Stereotypes might lead you to believe any gamer’s love of MOBAs has to be mutually exclusive. I’m here to tell you this isn’t true.
I recently started playing Dota 2. I mean actually playing it, as opposed to kicking around in its tutorials for a little while before intimidation sent me running back to Heroes of the Storm or League of Legends. Everyone has always told me Dota 2 is the hardest of the MOBAs—a small but very popular genre that’s already notorious for its difficulty. Dota 2 certainly is hard to play, but I was surprised by how easy it felt to get into it once I’d gotten my feet on the ground. It was a far more seamless experience than my early days in League of Legends at the beginning of this year, and that’s supposed to be the “easy MOBA.” (Or at least it was, until Heroes of the Storm came out in April.)
I’m not a great Dota 2 player. Or even a good one. Or an average one. But it still only took me two games on Sunday to find a character I felt I could handle well enough to start enjoying myself.
What changed from January to today? I have well over 1,000 additional MOBA games under my belt. And as much as genre diehards love to nitpick the differences between these games, they’re far more similar than they are different. I mean, yes: there are specific mechanical processes that make playing Dota 2 distinct from League of Legends, and others that make League unique compared to Heroes of the Storm. But at their core, these games all rely on developing a specific set of skills. And dodging really isn’t that different in one game versus another. Or kiting, or ganking, or peeling, or...the list could go on and on.
The differences between Dota 2, League of Legends, and Heroes of the Storm show themselves in the minutiae one must become knowledgeable and conversant in for applying a particular concept—say, dodging out of the way of an enemy attack. The concept itself is all but identical across the three games. Once I begun to appreciate what that meant, I was able to enjoy dabbling in each of the big three MOBAs I saw fit, rather
What started to make Dota 2 fun for me was a character named Faceless Void, an agile melee fighter who can survive in combat by outmaneuvering his opponents—dealing lots of damage to them while avoiding taking any in turn. I immediately noticed that I liked him because he reminds me of Zeratul, a lithe assassin in Heroes of the Storm I’ve played more games with than any other character.
Both of them have a ton of mobility thanks to special moves that let them teleport short distances. They also both have ults (the most powerful move in a MOBA character’s arsenal, and the one that takes the longest to unlock in a match) that summon a large dome which freezes everything caught within. Here’s Zeratul’s, “Void Prison”:
...and here’s Faceless Void’s, “Chronosphere”:
The main difference between these two is that while Faceless Void can move around and deal extra damage to the enemies caught within his Chronoprison, anything caught within Zeratul’s Void Prison is invulnerable until its timer runs out. Still: kinda the same thing, right? Not really, and that’s the point.
Playing almost 200 games with Zeratul didn’t mean that I was able to step into Dota 2 and start kicking ass as Faceless Void. But at the very least, all those hours spent battling with the Protoss Assassin helped me acquire a general sort of gameplay literacy that meant I was able to understand Faceless Void.
A similar thing happened with me in League of Legends last week when I played my first game as Fizz, a small trident-wielding fish monster who’s one of the most notorious assassins:
He might teleport instantaneously, but Fizz’s ability kit revolves around a similar set of abilities to the ones that a character like Faceless Void from Dota 2 or Zeratul or Illidan from HOTS do. He’s the kind of guy who’s meant to jump in to attack his enemy with lightning speed, then disappear back to a safe distance before they even have a chance to respond.
By having enough knowledge to take advantage of the similarities between these three games, I was able to start appreciating their differences—noticing the finer details of how Faceless Void zapped around with his teleportation move compared to the way Zeratul did, or how Fizz benefits from having two types of mobility-enhancing special moves while Zeratul only has his one “blink.” It wasn’t just HOTS helping me get better at its more difficult brethren, either. I barely touched warrior characters in Heroes until I started playing more melee tank characters in League of Legends thanks to the way the latter game helped me learn how beef up an already beefy type of character over the course of a match by leveling them and outfitting them in a particular way. Obviously HOTS doesn’t have items, but again: the core idea of a concept like “build someone tanky” transports from one game to another once you’re able to finally grasp it.
One thing I’ve found peculiar about MOBAs is the way that they each seem to come with an expectation that you’re meant to devote your life to a single game. That type of social pressure stems from the fact that MOBAs are all big online games with vibrant self-contained communities, and they’re all super competitive. Oh, and they also all demand a lot of your time. These three factors all lend themselves towards exclusivity. Choosing a MOBA can often feel like a zero-sum game as a result. If you want to play League and play League well, any time spent playing Dota 2 or Heroes of the Storm instead becomes time you could have (and maybe should have) been playing League instead.
It’s perfectly fine to look at MOBAs from an aspirational perspective, devoting yourself entirely to one in order to achieve the highest possible rank that you’re capable of. But you can also just play a MOBA because, ya know, you just want to have fun. If you’re a MOBA player primarily interested in the latter option, I recommend playing more than one game in the genre. You just might find a new character you like even more than your current main.