April 15, 2021 This piece was originally published in August 2019 but is still good read a few years later. We jumped in again to make sure Cohen’s stats were up to date, but that’s about it.
Michael Cohen is on a bus to the Grand Canyon, but instead of enjoying the scenic views – a sun-bleached road lined with Joshua trees – he crouches down and works on a laptop. It’s of little use, however, as Cohen can’t get everything he wants with a limited internet connection. As soon as he returns from his vacation and crosses the threshold to his house, he immediately drops his suitcases to put another 12 hours of work into his project.
It’s December 2015 and Zet, the Arc Warden, just got added to Dota 2 in the Balance of Power update. Cohen, better known by his Griff Torte de Lini, updates and maintains in-game guides to help players build and play each of Dota 2’s 121 heroes. Just 31 hours after clearing the Arc Warden patch, he had already made 350 updates to all of his guides.
Dota 2 is a game of enormous complexity, and navigating through its many heroes and items can be overwhelming. Cohen’s work is a beacon for players – especially beginners – who might otherwise get lost at sea.
His guides have over 450 million subscribers. And while he paused the project for some time, it was revived in early 2019. Notwithstanding a brief pause, chances are that if you’ve ever played an unknown hero in the game, you’ve pulled a guide who saw Cohen’s name and benefited from his tireless efforts.
He does it all for one simple reason: to prove a point to himself.
“People see it as a charitable service, but it was always for me,” he tells us. “To prove that I can do something, no matter how big or small. I was always a failure in high school and never really did anything of value. “
The leaders are an integral part of my pride and worth
Cohen says he originally started creating guides after volunteering in the esports industry for several years of his life after college. For him, creating leaders was a way of becoming part of a community – a way in which he could only be judged on the merits of his hard work, not his connections or how much money he made.
“The guides are an integral part of my pride and esteem,” he explains. “When I was younger, I made the mistake of trusting my insecurities and judging my self-worth based on the acceptance and interest of others. At the same time, this mistake has led me to so many opportunities, friends, and successes. “
Cohen has been playing MOBAs since 2005, including Dota 2’s predecessor, DotA Allstars, where he benefited from the guides others had made.
“My brother and I routinely played various custom games and modes in Warcraft III over the years when our parents divorced,” he recalls. “Video games have helped us a lot in handling this separation and our eventual move from the US to Quebec, Canada. Among the many custom games like Hero Line Wars, Pimp my Peon, and Hell vs. Heaven, DotA Allstars was one that we had a lot of fun playing. “
In February 2013 he started the Standard Hero Builds Project and spent hours studying details and statistics. He created guides that Dota 2 players would often rely on.
While some guide-makers update their work in the face of new patches that turn the established understanding of many heroes upside down – as in Dota 2 7.20, where nearly a third of the game’s heroes were decked out with skill revisions – Cohen’s process is far more iterative.
Need help? Here are the best Dota 2 heroes for beginners
“So the strategy is to release an immediate update within the first 48 hours and then update it in the coming weeks,” he says. “Otherwise, players would subscribe to an outdated build and keep using it without realizing they were being misinformed.
“For example, you see that I am making 400 updates to patch 6.84 (April 29, 2019), but in reality I made about 1,500 changes over the weeks prior to patch 6.85. This is because I make adjustments and changes to the builds during the development of the patch and then a new patch is released. With all of the changes that you see or that I have noted, there are many changes or reviews that result in no changes or simply text revisions – this adds significantly to the workload and time. “
He notes that the difference between a player in a lower skill class and an expert is in timing and execution, but what they want to achieve with their heroes remains the same, so standardized builds can exist that apply to everyone.
Cohen, who describes himself as a very average gamer, makes up for any shortcomings by including feedback, information from professional games, and statistics from sites like OpenDota in his guides.
The long hours he is proud of are not without serious disadvantages. Putting so much time and mental energy into Dota 2 over such a long period of time has easily robbed the game of its original joy for Cohen.
The constant churning of updates is another problem he is struggling with. For example, Valve’s switch from sporadic patches to small bi-weekly patches in 2018 proved exhaustive. While the number of changes made over time remained the same, the more frequent nature of the patches required Cohen’s attention more frequently.
“The need to be available on my computer every two weeks to make about 100 changes per patch and review them regularly as the game kept changing, burned me out,” recalls Cohen.
Despite the long hours of sacrifice – sometimes from his career, weekends, mornings and evenings, even from vacation – he still believes the whole undertaking was worth it.
“The appreciation made me meet all kinds of great and admirable people who also use my guides,” he says. “People who use them for their machine learning AI, people who won Dota 2 World Championships, game developers and their families who play the game together as a team.
“There is no better feeling than meeting someone who already knows and likes you because of what you do – it is a great relief and joy for me through and through.”