstars, LLC. As founder of the defacto DotA community website, Mescon believed that a Valve-owned Dota trademark meant a lot of people who worked on and built DotA would be denied what was theirs. The community had also latched on to the acronym, using the phrase to refer to the genre of game that had cropped up in imitated form all over Battle.net. DotA-type, DotA-esque, DOTA-clone -- these were the majority of game types you would find in the custom game broswer because of that one map.

Blizzard threw its hat into the ring at the end of 2011 by filing a Notice of Opposition against the Valve trademark.

Wait, you can oppose a trademark filing in the United States?

You sure can. Under certain circumstances, if a party believes that he or she will be damaged in some way by another party filing for a certain trademark, you can file a notice of opposition and potentially state your case. Blizzard feels that Valve's having control over the word and acronym Dota is damaging to not only its business but the Dota genre that has its namesake pulled from the game that popularized it. Blizzard is not trying to trademark Dota itself. In fact, it has a key concern in this entire process because it is preparing to release (hopefully in the near future) Blizzard DOTA, a version of DotA developed in house using StarCraft II and featuring Blizzard characters.

If Valve is able to trademark Dota, Blizzard would be forced to change the name of Blizzard DOTA and potentially a huge amount of marketing materials for the upcoming game. This article wasn't about who is right and who is wrong -- I just wanted to set the stage. But we'll get into heated opinions about the subject next week. I kind of want to see where things go in the next few days first ...

Until next week

That's the conflict in a nutshell. Both Blizzard and Riot have expressed opposition to Valve's attempted trademark of Dota. This trademark application matters because two very big contenders are finally at a head over an issue that everyone saw coming. Nobody wanted to deal with the Dota problem, which is why it kept getting swept under the rug until 2012 came along and someone just had to go and try to release a game.

Next week, I'll dish out my opinions on the subject, talk about why even Gabe Newell doesn't like the acronym DotA, and why there is so much money in this genre in the future.

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at mat@wowinsider.com.