MOBAs: Why Are They So Popular?

MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games) are popular, in large part, because they have a lot in common with team sports like soccer and basketball. I know. I know. That statement sounds crazy, but hear me out.

Soccer (football everywhere else in the world) and basketball have nearly universal appeal the world over because of a handful of traits.

  1. They have a low barrier of entry.
  2. They are accessible, while still being rewarding at a high level.
  3. They are, at least in certain circumstances, just as fun and engaging to watch as they are to play.

Now, these aren’t the only traits these games have that make them so ubiquitous around the world, but they are some of the most prominent. They also happen to be traits that are shared between some of the world’s favorite sports and MOBAs.

Low Barrier of Entry

We have all seen the stories of kids the world over gathering around a single ball that one of them own to play soccer or basketball. This low barrier of entry means that more of these gifted athletes born in impoverished communities can still participate.

Video games are a luxury item and are, obviously, far more expensive than a ball. I’m not confusing that. But, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 83% of the households in America have computers. Many of those computers are used, at least occasionally, for gaming. MOBA designers like Valve and Riot know this and have gone out of their way to create games that will run on a variety of computer specs and don’t require a high powered rig to be workable. This increases their potential audience by A LOT.

Most MOBAs are also free to play, which means that anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection can play these games for much as they want.

Accessibility

This one might trip up some MOBA players who are reading this. But, I believe that MOBAs are, in and of themselves, an accessible genre. What I mean is that it is not difficult to actually play the game. The controls are often straightforward and most hero characters in these games only have a handful of different powers. The objectives aren’t even that difficult to comprehend as there are literal LANES for players to run down seeking enemies to defeat and towers to destroy.

MOBA fans are likely fuming at me right now because of how easy to it to play poorly and hurt your team. This is definitely true. But, that is one of the hallmarks of the genre. It is very easy to get into and learn the basics. But, it can take years of practice and study to truly master a MOBA.

Anyone who has ever sat through a tee-ball game where they don’t even keep score can attest: They are playing the same basic game as the professionals, but they are played very differently. This isn’t a bad thing though. If everyone reached the mastery level in Baseball in a week, it wouldn’t be terribly entertaining to watch professionals do “amazing” things… they just wouldn’t be all that amazing.

“Watchability”

Head to Twitch.tv at any time and you will likely find thousands of players watching MOBA matches. This isn’t an accident as MOBA developers like Valve and Riot have gone out of their way to make their games easy to watch and understand. Most games are played on the same map, and the different heroes all have distinct aesthetics. This makes it easy to tell who is on what team and what their goals are right from the beginning.

A Brief History

MOBAs are all derived from a series of user created modifications (Mods) to the real time strategy games Warcraft III. One of the most popular mods to the game was called Defense of the Ancients. It gave players control of a specific hero unit to move around the battlefield as opposed to control over the entire army. This mode quickly rose in popularity to the point where it was only a matter of time before a company stepped in and recreated it as a new game.

The first MOBA to be released is a game called League of Legends. The game still thrives today.

The MOBAs You Can Play Today

The massive popularity of League of Legends has lured a lot of different companies into making their own entry to the genre. Unfortunately, many of these games have failed because they were not able to compete with the juggernauts below.

League of Legends

Riot Games

League is one of the biggest and most popular games on Earth. Riot Games recently reported that over 100 million people play League. That is almost 2% of the Earth’s total population. Crazy huh?

It is the oldest original game in the genre and helped set the standard for how MOBAs should play. Gameplay features two teams of five players that compete to destroy the other team’s home base.

One of leagues biggest draws is that it is free to play. There is a HUGE list of playable characters in the game. Players can either choose to play from characters among a rotating list of free characters, or spend in game currency (or money) on unlocking characters permanently.

DOTA 2

Valve

DOTA is actually shorthand for “Defense of the Ancients” so this game has a very long history and a rabid fan base. It boasts a list of over 200 characters, but all of the games are played on a single game map. This is done to help make it more of a sport by removing some of the random elements that come from playing on random maps.

All of the characters in DOTA 2 are unlocked for play immediately at no cost. Valve, instead, charges for cosmetic upgrades like character skins (alternative graphical representations of characters).

DOTA 2is a huge part of the world eSports scene. They hold an event called “The International” every year where the best DOTA teams in the world compete for millions of dollars in prize money.

Heroes of the Storm

Activision/Blizzard

It really was only a matter of time before Blizzard got involved in the MOBA genre. They have too many iconic characters involved in their different games to have been able to resist. I also can’t imagine that it hurt that the genre sprung from a mod for one of their classic games.

Blizzard’s strong suit is taking genres that are very popular and stripping out the most complicated elements while keeping the game fun. World of Warcraft was born when they improved on the MMO genre. Hearthstone is the result of their improvements to the digital card game genre. Overwatch is their take on the team based multiplayer shooter. Heroes of the Storm follows suit.

There are two main differences between HoTS (Heroes of the Storm) and other games in the genre.

  1. The game features multiple different maps. Each of them has their own unique features and gameplay mechanics. This stands in stark contrast to DOTA 2 that is played on a single map.
  2. Teams level together. Most other MOBAs reward (and penalize) individual performance. If you are getting a lot of kills then you will gain more levels and gold to buy better equipment. HoTS works differently. Teams will gain levels together as they complete objectives and earn kills.

Smite

Hi-Rez

Smite takes the lane based combat from other MOBAs and turns it on its head by giving players direct control of one of dozens of Gods as they battle it out for supremacy.

The Gods included in the Smite roster are very diverse and include a number of ancient pantheons. The pantheons represented include the Greek, the Roman, the Norse, the Japanese, and several more.

The different gods are all well designed and have interesting animations for movement and attack. It is worth noting that the character models for the females tend to be a bit skimpy when it comes to clothes and armor. This can, obviously, be a turnoff for some people.

Smite stands apart from the competition by being more action oriented. Players move their Gods directly as opposed to relying on clicking on a map and essentially telling them where to go. This makes some group combats play out more like a match in a fighting game than in other games.

Smite is free to play on PC, MAC, Xbox One, and PS4. There are a lot of things players can buy over time like access to different Gods, character skins, and experience boosts. They also sell a Founder’s Pack for $39.99 that unlocks every God in the game and all future Gods that are released, If you play Smite and enjoy it, then this is really a must purchase just for the freedom it gives you when you play.

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