MOBA Explained: What is a MOBA?

What is a MOBA? The Multiplayer Online Battle Arena is a genre of games that's far more specific than it sounds, hence its other name: ARTS, or Action Real Time Strategy. To get a solid grasp on exactly what a MOBA/ARTS is, let's take a quick dive through their history and mechanics.

Where did MOBAs get their start?

People usually think of MOBAs as being the hit genre of the early-mid 2010s, before Battle Royales took over as the most popular games. In fact, MOBAs mostly got started back in 1998, not long after the release of Blizzard's RTS, Starcraft.

Image Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment
Image Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment /

The first widely known MOBA, Aeon of Strife, was a mod that used Starcraft's top-down perspective and controls. Rather than controlling armies, players controlled individual units on a battlefield with two bases, three lanes, and continuously spawning minor enemies on each side. Sound familiar?

Image Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment
Image Courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment /

Defense of the Ancients was born when the modder Eul looked to recreate AoS in Warcraft 3 in 2002. The game made extensive use of Warcraft 3's Hero mechanics, which allowed characters to level up, unlock new abilities, and buy items. DotA changed hands countless times over the years as new devs added heroes and changed the game dramatically.

One of DotA's developers, Pendragon, took off on his own to start a fledgling studio he called Riot Games to make League of Legends in 2009. Icefrog, the new steward of the DotA name, made a deal with Valve to produce Dota 2 in 2011. The rest is history.

What is a MOBA?

Whether you're playing League of Legends, Dota 2, or Heroes of the Storm, the games will all look a little familiar. They carry over the top-down style of the strategy games that spawned them, as well as a minimap (seen here in the bottom left). Dota 2 and League of Legends both use the traditional three-lane map structure with defensive chokepoints, towers, and regularly spawning minions that players can kill for gold and experience.

Top-down view in Dota 2
Top-down view in Dota 2 /

As a staple, MOBAs let you build a lead by defeating enemies, then leveraging your gold and experience advantages with new and powerful items from a shop. These add an additional layer of strategy to the game, while ensuring that every game is different.

League of Legends Item Shop
League of Legends Item Shop /

The last major feature of most MOBAs is the roster. At the start of a match, players each choose one of a list of several dozen asymmetrically balanced characters, each with unique abilities and niches.

The Heroes of Dota 2
The Heroes of Dota 2 /

Each of these design decisions leads MOBAs to be highly competitive games when they're balanced well, hence the massive draw of these games. League of Legends Worlds regularly breaks viewership records, and Dota 2's The International has been the highest paying prize pool in esports history every single year since 2010.

Cover Image Courtesy of Valve Corporation