The history of MOBAs: from a mod to a 30-million-dollar esport


When it comes to esports, the uninitiated of video games often believe that every game has basically the same mechanics. As gamers know, this is far from the truth. After all, esports are not that different from traditional sports. The latter can be categorized into individual sports and team sports, indoor and outdoor sports, amateur and competitive sports, and so on. Esports can be classified similarly. Of course, there are individual or team esports, as well as different genres. In fact, one of the main distinctions to consider is the type of video game. There are many different genres in the gaming world, from niche genres to those that have seen a considerable increase of the number of players over the years, with tournament prize pools reaching seven figures. These popular genres include MOBAs, FPSs, RTSs, fighting games, sports games and Battle Royale. In this article we’re going to talk about the MOBA, so if you’re wondering where League of Legends came from, or you want to learn more about the history of MOBAs, you’re in the right place.

What is MOBA?

“The MOBA genre generates something like 5 billion minutes viewed on Twitch every month – the equivalent of 10,000 years of video content. In other words, it would be like watching 55,555,555 Serie A games in one month.” ―Jackson Chase, “MOBA: Il genere che ha sconvolto l’esport”

MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) are informally also known as ARTS, which stands for “action real-time strategy.” In a nutshell, these video games are characterized by having two competing teams, where each player covers a specific role, controlling a character who becomes stronger during the game by unlocking skills or empowering them. Both teams are supported by NPC units that are generated from their own base. The competition is won by the team that manages to destroy the enemy base, which is defended by a certain number of towers.

What is League of Legends? – PlayVS
League of Legends Source:What is League of Legends? – PlayVS

The origins of the history of MOBAs or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena

Some claim Herzog Zwei to be one of the forerunners of the genre, and according to other sources, the first real MOBA was “Future Cop: LAPD,” which was developed by the same studios that created Dead Space (Electronic Arts and Visceral Games). It introduced a new game mode called Precinct Assault, which had many of the elements that define the MOBA genre today: the single player-controlled units, defensive structures, etc.

However, most people agree that the first official MOBA dates back to 1998, when a modder, called Aeon64, created a mod named Aeon of Strife. It was basically a fan-made custom map designed for Blizzard’s most famous RTS video game: StarCraft.

The gameplay was pretty simple and had many features that will sound familiar. Players controlled a single hero and fought against a NPC enemy team over three lanes. Each of these lanes was connected to the base of the two teams. The goal was to destroy the team’s enemy base.

Obviously, the current MOBAs show significant development and many improvements, such as the ability for characters to increase their strength level during the game, as well as the competitive aspect. The latter element was added in 2002, when the modder Kyle “Eul” Sommer, created Dota (Defender of the Ancients), followed by the player Steve “Guinsoo” Feak who created an alternative version, “Dota Allstars,” both of which were inspired by Warcraft III. “Like Aeon of Strife, Dota allows players to control a powerful hero and battle an opposing team across three lanes that connected each side’s base.” (VentureBeat)

StarCraft - Aeon of Strife
StarCraft – Aeon of Strife – Source: Blizzard

In 2005, Steve “Guinsoo” Feak stopped his own development of the game, leaving the project in the hands of Abdul “IceFrog” Ismail.

Since then, Dota Allstars has achieved extraordinary success, thanks to the care the modder took to balance the competitive aspect of the game. Spectators also found it pleasant to watch, more than the First Person Shooter video games, which were judged too messy and confusing.

Due to its huge popularity, Blizzard decided to reserve a seat for Dota Allstars at the official BlizzCon tournament. However, this wasn’t enough, and despite its success, Dota Allstars continued to be just a mod, which means that it needed Warcraft 3 game and its expansion, The Frozen Throne, in order to be playable.

Also, the maximum map size that Warcraft 3 supported was 4 MB, but in the latest patch, Dota’s map size was larger than that. This prevented the modder IceFrog from adding new game content. It wasn’t until 2009, when Warcraft 3 v1.24 was released, that the size of the map was increased from 4MB to 8MB, allowing IceFrog to finally release new Dota versions.

The Warcraft III mod was constantly receiving upgrades, and it became one of the most popular custom maps. Later, Valve hired “Icefrog” to develop DOTA 2.

Dota inspired tons of other video games and one of them, became a major part of MOBA history.

The history of MOBAs: from DOTA to League of Legends

In 2005 Steve “Guinsoo” Feak left his initial project and joined Brandon “Ryze” Beck and Marc “Tryndamere” Merrill, the founders of Riot Games.

Their project, announced in 2008, saw the light just a year later. Today it’s considered a MOBA par excellence, and it’s among the most followed esports video games.

In 2009, when League of Legends (LoL) was released, it was more like an alternative version of Dota, taking the best of its predecessor and enhancing it with new elements.

The game was distributed for free, which was quite unusual at the time.

“At the end of the 2000s, only Asian games were free-to-play, and they didn’t have a great reputation among the gaming community. Many regarded them as rich people’s games, since they adopted the pay-to-win formula, meaning the more money you spent on them, the more you could progress.

Beck and Merril decided that they would have never “sold power” or in-game progress, even if making League of Legends completely free would have meant losing millions of dollars.

Check out the full article about the History of League of Legends here

Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games today

Since its launch, League of Legends has changed the history of MOBAs, and a few years after its release, many video game companies followed in its footsteps and success: Dota 2 (2012), Heroes of the Storm (2015) and Smite (2014), are just some of the titles that still enjoy the greatest success among the lovers of the genre.

Dota 2

As we mentioned, in 2009 Valve hired “Icefrog” to help in the development of Dota 2.

Development took a few years, and when it came time for the release, Valve decided to do it big. During the Gamescon, in 2011, the American video game developer hosted a 1.6-million-dollar tournament—the highest prize pool the esports scene had ever seen. The live audience gained access to the DOTA 2 beta, and millions of live streaming spectators had the chance to see the title in action, bosting its fame and success.

That was “the beginning of what was to become the largest professional scene of all games.” (RedBull)

Dota 2
Dota 2 – Source: Valve

Who Owns Dota 2?

As we have seen, League of Legends and Dota 2 share some common origins: they both come from StarCraft III (LoL is inspired by Dota, which is inspired by Warcraft III). This led to a conflict between Blizzard and Valve, as well as between Riot and Valve. On the 16th of November, 2011, Blizzard filed a lawsuit against Valve in an attempt to prevent the DOTA brand from being used, claiming exclusivity with the Warcraft series for more than seven years.

Blizzard stated that the company “seeks to prevent registration by its competitor Valve Corporation (“Valve”) of a trademark, DOTA, that for more than seven years has been used exclusively by Blizzard and its fan community, under license from Blizzard. By virtue of that use, the DOTA mark has become firmly associated in the mind of consumers with Blizzard, including to signify a highly popular scenario or variant of one of Blizzard’s best-selling computer games, Warcraft III. Over the past seven years, the mark DOTA has been used exclusively in connection with Blizzard and its products, namely Warcraft III. Most notably, DOTA has been used as the popular name of a Warcraft III software “mod” file that has been distributed, marketed, and promoted by Blizzard and its fans (under license from Blizzard); that utilizes and is built upon the 1 Warcraft III game engine, interface, and gameplay mechanics; that is comprised of Warcraft III characters, items, spells, artwork, textures, and colour palates; that can be played only using Warcraft III software and via Blizzard’s online service; and whose name (DOTA, an acronym for “Defense of the Ancients”) is a reference to Warcraft III characters known as the Ancients.”

On the 22nd of December, Valve declared that their company “is without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth or falsity of the remaining averments of this paragraph and, therefore, denies same.”

In 2012, an agreement between the companies confirms Valve’s right to use the DOTA name for commercial purposes moving forward. Blizzard, however, would be able to use the term with regards to the fan-made WC3 and StarCraft II maps.

Rob Pardo, executive vice president of game design at Blizzard Entertainment, asserted that “both Blizzard and Valve recognize that, at the end of the day, players just want to be able to play the games they’re looking forward to, so we’re happy to come to an agreement that helps both of us stay focused on that. As part of this agreement, we’re going to be changing the name of Blizzard DOTA to Blizzard All-Stars, which ultimately better reflects the design of our game. We look forward to going into more detail on that at a later date.”

The previous year, Valve tried to file a trademark application for the shortened version of the title, “Dota,” going against Riot Games’s Steve “Pendragon” Mescon (one of the creators of Dota All Stars), who said that “as someone who worked with Dota for years, seeing developers of Valve’s caliber take an interest in this genre is always exciting. Hundreds of people have worked on Dota in its many forms over the years, and millions have played the game, and certainly this type of attention demonstrates how far Dota has come. However, the idea that one single company is taking control of the name of something that hundreds of people have contributed to is surprising. I believe Dota should always remain a community-owned product that modders, independent developers and game fans can continue to modify and play as often as they’d like. Guinsoo and I had hoped that the Dota name would live on in perpetuity as a community project that is both free to play and free to modify and expand.”

These disputes have been resolved over the years, and even though there could still be doubts about who owns Dota trademarks and who has contributed the most to the MOBA genre over the years, what is certain is that MOBA games include some of the most famous video games of all time, and it remains one of the most preferred genres when it comes to esports.


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