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Som Pourfarzaneh : The MOBA Conundrum

By Som Pourfarzaneh on February 27, 2015 | Columns | Comments

The MOBA Conundrum

When the original Defense of the Ancients rose to popularity as a mod for Warcraft III, I had already moved on from Blizzard’s RTS to the next hotness (probably Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time).  Hence, it wasn’t until many years later that I became aware of DotA in its modern iteration, particularly as a reference point for new MOBAs like League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, Demigod, Smite, and of course, DotA 2.

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Imagine my surprise when this tiny subgenre of real-time strategy games became so big that it established itself as a cornerstone for the burgeoning competitive sphere of esports, and I wasn’t even certain of how the gameplay worked.  I took it upon myself to become educated by playing a beta version of Smite, which probably isn’t the most representative of MOBAs because of its third-person perspective and MMORPG-inspired mechanics, but did serve as a solid introduction to the genre’s rules and tropes as a whole.

Suffice it to say that I liked Smite, and I did not like Smite.  I enjoyed the combat in Hi-Rez Studios’ game, along with the MMO-style progression, which has the intended effect of making you feel like you’re leveling your character during every match.  I didn’t like the steep learning curve that sets apart casual from hardcore players, and feeling as though to really become competitive at the game, I’d have to spend hundreds of hours making micro-adjustments to strategies and understanding different builds.  I also really didn’t like being lambasted by other players for not doing things in some perceived standard methodology.

A few years later, I got dragged into a turf war between two groups of friends that ascribe to either the stylized sophistication of League of Legends or the cult popularity of DotA 2.  I played more of the former but a little of both, and was handheld through bot matches, ARAM showdowns, and all manner of beginner strategies.  I learned all about different hero types and lane composition, the benefits of last hitting in LoL, and the integral nature of itemization and item progression in DotA.  I yelled, I got yelled at, and everyone had a pretty good time helping me noob along towards an understanding of how MOBAs work in a larger sense.

The thing is, the more that I learned about LoL, DotA, and other MOBAs, the more I became aware of my own lack of skill compared to my friends, whom I consider to be hardcore casual at best.  It became starkly obvious that if I wanted to become even moderately capable at one of these games, I would have to put in the same amount of effort that I would taking up a new hobby or sport.  Which, I suppose, is a pretty interesting proposition if that’s what you’re looking for, but is not generally what I come to video games for.  I’m drawn in by the thematic allure represented by the heroic pastiches in games like Guardians of Middle-earth and Heroes of the Storm, but I’m not so interested in the learning curves required to get to the fun part.

My question for you MOBA aficionados out there is simply: is there a way to enjoy MOBAs casually?  Having played almost exclusively with friends, I can see the attraction of meeting up online with four of your besties to take on other players or even bots and try out new strategies and heroes.  Plus, this scenario has the added benefit of circumventing the undeniably toxic community that plagues most MOBAs.  But is there a place for one or two casual players in the competitive maelstrom that is the MOBA genre?

Som Pourfarzaneh / Som is a Staff Writer at MMORPG.com and a Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.