Know Your MOBAs

Written by PhilPhoenix
Sep 19 2011, 12:32 PM EDT

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by Phil Fine

There exists in the wide world of gaming a very peculiar subgenre, one that has sprung from the roots of existing games to become its own free-thinking entity. In an age where game development has reached a level of unprecedented accessibility, no small-scale passion project is as famously successful as Defense of the Ancients, a WarCraft III mod that is also the first fully-fledged entry in the dynasty of the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, or MOBA.

The MOBA has since evolved and spawned numerous offshoots. Most notable are League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, and Dota 2, the official sequel to the original. Other new titles such as Rise of Immortals seek to carve out their own slice of the MOBA pie, but as far as eSports is concerned, these are the three heavy hitters. They all have the same basic concept – choose a hero, three lanes, waves of creep, towers defending each side of the map – but like any good strategy game, the devil is in the details. Trying to choose which one to pick up can be daunting as all three boast sizable learning curves, so use this as a guide to grasp the basic differences of each game and choose the one that best suits what you want from your MOBA gaming experience.

Defense of the Ancients (DotA)
DotA was the first and only MOBA for quite some time, and even as WarCraft III became outdated and faded in popularity, the game lived on through countless DotA matches every day. The first inklings of DotA were found in the “Aeon of Strife” custom map in StarCraft, and the first full-fledged version emerged after the release of WarCraft III. The game continued to grow and evolve beyond the release of Frozen Throne, steadily gaining attention and devotees. At the height of its popularity, DotA was even featured as a game in events such as Blizzcon, World Cyber Games, and Electronic Sports World Cup.

Defense of the Ancients

The game itself is simple enough to describe. Each player controls a hero who can level up, learn abilities, and be equipped with stat-boosting items. The players, along with the smaller “creep” units that automatically spawn, fight across three lanes (top, middle, and bottom) against enemy players and creep to reach the enemy base and destroy their “Ancient”. Destroying enemy players, creep, and towers yields experience and bonus gold. Simple enough, but there are 50 unique heroes to choose from, which means there’s an endless variety of combinations for teams to choose, each lending itself to a different style of play. The game is very micro intensive; timing and positioning factor heavily into the outcome of a skirmish, and carefully timing a killing blow against your own creep or tower can “deny” your opponent the gold they otherwise would have reaped.

Although DotA is still actively played via WarCraft III, a sequel and full-fledged game has been in development for years. Called DotA 2 (simple enough), this is a standalone game developed by Valve with the help of IceFrog, a long-time DotA community member who has been in charge of maintaining and updating the original game since 2005. With such a seasoned hand at the wheel, fans know that this won’t be an offshoot, it will be a true successor. First unveiled at Gamescom this Summer in the form of a one million dollar invitational tournament, the slick presentation and finely tuned spectator tools look poised to take the eSports world by storm when the game is released. The sequel boasts updated graphics and a full suite of multiplayer and matchmaking tools, allowing one to easily find games that fit their skill level, which will go a long way towards easing players into the steep learning curve. DotA 2 is still a ways away, but all signs point to the sequel reestablishing DotA as the king of the MOBA genre.

League of Legends (LoL)

League of Legends was developed by Riot Games and released in 2009 as a free-to-play title. Steve "Guinsoo" Feak and Steve "Pendragon" Mescon, who both had a hand in the development of the original DotA, worked with Riot to create the game, which gives the title deep ties to its predecessor. Much of the basics are unchanged, though the heroes themselves differ greatly from those found in DotA. There are similar styles of heroes (damage, tank, support, etc.), but their individual abilities vary wildly; each hero's abilities are very unique in both their function and purpose. The “free-to-play” function has a weekly rotation of free heroes to choose from, while also allowing the use of any hero that has been purchased with either money or in-game currency accrued from playing.

League of Legends

Where League of Legends further separates itself is with player progression. Playing matches earns experience which will allow you to gain “summoner levels,” unlocking new spells you can take into battle and new talents which provide passive bonuses in the field. In addition, you unlock Rune slots as you level up, which allows the use of Runes to add further bonuses to your hero. These customizations can be fine-tuned to suit the specialties of your favorite hero or just provide general benefits for an all-around play style.

When it comes to the nitty-gritty, LoL is a little simpler than DotA. Things like denying enemy kills and blocking your creep from moving to create more advantageous positioning for encounters doesn’t exist, which makes the earlier stages of the game more straightforward. As game progresses and the two teams grow in power, the level of strategy increases as hero interactions and team battles become more important.

Riot has recently previewed a new game mode called Dominion that aims to carve out a new niche in the ever-expanding MOBA landscape. Dominion eschews the now-standard three lane map for a round map that focuses on capturing control points instead of destroying bases. This mode promises to be fast, furious, and a shorter than the length of a standard game, lasting only 18-25 minutes. With DotA 2’s ultra-polished interface and bevy of matchmaking and spectating tools poised to dominate the traditional MOBA scene, Dominion’s new play style could be a great way for LoL to avoid being overshadowed and bring some new ideas to the scene.

Heroes of Newerth (HoN)

HoN was developed by S2 games and was released in 2010. The game very recently transitioned to a free-to-play model in July 2011, hewing more closely to the model LoL used to gain massive popularity. The game mechanics are closer to the original DotA than LoL’s; many heroes have abilities that mirror those of classic DotA heroes, and advanced tactics like denying are included as well. The graphics also have a more realistic style than LoL’s cartoony look, giving the entire game a darker, more serious feel.

Heroes of Newerth

Instead of taking the DotA's basics and adapting them to cater to a different audience, HoN was designed to give dedicated DotA players a more complete version of the game they were already familiar with. In addition to maintaining the aforementioned advanced tactics, HoN also added global stats tracking and rank-based matchmaking. Whereas LoL is initially about simply playing and progressing individually, HoN emphasizes ladder rankings from the get-go and has no player progression elements included, which keeps everyone on even ground at the start of every match.

Of the three titles, HoN probably has the smallest following (although that can’t truly be determined until DotA 2 is released). One reason for this is the problems with the matchmaking system. Although DotA didn’t have matchmaking, the community was able to divide itself appropriately. Newer players stuck to public games while hardcore players joined clans and played in private games. With HoN, everyone is thrown into the same matchmaking pool. The matchmaking rankings don’t update quickly enough to separate the hardcore players from the casual, which is frustrating for everyone; new players can’t learn the game without being criticized and hardcore players have to put up with newbies slowing them down. The switch to free-to-play will help them draw in fans, however, and their inclusion in Season Two of the NASL will no doubt give them more publicity in the eSports scene specifically, so there’s still plenty of life left in the game.

Which Should You Play?

It’s up to you! LoL has the largest community of the three currently, which means that there are always games to be found (and sometimes server queues at peak play times). It’s also the simplest of the three in the initial stages of a match, so it’s not a bad way to cut your teeth if you’ve never dabbled in MOBAs before. HoN is known for its unforgiving community, so be wary if you plan to learn the basics with that game. DotA is still kicking around the WCIII custom games list for those bold enough to seek it out, and I personally have been playing it as a warm-up for DotA 2. When it comes down to it, you can’t really go wrong; all three use the same basic framework and have their own quirks, so it’s up to you which quirks you prefer.