AnyKey All-Stars is a new series intended to shine a spotlight on influential figures in the world of esports. It will consist of features and video portraits about people from all sides of esports, including players, team managers, coaches, tournament organizers, game developers, business developers, content creators, and more.
For our first feature, we interviewed Sabina “Lawliepop” Hemmi, co-founder of Elo entertainment, the company behind Dotabuff, one of the most popular sites for Dota 2 players to find resources to improve their gameplay with personal and global statistics. As a product director, she is responsible for developing product road maps, dreaming up ambitious ways to utilize data, as well as helping to work out the details of how to best implement those ideas. In this interview, Lawliepop discusses her current projects, Dotabuff and the new Overbuff, and her complex history with gaming.
I want to start by talking about your history with games. Can you give a little bit of background about how you got into gaming and what games affected you the most?
I always like to use romantic language when I talk about gaming because I don’t play a lot of games. A story a lot of people from my generation have is that we had an early computer in my household, so we had access to games that you had to boot up on DOS with the big floppy disks. I played a lot of games there, but I would say that the first game I fell in love with was Quake 3 Arena. I played that probably for five or six years. I slowed down a little bit in high school because I didn’t want to not go to college because I was playing too much Quake or anything like that.
After Quake I went on a short MMO binge, I played Lineage 2 for a short period of time, I think it was less than a year, but it was super influential to me because I also moved over with the guild I had in that game to World of Warcraft. I played World of Warcraft for several years. WoW launched around 2005 and I played from launch until whenever Firelands ended. It was probably in late 2011 was when I stopped playing WoW.
I first joined Blood Legion in 2007 and was in it for about a year when I became an officer and I was in charge of all the recruitment. We had an officer council of like three people who did everything. One of my goals in Blood Legion, other than me being a really competitive person and wanting to be the best and all of that, was putting a lot of work into recruitment and branding of the guild. When I joined we were always a good guild, but people didn’t know us the way they knew some of the top guilds, so I put a lot of work into making sure we were a lot more well known so that we could have better access to recruits so that we could have a more competitive roster.
Blood Legion is known for having a relatively diverse and inclusive online environment. Do you have any recommendations for people trying to create positive and inclusive digital communities?
I think the thing with inclusion, and I think this is true for Blood Legion and Dotabuff, is that inclusion is always a work in progress. I don’t think I ever look at those communities and think “Wow I’m really proud of this community, it’s really great,” and maybe this is because in general I’m just a critical person, but I’m always looking for ways to do better.
Inclusion is always a work in progress.
In Blood Legion I think we did a really good job in being inclusive of LGBT people, and I think that we did that in a way that is possibly really hard to replicate outside of a game setting and that’s because there was a lot of sexual inappropriateness in that guild that didn’t easily accept heteronormative ideas. Blood Legion was predominantly male, there was very rarely more than three girls in a roster of like 35-40 people, but we had some LGBT people who were very outspoken and who were willing to put themselves out there, which helped.
Maybe this is coming from a place of personal bias, I’ve noticed from playing WoW at a high end, there are a ton of LGBT people who play games really passionately. There are so many there who all have varying degrees of comfort being out, and if you can create an environment where they feel welcome it can be really, really positive. I know we recruited some people in other top guilds who had been bullied out of their guild. Their sexuality had been made the punchline of jokes constantly, and overtime it just made them feel really uncomfortable. I was happy that they could find a place in our guild, but I think that Blood Legion however wasn’t as welcoming as it could have been to people of color and maybe different nationalities. It could have been a lot more accepting.
What is your perspective on the current Overwatch and Dota communities, in general and in terms of inclusivity?
I think that Overwatch is great, especially when I was playing alpha and beta it was super great because a lot of people had to be friends of Blizzard. Overwatch was the first game I ever played where I talked on my mic super regularly and have found other women. I’ve been queued alone and talked on my mic and there has been like three other women on my team with me and we’re telling all the guys like no here’s what we need to do, like ordering them around. That’s happened to me in QuickPlay and I constantly run into other women on my mic even in competitive play. I have noticed in the past month since Overwatch launched that things have started to get a little more toxic, but I think that when a new game launches people approach it with a really open mind. As they perceive themselves to have a little more expertise in the game then they think they have things a little more figured out and they’re a little more likely to put someone else down based off of that.
Overwatch was the first game I ever played where I talked on my mic and very regularly found other women.
I think for Dota 2, Dota is probably one of the less welcoming games. The best and worst thing about Dota is how international it is. In some ways it’s way more welcoming of a lot of different cultures, and ideas, and nationalities, but at the same time I think that can sometimes hold back other initiatives. Say if you’re looking at something like women in Dota, instead of trying to talk about women’s issues to an American audience, which you would have a specific strategy for doing that, you have to talk about women’s issues to a global audience, which is definitely more difficult to do. You’re going to have a mixed response and you’re going to have a much more complicated conversation.
Do you find yourself in conversations like that a lot?
I do on my Twitter sometimes. I also try to be a positive influence in our company and try to explain things, because I think it’s really easy if you’re trying to talk about those issues to talk down to your audience. If you’re having an ongoing conversation about women’s issues or LGBT issues, you get so wrapped up in the argument and how right or obvious it is to you and you don’t realize that people come from different backgrounds and have different awareness levels on those issues. I think that it’s really easy to be dismissive of a lot of people in gaming, and I think that the majority of people in gaming, even if they might say something that’s not super inclusive or welcoming, they do genuinely mean well, and maybe they just don’t realize the harm they’re doing. If you can have a conversation about it that isn’t talking down to people and is empathetic to their perspective and acknowledges that they aren’t trying to be an asshole in that aspect, then I think it can be really constructive.
Whenever I see issues about women in Dota 2 having a hard time get to the top of the Dota subreddit, usually one of the top comments says something like, “Oh, anything about you we’ll harass you for. If you’re gay, or into anime, or from a different country,” and they kind of use it as an excuse to hide behind the fact that the community itself is not necessarily at its core super welcoming. I think that’s bullshit and I think they’re just listing off things that people are commonly bigoted about with a few exceptions.
Like yeah sometimes if you’re bad at the game, you can focus on being bad at the game, but if you’re a women and most of the comments you get are gendered comments, then it’s harder to respond to that. It’s easier to internalize that and think I can’t change that about myself, I can’t change the fact that I’m a woman and that’s how I happen to identify and it becomes a little bit discouraging.
Does this tie into Dotabuff and Overbuff at all? Are the numbers you collect an attempt to put everyone on an even playing field?
I would like for it to be used that way, but at the same time stats are complicated. We’ve had a really delicate hand in Dota, because years ago when we started doing Dota back in 2012 a lot of the players played Defense of the Ancients, Dota 1, whatever you want to call it, and a lot of those players also played HoN. HoN had a lot of really rich statistics in the client and it created this situation where you could see someone’s MMR or global KDA really easily at the hero select, and because of that there was this perception that HoN pigeon-holed you. If you had bad stats then you’d be stuck playing support versus carry, and we’ve been really careful in Dotabuff to not overemphasize certain global statistics. The community will do it anyway to a certain extent no matter what your design is, but we’ve tried really hard to be a positive influence on the community in that way.
What’s an example of a statistic you chose to feature and why?
Initially, when we launched Dotabuff a lot of people were calling for a global KDA rate, which obviously if you are participating in a lot of kills your KDA will be pretty high and if you’re not dying then that also helps, but the reality is that in most MOBA’s or ARTS’s carries get the most kills generally speaking. So if you didn’t focus on playing certain roles in a game or maybe even had a few bad games it would lower that stat and that might prevent somebody from letting you carry if that stat were super accessible.
How did you first get involved in Dotabuff and start collecting stats? Did you have to go through Valve and was that a complicated process?
That’s complicated. When we first started collecting stats on Dotabuff there was no API. We were basically emulating the client initially and looking up matches and getting stats that way, which was super tedious. It was better than when we were doing League of Legends though because at that time in LoL you would look up somebody’s player profile and only see their performance for the last ten games. So if you wanted to do something like make a match page, which sounds basic, you had to look up ten different players and hope that the match was still in their player profile and coordinate all of that together. Eventually, Valve did support us with an API and now we gather data from a lot of different sources. We primarily use the API for a lot of basic match data. We also download and parse replays so that we can get extra in-depth stats.
Were you part of Dotabuff from the beginning?
Yes, I’m one of the co-founders of the company behind Dotabuff–Elo Entertainment. We officially became a company in January 1st of 2012, but I was doing work on it in 2011. That’s when we decided to exist as an actually company. The other two founders both founded GotFrag, which is an old sort of ESPN of esports website circa early 2000’s.
Can you explain a little bit of the thinking behind starting Dotabuff?
We started with a League of Legends site, and we saw LoL really blowing up as a popular game and we just asked, “can we do statistics for this?” That’s the sort of thing that you explore, see what’s possible, and figure out if you can put together a compelling website. We recently did this with Overwatch, me and one other co-founder. We took about two and a half weeks and said ok, we really love Overwatch as a game, we aren’t sure what’s available statistically, and saw what we could do with that. So we spent some time and we didn’t know whether or not at the end of that we were going to have a website we wanted to launch. It depended entirely on how compelling we felt the website was potentially.
What is your background in statistics?
I don’t have a traditional background in statistics. I actually went to college for computer science and I dropped out. After that, I worked at different places. Before this job I was working at a financial services company with an economist from Wharton. I learned a lot from that job and did interesting things with data visualization. I think one of the most interesting things about working on a financial website was that essentially you’re making a website for old people, and you’ve all seen your grandparents try to use a computer, nobody wants to make a website for old people.
With Dotabuff and gaming in general, as somebody who works on websites, it’s a dream audience. Everybody is pretty young and relatively tech-savvy. It’s not as much of an issue anymore, but people don’t use Internet Explorer. I think 1% of people on Dotabuff use Internet Explorer. People use modern browsers and, at least in Dota, they’re not afraid of complexity. They’re a really smart audience to have.
How is Overbuff different from Dotabuff? What were the unique challenges for Overbuff?
The biggest difference between Dotabuff and Overbuff is that we’ve been doing Dota for a while and we have a lot more statistics, and also Dota as a game has so much depth. When I think of making a feature on Dotabuff it’s almost endless what I could possibly make and what complexity it could have. When we were looking at Overwatch we had very limited data, a much smaller database, so it was a new challenge to have so much simplicity because there are only a few heroes and we don’t even have map data. The data is so limited.
When I think of making a feature on Dotabuff it’s almost endless what I could possibly make and what complexity it could have.
What initially attracted us to working on Dota was all the complexity, but actually working on Overwatch has made me more excited about doing stuff on Dota as well. I’m excited about both. The simplicity of being able to take a step back and work with a much more limited data set and figure out what cool data visualizations we could come up with that are actually functionally going to help somebody track their stats and get better by seeing changes over time was very refreshing. It makes me excited to take some of the ideas we’ve had for Overbuff and bring them back to Dotabuff. I think they’re going to be super compelling.
What do you have in store for both of those websites?
For Overbuff we are currently exploring doing more with rankings, like possibly something hero-specific. A lot of times when we start working on a complex feature we test it for a really long time. We have all sorts of features on Dotabuff that are in a live beta phase and we’re testing them, but they could take months before anything actually goes live because we want to make sure that we are doing a really great job with it. We’re also doing a lot of cool stuff with hero aggregates and hero balance statistics, we’re going to be breaking them down based on competitive trends. We also want to show hero balance changes over time a little bit better.
On Dotabuff we’re launching some cool new esports statistics that are going to be tracking series because right now we don’t really do a great job of tracking an esports match like a best of three or a best of five. We’re hoping to help all of the stats people who are getting ready for TI.
What is the philosophy behind these websites and how do you want to empower players?
I think it’s really easy when you’re playing a game like Dota or League of Legends, any MOBA really, to just kind of hit that play button, and just go through the motions and not necessarily think about a lot of the details. When you go back and look at your statistics you can see things like what heroes you’re really good or bad against and as a result you know that you should play them a little more or do something like to better understand what their weaknesses are. Additionally, we wanted to empower players with data and maybe boost their confidence.
I think that works both ways because we definitely have people who don’t like visiting Dotabuff because maybe they’re the worst player in their friend group, and we’re trying to develop tools for those people as well. For example, if you go to our hero page you can go to our guides and see complete builds with item timings and skill builds and stuff for high MMR games that have happened in the last three days. If you random a hero or haven’t played one in a long time you can see how people are playing that hero since the new patch. We also do a lot of statistics on hero balance across different MMRs and different time periods and patches. Some people know that they aren’t in the top percent of players and that they’re never going to get there, but they want to know what’s working at their skill level.
Is Dota your favorite game?
I think because I work in Dota I have a really complicated relationship with it. I definitely love Dota and I think that it’s a beautiful and complex game, but I don’t know if it’s my favorite right now. I’m really excited about Overwatch too. My top games of all time would be super easy though, it would be Quake 3, World of Warcraft, Dota, and Overwatch.
What would you want to say to other women who want to get into the gaming industry and maybe even statistics specifically?
I think for a lot of women who want to get involved in gaming, probably the majority of them, they really don’t want it to be about their gender. For me, when I started Dotabuff I never lied about my gender, but I certainly didn’t reveal it, because I wanted my work to be about my work and my work to not be about my gender. I think I’ve seen this gradual change over time in myself where I feel a little bit more comfortable and empowered and feel like Dotabuff is established and my work speaks for itself that I’m a little bit more comfortable being open about my gender.
I think for a lot of women who want to get involved in gaming, probably the majority of them, they really don’t want it to be about their gender.
I’ve spoken to other women recently who are engineers who work in the gaming stats space and they feel the same way. They don’t want their work to be defined by their gender, they want their work to be defined by the work that they actually produce, but at the same time that can be really frustrating. For example, when I meet people at TI they don’t believe that I am who I say I am. I’ve gotten everything from like, “Oh did they hire you to promote for them?” or, “Do you know who’s in charge because I want to get a job there, who should I talk to?” and the reality is that they should talk to me. I’m the one who does most of the hiring.
I also just think for myself, as someone who has been playing games for so many years now, I’m thirty now and I’ve been playing games for my entire life, I think I had a lot of internalized misogyny that I needed to deal with to feel more comfortable revealing my gender. I would love to be a role model if that’s possible for underrepresented groups, I would love to mentor people if I can find people who are looking for that.
I don’t know exactly what the best advice is, because the reality is is that it’s hard and you just have to be extremely passionate and extremely determined. To an extent, almost any industry you work in you might have to deal with those issues, but I think that gaming is a little bit special in that there’s always been this need to prove your authenticity toward a game. I’m in both gaming and tech, so I kind of get it from both sides there. Women in tech is a huge issue and I follow a lot of what’s going on there and that has made me more confident and optimistic about where women in gaming is going.
What do games mean to you?
I’m the sort of person who has always wanted tattoos, and I started getting tattoos later in life. If I had gotten tattoos when I was 18 or 20 I would have just like a weird gamer sleeve, but now that I’m an adult and I work in games I feel a lot more complicated about everything. I think that a lot of people play games because, this is going to sound weird or depressing, but frankly they’re more rewarding than other aspects of their life or maybe they don’t have a super challenging job. It isn’t challenging them mentally and they can find that in gaming. I think that for a lot of people gaming can also represent an opportunity, especially how esports has blown up and how Dota2 as an esport has grown.
For so many people gaming is so important to them and there is definitely a part of me that wonders if I’ll ever care about another industry more than I care about gaming and esports and all of that. If I went to go work at another financial services startup I would get that I’m doing good, but it wouldn’t be as exciting, interesting, or complex. For me, games have always been a huge part of my life, and probably always will be.
Sabina aka Lawliepop can be found on Twitter @lawliepop and on Discord as Lawliepop#9323