Arena Gaming & the Birth of the MOBA

Veluux examines the history of gaming and explains where MOBAs sit in the grand scheme of things and how they have become so important as a competitive environment.

In light of the upcoming SMITE tournament starting today and carrying on through the weekend - I thought it would make sense to talk MOBAs, particularly since the phenomenon of e-sports has begun channeling itself through this genre specifically. At first I wanted to understand how MOBAs accomplished this - but during my research and contemplation I realized that why they accomplished it was a lot more interesting.

Gaming History and the Rise of a Genre

Competitive gaming has existed since, well, the dawn of gaming. In fact, if you follow the origins of gaming throughout history (a couple dozen centuries ago) you'll end up getting lost in the arguments of where the game of chess/checkers first originated. Most claims point the origin to China or India, with the varying version of the game progressively making their way westward as time wore on (perhaps during the peak of the Greek empire). War gaming was arguably the earliest form of gaming, and likely originated from the necessary practice of strategizing during real wars.

Now jump ahead two full millenia and gaming has diversified itself drastically. Today games aren't solely about crushing an opponent, and even when they are more often than not players are pitted against formidable AI entities rather than each other. Still though, competitive player vs. player gaming has persisted and evolved thorugh the years. Originally, PvP games were mostly solo endeavors, pitting one player against a single other player, especially with war-gaming (after all, there can only be one commander).

Today, however, modern gaming has allowed computer AI to position itself as both the referee and as commander - providing goals and objectives for players to complete, individually or in groups. This is a modern phenomenon only present after the dawn of the digital age and advanced computing. To take it one step further, the ability for players to "meet and compete" anywhere other than locally never existed until the rise of the Internet in the mid/late nineties.

Originally just two competitive genres first existed during this period of internet gaming, the Real-Time-Strategy games (where players assume the role of commander) and First Person Shooter games (where players operate as individuals). Prime examples of these games were: Warcraft, Starcraft, Command & Conquer, etc. as well as FPS titles like Doom, Team Fortress, and Quake. While both of these genres hosted "arena-type" combat, they both did so in dramatically different ways. It didn't take long though for players to utilize Blizzard's early Starcraft and Warcraft map-editors to create a unique mini-game that was something else entirely.

Aeon of Strife, as it was called, was a user-created Starcraft mini-game that took advantage of Starcraft's unique "heroes" from the single player campaigns. Four players squared off in individual lanes against a long line of AI baddies, and the foundation of the modern-day MOBA was set. Shortly after that (and Blizzard's release of Warcraft III - which sported an even more detailed map-editing supplement) the Defense of the Ancients map was created and continued to get upgraded and refined throughout the duration of WC3's life until a handful of off-shoot companies finally decided to make complete separate games based solely around the mechanics involved.

I realize now that MOBAs are just as much a bridge between genres as they are their own unique type of game. Players control the outcome of a battle buy making strategic decisions on an individual basis, which in turn affects a much larger battle that's taking place. Minions on both sides are steadily streaming towards one another and throwing down, while the heroes of MOBAs (the players) are the unique element of chaos. Imagine it like you're playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons where both the GM and the Party members were all AI - and the human players instead functioned more like the dice. The difference being in that the dice are operating on skill, intelligence, and hard-earned experience rather than completely random chance.

If you really think about it, it's kind of mind-bending.

Dice have been used for ages to create chance and unpredictable outcomes (or less predictable, depending on your view of statistics qualifying as a science of its own). In MOBAs, players are the chance element in a bigger, wider game scenario. Unlike FPS arena games, players aren't just individuals are single components of a very small team. Also, unlike RTS arena games, players don't control every allied minion directly from a disconnected position. MOBAs place you somewhere in between.

Even more intriguing, Hi-Rez's SMITE developers chose to shift the camera and controls away from the RTS style of gameplay (where the concept of modern MOBAs was first born) and placed it more in line with FPS perspective and control. That's perhaps why I find SMITE the most interesting of all the MOBAs on the market (although I am still very much a League of Legends fanboy - and that's purely from a time-investment standpoint. I've literally played it since first-launch and with how experience and practice influential on the outcome of victory, playing other MOBAs feels like an uphill battle compared to playing LoL - for me anyways).

All that makes me wonder where else this new train of thought might lead us.

Blizzard's Overwatch looks to be making a stab at the genre in a bold new way (as their official MOBA title: Heroes of the Storm is built on more familiar and traditional mechanics from this within the genre). Honestly though, I'm not as interested as what new things happen inside the MOBA genre as I am interested in what MOBAs will add to future games in other genres. Take EverQuest Next for example, which looks to be aiming for a more narrow "active skill-set" to enhance more strategic MOBA-esque combat. SOE's move to have EQN classes become collectible in a new progression that is as equally horizontal as it is vertical reminds me very much of the mechanics utilized for LoL's Champions and SMITE's gods.

I honestly believe MOBA mechanics could do wonders for upgrading the traditional MMO PvP experience (which to date have been near-impossible to balance without wrecking the PvE side of things, and typically lack either depth, skill, or both). It's something I think we'll get to see a glimpse of with EQNext, at least based on what I've seen at the past two SOELives; but we're still a long way off form it.

At the very least, MOBAs have inspired new innovation in the industry; though I think it's safe to say that they've achieved a hell of a lot more than that. There will be over two million dollars up for grabs this weekend at the huge SMITE tournament - and it's just one of several quality MOBAs on the market.

I think it's fairly safe to say that e-sports have gone to a whole new level because of this genre - in ways nobody has ever seen before; and also in ways nobody probably ever saw coming. To think that something as simple as the Aeon of Strife map could ever have evolved into a multi-million dollar esports scene is just brain-numbing. It kind of makes you wonder what other mods from games are out there that have the potential of an entire genre in them. 

Anyhow, thanks for reading everyone - I hope you enjoyed this article. Be sure to participate below with your own thoughts, opinions, and comments on the subject.


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About The Author

Alex has been playing online games and RPGs for quite some time, starting all the way back with Daggerfall, EverQuest, and Ultima Online. He's staying current with the latest games, picking up various titles and playing during his weekly streams on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings with both MMOs and MOBAs being feature plays. Hit him up on Twitter if you have a stream request for Freeplay Friday! Two future games he's got a keen eye on are Daybreak's EverQuest Next and Illfonic's Revival.

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