Autobattlers were already simmering before 2019 started. Near the tail end of 2018, a custom game mod for Dota 2 had been generating some heat uncharacteristic to the medium. "Dota Auto Chess" was getting players. A lot of players. And it wasn't showing signs of slowing down.
Flashpoint genre trends are nothing new in the game industry. Styles like battle royale, collectible card games, and Flappy Bird rise and fall in favor. This year's fever was for autobattlers, colloquially known as auto chess. In a meteoric rise mirroring the MOBAs before it, an alternate game mode for a free-to-play PC game became one of the hottest commodities.
And then, in just as short a time span, it cooled. There's not much of a market to try and make yourself the next big autobattler at this point. But autobattlers aren't dead, either. Their trajectory this year was from pitched fervor to lifestyle game, and it quaintly mirrors the path many other, seemingly flash-in-the-pan, trends have taken.
For those still unfamiliar, autobattlers are games where you draft and field a small army of A.I.-controlled units in bouts against other players. Though Dota Auto Chess was built inside of Dota 2, it shares more similarities with card games like poker or rummy.
Mastering auto chess means balancing risky gambits with a health bar. Do you tank a few rounds to get a loss streak going, increasing your round-over-round gold gain to fuel a comeback? Or do you buy out, dumping all your resources into recruiting new pieces and upgrading the ones you have, at the risk of other players' economies slowly surpassing yours?
Even in its earliest iteration, Dota Auto Chess understood that tension was the core of its appeal. Autobattlers are like a poker round you win or lose over the course of 20 minutes—one in which you're constantly arranging and redrawing your hand as community cards flow in and out. It's not surprising that it took off. Like Warcraft and StarCraft custom games before it, Dota Auto Chess was a Frankenstein of game assets and design concepts that clicked in a way few games could, purely because of how it had to use only what it could manage from Dota 2's resource pile.
But I have to refer to Dota Auto Chess in the past tense, because like all breakout genres, it didn't take long for the land rush to begin. The team behind Dota Auto Chess, Drodo Studio, apparently talked to Valve about integrating it into Steam before the two parties determined they couldn't make it work. Each went to work on their own version of the mod, and meanwhile, Riot Games announced its own take on the genre. Months later at BlizzCon 2019, Blizzard would reveal its own as well.
Riot vs. Valve
The ensuing clash was eerily reminiscent of the MOBA fight between League of Legends and Dota 2 earlier this decade. Riot Games' Teamfight Tactics is a more interactive experience, with a carousel of champions every so often that resembles a Mario Party minigame. Valve's Dota Underlords stayed true, initially, to Dota Auto Chess—sometimes to a fault. Meanwhile, Drodo went to Epic and launched a mobile version dubbed simply "Auto Chess," aiming to capture phones before it went to PC.
It's fair to say that Teamfight Tactics has emerged as the frontrunner. By Twitch viewership and general word-of-mouth alone, it broke out in the lead and hasn't been passed yet. But to Dota Underlords' credit, it isn't a complacent runner-up. Both autobattlers have evolved rapidly over the course of the last few months, and Valve's high-level changes are much more drastic and interesting, giving Underlords an identity it badly needed with its field-commander Underlord units.
Blizzard, for its part, hastily repurposed Hearthstone with a brand new autobattler mode, but its effort feels more like a novelty than anything else. Hearthstone Battlegrounds is serviceable, but doesn't really capture what makes this genre shine. It's also much harder to discern at a glance—an issue where one game living inside another's ecosystem actually hinders it.
The twin titans, Teamfight Tactics and Dota Underlords, have each made pretty big strides. It's clear their respective studios are invested for the long haul; Riot Games has declared TFT a "permanent addition" to League of Legends, teasing a competitive structure for it, while Valve has reportedly moved former Campo Santo developers onto the project, and has been pushing out a steady stream of content and lore updates.
But if you're not plugged into either game, you probably weren't aware. Like other flashpoint games, the fever pitch has worn off. That doesn't mean autobattlers are any less popular—they've simply moved into the nebulous realm of "forever games."
Teamfight Tactics is the sort of game you boot up when you get home from work. You play it on a second monitor while catching up on your favorite YouTube channel. A bot game of Dota Underlords can be played without timers or enforced pacing, so you can pick away at a match throughout the day on your phone or PC.
My own autobattler playtime isn't the binge it used to be, but when it's 10 p.m. and I want to play something thoughtful and relaxing before bed, I boot up Teamfight Tactics. Each game has found its own cadence, trying to balance new updates with maintaining a familiar thread, keeping the original Dota Auto Chess spirit alive. It's not that different from how I play Dota 2 nowadays. It's just something I do.
Auto chess never really died off, just the hype did. Like battle royales, MOBAs, and Farmvilles before it, the headlines moved on. But a community still thrives for each of the major games. Autobattlers have fallen in that realm of comfort food and hobby game; but to its benefit, the autobattler genre seems tailor-made for that kind of attachment.
If you want to go deep into the strategy and metagame, that avenue exists. If you just want to boot it up and play a round to kill some time, that's perfectly valid. The hype may have dissipated, but the autobattlers' greatest success seems to be that they'll outlive their breakout year.