In 2021 esports are big, and MOBA are in the top ten of the most significant games. Interestingly enough, the whole genre started as a non-profit, for fun initiative. It took them only twenty years to evolve into a profitable business.
1983 – The Castle of Smurfenstein – the Birth of Mods
The Castle of Smurfenstein is hardly ever mentioned in the discussion about MOBA history. Why? Most probably because it wasn’t a multiplayer online battle arena game. It wasn’t even an online game because it was made in the 1980s. So why bother talking about it?
It turns out The Castle of Smurfenstein is believed to be the first-ever game mod. It was the parody of the game The Castle of Wolfenstein with nazi guards turned into smurfs. As funny and simple as it was, it paved the ground for the phenomenon of writing game modifications.
1998 – Aeon of Strife
The history of actual MOBA games starts with the title AEON of Strife which immortalized the name of the modder who created it. Aeon64 wrote his mod to Blizzard’s Starcraft in 1998.
AoS laid grounds for the development of the genre by introducing its main principles. The aim of the game was to destroy the enemy’s base. The team consisting of four player-controlled heroes played against the computer-controlled unit. And, as with any other MOBA game to come, the headquarters were situated at the ends of three lanes. But, since the map was very simple, the terrain between the lanes was almost empty. For the same reason, the characters didn’t level up during the game.
2002 – Defense of the Ancients – DOTA
Four years after AoF was made and then loved by the players, in 2002, Blizzard released its other iconic title – Warcraft III. It wasn’t long after the game entered the market that the community supplemented it with the mod called Defense of the Ancients – DOTA. Created by the modder called Eul (his real name was Kyle Sommer), it was based at Aeon of Strife, but with many modifications. First and foremost, DOTA was a competitive game. It was no longer people versus computer.
Apart from that, during the game, players could gain experience and level up. The terrain between the lanes was no longer deserted – it was filled with a jungle full of monsters, and finally, the team now consisted of 5 players.
Although he created the mod and deserves credit for it, Eul soon left the DOTA project. At that time, many modders created all kinds of DOTA maps based on Eul’s work. This where a significant character entered the story. Steve Feak took over the DOTA project, eventually creating the DOTA Allstar version, which ultimately, after changes introduced by IceFrog, became the benchmark for other MOBA games.
2009 – League of Legends – LOL
This is how we got to 2009 and the birth of the second MOBA classic – The League of Legends (LOL). This game was created by someone we’ve already mentioned in this text. Do you remember Steve Feak? Yep, the one behind DOTA Allstars. It seems he does know how to craft a good MOBA.
To create LOL, he partnered up with Riot Games. Unlike DOTA, LOL is a stand-alone game. It has a unique (at least unusual in 2009) business model. You can download and play it for free. But only if you are happy to play with one from a limited set of characters. If you want or need a specific character, you need to pay for it. You can also buy skins and other supplements to your hero. What is important to note, though, is that players cannot buy power. The only way to gain it is by gathering experience and training while playing.
Such a business model turned out to be a huge success. Firstly, it eliminated the financial barrier of entry which boosted game’s popularity. In 2016 Riot Games reported that they have over one million players monthly. Now, this number has grown to an unbelievable 117 million. Secondly, this kind of pricing allows for multiple payments from one player.
All in all, LOL proved to be a huge success, and it’s still dominating the gaming landscape. To tell the truth, it appears it seems to be the most popular game of all time.
2010 – Heroes of Newerth
The ingenious pricing idea of LOL can be fully appreciated when compared to another DOTA Allstars inspired stand-alone MOBA that premiered roughly at the same time. Some claim that Heroes of Newerth was more faithful to the original DOTA idea. However, the game was fully priced, so it never enjoyed the popularity that could be matched with the League of Legends.
2013 – DOTA 2
Just as Riot Games created LOL in cooperation with Steve Feak, Valve hired IceFrog to work on DOTA 2. This approach proved to be successful. DOTA 2 provides slightly simplified gameplay compared to the first version, but otherwise, it’s faithful to the original. It also enjoys much better graphics. DOTA 2 is available for free on Steam. While the number of DOTA 2 players falls way behind the astonishing LOL figures, the game enjoys a steady audience of almost 8 million monthly players and it’s the eSport game with the biggest prize pool.
2015 – Heroes of the Storm
In 2015 Blizzard, whose titles served as a base for the development of the mods, which then became the first MOBA games, decided to enter the stage with its own title. Heroes of the Storm were populated with characters known from other Blizzard games, which was appreciated by the Blizzard fandom. However, with LOL and DOTA 2 in place, Blizzard never made a splash with its title.
MOBA in the Context of Esports
DOTA debuted in eSports in 2005 when the first tournaments for just three players was held. They competed for the prize of $30 000. League of Legends made its appearance in eSport in 2010 with similar stakes, but already 24 tournaments. A year later, DOTA 2 entered the eSports stage and altered it forever. In 2011 three out of ten games with the highest stakes were MOBA games. In 2020 it was already three out of top five.
DOTA is now ranked number one game in terms of prize money. Interestingly enough, fourth place is occupied by LOL. Those two games together allow players to compete for almost $319M. It’s 30% more than the remaining three games from the top 5 together.