Why Are MOBA Games like League of Legends So Popular?

Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas, or MOBAs, refer to a very specific subset of top-down, team-based strategy titles. Despite humble beginnings as a modded offshoot of real-time strategy games, these titles have exploded into the forefront of PC gaming, gaining tens of millions of players and a spot at the top of the eSports (blech*) world.

They’re Easy to Learn…

MOBA battlefields are top-down and mouse driven, like strategy games, but players control only one unit at a time.

MOBAs got started as an offshoot of real-time strategy games. In fact, they emerged from one game in particular: Warcraft III. A user-made mod of Blizzard’s popular RTS called Defense of the Ancients, or DOTA, focused on multiple players with teams controlling single, powerful units instead of vast, complex armies. The mode proved incredibly popular, as its fast-paced fights enabled a more dynamic and competitive game, while still keeping the large scale and basic mechanics of the top-down formula.

More contemporary MOBAs, especially Riot’s League of Legends, Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm, and Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2, developed by Valve after the company bought the IP rights to the original game mod), expand on this formula while keeping the basic gameplay pattern the same. On two teams of five players each, every player controls just one unit, moving across the map and attacking enemies and objectives with point-and-click controls. The core objective is to destroy the enemy’s base structure, but that’s easier said than done: before reaching it they’ll have to get through the “hero” units controlled by the enemy team, a large network of defensive structures, and AI-controlled units generally referred to as “minions” or “creeps.”

Coordinate with your teammates, outmaneuver you opponents, and destroy the other team’s base before they destroy yours. Simple.

…and Hard to Master

Except they aren’t simple at all, at least once you get past the tutorial stage. MOBA games include so many extra elements, so much variety crammed onto a single stage, that they arguably require more strategy than the classic real-time strategy games (at least at higher levels of play). Here’s a few of the things that make them much deeper than they appear on the surface.

A wide variety of hero choices: while the individual units that players control tend to fall into broad classes like assault, defense, tank, and healer, the sheer variety of choices is staggering. At the time of writing, there are 138 different heroes to choose from in League of Legends. Picking the best hero unit for your play style, and choosing those that complement your teammates and counter your opponents, opens up strategy even before the game begins.

MOBA maps are complex, with multiple lanes of combat and secondary objectives.

Complex maps: most MOBA maps begin with a basic layout. Teams on opposite sides or corners with their base buildings on the opposite ends, with three primary paths or “lanes” connecting them. Though players can easily move between these three lanes, most of the combat and objectives will occur there, because all of the objectives in the midgame are pretty close to one of them. Being able to identify the crucial spots to defend and hold is vital. But here’s the thing: the objectives are different on every map, and sometimes in every game of every map. Some MOBA maps include areas where players can hide in stealth, or “mounts” that let them abandon attack and defense for swift movement. Some have shops where in-game currency earned from play can be traded for upgrades. Knowing the intricacies of each map, and how they evolve as a typical game progresses, can be just as advantageous as twitchy skill.

In-game leveling and branching: player-controlled hero units gain levels as they defeat opponents, just like RPG characters. But these levels aren’t permanent. Each hero in each match starts at a base level and climbs up, with progress more or less lost at the end of the game. The advantage is in unlocking new skills and abilities, making the players that can quickly accomplish goals even more deadly. Leveling isn’t a passive act, either, since branching choices allow players to customize their abilities and advantages even for a single hero.

Players can team up to defeat neutral high-level minions, then unleash them on the enemy.

Mid-game objectives: in any given MOBA match, which generally takes between 20 to 40 minutes, the fictional “host” will periodically activate time-based objectives that players can defeat or capture to gain a temporary advantage. These boosts can be a huge boon to either team, particularly if one of them is losing: a clutch capture can turn the tide. At a lower level you can defeat and unlock optional “heavy” minion units to boost your own team’s minion forces.

Hero Variety Is Staggering

As I mentioned above, there are an amazing amount of heroes to choose from in each MOBA game. Odds are good that wherever your specific multiplayer skills lay, you can find some character that complements them. Some games feature not-quite-copies of characters from other MOBA titles—for example, both LOL and DOTA 2 have characters based on Sun Wukong from the Chinese classical epic Journey to the West. Just picking from the big three MOBA games, at the time of writing:

  • League of Legends has 138 different original heroes, featuring everything from Tolkien-style elves to aliens to tiny fuzzy Ewok-like creatures to actual gods.
  • DOTA 2 features 113 heroes loosely based on (but legally distinct from) the characters and races from Blizzard’s Warcraft series, as well as more original and generic fantasy heroes.
  • Heroes of the Storm contains 73 heroes, each of which is an in-universe character from Blizzard’s popular franchises, Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo, and Overwatch. 

All three games are still releasing entirely new heroes on a regular basis, quickly putting even the extensive rosters of crossover fighting games to shame. Granted, not all characters are available at all times, and most players buy only the ones they’re fond of or particularly skilled at using.

They’re Incredibly Competitive

Back in the 90s and early 2000s, there was a much more restricted selection of online multiplayer PC games. They were broadly broken up into RPGs, shooters, and strategy titles. The original DOTA attempted to make strategy games faster, shorter, and more unpredictable, creating an advantage for actual teamwork and strategy instead of pure number-crunching actions per minute gameplay.

It succeeded. Don’t get me wrong, the old (and now almost entirely replaced) army-based strategy games could foster vicious online competition at times. But throw ten players into a frantic, confusing, and highly volatile competition, and you have a recipe for a much more exciting game based on its very nature. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve played it—in fact, it’s hard to even know what the hell is going on if you’re watching a MOBA game that you haven’t played pretty extensively—but there’s an innate sense of urgency to the genre.

A lot of that is down to the mid-game objectives, mentioned above. Even if your team is getting its derriere drop-kicked, a coordinated strike to secure a few powerful neutral minions or a timed advantage can turn the tide of battle quickly. Until the enemy is bearing down on your Nexus/Ancient/Whatever, it still feels like anything is possible.

Pro MOBA tournaments draw audiences of thousands and reward winners with huge cash prizes.

This intense competition has made MOBA games one of the standout genres of eSports, with titles represented in some of the biggest tournaments (with the biggest prize pools) in the world. Professional teams from dozens of different countries compete in stadium-sized venues with tens of thousands of spectators in person and even more watching streams online. Along with first-person shooters and one-on-one fighting games, MOBAs are becoming some of the most visible games in the world, with the biggest fanbase and most dramatic longevity.

The flipside is that MOBAs are also some of the most contentious games even in casual play. Players are often incredibly vicious to one another, even and especially to teammates who are seen as not pulling their weight. Racism, sexism, and general jackassery are rampant in online matches, despite developers’ continuing efforts to clamp down on unsportsmanlike behavior. This culture of toxicity can discourage new players and make less naturally combative players feel burnt out, especially in ranked matches. Newcomers, or those who just don’t want to deal with players who don’t know how to mind their manners, are encouraged to make liberal use of the social block and mute functions.

They’re Free

Okay, so this is pretty obvious, but it’s still worth pointing out. The three biggest names in PC MOBA games, League of Legends, DOTA 2, and Heroes of the Storm, all use a similar free-to-play model. Players can download these massive, complex games for free and play as much as they want without paying a dime.

Of course there’s a hook. MOBA games generally rely on a rolling selection of heroes, offering only a tiny portion of the vast roster for unlimited play on a rotation. Players who want to choose from the unavailable heroes must play games to earn currency (a lot of currency) and unlock them. Due to the huge, ever-growing nature of the rosters, free players will generally never accumulate every hero, but the rolling accessibility grants them the ability to try all of them eventually and save up for the ones they find appealing.

Cosmetic unlocks, including skins, voice lines, banners, customized “mounts” like horses, griffons, and flying carpets, are also a big hook. Skins are generally the most desirable, ranging from subtle re-colors for a small amount of in-game currency to overhauls of the entire character with totally new 3D models, visual effects, and associated sounds.

Kerrigan, one of Blizzard’s most iconic villains, gets a Bride of Frankenstein skin for Halloween.

Naturally, players without the patience or the time to earn these rewards in-game via randomized drops or currency accumulation can spend money to unlock them directly. That’s a staple of free-to-play games everywhere. But it’s worth noting that since all of these unlocks are cosmetic, there’s no in-game advantage to buying them. It follows that aside from a wider selection of heroes, someone who’s been playing a MOBA for years has no functional advantage over someone who installed it yesterday.

They Run on Anything

You can run a MOBA on almost any computer imaginable. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration—you can’t load up Heroes of the Storm on an Apple Mac II. But generally speaking, MOBA games can be played even on very low-powered systems thanks to a relatively low requirement for system resources. Though all of the major MOBAs use 3D polygonal graphics, the models and effects are relatively simple, and can be lowered even more to suit budget laptops with integrated graphics. All you really need to play a MOBA game is a PC or Mac made in the last five or six years, and a decent Internet connection—you don’t need an expensive gaming PC, which means the appeal for these games is pretty darn broad.

Oh, though you’ll also need a bit of self-control. If you get hooked—and you very well might—you’ll need some restraint to keep from grinding to get those epic hero skins.

*I hate the term “eSports.” Video games aren’t sports, “e” or otherwise. But it looks like I’m going to die on this hill. 

Image source: League of Legends

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.