Understanding MOBAs

When I first heard that Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas were the new thing, I assumed that there had been a revival of classic arena shooters like Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament. They’re multiplayer, online arenas where you battle, right? But instead, the genre popularised by League of Legends and Defence of the Ancients seemed to be a kind of minimalist RTS. So I didn’t pay it any more heed, and yet here in 2017, MOBAs are a professional sport. So with Awesomenauts which is essentially a 2D MOBA, I wanted to try and uncover the appeal of this persistent genre. If you’re a hardcore MOBA-er, then feel free to tell me I’m wrong and need to git gud in the comments.

MOBAs seem to operate a little like chess, in that high level play is an entirely different proposition to low level. At the low level, MOBAs play off the appeal of ARPG character builds compressed into a single session. Using the same (or similar, in the case of Awesomenauts) map and scenario every time would seem to limit the options, but tight balance and the variability of opponents means the problem to solve is subtly different each time. In fact, repeating the same map over and over means that styles and strategies can be optimised, which seems to be a core component of the MOBA experience. There is also the more mechanical challenge of tracking ability cooldowns and executing them accurately, as well as precise movement to dodge enemy attacks.

At a higher level, the style takes on an element of poker, with the importance of hero selection and countering your opponents rising to the forefront. Complete memorisation of every hero’s capabilities and weaknesses is required, in order to properly build your own hero and counter an enemy’s strengths. This builds a complete meta level of strategy, working within the known geography, hero selection and ability builds to outfox opponents. The mechanical micromanagement is of course taken to an extreme level in combination with this, to exploit the differences created. In addition, at this level real teamwork is required, which builds in another layer of meta in how heroes interact positively with one another. So there is a whole bunch of strategy here, but somehow it isn’t strategy which interests me in the slightest.
As far as I can tell, MOBAs are about four Ms – memorisation, micromanagement, min-maxing and meta. No wonder they don’t appeal to me! But there are clearly plenty of folks who feel differently, and I won’t begrudge them their fun.