( JEREMY PAPASSO )

A fter daily battles with homework and exams, a group of University of Colorado students find relief by waging an epic virtual war on strangers in a fantasy forest.

Whether they're looking for a few hours of fun or playing for cash at a professional level, "Dota 2" -- an online, multi-player, real-time computer game -- helps provide the sanctuary these students are searching for.

Chris McClaskey, computer science senior and avid player, said the game is based on a map that was created for another online game in the '90s. It was so popular that it eventually inspired "Dota 2."

CU students said the map -- with more than 100 mythical character options and free play -- attracts early players, but the game's unique strategy is what makes it one of the most popular online games ever.

"The game is incredibly hard," McClaskey said. "It is easy to learn, but it's really hard to get good at. Once you do get good, the satisfaction of beating someone else is amazing."

The group is not an official CU student organization, but McClaskey created a Facebook page where he posts information about tournaments and coordinates live-playing sessions between the 28 members. McClaskey organized the group's first internal tournament this month and said it was fun to get the players in the same room together.

Even with finals only a few weeks away, Pettine said he plays at least 20 hours per week -- and his diligence pays off.

"It's become a kind of a part-time job for me," said Pettine, who said he makes about $200-$500 per month with "Dota 2."

Since the game was launched, Pettine said he has spent about 1,500 hours of game play. This may seem like wasted time to some, but he said he estimates it's not much more than other students' time spent on Facebook.

McClaskey is a bit behind Pettine with about 1,000 hours of playing time, but he's become a crutch of sorts for fellow player Ford Mulligan, better known as Pax.

The two met during a game and began playing together after Mulligan had plans to move to Boulder. Even after arriving to campus, Mulligan said he doesn't play without McClaskey because he "needs all the help he can get."

Some of the players said they are often misunderstood -- wrapped into gamer stereotypes who are portrayed by some as loners consumed by video games. But McClaskey said he's no different than a dedicated athlete, something that students and residents in Boulder can probably relate to.

"Dota isn't a story game, like what most people think of when you think of video games," McClaskey said. "It's a competitive sport."

"It's an eSport, but it's a lot like football, only with two five-player teams," he said. "It's the same thrill and excitement of two teams clashing that you get in football -- and that's the exciting part that gets you addicted."

The students said the hero options and unique skill sets are what make every battle so interesting.

"They can be human, wolf people, strange monsters, there's a giant spider, a ball of light, a rock giant, zombies, skeletons and even a dude riding a bat," McClaskey said.

The group of students are convinced that "Dota 2" is the best online game ever created, but not everyone is as excited as they are about it.

McClaskey said his girlfriend isn't a fan, especially when her calls get ignored because of a game.

"It's live so it's not like I can just stop and answer the phone in the middle of a game," McClaskey said. "She's not a big fan of it, but we all need something to take the edge off and this is mine. I think she can understand that."

Follow Whitney Bryen on Twitter: @SoonerReporter.