How Dota 2’s master of balance has kept the game engaging for more than a decade
Icefrog is responsible for balancing Dota 2’s gameplay. Despite being the mastermind behind such a hugely popular game, little is known about the person whose only line of communication with the Dota 2 community is a few cryptic tweets every year.
It is not surprising that his name is spammed countless times in Twitch chats or Reddit threads. From engraving his name permanently in the gaming culture as the ‘OSfrog’ Twitch emote, to memes like ‘My finest Creation,’ Icefrog’s presence can be traced everywhere in the gaming realm.
Although Icefrog used to communicate quite frequently with fans and players back in the DotA Allstars days, his communication has become limited in the last decade. Icefrog stopped communicating with the English-speaking Dota 2 community due to extreme criticism and abuse. He was active in the Chinese social media Weibo where he conversed with the Chinese community about the game.
The master of balance, the Dota god, the lord himself: Dota 2 community has various ways of addressing Icefrog. This article will piece together most of the information scattered around the internet on Icefrog and try to draw a clear picture of this character.
How Dota 2 came to be and how Icefrog was a part of it
There cannot be a thorough discussion on Icefrog without delving into the history of Dota 2. Much before it was a full standalone game, Defense of the Ancients emerged as a mod of Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. The custom maps section that came with Warcraft III was the place to hang out if one was a fan of games like Dota. The MOBA genre was not officially established yet.
One of the maps that stood out was Defense of the Ancients. But Icefrog is yet to make his appearance in this story.
It was a player who went by the name “Eul” who created the first Defense of the Ancients map, which got a strong community growing around it. This was inspired by another mod named ‘Aeon of Strife,’ which was developed for Blizzard’s Starcraft II: Brood War.
However, Kyle “Eul” Sommer had other plans. When Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos’ expansion pack, The Frozen Throne, came out in 2003, DotA, along with a variety of Tower Defense mods, were the most popular maps in the custom section. The growing fanbase enabled it to be spread, which in turn encouraged the modder to make the game more complex.
The original creator Eul disappeared from the scene after The Frozen Throne, but fortunately left his code open-sourced. Now modders could build upon what Eul laid the groundwork for.
It was Steve “Guinsoo” Feak who picked up the Defense of the Ancients map and kept working on it. The mod was named DotA Allstars, and this would be the name associated with the project until Dota 2 happened. However, Guinsoo wouldn’t be in the scene for long. Alex “Neichus” Moss would be the next person to inherit the DotA Allstars mod from Guinsoo.
Here comes the most awaited part of Dota history. After inheriting the mod from Guinsoo, Neichus enlisted IceFrog’s help to develop it because he had no formal coding background. Neichus’ departure from the project left Icefrog as the sole designer for the map. It was 2005, and Icefrog was the captain at the helm.
DotA Allstars not only accumulated players at a scale of a million all across the globe, it also started having competitive tournaments in EU, SEA and China. With Icefrog’s steady addition of new heroes and meticulous bug-fixing, DotA Allstars kept gaining popularity and carved its own niche.
Big companies took note and tried to capitalize on this niche, which was starting to get recognized by the term, MOBA or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. Riot Games, S2 Games, and Valve entered the fray, and League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth and Dota 2 emerged respectively.
Riot Games apparently took an interest in recruiting Icefrog for League of Legends, but the lack of creative control apparently made Icefrog look elsewhere. He also worked with S2 Games for a short time where he was put in the role of balancing heroes of HoN.
Ultimately, Valve scooped up Icefrog and put him at the helm of the Dota 2 project. In 2009, Icefrog announced that he would be working with Valve, and thus began a fabled partnership.
Icefrog’s method of design and his philosophy of balancing in Dota 2
If Icefrog’s method of balancing DOTA 2 or DotA Allstars could be summarized in one line, it would be: balance the game around the pro scene, the rest of the player base would follow.
This design philosophy is not mainstream. Balancing the game for the pro scene often means that the game was obfuscated by decisions that did not cater to the casual player base. But, call it luck, or Icefrog’s sheer genius, it has worked for DOTA 2 over the years.
Icefrog has also brought in numerous major changes to DOTA 2 over the last decade, which have changed the game in meaningful ways. From the introduction of hero talent trees and backpacks, to neutral items and outposts, the big patches have changed the way DOTA 2 is played.
This was partially made possible by Valve’s engine that DOTA 2 was built on. It gave Icefrog much more freedom than the Warcraft III map editor ever could. Also, one thing that is often looked past is how Valve manages the game. Valve gives complete creative control to Icefrog meaning he does whatever crazy changes without any corporate entity peeking over his shoulder.
This more or less explains DOTA 2’s approach with flexible roles and other similar aspects from a design perspective. Compared to League of Legends’ rigid compartmentalization of heroes into specific roles, Icefrog has always let the player base experiment with roles. Thus, a certain hero can be played across multiple roles, which not only is an achievement from a game design perspective, but also makes the competitive scene much more interesting.
Teams come up with surprise strategies baiting the enemy team into thinking a certain hero will be playing a certain role, but as the draft progressed, it would be playing some other. OG’s TI9 run with core IO can be discussed as a prominent example of this.
Icefrog’s laissez-faire approach with the gameplay design also saw strategies like roaming and trilaning emerge. There are no other MOBAs where players will be seen cutting creep waves from tier 3 towers, changing the offlane role forever.
Overall, Icefrog’s vision ensured DOTA 2 would be a lively game where it won’t be rare for teams and players to come up with fresh strategies. This also led to DOTA 2 becoming a great spectator esport. The International 2019 had a record viewership of 1.97 million, excluding Chinese viewership numbers.
One thing that has to be kept in mind while understanding the significance of the numbers is that Valve has not done any advertisements for DOTA 2 until very recently with the Netflix anime DOTA: Dragon’s Blood. So, when it’s considered that every viewer and player took an interest in the game organically, mostly by word-of-mouth, the numbers seem much more significant.
But who is Icefrog: piecing together the memes and facts
As DOTA 2’s popularity began to rise, so did many speculations about Icefrog’s identity. Many theories and rumors emerged, some backed by circumstantial facts, some held up by sheer conjecture. The distant urban legend of Icefrog did not form in a day. Throughout the years, the Frog spent pushing content updates and balance changes, first in DotA Allstars, and subsequently in DOTA 2. The mist around the name only grew thicker.
From Valve’s de-facto community relations person Wykrhm Reddy to the celebrated analyst Statsman Bruno to CyborgMatt, speculation among the DOTA 2 community has been rife about who Icefrog really is. There have been jokes on Twitter among different personalities about the identity of the Frog.
It is known that the personalities and pro players who have attended The Internationals, at least quite a few of them, have met Icefrog in person. Kevin “Purge” Godec said that he met “the man” when he went to the Internationals. He described Icefrog as an “awesome dude” and an “average guy.” This was the second time Purge had met him. Icefrog did not introduced himself to Purge the first time they met.
Zhang “LaNm” Zhicheng’s meeting with Icefrog has also been a memorable talking point. LaNm apparently went on his knees and cried in front of him when he knew it was the Frog whom he had met. This was confirmed by Tobiwan and Maelk’s commentary on Free to Play.
Among other players, there’s been talks that Jonathan “Loda” Berg has met him. It can be guessed that other than these known figures, there must be a select few other pro players and DOTA 2 personalities who have met Icefrog.
All speculation aside, there is only sheer and unrelenting respect for the mastermind behind DOTA 2’s balancing. In this day and age of the Internet, it’s surprising how this man has been successfully operating behind a pseudonym for 16 long years.
But isn’t Icefrog Abdul Ismail?
Following Icefrog’s involvement with S2 Games at the time of the inception of Heroes of Newerth, an anonymous blog post did its round on the MOBA community which alleged Icefrog’s real name to be Abdul Ismail. It also alleged how Icefrog was a difficult person to work with. But later on, this blog post was dismissed as fake by some erstwhile current and ex-Valve employees.
The speculation again gained mileage as fans discovered the name Abdul Ismail in the credits of the DOTA 2 documentary, “Free to Play.”
But a 2017 lawsuit that involved Valve finally put a legal stamp on Icefrog’s identity. In court papers, Icefrog’s real name was cited as Abdul Ismail.
However, this did not, by any means, put a dent in the persona of Icefrog that was built through a decade. On the contrary, it can be said, the real name is not mentioned a whole lot in the conversations around the DOTA 2 communities as it is thought to mean disrespect to the person who carefully kept his identity hidden for so long.
Despite his real name being out in the open, nobody, except the people working at Valve and a few DOTA 2 pros, knows what Icefrog looks like, or even less of how he functions as a developer.
There is an undeniable charm about a mad genius whose identity is shrouded with mystery. In contrast to other game developers, where designers take a front-facing role, DOTA 2’s appeal is qualitatively different in this regard.
Whether it be a cryptic tweet with a one-hour mango song, or retweeting previous years’ tweet congratulating OG for their back-to-back TI wins, Icefrog has shown no signs of doing away with the veil of mystery around his persona. The Dota 2 community, as a whole, doesn’t seem to have much qualms about it.
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