What the DotA video game taught me about money and investments

For those of you who don’t know the video game DotA, here’s a quick summary, from Wikipedia:

Defense of the Ancients (DotA) is a multiplayer online battle arena game. The scenario objective is for each team to destroy the opponents’ Ancient, heavily guarded structures at opposing corners of the map. Players use powerful units known as heroes, and are assisted by allied heroes and use gold to buy equipment during the mission.


If you’re absolutely not into video games, let’s just say that DotA is a highly competitive video game, and also one of the most popular e-sport games out there. Last year’s international competition had a total of more than $10 million in prizes. The winners of the tournament grabbed $6 million of that pie. Yup, these people got paid 6 million to play a video game.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about what the mechanics of the game have taught me about my own habits regarding savings and money.

DotA pretends to be an action game, but it really is a game about money: collecting money, spending as little of it as possible on necessities, and investing the money in assets to grow more money.

In DotA, your character needs to collect gold in order to buy items (weapons, armor, magical items,…) that will help you defeat your opponents, in order to collect more gold. Rinse and repeat. Ultimately the goal of the game is to destroy the opposing team’s “Ancient” (their headquarters) and that can be achieved with alternate strategies, but really the easiest way is to become super strong by collecting the right items. Heroes also gain experience and levels, but in most of the games, the items your hero caries (and therefore, how much gold you’ve made) are what’s critical to winning the game.

There is also a compounding effect here: a hero with more powerful items will have an easier time killing their opponents, gaining more gold in the process. It’s not unusual to see the compounding effect in the middle of a game, and understand which team is going to ultimately win.

Note that I speak as if I knew DotA extremely well, and in a way I do: I’ve been playing this game (and now DotA2) for more than a decade. You might think I’m an expert: I’m not. I hate competitive play and only play with a few friends, in the same team, against the computer. Which is not how most people play and enjoy the game.

So don’t get me wrong, the analysis in this article is of course extremely biased and does not necessarily paint the right picture about the game or how it’s played. But it is definitely accurate with how I play, and how the games against the computer work.

Items in the game can be seen as assets and liabilities. Some of the liabilities are consumables and I would call them “necessities”. They are cheap items that your hero needs in early game such as magic leaves that heal your hero. I hate buying those because they do not contribute long term to building my hero’s gear, but I have no choice but to buy them. I’m sure many gamers think the same (“Crap, I’ve spend more than 2000 gold on teleport scrolls by now. For the same price I could have bought teleport boots that I could use indefinitely!”)

Other liabilities are items that you choose to buy when you don’t know the game really well, only to realize the item is not helping your hero at all. A good example could be a very powerful magical item that requires lots of mana (magical energy), when your hero is a dumb and strong warrior who has no use for it (or, in this case, not enough mana). It’s very typical of new players to buy items that are not useful at all for their hero, and having to resell the item in the game’s shop later on. The shop will buy back items for half the price, another good mirror of what happens in real life when you buy a liability: it decreases in value.


Assets are the items that let you generate more gold: they make your hero stronger, in whatever traits matters for your hero. A Magician will need stuff that makes their spells more powerful. A warrior will need more strength and damage increasing weapons. The more they specialize, the better they will become individually, and as a team, to gather gold by killing the opponents.

Items can be combined too, to build stronger items. In that regard, it is essential to plan your “build” from the beginning of the game. As a matter of fact, most DotA players know exactly from the start of the game which items they will be buying throughout the game, with a bit of wiggle room depending on the situation.

DotA is a game where spending your money on liabilities can make the difference between victory and defeat. I’m definitely enjoying the economics aspect of that game, and I’m sure this makes me the odd exception. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that people could leverage the knowledge they get from game economics into real life. Just like in DotA, buying liabilities in real life is not helping you to win the game.

Video games often get a bad rep as time wasters in the personal finance blogosphere. I’ve been playing video games since I was 9 and I can credit video games for turning me into a financially successful software engineer, so I always use myself as proof that video games can’t be all that bad. Are you a gamer?

  1. TheMoneyMine
  2. Mr. Tako @ Mr. Tako Escapes
  3. Mike H.
    • StockBeard