Software Engineering

Predicting the winner of a DotA 2 match using distributed deep learning pipelines

Baris Can Durak
May 7, 2020
12 Mins Read

Last updated: November 3, 2022.

In the last decade, machine learning applications have proven their capabilities and potential in various applications. Especially in the past few years, they have gained rapid prominence in the gaming industry and now there are countless projects creating an endless array of models interacting with different games.

As a machine learning engineer and a person who very much enjoys being a part of the gaming community, I have always wanted to dip my toes into this pool and to give it a shot myself. I have created a project using our framework at ZenML called ZenML. Today, I would like to show you how I created a simple, yet powerful, end-to-end ML pipeline which aims to predict the winning team in a game of DotA 2.

Before we dive in, I would like to take a step back and briefly talk about the game for those who are not that familiar with DotA 2.

DotA 2

DotA 2, or also known as Defense of the Ancients 2, is an online strategy game developed by the company Valve. The game puts two teams of five players against each other, where the main objective of each team is to destroy the enemy team's main building before the other.

At the start of each game, players get to select a character to play from a selection of more than 110 heroes. Each hero comes equipped with its own unique talents and skill set. While you progress throughout the game (which usually takes 30 to 60 minutes), you have to battle the enemy heroes, manage your economy, and coordinate with your team to destroy the enemy's base.

The game has a significantly large player base. As I am writing this blog post, there are 600,000+ active players in the game. Additionally, with the emergence of e-sports in the last decade, it has also become one of the leading titles in the industry with tournaments for 30+ million dollars.

![the_international_2019]({{ site.url }}/assets/posts/predicting_winner_dota/dota_scene.jpeg)

Last year's The International, the main event organized by Valve every year, had a prize pool of $34.3 million and reached almost 2 million online viewers during the finals.

From a creative perspective, an online game with a large player base where each match is unique due to the dynamics of hero selections provides a perfect ground and potential for any machine learning practitioner to build a cool project. Perhaps one of the coolest and most popular examples can be found right here.

Now, let's get back to the project!

The Dataset

The DotA community is amazingly data driven and open for sharing. Within the scope of this project, I have used a dataset that includes all the parsed data from more than 3.5 million public matches (from January 2015 to December 2015), which can be found here. Full credits of data collection and publication must go to the great people over at OpenDota (formerly YASP).

For this project, I have put the dataset on a table in Google BigQuery, which allows for easier exploration of the data, and is a database ZenML can automatically plug into. Please let me know if you would like access to this BigQuery table as well - I am working on making it more accessible to the community.Each entry in the table (which corresponds to a single match) includes a large number of features ranging from first blood timings, gold advantages, barracks status to hero picks.

The Goal

Each hero in DotA 2 has its own strengths and weaknesses. As a result, some heroes are naturally better or worse when they are played against certain opponents. Selecting the right hero to play can easily be the distinguishing factor between a victory and a defeat. That is why drafting plays such an important role in the game.

The goal of this project is to put this idea to test and understand whether we can make a sensible prediction about the outcome of the game based solely on the selection of heroes.

The Model

Before I talk about the architecture of the model, I would like to put an emphasis on two important challenges:

  1. Each hero in DotA 2 has its own skills and role within the game. Unfortunately, it is impossible to put this information into a format that is directly interpretable by a machine learning model.
  2. DotA 2 is a team game and each team has 5 heroes. What makes up a good team is not just about selecting 5 powerful heroes but building a joint composition of heroes with good compatibility with each other while maintaining a powerful opposition to the enemy team.

I need to figure out a way to represent each hero separately, and moreover, I have to represent the concept of a team. In order to overcome these problems, I got a little bit of inspiration from natural language processing (NLP) models.

I have treated heroes in the selection pool like words in a dictionary, i.e., the first layer in the architecture is an embedding layer, which learns how to create a representation for each individual hero. Moreover, as words come together and form sentences, in this case, the heroes come together and form teams. Since the order of heroes also does not play a role, I have used an average pooling layer, which pools up the 5 heroes within the same team. The output of this pooling layer is then fed to a fully connected network which ultimately makes the prediction.

Creating the pipeline

In order to put everything into a single end-to-end pipeline with ZenML, all I have written was a single YAML file. In this section, I will briefly mention some of the critical blocks in this file that are relevant to our topic. However, if you would like to learn about further details, you can check our docs here.

We start off with the feature selection. Each key under the main key features will denote the name of a data column that is utilized during the training. In our dataset, each column holds an integer value ranging from 0 to 112. This value represents the id of a selected hero for that player in that match. For instance, p_2_hero_id holds the index of the hero Player 2 has selected. Furthermore, Player 0 to Player 4 form the first team, whereas Player 5 to Player 9 form the second.

  p_0_hero_id: {} # hero id of player 0
  p_1_hero_id: {} # hero id of player 1
  p_2_hero_id: {} # hero id of player 2
  p_3_hero_id: {} # hero id of player 3
  p_4_hero_id: {} # hero id of player 4
  p_5_hero_id: {} # hero id of player 5
  p_6_hero_id: {} # hero id of player 6
  p_7_hero_id: {} # hero id of player 7
  p_8_hero_id: {} # hero id of player 8
  p_9_hero_id: {} # hero id of player 9

As for the label, the configuration is quite trivial. The problem can be interpreted as a binary classification problem (thus the binary cross-entropy loss function) and I have selected the data column radiant_win, which holds the value of either 0 or 1, depending on the outcome of the game. Ultimately, the model is evaluated on its accuracy.

    loss: binary_crossentropy
    metrics: [accuracy]

The split key is used to configure how the pipeline reads the data from the source and splits it into a training and an evaluation dataset. The first part of the block is quite self-explanatory - it is an 80-20 split. However, the second part needs some explanation.

Amongst the 3.5 million matches, we have only used a match if:

  • the mode of the game was either all pick or all draft
  • the game was played by 10 human players (so no bots)
  • the game was won by either one of the teams
  • the game was either a normal game or a ranked game
  • the game was played during either patch 6.84 or patch 6.85 (getting rid of the infamous 'ho ho ha ha' patch)

In the end, we had a total of 2.835.720 matches remaining.

Small note: If you would like to learn what the constant values stand for, you can check here.

    train: 0.8 # train dataset ratio
    eval: 0.2 # eval dataset ratio
    - "(game_mode = 1 or game_mode = 22)" # all pick or all draft
    - "human_players = 10" # no bots
    - "(radiant_win = 0 or radiant_win = 1)" # one side won
    - "(lobby_type = 0 or lobby_type = 7)" # normal or ranked
    - "timestamp >= '2015-05-01T00:00:00'" # starting from 6.84
    - "timestamp <= '2015-12-16T00:00:00'" # until the end of 6.85

Ultimately, there is the trainer configuration. I will not go over the details, but in a short explanation, it creates a simple feedforward neural network dealing with a binary classification problem. As explained before, the input goes through an embedding layer first, followed by an average pooling layer. The output is fed into fully connected layers, which ultimately handle the prediction.

  architecture: feedforward # a feedforward network
  type: classification # a classification task
  train_steps: 60000 # the total number of batches to be used in the training
  save_checkpoints_steps: 2000 # the number of steps, after which the evaluation will periodically be recorded
  train_batch_size: 256 # the size of a training batch
  eval_batch_size: 256 # the size of an evaluation batch
  last_activation: sigmoid # the activation function in the output layer
  num_output_units: 1 # the number of units in the output layer
  optimizer: adam # the type of the optimizer
    - { input_dim: 113, output_dim: 16, type: embedding } # embedding layer / second try with output_dim:3
    - { pool_size: 5, strides: 5, type: average_pooling } # pooling layer
    - { type: flatten } # flattening
    - { type: dense, units: 32 } # dense layer


By using different variations of the aforementioned config file, I have created two pipelines with different embedding dimensions, respectively 16 and 3.

In total, it took roughly 50 minutes to completely execute the first pipeline, whereas the second pipeline took only 21. The drastic difference between the execution time of both runs is due to caching. Whilst working on a project on ZenML, you can choose to save the outputs of your intermediate steps within your pipeline. Because once you execute a similar pipeline, this might come in handy.

For instance, in our case, I have initially run the first pipeline. Once it was finished, I ran the second pipeline, where every step from the data ingestion up until the embedding layer was identical. So, the second pipeline opted to safely skip these steps and use the intermediate outputs from the first pipeline, saving both time and computation cost.

Additionally, almost every step along the way such as data ingestion or pre-processing was handled in a distributed manner except for the training (which is a feature coming soon).

As for the actual results, both models achieved a similar accuracy around 59-60% on the validation dataset. Considering the small set of features and the limited number of matches, they were both deemed to be successful, bearing in mind that the predictions are practically made right after the drafting phase and before the actual gameplay starts.


DotA 2 is an ever-changing game. Some heroes can be extremely good or terribly bad depending on the current version of the game. But one thing which always stays the same is the fact that drafting is an integral part of any game in DotA2 and this project shows that it plays a critical role in the outcome of the game.

It is also important to note that this was achieved by a model, which relied solely on the hero picks without any additional information. Taking all the other available features into consideration, it barely scratched the surface of what is possible when it comes to analyzing different aspects of a DotA 2 match. I am already building up to another follow-up project (possibly with a follow-up blog post) in my head with a deeper look into the output of the embedding layer with different heroes.

On a more general level, it is also important to note that this whole experiment was conducted using an end-to-end pipeline which required just a yaml configuration file to execute. Since serving is one of the features that we are planning to publish soon, this yaml file could very well be the only thing standing between a developer and a deployed model in an application.

Finally, if you are interested in ZenML, you can find more details on our website right here. Additionally, if you have any questions or any other cool ideas which can be applied to this dataset, feel free to reach me at

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