by Mihail Bonev, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 18th June, 2018
While in today's world, the term ESports (or Electronic Sports) is widespread and it undeniably plays a huge part in our culture on a global scale throughout the world, that was not always the case.
The term MOBA, meaning Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, defines a fairly new genre of games which have since developed huge, very dedicated communities. Let's delve deep into the history of MOBA games and then compare the top games, currently occupying the genre.
Back in the era of Starcraft 1, competitive video gaming was being practiced only in Korea. In time, with the addition of gaming streaming platforms such as TwitchTv which allowed for pro players to stream their games and a multitude of people to spectate them, the culture soon followed.
In a time where western culture households would brush off kids who had a deeper interest in competitive gaming while in Korea professional football players would look up to professional Starcraft 1 players, Korea did the unthinkable; Korea acknowledged Starcraft 1 as its National Sport. As such, the sheer idea of ESports was born.
With people such as Day9 (Sean Plott) and Artosis (Dan Stemkoski) integrating the Starcraft pro scene into our culture (both Starcraft 1 and 2) and people like Grubby (Emanuel Schenkhuizen) and Moon (Jang Jae Ho) doing the same with Warcraft 3, with immense support by Blizzard, the company which made both of the games (including all of their prequels and sequels) by organizing tournaments, covering travelling, accommodation and prize pool fees, the birth of ESports in western culture had happened.
It wasn't long before parents that today would be 40+ years old would come to terms with the idea that their child could potentially seek a full-fledged career pursuing professional gaming, either as a professional gamer, as a professional tournament commentator or even just a gaming streamer, utilizing the streaming platforms such as TwitchTv. Slowly but steadily, the professional gaming culture was integrated in our society and by further support, both financially by its sponsors and the professional gaming proteges, taking the idea of "competitive gaming" to a whole new level, the ESports professional scene set thorough roots.
As time passed, it gained more and more attraction and eventually got to a point where without having to pull out statistics, some gaming tournaments gained more traction than IRL (In Real Life or "physical") sports. ESports was a cultural phenomenon which even though initially originated from Korea, tailored to the interests of the people of the western culture at that time and was welcomed wholesomely with open hands.
While the original protagonists of competitive gaming were Starcraft 1 and Warcraft 3, now almost every multiplayer game with enough of a fan base to support it has its own competitive scene with varying price pools and viewership.
The whole concept of a "gaming culture" has been developed to the point that initially exclusively Pro Gaming streaming platforms such as TwitchTv now allow for IRL, Creative or Variety Gaming streams (of which many with great success). If you want to see the daily routine of a professional gamer, go on a creative adventure with an amateur gamer or simply want to watch a gamer do new or indie dev game reviews, it's all possible.
It's not without a reason to why I put such an emphasis on Starcraft 1 and Warcraft 3 as the protagonists of the concept of a "gaming culture". While both Starcraft 1 and Warcraft 3 were a huge success on the competitive gaming scene, with time, their graphical appeal began to decline. Visuals are, after all, one of the many aspects of the appeal of a game and even though it's not its defining point, it definitely matters.
With the decline of the graphical appeal of these giants and the fact that Starcraft 2 would come later around 2010 (12 years after Starcraft 1!), while Warcraft 3 does not have a sequel even today in 2018 and we're not sure if we're even getting one, people started to look towards other types of gaming genres to satisfy their appetite for ESports. Both Starcraft and Warcraft were RTS games (Real Time Strategy) and simply due to the fact that they left such a huge impact on the gaming scene, while people did love the RTS genre, the lack of graphical appeal and lack of newer competitive RTS games left a hole in the professional gaming scene. While the MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) World of Warcraft had its spotlight for a while, it was not long until the new so-called MOBA games stepped in.
The original MOBA style of game was the so-called "Aeon of Strife", the Starcraft's DOTA equivalent. While it was pretty well developed for its time, the concept of the MOBA didn't really have the strength to step in as a new gaming genre simply because the RTS following at that time was too strong. In simpler terms, it simply came to seek for its 5 minutes of fame at the wrong time in the wrong spot. DOTA, however, hit the timing perfectly.
DOTA (abbreviation for "Defense of the Ancients") is an "Aeon of Strife" type of Multiple Online Battle Arena game which initially started as a custom map for Warcraft 3, then developed into a full-fledged game. The reason why DOTA succeeded and AOS didn't is simply due to the fact that DOTA hit the scene at the right time. Just as the appeal for RTS was fleeing, DOTA stepped in and overtook a large part of the original Warcraft 3 fan base which wasn't really interested in the RTS genre anymore, but wanted something more high packed with action.
This is why if you'd ask an average follower of the gaming scene about 10 years ago, they'll most likely not even know the term MOBA but refer to other MOBA's as DOTA alternatives (while in truth DOTA itself is a Warcraft 3 custom map based on the original MOBA which was the Starcraft AOS; Aeon of Strife).
But as more and more MOBA type of games started to emerge, the term MOBA was developed as many of the newly emerging games in the same genre of gaming were nothing like DOTA, but the core game mechanics were there for them to be in the same genre category.
Having went over the history of how MOBA's came to be, I'll proceed to talk about the three giants in the MOBA genre as of now, talking about them in the chronological order in which they came to be and their differences, how each one improved over its predecessor, how the new improvements affected the existing original MOBA fan base, why some of the improvements were considered in a way "a dumbing down of the initial skill cap or game mechanics" and so forth. The three giants as of now are: DOTA, LoL, and Hots.
DOTA is Warcraft 3's MOBA custom map successor to the failed Starcraft's MOBA attempt with its AOS aka Aeon of Strife. While DOTA initially started small as at the time there were hundreds of other custom Warcraft 3 maps which used the game's engine and mechanics to make a sort of mini-games, much of the fleeing Warcraft 3 RTS aka Real Time Strategy fan base transitioned to its custom games, with DOTA being the most attractive and gaining more and more attraction as time passed.
Since Blizzard, the company which made Warcraft 3 didn't really impose any rules or obstructions to the modding community, there was no way for it to monetize the ever-increasing fame DOTA was getting. At the same time, just as Warcraft 3 was starting to become somewhat outdated and eventually fell into the category of GOG (Good Old Games), Blizzard turned their attention towards the most massive MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) World of Warcraft, which you not only had to buy but also had to pay a monthly fee to play.
As such, WoW at one point became so much more profitable than Warcraft 3 for Blizzard that they stopped any support which Warcraft 3 had and most importantly, stopped their support for the Battlenet client on which all the Warcraft 3 normal and custom games, most notably DOTA, were played. It wasn't long until DOTA had to find another platform on which it would receive the proper software support it needed to support the now massive player base it had, so it moved to Steam.
Having Steam as a new platform, the original Warcraft 3 custom map was developed into a full-fledged game, now called DotA 2, with constant software updates, multiple servers to play on, constant in-game updates and balance changes and everything else needed to keep the game alive and fresh (and that's the reason why the game is flourishing even now).
DotA 2 kept all the mechanics of the original MOBA style Warcraft 3 custom game map mechanics, calling itself "a complete DotA copy", having simply only a visual update but unchanged yet further developed and supported gameplay.
DotA 2 is the first successful MOBA on a larger scale, so even though it did receive a graphical overhaul and a platform change, the core mechanics remained the same. In today's world, many people find it difficult to get into DotA as the original gameplay and game mechanics design was (and still is) a tad rough, but that's what the original fans loved and that's what they got.
As such, when compared to the other MOBA giants (League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm), DotA is the most unforgiving battle arena game there is. Unlike the latter two, DotA's game mechanics punish you heavily for dying and the way the game is designed, the "support role" in the team has no reliable way to earn gold which further prevent him or her to buy items to improve his or her survivability or utility.
As such, if a support has a rough start and starts lacking behind even a tad in experience or gold, that will further increase their lack of survivability and further increase the chance they'll be dying again, falling in a loophole of "unfair gameplay".
DotA is also the most team-oriented MOBA of all the three, so unless you're playing a premade game of 5 friends in which everyone knows their exact role and how to cover or alert other teammates, in the average public game in which you'll play with random strangers with who you aren't really coordinated, things such as lack of vision on the map (wards) or ganks (Gang up Kills due to lack of alerts) are going to happen A LOT. And again, due to the game's archaic mechanics of heavily punishing the dying players, that can easily snowball into some players being totally obsolete further into the game.
But, being the first of its kind, these type of things were just things players naturally learned to deal with and even accept as "the standard of how the game mechanics" should be for a hero type MOBA game. Another things to note are the facts that in DotA, all heroes are immediately available for you to play and experiment with as soon as you have a Steam account with a free DotA download on it; the way DotA 2 provides revenue for itself is by having optional purchasable aesthetics which have no impact on the gameplay, but can improve your personal aesthetic experience. There are different types of looks for your wards and couriers you can purchase, different outfits for your heroes which tend to a specific part of their lore or even customize the in-game announcer.
Riot Studios which saw the potential of MOBAs, who was an indie dev company at the time but are a massive company as of now, saw the rough diamond in the making which was DotA and wanted to improve on the concept.
While they initially took many of DotA's concepts and even used DotA's existing heroes and their abilities as an inspiration for their custom heroes, they eventually developed their own personal game mechanics and as of now, DotA and League of Legends are totally different games with rather slight similarities.
League of Legends wanted to improve on the "casual gaming experience", so it went further by changing up game mechanics such as making death less punishable (in League of Legends, heroes don't lose gold on death but simply allow for their opponents to take objectives or push while they're dead), made wards cheaper, made the map smaller, made GPS type of items (low stats, cheap non combat, mostly regeneration and health/mana stats items that also gave Gold per Second to help support characters passively gain gold who aren't supposed to farm but are there to simply support the "carry", a character who scales much better with purchased items who's supposed to eventually win them the game).
This in retrospect made the game much more casual friendly, much less punishable and made the "comeback game mechanic" much more realistic.
Though due the difference of how items and abilities scale in DotA and League of Legends, DotA is much more of a "team's effort game" where map control and organized battles mean so much more as the damage comes in short bursts and a slight slip up could lose you the game while in League of Legends the carry's personal KDA (kill to death to assist ratio) for an example, where the battles are much more based on "sustained damage" and "tactical outmaneuvering" rather than "strategic map control" is much more important simply because a well equipped highly item dependant (hyper carry) hero who lands his or hers skill shots can solo the opponents team as long as your teammates are literary there just as a cannon fodder.
In retrospect, while the personal game mechanical skill cap for the optimal utilization of your personal hero in League is higher than in DotA (in retrospect, making the process of optimally playing a hero harder), in DotA knowing the matchups, the enemy's movement, general map awareness and the team's wholesome strategy rather than short-term tactics is much more skill demanding than in League where the map is smaller, the wards are cheaper (making vision be more easily accessible) and so forth.
On top of everything, League of Legends, while does follow the "three lanes" map layout like DotA, the map is totally different, with both different game flow and an aesthetic appeal (as their platform engines are different).
This initially led out a backlash of flaming between the two communities, the DotA fanbase calling League players as the "new age spoiled MOBA players who dumbed down the original game mechanics" while League players calling the DotA player base "an archaic rough diamond that's deeply rooted into its archaic anti-fun game mechanics".
In my personal opinion, both games are beyond great, there's simply a fundamental difference in how they function, what both games prioritize as a more important game mechanic than the opposite and ultimately, how both games function. It naturally boils down to a subjective opinion on which one's better, as they're both valid in their own personal praising and in their mutual flaming to their inherent errors.
One last thing to note is that while League does have the option to buy custom skins and ward looks for your heroes with money just like DotA, it doesn't allow you to play all heroes as soon as you make your account. Instead, there's a rotating set of "free heroes" you can play each week while playing earns you points with which you can permanently purchase a hero to play any time you want (having the process accelerated if you make the purchase with actual money instead of in-game currency, of course).
Last but not least, there's HoTS. Many people call it "Blizzard's MOBA" and, well, it's kind of true. After WoW had its peak, Blizzard realized the potential of MOBAs and created their own, drawing inspiration for their characters and character abilities from their other games, such as Starcraft, Warcraft, World of Warcraft, Diablo and even Overwatch. From all of the listed MOBA's, HoTS is on first sight the most casual one, having none of the core MOBA mechanics which DotA and League had such as last hitting for gold or any type of gold farming, no personal KDA ratio as kills and experience is shared between the whole team and no available items to purchase but instead, an extended skills and talent tree to pick from for personal customization as you level up.
It follows the same monetization method as League of Legends but is even more lenient (having things such as daily quests to help you acquire enough in-game currency to purchase your desired hero faster).
There's also not a singular map to play on (like DotA or League of Legends), but a constantly updated, rotating map set, each with different team objectives which if acquired, greatly help you in your endeavor to defeat the enemy stronghold. While it's true that when compared to both DotA and League, HoTS is definitely the least mechanically skill demanding or punishing MOBA, that doesn't mean that it can't be played professionally.
There's a difference between a casual player enjoying a fast, nonintensive game of HoTS and a professional tournament in which premade teams of professional players make extraordinary team compositions, control the map and seek out map objectives with utmost urgency and custom build their hero according to the needs of their team on the spot.
While HoTS eliminates the "anti-fun and/or archaic" mechanics such as death penalty and gold farming, it puts a much greater accent on team composition, team coordination to either take an objective or zone out the opposing team from it and custom build your personal hero character with your available skills and talent point trees to most optimally benefit your team. It's fast, it's action-packed and it tethers to the needs of both the casual players and the high-end professionals.