The concept of two teams meeting for a friendly conflict has been at the heart of games for decades, centuries even, if we briefly forget that playing a game doesn’t necessarily involve a console or computer. Playing in a team is often the most rewarding form of competitive measurement, because it involves shared experiences, feelings and support. The latter helps individual players to overcome fatigue in a crucial moment, scoring a goal in the extra-time of a game that seemingly went lost, despite their legs already shaking from exhaustion. The same can be applied to esports despite the fact that high APM might take a toll on the participants’ hands and minds instead.
Our recent publications shed a light on the inception and evolution of the real time strategy genre, from the very early beginnings, the creation of Dune II as the prototype for a decade of games to come, up until the esports phenomenon StarCraft. The latter, although being religiously celebrated in South Korea and other regions, pales in comparison to modern strategy titles of a new genre: the multiplayer online battle arenas or simply MOBAs. These games typically match two teams of five players against each other with the goal of destroying the opponent’s base. Players control unique hero characters that gain experience and gold to become more powerful over time. The map is divided into three main lanes for combat plus a jungle area for additional resources and waves of AI-controlled “creeps” spawn and march down the lanes assisting players. Heroes have special abilities and can purchase items to augment their powers and abilities. Overall, MOBAs combine team strategy, character progression, and intense competition by blending elements of RTS, RPG, and action gameplay into a unique multiplayer experience.
StarCraft and the active modding scene surrounding the PC games community of the late 90s and early 2000s played a pivotal role in pushing games like Dota 2 and League of Legends onto the grand esports stages, in front of an audience that counts a millions viewers. However, the historic foundation of MOBAs can be traced back all the way to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when real-time strategy (RTS) games such as Herzog Zwei (1989), Dune II (1992), and Warcraft (1994) introduced the concept of controlling individual units on a map and competing against other players or computer opponents. These games also allowed players to create their own custom maps and scenarios, which gave rise to a modding community that experimented with different game modes and mechanics. Defence of the Ancients, an immensely popular Warcraft III mod, is often cited as the kick off for the MOBA genre, mainly due to it leading to the creation of Dota 2 and League of Legends. Yet this honor goes to a StarCraft mod called Aeon of Strife.
AoS already featured many of those elements that would later become staples in the MOBA-genre: two competing teams, three lane battlefield layout, waves of automated minions or drones, and roleplaying gameplay elements like leveling up heroes and buying gear. To be fair though, the real catalyst for the MOBA genre was Defense of the Ancients. Created by a modder known as “Eul,” DotA brought the concept of controlling a single hero in a team-based setting. The map underwent several iterations, with different modders like “Guinsoo” and “IceFrog” contributing to its development. which eventually turned into Dotas “final form” DotA: Allstars. IceFrog is particularly noteworthy for continuing to develop DotA into the standalone Dota 2 with Valve later on.
Inspired by Aoen of Strife, the modders refined elements that were already present in the StarCraft mod and added new mechanics, complexity and depth on top. This was mainly possible due to the framework given by Warcraft 3, which was more powerful than StarCrafts’. While Aeon of Strife had hero-like units, they lacked unique abilities. DotA introduced heroes with a diverse range of skills and ultimate abilities. The possibility to buy unique items, added another strategic layer. Aeon of Strife was primarily a single-player experience, but DotA transformed it into a competitive multiplayer game between two opposing teams and core strategic objectives, like destroyable towers, barracks, and a base “Ancient” which needed to be defended or assaulted to win.
DotA‘s complexity and team-based gameplay encouraged community building, from forums to fan sites and even early esports events. Additionally, DotA‘s map contained a “jungle” area filled with neutral creep camps that provided side objectives and bonuses. These innovations of two-team competition, key strategic points, creep farming, and a jungle with neutral creeps basically formed the backbone of core MOBA gameplay that would influence countless multiplayer strategy titles to come. The same is true for the vocabulary, including terms like “ganking”, “pushing” and “carrying”, which has become part of the broader gaming lexicon. Under Guinsoo’s stewardship, the game saw the introduction of many iconic heroes and the implementation of a recipe-based item system. His focus on balance and competitive gameplay helped DotA transition from a casual mod to a game that was taken seriously by players. Guinsoo’s “Allstars” became the de facto version of DotA and set the stage for the game’s future growth.
As DotA’s popularity soared, the need for a centralized community hub led to the creation of the DotA-Allstars.com website, managed by Pendragon (Steve Mescon). This platform became the go-to place for everything DotA-related, from patch notes to player discussions. Around this time, IceFrog entered the scene and took over from Guinsoo. IceFrog’s careful attention to detail and relentless pursuit of balance elevated the game to new heights. He introduced regular updates, fine-tuned hero abilities, and made several quality-of-life improvements, all while actively engaging with the community for feedback. It was under IceFrog’s guidance that DotA truly solidified its place as a competitive game, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become a cornerstone of the esports world. As DotA continued to grow, the paths of these key contributors began to diverge, each leaving a lasting impact on the game before moving on to new ventures.
After their significant contributions to “Defense of the Ancients”, both Guinsoo and Pendragon caught the attention of Riot Games’ co-founders, Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck. Recognizing the potential of the MOBA genre, they sought to create a standalone game that could capture the essence of DotA while also being more accessible and commercially viable. They approached Guinsoo and Pendragon to join their startup, Riot Games, and work on what would eventually become League of Legends. Guinsoo, with his deep understanding of game mechanics and balance from his time working on DotA Allstars took on a key role in the game design of LoL. He was instrumental in shaping the game’s core mechanics, hero design, and item system. His focus was on capturing the strategic depth of DotA while making the game more accessible to newcomers.
Pendragon, on the other hand, used his experience in community management from running the DotA-Allstars.com website. He was responsible for building and nurturing the early LoL community, setting up forums, and engaging with players for feedback. His role was crucial in creating a strong community foundation for the game, which would later become one of LoL‘s biggest strengths. However, Pendragon’s departure from the DotA community was somewhat controversial. He took down the DotA-Allstars.com website, which was a significant hub for the DotA community, and redirected it to LoL’s website with a letter encouraging DotA players to try out League of Legends. Noting that this move was met with mixed reactions is an understatement but it also signaled the competitive nature that would come to define the relationship between DotA and LoL, two titans in the MOBA genre.
The game was released on October 27, 2009. It was initially well-received and quickly gained a large player base due to its free-to-play model. Around that time, Valve, the company that had gained incredible popularity with Half-Life and Portal, took interest in the DotA mod. They had seen firsthand, with the adaptation of the Half-Life mod Counter-Strike, that a great idea in the right hands is a recipe for success. So instead of simply copying the mechanics by themselves, they hired key developer IceFrog to create a standalone sequel. Development for Dota 2 began in 2009 and was officially announced in a press release by Valve Corporation on October 13, 2010. Valve also revealed that Dota 2 would be showcased in a grand manner through a tournament called “The International,”at Gamescom 2011.
The tournament was part of Valve’s strategy to introduce Dota 2 to the world, and it was one of the most ambitious esports events at the time. With a staggering $1 million prize pool for the winning team, the International instantly grabbed headlines and drew attention from both the gaming and mainstream media. This was a significant moment in esports history, setting new standards for tournament prize pools and production values, including a live-stream, allowing viewers from around the world to witness the high-level competition and get a first look at Dota 2 gameplay. The success of the first International paved the way for the tournament to become an annual event, each year growing in scale and impact, and solidifying Dota 2’s place in the esports landscape as one of the biggest titles.
However, the same can be said about League of Legends. Today, both games stand as two of the most popular and successful multiplayer games in the world and, despite their rivalry, share the fundamental MOBA framework. They also adopted a very succesful free-to-play model but offer in-game purchases, primarily for cosmetic items. Despite these similarities, the two games diverge significantly in various aspects. Dota 2 is often cited as having a steeper learning curve, with complex mechanics like hero interactions, item usage, and a more intricate game economy that includes gold loss upon death and the ability to “deny” creeps. LoL, on the other hand, is generally considered more accessible to newcomers, with a more streamlined map and more straightforward itemization.
Riot Games took an active role in community engagement right from the start, frequently updating the game and hosting small-scale tournaments for League of Legends. The company also invested in creating a professional league, the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS), which provided a structured environment for competitive play. Riot‘s commitment to the esports scene, including substantial prize pools and high-quality event production, helped LoL gain traction. The game’s free-to-play model, coupled with its more accessible gameplay compared to DotA, attracted a larger player base than Valve’s counterpart. Riot capitalized on this by continually releasing new champions, skins, and seasonal events, keeping the community engaged. Over the years, LoL has expanded its esports scene globally, with multiple regional leagues and the annual World Championship, which has become one of the most-watched esports events worldwide.
Valve adopted a more hands-off approach compared to Riot, allowing third-party organizers to host Dota 2 tournaments. This led to a plethora of events and competitions, providing players with numerous opportunities to prove their skills. As stated earlier, The International became an annual event, with community-funded prize pools reaching tens of millions of dollars, making it the most lucrative esports tournament to date. Dota 2‘s complexity attracts a dedicated player base looking for a highly strategic and challenging game. Valve supported this by continually updating the game, adding new heroes, and balancing existing ones, although at a less frequent pace than Riot did for LoL.
It didn’t take long for the public to realise the immense potential of online esports, as this New York Times frontpage effectively showcases with an article about the Dota 2 International 2014 in Seattle. Tournament Finals attract thousands of fans into the arenas and millions watch live-streams and celebrate monumental victories online. In 2022, viewership of League of Legends peaked at over five million concurrent people. The success led to a wave of similar games, often with their very own takes on the moba-formula, like Demigod, Smite or Paragon. Blizzard, the developer of DotA’s origin Warcraft 3, created Heroes of the Storm. HotS focussed exclusively on characters from the Blizzard universe and became part of the esports scene as well, although this has since been cancelled.
In summary, the MOBA genre has revolutionized competitive gaming and left an indelible mark on the video game industry and culture at large. MOBAs like Dota 2 and League of Legends have been instrumental in bringing esports into the mainstream consciousness but their stories often don’t just end there. The vast amount of lore led to spin-offs, like Ruined King: A League of Legends Story, a turn-based RPG with a gameplay similar to Battle Chasers, made by the same developer (Airship Syndicate). It’s a great way to get players, new and old, interested in your source material without repeating the same old marketing trends over and over. The genre’s influence has even extended into mainstream culture and academia, affecting everything from online lingo to studies on game theory and team behavior.