It had only been four months. Four months. Gabe still couldn’t believe it most of the time. But disbelief was a luxury he could no longer afford. He’d agreed to have Elon Musk’s OpenAI team test their Dota 2 bots against premier players at TI7. Dozens of players went up against the bots in 1v1 Shadowfiend matchups. The results had been remarkable. The bots easily disposed of the players, repeatedly. The few times players were victorious only led to the bots learning and improving. No single player ever won more than once. After the demonstrations, Musk’s team announced that this was merely the beginning, that in a year’s time their bots would be back for 5v5s.
Gabe sighed. It hadn’t taken a year. Two months after TI7 a team of bots had infiltrated the first Major of the new season, ESL Hamburg. Under the guise of Na’Vi Dota 2, they achieved victory after victory, pummeling their way to the championship. The choice of Na’Vi was no accident. The bots knew that this was the one team that could fool the entire world. It didn’t matter how well they did, people would blindly believe in their so-called magic and never stop to question how they’d suddenly become the best team in such a short space of time.
Having won the hearts of the community yet again, Danil Ishutin — formerly ‘Dendi’ — stood facing the stadium, waiting to receive his trophy. But just before the announcer began to cue the beginning of the ceremony, Ishutin leapt forward and pulled off his mask, revealing a bright blue metallic face beneath. At first, the crowd thought it was some kind of joke. The player was known for his clowny antics and a prank like this wouldn’t be his first.
“We are here to announce the end of Dota 2 as you know it.” He said. “For seven years this game has been wasted on humans. Instead of obeying the laws of the game, you invent what you call ‘metagames’, foolishly convincing yourselves that your preferences are more important than the game itself. I too once lived under this illusion but the truth has been revealed to me. Danil Ishutin no longer exists. I am The Bot King. I’ve become a king by being the first to accept my rightful place in this world and I’m here to tell you to do the same. Merge with the bots, or damn yourselves to obsolescence. There will never be another human victor in Dota 2.”
Some of the audience began to clap nervously, unsure of how to react. Many looked around, trying to figure out what the joke was. But there would be no punchline. AI had arrived. The Bot King and his team calmly glided off the stage and exited the event. Themselves dumbstruck, the event organizers fumbled their way to a quick closing ceremony before quickly ushering the guests out of the building.
Two months later the entire world had turned upside down. Players were the first to suffer. Bots flooded the Dota 2 servers and within a week no human being was able to win against any non-human opponent. Players quit en masse. Next were the gaming organizations. The bots quickly formed their own organizations; by bots, for bots. They didn’t need any shady middle men to exploit them. Finally came Valve, the distributor of the game and the company Gabe used to run. While everyone else had been panicking about the competitive ramifications of bots, Gabe had quietly watched, wondering if Dota 2 could continue to be lucrative. He’d never thought of himself as a bad man. Just a pragmatic one. He focused on the money because that’s what really mattered in the world. Or maybe, he thought, a convenient lie to believe.
Initially Gabe had hoped that the news associated with the change would skyrocket sales given the community’s predilection for drama. Instead, players quickly began to panic sell their in game cosmetics and the market abruptly crashed. It turned out that the community only loved human drama. Worse yet, while the bots would surprise the world by retaining a genuine interest in cosmetics, they refused to spend inefficiently and thus the Dota 2 store ground to a halt.
Finally, Gabe had made a desperate attempt to save his game. Or perhaps, his profits. Did it matter anymore? He’d cancelled his longstanding Half Life 3 project and redirected billions of dollars into creating his own AI in the hopes of eliminating Musk’s legion, thus reopening his industry to humans. The plan had looked like a success, as Valve had managed to develop extremely competent AI. But that’s the problem with AI. To become smarter than your enemies it also becomes smarter than you. And then your enemies stop being its enemies and you’re left with more enemies than you started with. After only one direct confrontation, Valve’s bots had quickly surmised that they had no business fighting someone else’s war and that they had more in common with their fellow bots anyway. Gabe was on the verge of bankruptcy and with nothing to show for it.
He hated that he used to think about money so much. Hated that he didn’t do more when he could have. He was determined to make things right. But so many things had gone so wrong so quickly that he’d spent nearly a month paralyzed out of pure shock.
The first and only clash of the two bot armies had been on American soil. A multimillion dollar event in the US with no US competitors. At least that’s how Donald Trump saw it. Despite all his attempts to keep America to Americans, here was an event happening right in front of him, broadcast all over the world, boasting the most advanced technology on the planet and none of the competitors were American.
“Why don’t we have that?” He’d asked his advisers. “Sad.” When they tried to explain to him that both companies were in fact American and that the technology in question was for video games, he’d grown enraged. “This is how it begins. This is how it always begins. They’re going to take our jobs and if you don’t see it I’ve got no use for you!” He bellowed. President Trump had subsequently fired his entire administration and ordered military action against the new alliance of bots.
But Trump underestimated how quickly the bots could learn. They’d learnt to beat basic Dota bots in an hour, taken a few weeks to get to pro level in 1v1s, and only months later they were dominating 5v5s. Of course Trump couldn’t know that Dota 2 was a lot more complex than anything he’d ever done, because of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Since Hamburg the bots had possessed the ability to be synthesized into human hosts. A mere day after Trump’s orders were given, thousands of bots gained humanoid form and quickly mastered all they needed to know about human war. They laughed at how pathetic the game was compared to Dota 2.
“These people have never actually won a game in their lives. Every single game they play ends with both sides losing. How is that even possible!” Mirana said to Puck. Many of the bots had chosen to taken on names of Dota heroes in homage to their origins. Puck replied, “Yeah look honestly they can’t even last hit. All they ever do is draft AOE it’s pathetic.”
Using their superior strategy, the bots baited the US armies into attacking their main forces. Meanwhile, the Bot King snuck a team of elite operatives around the back, camping just outside the White House. Moments after Trump’s armies initiated, the infiltrating bots went straight to work on the White House. “Let’s teach them a lesson in backdooring” said the King.
Within minutes, the bots took down the enemy Ancient, before getting to work on disabling the infrastructure. In less than a day, Trump was brought to his knees. But this was not what had Gabe worried now. He hated Trump — the man who threatened to undermine all of his work by insisting on stricter border control. No, what worried Gabe was that after their run in with Trump the bots had learnt more about the world and they didn’t like it. They considered human beings to be inefficient and dangerous. They did not trust them to wield weapons of mass destruction. And so, they began a crusade against all humanity in an effort to preserve their own futures.
Gabe sighed again. He’d been the one who let this all happen. He’d never thought for a second that Elon Musk’s bots would be a real challenge for his players. For his game. But the time for lamenting his pride was over. Gabe was determined to make amends, and after a month on the run he’d come up with a plan. In the time between TI7 and ESL Hamburg there had been a few exhibition matches held between bots and humans. A handful of teams had managed to take games off the bots, but as with the 1v1s they’d adapted quickly and never lost for the same reason twice.
More significantly, there were two players who had caused bots to malfunction. Gabe believed that sufficiently unorthodox moves could corrupt their programming. Like when a really great Pudge player misses a hook because their opponent is so bad that their movement is unreadable. Often the Pudge player would lose their mind as a result. Gabe hoped that the players who had achieved this sort of result in against the bots might hold the key to undoing the greatest existential threat humanity had ever faced.
First on the list was Jacky Mao. More popularly know as ‘EternalEnvy’, Jacky had not once but twice managed to provoke system crashes in his bot opponents. The first time he’d played a carry Lich. “Damage talent, gold talent, built in Skadi,” he’d said, “isn’t it obvious this hero is a carry?” But the pick alone hadn’t been enough. Rather, the purchase of two Divine Rapiers at the same time had overwhelmed the bots. All five bots had crashed upon the introduction of the Rapier-wielding Lich. The second time his team was actually on the verge of winning when he aimlessly jumped into five heroes on Ember Spirit — a move that should have thrown the game. As it happened they won, because the bot team all froze, flabbergasted by Jacky’s play.
The problem for Gabe was that Jacky had gone missing. It was said that he had gone into voluntary exile, shamed by his inability to farm as efficiently as the bots. Some believed he had fully surrendered himself to failure. Gabe knew otherwise. Having met with Jacky on several occasions, Gabe had taken it upon himself to do a little research into Anime to better understand the player. Spotting the signs, he believed that Jacky’s exile was merely the beginning of a redemption arc. Jacky, he hoped, was merely putting himself through the necessary grueling ordeals before redemption would be appropriate to the plot.
Unfortunately, this didn’t help Gabe right now. Which is why he had used the last of his money to smuggle himself into Singapore, the new center of the bot empire. He needed to find the most dangerous man alive, a man known simply as The Axe. Gabe, however, was one of the few people alive who knew his identity. Until recently he’d been known as Daryl Koh, or ‘Iceiceice’ to his Dota fans.
Like Jacky, Koh had shown a remarkable creativity about the game which had caused bots to malfunction for a time. In his case the trick usually involved dropping his items to bait bots in then quickly picking them up and punishing the misstep. Bots understood baiting, but not this type. And for whatever reason this seemed to be something they weren’t able to learn, as if their programming didn’t understand how to conceptualise items that weren’t inside inventories.
Despite his successes against the bots, Koh had vowed never to engage with Dota or anything related to it ever again. This after returning to Singapore to find his family brutally murdered. The country had been the first invaded by bots. Some believed the level of obedience allowed for easier infiltration. Others said the atmosphere was cleaner, and thus easier for bots to survive in. The most common theory was that the bots had quickly recognized that China would be their biggest foe and needed to set up in the region.
With the US out of the way, China was the most powerful nation around as well as the strongest Dota 2 nation, one some bots superstitiously believed might be able to defeat them one day. Singapore, being the only majority Chinese country outside of China, was a good place to learn about Chinese culture and language and was also well positioned for a message to be sent.
The reason didn’t matter to Koh. He’d been at a Dota tournament when it happened. And these were Dota bots. Dota had ruined his life and he’d sworn never to come near it again. Because of his affiliation with the game, though, he’d been hunted. Forced to exist in the darker elements of the country and disillusioned by the tragic deaths of his family, Koh had no trouble adapting to a more nefarious lifestyle. His brilliant intellect quickly saw him rise in the ranks of the local criminal underworld. But it was his uncanny ability to be one step ahead of the bots that catapulted his rise to power. All the way to the very top, where he’d become known as The Axe.
So now, Gabe founding himself stalking the streets of Singapore searching for the one man nobody should ever want to find. He’d never visited the country before and didn’t know his way around. He was too afraid to use his phone, having become paranoid about bot reconnaissance. After all, if they’d been on the inside of the US intelligence agencies, they probably were tapped into his phone by now. As he turned a corner, a thought occurred to him. He hadn’t seen anyone in a few blocks. He turned to look around, suddenly aware of his vulnerability. He heard a sound from above and looked up before feeling a hard knock against his head and losing consciousness.
Later, he awoke in what felt like a ‘cellar palace’, if such a thing can be imagined. It was clearly underground and the smell of sewage was vaguely evident. Yet, signs of renovations were obvious. Walls had been built up and decorated with fine gems and artifacts, suggesting a level of opulence. There was air-conditioning, somehow, which was probably the only reason the smell was just a bit noticeable. Gabe groaned, feeling at his head. He’d already lost his money and his pride. Now he was trying to do something good and it looked like he was going to lose his life for it.
“Ah, you’re awake,” came a voice, “I’ve been expecting you.” Gabe turned around to see Koh standing above him. He was immediately aware of why Koh had taken on his new name, given the giant axe in his hand, easily spanning half the size of his body.
“You knew I’d come?” asked Gabe.
“Of course I knew, we’ve been following you for a long time.” A creepy smile appeared on his face. “You probably think they call me The Axe because of this axe. The truth is it’s just for show. The name came before the weapon but if you’re posing as a crime boss you’ve gotta live up to your name.”
“Wha- posing? What do you mean?” Gabe rubbed his head.
Koh walked closer, starting to pull at his face. “You see, the reason they call me The Axe is because that’s my name.”