Before it became the megalith players know, love, and dedicate entire lifetimes to mastering, Dota was just a popular mod of other games like Warcraft 3. Perhaps, in a handful of years, we’ll be speaking similarly of Dota 2 mod Auto Chess—that is, if it really is as popular as it seems to be.
Over the weekend, Dota Auto Chess—a new custom Dota 2 game mode created by a studio in China—climbed all the way to 100,000 concurrent players (via Team Secret’s Matthew “Cyborgmatt” Bailey). To put that in perspective, only Steam’s top three most popular games, one of which is Dota 2, can boast better numbers right now. Counter-Strike has 547,577, Dota 2 has 432,437, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has 348,096. Valve’s own Dota 2 spin-off, trading card game Artifact has 2,389.
So, what’s the appeal? Well, picture chess. Now add Dota 2 characters. Dota Auto Chess is nothing like that, but it is really clever. While it takes place on a chess-like board, each round of the game centers on a timed draft during which both players buy heroes from the same randomized pool. Ideally, you want to create combos. Buying three of the same hero, for example, will let you deploy a more powerful version of that hero to the field, while you can get stat boosts by synergizing heroes’ races and classes. You also want to prevent your opponent from building up to crushing combos of their own. Heroes have abilities that counter each other, too, so you’ve gotta keep that in mind while also remaining thrifty so that your ever-dwindling stack of gold never goes completely kaput. Units then automatically duke it out—thus the “Auto” part of the title—and after that, you quickly jump to the next round. It’s fast-paced but also strategic—and you don’t need to be good at Dota 2 or chess to enjoy it.
There has, however, been some suspicion that Dota Auto Chess’ player count isn’t real. Yesterday on the Dota 2 subreddit, a player and mod-maker named DoctorGester posted a now highly-upvoted thread claiming that the numbers are “most likely bugged.” As evidence, they cited an atypical ratio of spectators to players as well as a similar bug that plagued their own 2016 mod, Crumbling Island Arena.
“The conclusion I came to back in 2016: some sort of a bug causes the games not to finish properly, hence servers do not report player count decrease in a timely manner, causing tons of concurrent players and spectators being displayed,” DoctorGester wrote. “The actual player count in Auto Chess is most likely 8-10x times lesser than reported.”
That said, there’s other evidence to suggest Auto Chess is a legitimate phenomenon—from anecdotal evidence of Chinese streamers playing it in droves to the fact that it has nearly 400,000 reviews and over 800,000 subscribers on Steam. Those metrics outstrip many other popular Dota 2 mods, and they don’t rely on games ending when they’re supposed to. All this, and the mod has only been out since January 3.
Kotaku reached out to Valve and Auto Chess’ developer to clarify, but as of publishing, neither had replied. For now, then, we’re left to wait and wonder. But hey, at least we have Auto Chess, which is—if absolutely nothing else—very good, to help us pass the time.