Before this past weekend, I’d never played a multiplayer online battle arena before, or what the cool kids call “MOBAs.” It’s weird too, considering the 100 million active monthly users that League of Legends boasts. But this past weekend, I figured my blindness should change. So I enlisted my nifty MOBA-savvy friends (y’know, those typical esports freelance writers), and set off to experience a whole new world of games I was oblivious to.
I played Heroes of the Storm, also known as HotS, for probably obvious reasons. (Read: Overwatch skins that I didn’t want to wait for.) HotS is Blizzard’s signature MOBA. A MOBA that leans on the shortness of its matches (compared to the 45 minutes or more of a typical League of Legends or Dota 2 match). HotS is also the most shunned of the three, really, with Riot’s League of Legends dominating the populist market and Valve’s Dota 2 dominating the hardcore MOBA market. HotS is left to do whatever it does best: weave the fanciful characters of Blizzard’s eclectic past into a bite-sized MOBA.
I’ve always wondered what makes MOBAs so successful, considering how seemingly complicated the genre looks at a glance. And thus, for me, seemingly impenetrable. I asked some friends what they thought as we dove into a HotS match. Some mentioned it’s the low-running specs that make them virtually runnable on any computer as a reason for their popularity. Others said it’s an active way to keep in contact and chat with friends on a semi-regular basis. MOBAs, for the most part, are free-to-play, making them virtually enticing to anyone with a able-bodied computer. MOBAs can exist for the casual player who just wants to chat with buddies and the hardcore esports champion alike. Anything goes in MOBA-land.
But there’s a whole lexicon of knowledge required to be adept at a MOBA that I always found alienating. For instance, I can’t watch a DOTA 2 esports competition and understand what’s going on. Watch a basketball game, and eventually you absorb the idea of the game: ball goes in hoop, ball scores. In MOBAs, there’s abilities, points, objectives, team dynamics that all come into play. MOBAs have depth beyond the surface of its isometric view, information that is enriching for the knowledgable viewer and player. Depth that for me, maybe the laziest player in the world (and why I gravitate to multiplayer shooters), struggle to wrap my head around.
On Friday night, I played a few HotS matches with some friends (USgamer’s own Mike Williams joined in on the action too, a witness to my fumbling embarrassment). I played a tutorial, did a teensy bit of research before diving in, and still found myself to be initially overwhelmed, clicking my way to repeated death as a grim reaper-like hero. I chose the coolest looking hero at a glance, was my reasoning to my team. I don’t think they were pleased.
But things took a shift for the better when a friend suggested I choose one of the newly added Overwatch heroes, since their abilities are essentially the same as the first-person shooter. So, I played as Lucio, taxiing my teammates to payloads on the also-new-to-HotS Hanamura map. I think it was here that I fell into the flow of the MOBA, even if at a deeper level, I still had no idea what the fuck I was doing.
I also felt massive performance anxiety as I played with pals more versed in the genre. While they were accommodating and helpful, I couldn’t help but wonder if I solo queued into a match, if I would receive the same kind treatment. Kat noted in our Starting Screen column that in her experiences playing HotS over the weekend, that the game’s new blood incited excitement within the already bustling HotS community. Excitement that led players to be positively receptive to the game's new players.
As I talked with friends post-battle, another semi-newbie friend noted that a particular thing that drives her away from MOBAs is their scattered character designs don't feel cohesive. "They all look like Skylanders characters," she compared. And honestly, I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. I found the best-looking characters in my personal roster of HotS were the ones I was already acquainted with in Overwatch, or were skeletons of some sort (because you can't go wrong with skeletons). For me, art design is a big drive to what pulls me into games, my favorite games of all-time being clearly emblematic of that (Persona 3, Okami, Yume Nikki, etcetera). And in most MOBAs I've seen, the best-looking heroes are often the rarest to garner.
But moment to moment, as I eased into the click-happy battling of HotS, things weren’t all bad. In one match, I led our team to success. (And by “I,” I mean my friends did.) I don’t remember what hero I played (it was probably Overwatch's Lucio or Zarya), but in that moment, I felt good. Like I actually did something, rather than gently adhering to the suggestions of my partners-in-MOBA-crime. I don’t think I’m a pro yet, but this spells big things pals. Sponsor me.
Am I on my way to esports glory? Probably not. Will I play again this week when D.Va’s unlockable skin appears? Yes. Beyond that? Maybe. Or at the least, maybe I’ll finally get a second copy of Overwatch on PC and kiss all those skins and unlocks I have on PS4 goodbye. Or maybe I'll take a chance and dive into another more popular MOBA. At least now I can't say I've never played a MOBA before, and that I have a tangible idea of how they play, and what drives players to them. In the meantime, I’d like to thank my incredibly patient friends for guiding me through this bout MOBA hell, and not cursing me when we lost a match or two along the way.