Genetically engineered: How MOBAs invaded eSports

From simple map modification to world domination: the history of the genre tailor made for eSports.
Genetically engineered: How MOBAs invaded eSports
Genetically engineered: How MOBAs invaded eSports © Riot Games
By Jon Partridge

MOBAs are huge. There’s no denying that. Multiplayer online battle arena games are currently at the top of the pro gaming food chain, leading the eSports charge for both gamers and spectators - and even outside the world of competitive gaming, the MOBA is king.

You only have to look at the numbers to see the staggering dominance that the genre has on the world, with the likes of Dota 2 claiming the top spot on Valve’s Steam platform by a huge margin, and League of Legends now arguably the world’s most played game. With over 70 million registered users worldwide, 32.5 million daily active players and an incredible 10 games started every second, League of Legends is eye-poppingly massive.

But what exactly is a MOBA? Games journalist Quintin Smith puts it succinctly. “MOBA games are crazy, and are ultimately about two teams of players in something like fantasy five-a-side football going at each other. Each player controls a hero who supervises entire automated armies and the object is to destroy the enemy base, and get into enormous scraps with other enemy heroes.”

Sounds simply. So how did this single gametype manage to capture the attention of gamers across the world? How did we get to the point where simple matches can have as much as a million dollars at stake? Join us as we take a look behind the history of the genre, its rapid growth, how it’s taken the world by storm and just what’s next for world’s most played genre.

Humble beginnings

It all started with StarCraft. Blizzard Entertainment’s 1998 space-inspired successor to the WarCraft series was unleashed to PC gamers across the world: it would go on to become one of the top selling PC games of all time with an incredible 11 million copies shipped as of 2009. Blizzard is known for providing tools for its players to make their own content, and bundled with StarCraft was something those millions of gamers could tap into: StarEdit. The editing and creation tool let players make their own maps and scenarios, and was improved on with the launch of StarCraft’s expansion pack, Brood War, later that same year, and many of the maps that modders were making started to gain traction online.

While some player-made maps were popular because they made it easier to farm resources quickly to raise up huge armies, the map known as Aeon of Strife stood out for taking a completely different approach. In fact, by focusing in on just a handful of units, not an entire army, it inadvertently created a whole new genre.

Created by a modder known only as Aeon64 - who remains anonymous to this day - the map had you join up with three other players, each controlling one single unit, instead of a whole armada, and pitted you against the computer. The game would end if any of your key buildings in your base were destroyed, or if all four players were killed. Eventually, the map was updated to include PvP - player versus player - combat, letting two players team up to take on another duo, and quickly it gained a small, devoted following, who appreciated the familiar, yet wildly different gameplay. No one knew it, least of all Blizzard, but it was the start of something huge.

Refining a classic

Blizzard’s next big game, WarCraft 3, arrived in 2002, and again packed in map making tools for players to tinker with. A mapmaker known as Eul decided to remake Aeon of Strife in the new engine, adding Night Elf “Ancient” tree structures as the critical building objects in bases, along with the ability for player-controlled characters to level up.

© Blizzard Entertainment

With the objective of the map being to destroy your enemy’s Ancient, the map was then dubbed Defense of the Ancients - or affectionately, DotA - and like its predecessor, quickly gained a loyal following. After the release of WarCraft 3 expansion The Frozen Throne, which added plenty of new features to the World Editor, Eul did not update the original DotA. Instead, he decided to make the code of his map open source to let others attempt to improve on the gametype - and that community-led collaboration helped shape the map, and the genre, as it is today.

Among the midst of DotA variants, one in particular stood out. DotA Allstars, created by modder Steve Feak (known under the alias Guinsoo), was the single version of the map that took the WarCraft 3 world by storm. Feak himself didn’t know what he was going to unleash after its first release. He had no idea the game was going to become immensely popular, bu soon Feak found himself leading a 12-man modding team for the DotA Allstars project, consistently releasing new patches and fixes - all lapped up by the WarCraft scene, leading Allstars to dominate Blizzard’s service - it was almost impossible to find a custom game that wasn’t being played with Feak’s map.

© Blizzard Entertainment

Passing the torch

In 2005, it was time for Guinsoo to pursue other interests. He left the mod and passed over duties to a fellow modder known as IceFrog, and it was under his direction that DotA Allstars took off like a rocket, reaching its peak popularity, even earning the distinction of an official tournament event at Blizzard’s high profile BlizzCon. DotA, a mere mod, had hit the big time - and it was all thanks to IceFrog’s attention to ensuring competitive balance, vital for the creation of high-stakes competitions featuring multiple characters.

It was that eye for detail, and the community heaping on feedback, that catalysed the genre’s evolution into the competitive PvP behemoth it is today. With a few key characters, its own unique playstyle and a top down field of view - rather than the multiple, confusing splitscreens required to watch in a first person shooter match up - it was well suited for spectators. All that was missing was a means to broadcast matches to a huge audience.

And an easy way to play, of course. DotA was still a game inside someone else’s game: you had to own WarCraft 3, you had to own The Frozen Throne, and you had to download the latest version of the map from somewhere else - not to mention there was no introduction, no tutorial and matchmaking had to be done entirely by the user. It was very much its own kind of exclusive club. Still, the MOBA genre was getting big - DotA was even referenced in one of Swedish music producer Basshunter’s songs - and many devs saw the opportunity to release their own standalone version, one of which is now the most popular games in the world today.

The rise of League of Legends

Today, it’s one of the world’s most played games, but League of Legends was a fledgling title back in 2009 when it first launched. It showed a lot of promise right from the start however - in retrospect, it was scientifically designed for success. Originally established in 2006 in Los Angeles, Riot Games was founded by just two people, Brandon “Ryze” Beck, and Marc “Tryndamere” Merrill, and while they announced the studio’s first game in 2008, it wasn’t until a year later that League of Legends was finally unleashed on the world. League carefully and calculatingly took on the successful elements of DotA, turned it into a stand-alone game, and even brought on original Allstars modder Steve “Guinsoo” Feak onto the team, thereby ensuring it’d be a hit right from the start.

© Riot Games

The game features a wide roster of champions (120) with names like Jinx, Lee Sin, and Vel’Koz, all of which sport similar designs to DotA’s originals, as well as a bewildering array of special powers - Lee Sin’s Dragon's Rage for instance is an enormous, comedy roundhouse kick that would leave Chuck Norris green with envy.

To make the deal even sweeter for players, the game itself was free, still a novel business model at the time. That meant you could try out the game for zero cost, but that did mean you could only choose from 10 different characters to begin with, and they all rotated each week - but you could buy your chosen champion via microtransactions or with points earned in-game. Still, that starting point struck a chord with the DotA community, and since its launch, it’s ballooned to over 70 million players across the globe. Imagine the entire population of France, men, women, children, infants, all playing one game - yeah, League of Legends has more players than that.

The return of IceFrog: Dota 2

Where’s there’s space for one, there’s space for two. With League of Legends turning the MOBA into a legitimate acronym, it wasn’t long until a rival ganked its way onto the scene and challenged League to the throne. In late 2009, DotA:Allstars developer IceFrog made the announcement that he had been hired by Valve, in a similar move to when the Half-Life developer snapped up the original team behind FPS staple Counter-Strike. All IceFrog said at the time was that it would be “great news” for fans of the genre, and for DotA itself.

© Valve

He wasn’t wrong. Eventually, after much legal wrangling between Valve, Blizzard and Riot over the name, Valve revealed Dota 2 to the world at 2011’s Gamescom in Cologne, along with a $1 million tournament dubbed The International, as a full on sequel to the original mod. With genre godfather IceFrog onboard, it was set to rival Riot Games’ up and coming game, and even included plenty of heroes based on DotA Allstar’s extensive roster, including Kunkka, Nortrom the Silencer and cleaver-wielding fan-favourite, Pudge. Following months of semi-closed beta testing to whip up excitement, the game officially launched as a free-to-play title last year in July. Valve had the perfect network to distribute it on: with 65 million users across the world, Steam helped the Washington-based studio catch up fast. It steadily climbed its way to the top of the Steam charts, where it’s remained ever since.


That brings us to now. Both League of Legends and Dota 2 games are at the peak of the international MOBA scene, with plenty of pretenders lining up for a shot at the throne with PC titles like Heroes of Newerth and Gas Powered Games’ Demigod, as well as tablet and mobile imitators like Fates Forever and Gameloft’s Heroes of Order and Chaos. Each have attempted to emulate the success of both games - but none have come to even match the numbers that Dota 2, or even League of Legends, are producing.


Even from a spectator viewpoint, the games are enormous, gobbling up a huge portion of the overall viewership on game streaming site Twitch’s publicity chief, known only as Chase, tells us that “the MOBA genre is responsible for over five billion minutes watched on Twitch every month - that's about 10,000 years of MOBA content viewed per month.” In other words, fans would need to watch a total of 55,555,555 Premier League football matches in a month to even catch up with Twitch.

What’s the appeal, exactly? Leah Jackson, associate editor at IGN and eSports reporter since 2011 weighs in: “MOBAs are fun to watch because there is always something happening. With five people on a team, someone is always making an interesting or unique decision, performing a crazy play, or lining one up. In traditional sports and other competitive games, there is a lot of waiting, but MOBAs are nonstop action from start to finish.”

While the genre came from humble beginnings where casting games across the internet to massive sporting arenas could only have been a dream, Chase tells us that “spectators are now top of mind with all developers intended for the eSports audience.” And it’s also thanks to these Twitch streamers that MOBA games are being made much more accessible.

Chase tells Red Bull: “Generally speaking, these games are inherently complex and hard to understand from an outsider's perspective, so what makes them good spectator sports is how they are presented.”

The need for a commentator to call the plays has created a new type of internet personality: the shoutcaster, charismatic chatterboxes like Dota 2 announcer Blaze and League of Legends’ Trevor ‘qu1ksh0t’ Henry, a man so popular on YouTube, Riot Games actually hired him full time.

© Riot Games

“It’s their insights and enthusiasm that both educates and entertains spectators about what is happening, making it easier to understand and enjoy the games,” Chase says. “Then you have spectator mode.”

Think of this concept like watching televised poker. You can see the cards face down on the glass table, but the competitors can’t.

“Because of this feature, viewers have more information than the players; while the players only see their team's perspective, the spectator sees the entire map. So there's this kind of 'dramatic irony' in play where the viewer can see an engagement coming before it happens. Then when the players do or don't do what's expected given the information the spectator has there is this sort of "Aha! I knew it!" moment.”

Twitch is also home to a variety of different shows that take place within the eSports world, taking the entertainment factor to another level outside of just watching the games. Football fans like to watch pundits discuss what’s happened with a game, and Twitch is also home to numerous talk shows that take a Sports Center-style approach to discussing the events - taking a sporting parallel to eSports with the real world.

Jackson continues, “It gave players a legitimate way to make an income. It allowed leagues to broadcast their tournaments to millions of people. It brought a new way for developers to showcase their games in ways we'd never dreamed before. Twitch opened a lot of doors for many eSports entrepreneurs, and with mobile streaming coming soon, who knows what we'll see next.”

The future

MOBA have mushroomed in popularity already, but they’re not going to stop.

“Over the past few years we've seen that game publishers and developers – like Riot, Valve, Blizzard, and now Capcom [with its own Capcom Pro Tour for Street Fighter IV] - are not only interested in supporting their competitive community, but actually sponsoring and organizing their very own high profile leagues and championships. This trend is invaluable for the overall growth of the esports industry and has truly elevated eSports to a new plateau.”

Both Riot and Valve are both clearly trying to position their MOBA titles as huge events like real sports, with a more regularised, sociable timetable with leagues, seasons and play-offs alongside plenty of community engagement - think Monday Night Football or Match Of The Day, and you’d be on the right track. Jackson elaborates, “MOBA developers Riot and Valve both go above and beyond for the League of Legends and Dota 2 communities, respectively. The LCS (League of Legends Championship Series) was built from the ground up because it's what League fans wanted.”

© Riot Games

That parallel to the real sporting world is now becoming even more apparent, such as last year’s LCS Final, which took place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The very same venue where you’d see NBA titans the LA Lakers play. Jackson, who was at the finals, says: “The Championships at the Staples Center was an unforgettable event. The vibe was the exact same as going to a Lakers game: People were wearing their favorite team merchandise, buying snacks, taking pictures, talking about strategies and games from the playoffs, it was awesome.”

“Considering Riot was able to fill a venue like the Staples Center and put on the incredible show that they did, I would say it was a great coming of age story for League, and eSports, to make such an impression at that venue.”

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