The Dota 2 viewer experience has improved considerably since the game’s inception. The user interface [UI] has become less and less clunky and gradually we’ve seen more and more features added to try and make certain facets of an extremely complicated game digestible for the average viewer. The complicated nature of Dota 2 makes it the game we all know and love, with thousands upon thousands of data points creating a fantastic complexity. Some facts and figures throughout a professional match are integral to the understanding of a game’s state, but until recently we didn’t have an easy way to spot the net-worth bar, nor buyback indicators, so there was total reliance on casters and observers alike to relay important information like this.
Jonathan 'Pimpmuckl' Liebig is a man who's been in the Dota community for a long time and is arguably best known for his observing work. Recently at ESL One Hamburg, Pimpmuckl received plaudits for his superb work behind the camera. Additionally, he's created a company, Layerth, who bring unique and innovative features to major tournaments. The net-worth indicator we’ve become accustomed to was originally a creation of Layerth and they’re constantly working on new features. We caught up with Pimpmuckl to hear his story and find out what’s next.
For a while there was little or no innovation in the Dota UI. Why did you decide that was something you wanted to change?
Back when I worked on Dota Pit Season 3, someone messaged me on Twitter about why I do all this work with instant replays, highlights, production tools and Twitter live feeds just for an online tournament and it took me a while to properly answer that. I figured that I really enjoy pushing the viewing experience forward.
As an observer, I study teams to analyse the most high-impact lanes to focus on. As a consultant, I push tournament organisers to do esports properly and not cut corners, especially on the production side. Just over two years ago I toyed around with the combat log, key press listeners and Java to create a very early production tool.
The proof of concept was just showing ultimates below the heroes when they were cast; I then made the gem/rapier drop/pickup display but had to refine as to what I thought would define a worthwhile addition to the game. I started to implement the team vision overlay – that was, at the time, a major confusion point for viewers and that had actual value for them. Unfortunately though, I had limited time and the market wasn’t ready and my tech wasn’t even good enough. I had to put the project on the back burner for a little while.
Now if we fast forward all the way to February 2017 and Moonduck’s Elimination Mode, SUNSfan got Bukka to code something he’s been pushing for quite a while. It was a simple net-worth indicator below the in-game clock. When we realised the potential of the solution, we brainstormed more than 100 ideas as to how we could improve viewer experience. We then explored if we could realise a few of the features and the timeframe required. Eventually, we committed and now we’re looking to push the industry forward once again.
Layerth have created several neat features designed to improve the viewer experience. What do you think has worked best? What do you think didn't work at all?
Best and worst is always subjective. For example, a tournament organiser will tell you how amazing it is that our HUD doesn’t ever move and that sponsor logo placement looks much better on our HUD than it is on the default one.
Casters love our new dashboard for additional talking points with information that wasn’t accessible in the past and the fact that they can send graphics directly onto the observer machine instead of having to rely on production to bring up these visual aids.
Check out Layerth's visual effects in action in the video below:
For the viewer, I’d think the best feature was the gold-source comparison between two heroes. When you see a carry player A with 2,000 gold from kills and assists versus carry B that has not even 50, you quickly understand that carry A is much more active and creates space for the team instead of just being a vacuum for gold on the map.
These sort of features create completely new storylines and give much deeper insight to understand how pros play the game. Personally, I think that’s easily the best feature we’ve added so far. Luckily for us, nothing we coded so far had to be cut. We did disable our net worth bar and our take on the talent indicator, but that’s the choice of the tournament organiser, so you will likely see it again in the future.
Is there a risk that Valve see what you're doing and just steal it? Is there any way for you to protect what you've created?
Pimpmuckl: It depends on the capacity. If Valve would suddenly implement every major feature we have into the game, we simply wouldn’t be able to charge tournament organisers for the suite anymore, pushing us completely out of business and obviously we wouldn’t be able to innovate further.
But if smaller things get added to the game like the talent and net worth indicators, that’s a good thing for us. In the future, when we go to big publishers, we can say “Hey, look, this is what we did, and the feature is so good, Valve took it and put it into Dota 2”, it’s definitely a plus, all things considered.
You've been praised a lot for your Hamburg observing –what's the secret to becoming a great observer?
Pimpmuckl: I used to do a lot of research before each tournament, but for Hamburg I went beyond that. For every team, I looked at how important each player is, how important each lane is and what sort of hero-player combinations stand out. For example, watching a Team Liquid game is mostly about GH for the first 15 minutes. His rotations early set up the entire game for Liquid, up until the 30-40 minute mark when Miracle- and MATUMBAMAN take over. On the other hand, a team like EG has a lot riding on Suma1L, he has a much larger share of overall impact in the game than what other mid players have for their teams.
Properly showing viewers these impact players help create the storyline of the game. Observing might be judged by the kills missed on camera by the average viewer, but it’s much more than that.
Good preparation, proper understanding of the game and being well rested are key to not missing kills. I can’t emphasize this enough, it’s rare you get more than six hours of sleep at an event, but as long as you drink enough water throughout the day and limit your alcohol intake after the games even 14 hour days are doable.
What do Layerth have lined up for the future? How much more can be done to declutter the interface for new and experienced spectators?
Pimpmuckl: We want to tackle talents next. Valve very clearly designs the game interface with a playing-first mentality and talents are very obstructed. We’re not quite sure how the end result will look but we have a few concepts that are promising.
For 2018, we have something really big lined up that we hope will radically change how Dota broadcasting is done. I don’t want to say too much here, but we’ll do more than “just” ingame production.
You're doing a lot of different things, and you've made no secret of your disappointment at lack of invites to events in the past. What are your personal goals?
Pimpmuckl: In the past, not making a TI was a big deal from a financial perspective. Without going to the International, you simply can not sustain as someone who only does observing in Dota so if it weren’t for consulting, Moonduck and Layerth, I wouldn’t be working in esports now.
My personal goals are not as clearcut as they used to be. It was a dream to work at TI as observer, but I’d say it would be even better to have the Layerth suite there. Let’s be real here for a moment: Weppas and Skrff, Valve’s go-to observers, do a fantastic job and most viewers wouldn’t even tell the difference if I would have been there. Having Layerth at TI would have clearly been a step up in production value for every viewer and I was more disappointed about that than I was about missing TI as observer.
Has the new tournament circuit changed your outlook on the work that you do?
Pimpmuckl: Absolutely. Around the pro circuit announcement, we reached out to several parties and received very positive feedback. After it was clear that fans expect a major to have 16 teams, budgets have become a big issue for tournament organisers. If a tournament is tight on budget, production additions like Layerth, that aren’t absolutely necessary, have been pushed back.
As a result, we changed our internal priority and are exploring how we can create opportunities for tournament organisers to recoup some of their investment in our software. The static HUD with significantly better sponsor placement was a start, but we will have to do more of that in the future.
Does the drive for new production features come from yourself or from tournament organisers?
I’d say at least 95 percent comes from us. Our real strength isn’t the tech or the design, it’s understanding what information is abstracted in the game, how we can repackage that information in an easy-to-consume graphics and how this would create extra value for the viewer, be it better storytelling or simply showing that the Aegis is timing out in three seconds.