The Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre has to be one of the weirdest gaming phenomenons ever. I think this is generally because MOBAs have an incredibly high barrier of entry to its players when it comes to skill. A player is essentially thrust into an incredibly complex game system with barely any real instruction, which will more than likely destroy them faster than a baby playing Starcraft. Yet the genre’s popularity continues to do nothing but grow, particularly when it comes to its biggest names: Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA 2), League of Legends (LoL) and Heroes of the Storm (HotS). So this time, I want to unpack what makes these games so enduring to me, despite their considerably massive drawbacks, including the aforementioned skill barrier and a toxic community whose only rival seems to be that of 4Chan. This is by no means a guide to getting good at MOBAs, but more a quick description of what they are and an explanation as to why I love them as much as I do.
If you don’t really understand what a MOBA is, the best summary I can give is that it’s basically an evolution of the RTS genre, being spawned from mods of Starcraft and Warcraft 3. You pick a hero from a pool of over a hundred characters and you play 5v5 in game that mixes strategic thinking and quick reflexes. From this point, I am going to have to be vague on some terminology as each MOBA will have its own naming structure. Essentially the game’s map is made up of three pathways called “Lanes” that each lead from your base into the enemy’s base. Throughout these lanes there are three defence towers per side that will damage any enemy that comes close to it. The goal of the game is to destroy these towers, allowing access into your enemy’s base. You and your team will then kill a final structure which goes by different names based on the game you are playing.
Aside from the player created heroes, there are a number of AI controlled creatures called “Creeps” in DotA or “Minions” in LoL. These spawn at regular intervals and blindly charge forward down each lane until they meet the enemy’s creeps, whom they all start fighting. These creeps, while relatively weak, are an integral part of the game as you will often need their help in destroying enemy towers. They also serve to make you stronger during a match, as when an enemy creep dies nearby your hero, they will gain experience points..
I should point out that I’ve been known to be a bit of a DotA addict, going through the never-ending cycle of playing nothing but and then uninstalling it for months at a time. According to Steam I’ve racked up over 700 hours in the game, which I think is kind of insane for any single game to be played, let alone one that makes you consider manslaughter against your team members. Surprisingly, these numbers are actually considered fairly small as 700 hours is approximately the amount of time needed to actually start seeing improvements in your skill.
As someone who traditionally likes very story-based games and hates the RTS genre, it amazed me that I even got so deep into playing MOBAs. I started off wanting to see what the fuss was about and almost immediately fell into it after my first few games. I loved learning every little detail of what could be seen as a traditionally poorly designed game.
What I mean by that is because it came from a mod that tried to convert an RTS into something quite different, it ended up with a lot of odd features and bugs that ended up being incorporated into the design as a result of players taking advantage of them. An example of this is seen involving creatures located in parts of the map that are not allied to either team, but will attack when provoked. The idea with these creatures is to provoke them and have them follow you into a lane where your creeps will then attack them instead of charging forward like normal. This technique is known as “pulling”, and it is a core part of the game that allows you to control where the two creep armies meet, as it moves the line of battle closer to your tower and puts your opponent in a much more dangerous position as towers can utterly destroy lower level heroes. What was originally an exploit is now a core mechanic of the game that, if ignored, leads to defeat and so much swearing.
Another example of this can be seen when you first come up against your enemy’s creeps. Traditional video game logic says that you should kill the creeps, but to play properly you only attack them when their health is so low you are guaranteed the kill. This allows you to gain experience and gold used to buy stat boosting items. To do any more damage beyond that last hit pushes the field of battle into dangerous enemy territory. And in DotA you can also damage your own creeps denying the enemy some experience, which is another design concept that is pretty foreign to most games. The whole experience is so counter-intuitive yet so addictive.
I actually think that it’s this counter intuitive nature that keeps people coming back. It’s refreshing in a strange way as it offers something unique and original when you’re sick of the same old tropes of other gaming genres. This, of course, is just a personal view and I cannot speak for others but I loved learning the quirky aspects of DotA and seeing my skills improve as a result. It really was the feeling of getting a bit better each time that kept me coming back, and my defeats just served to annoy me enough to try again. During my time on Ready Players, I’ve banged on quite a bit about difficulty and challenge quite a bit and I think DotA in particular nailed the particular balance that keeps players from getting frustrated with it.
As for its lasting impact with the general population, there are always changes being made to the game which affects the eSports side of it. People can follow along with the professionals and see the way different heroes become more and less popular depending on changes and new strategies being discovered. This ties in with eSports games in general, in what is called the “Meta Game”. Essentially its changes in how people play the game are based on either direct changes to the game or people learning new strategies from the professionals. This alone makes MOBAs a lasting genre and I honestly think will make games such as DotA and LoL last well beyond the lives of even extremely popular games like Half-Life Deathmatch did.
Overall, there are a lot of things wrong with MOBAs, especially in terms of its learning curve, but it is those exact issues that make them strangely fun at the same time. Every time I quit in order to get my life back, I seem to find myself being drawn in all over again. The games aren’t addictive in the same way something like World of Warcraft is, instead the addiction comes from the desire to get getter and to beat its weird little idiosyncrasies. These games should just plain not exist in a sane world, but thankfully this world is not sane.
Written By Nathan Merry