It all began with a mod. While some observers trace the history of the mobile online battle arena category back as far as the 1989 Sega console game Herzog Zwei, it's more common to cite Aeon of Strife. A fan-made StarCraft custom map released nine years later, it was four on four, but with a player squad vs. an AI one and without leveling up. It was also the inspiration for the 2003 Warcraft III mod, Defense of the Ancients, which featured two human teams and in-match hero advancement.
Many people created their own variants. This laid the foundation for DOTA Allstars to combine elements from a number of them. It very quickly became the most popular version. Over the next handful of years, a lot of improvements were added. But it was still a mod. It wasn't until 2009 that we saw the first standalone commercial MOBA. And no, it wasn't League of Legends. It was Demigod, developed by Gas Powered Games, which subsequently became Wargaming Seattle. That release
that probably deserved to fare much better than it did. Unfortunately, it wasn't promoted very visibly, and its key competitor was a free map that anyone who owned Warcraft III could simply download.
LoL followed some months later. It used the free to play business model, which removed said barrier to entry. The rest, as they say - whoever “they” are – is history. Now, in mid-2015, it's obvious which two titles occupy the first and second spots in the list below. The next few, however, may be at least somewhat less easy to guess exactly.
My first contact with Riot Games was quite a while before LoL launched, probably in the latter half of 2007, at a time when I was also tracking the development of a similar project, the aforementioned Demigod. Both were very interesting. It seems hard to believe in retrospect, but to be frank, if I'd had to guess then which one had more potential, I can't be sure that I'd have chosen correctly.
Originally called League of Legends: Clash of Fates, LoL was conceived in 2005. Riot Games was founded in 2006 to develop it. In 2008-09, the company brought in a total of $15 million in two rounds of funding. One of the investors in the second was Tencent. By 2011, the value of the studio had soared to the point where the Chinese giant purchased the part it didn't already own in a deal that put the total market capitalization at some $400 million.
Many industry observers, myself included, were surprised at this valuation, which was seen as anywhere between mildly and highly optimistic. Now of course, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight... not so much. According to various sources, LoL
generated over $1 billion in worldwide revenue last year, surpassing WoW. No matter how appropriate or inappropriate you feel it is to compare a MOBA with an MMORPG, that's a lot of money. Furthermore, Riot Games' offering is estimated to have a whopping 66 percent category share.
As for player numbers, the monthly active user count is north of 70 million, with peak concurrency estimated to be as high as the 8 million range. Riot Games has said that 27 million people play at least once daily. All these figures are well ahead of any I've seen or heard for other MOBAs... all of them, combined. I imagine that $400 million is looking pretty good to Tencent these days.
2. DOTA 2
Valve's interest in MOBAs appears to date from 2009. In the fall of that year, the company hired the DOTA designer who had taken it over from the originator (who had joined Riot Games). DOTA 2 was announced in October of 2010, and it went live almost exactly 24 months ago. It's often regarded and sometimes criticized as being more demanding to play, with a steeper learning curve. Nonetheless, regardless of its relative merits, the game is unquestionably a success - just at a level far below that of LoL.
For example, DOTA 2 looks to be on track to bring in well over $200 million in revenue this year. Clearly, this is nothing to sneeze at, but at the same time, it's not in the same ballpark as $1 billion-plus. The exact same thing can be said of its user base. More than 10 million monthly actives is a very sizable number as long as you don't compare it to LoL's which is some seven times larger. What's more, it's not clear at all whether these yawning gaps are more likely to shrink or widen.
One piece of positive news is that the MOBA category doesn't seem like it will become a lot more competitive. Blizzard's recent entry is obviously significant, but there's really little else on the horizon. Supernova, Strife, Infinite Crisis, Arena of Fate et al all have some appeal, but not nearly enough to envision any of them threatening to enter the top three. And EA looks like it may have given up on the idea of competing, witness the cancellation of Dawngate several months ago.