By Spencer Furniss
Growing up, I played a lot of RuneScape and World of Warcraft. I threw myself into their worlds, but I never fell in love with the Player vs. Player systems within them. I wanted something with a unique sense of progression, where everyone started off on equal footing and every match felt winnable.
Back in 2009, I remember a YouTube advertisement showing off a new free-to-play PC game called League of Legends. To me, it was something brand new, a genre that mixed perfectly my love for RPGs and competitive, team-based games. You were able to pick from dozens of different characters with different abilities, run them down a lane or into a jungle, farm up some gold to build some items and fight the opposing team to win the match.
I was enamored with it, and spent a lot of time being awful in it. The tutorial unsuccessfully tried to teach you mechanics and even mislead you on what items were good to build on certain characters. Luckily I, and the game itself, evolved to understand what we were trying to accomplish.
League of Legends has grown exponentially over time.
It started as a mod of Warcraft 3, called Defense of the Ancients, more commonly known as DotA. Just a few years later, some of the mod’s creators would go on to help form Riot Games, where they would start work on what would become League of Legends. It became the first truly fleshed-out game of the multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA, genre.
League of Legends hit an unprecedented growth spurt since then. At one point it advertised free beta keys to get to a miniscule 40,000 likes of Facebook (they have nearly 15 million now). Now it’s the most-played game in the world with up to 8 million players online at a time.
It’s the most popular MOBA in the U.S., and in 2019, it raked in $1.5 billion in 2019, according to SuperData.
With the success of League of Legends, the MOBA genre was thrust into the public eye, and with it came dozens of games, all trying to get a piece of a rapidly growing market.
MOBAs are lumped in with MMOs when factored into the gaming industry. In 2017, the MOBA and MMO market accounted for 25% of the $100 billion digital games market at the time, according to Statista. By the end of 2021, the sector is projected to reach $43 billion.
Just like with MMOs, the MOBA market became flooded with competition. But imitation doesn’t mean success, and the MOBAs still around today sit atop a mountain of failures.
The Big Four
Between 2009 and 2019, well over 24 MOBAs were released to varied levels of notoriety. Out of these, only four have found continued success today: League of Legends, Dota 2, Smite and Heroes of the Storm. Each of these games have consumed well over a month of my life in total time played.
DotA 2 was developed by Valve and fully released in 2013. It reached over 1 million daily players in 2016 online at its peak, according to Steamcharts, and now averages around 450,000 players online daily. The game earned $406 million in revenue in 2017, according to the most recent data from Statista.
DotA 2 has maintained a high level of success and notoriety for its complexity and high stakes tournaments. It currently holds the record for the largest prize pool in Esports history at just over $34 million for one tournament.
Smite and Heroes of the Storm, however, are held up by dedicated player bases and developers who show they still care for the game and its players.
Smite, which fully released in 2014, changed the formula by switching to a third-person perspective instead of the traditional top-down perspective. It gave the player a cast of mythological gods, heroes and creatures to control.
The game left beta with 3 million accounts, but did not share active user data after its official launch. It had a dedicated launcher and wouldn’t be added to Steam until September 2015, at which point it peaked at only 20,000 players daily.
As of today, however, Smite is played by an average of 15,000 people on PC, according to Steamcharts, and has recently been spiking in player count every month. SmiteGuru, however, has reported around 350,000 different accounts playing at least five matches a month on console. Since launch, the game has earned more than $300 million in revenue.
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Heroes of the Storm rose to popularity with how it incorporated other Blizzard Entertainment franches into the game. It released in 2015 and allowed players to control characters plucked from series like Warcraft and Overwatch and bash them together like action figures across several different battlefields and game modes.
Blizzard has not reported player counts for Heroes in years, but they reported 6.5 million active players in 2018. While the game no longer has an active Esport scene, and Blizzard hasn’t shared player count data since then, it is still noticeably active and sees updates and new characters regularly.
Blizzard hasn’t shared revenue data on Heroes of the Storm.
A Mountain of Failures
Since League of Legends hit the scene, developers have flooded the genre in hopes to achieve similar success.
In the last few years, dozens of titles have come and gone, unsuccessfully trying to clone League of Legends. In the wake of this boom and subsequent bust, players have been left with four truly successful games that managed to rise above the competition.
Now let’s take a look at those we’ve gained and the many, many we’ve lost along the way.
(Use the arrows to navigate the timeline below. Player counts taken from Steam Charts unless otherwise stated.)
2010 - 2011: Dawn of the First True Competitor
Of the games in this time frame, the one worth noting is Heroes of Newerth. At the time of its release, it was the only game that could really compete with League of Legends within their market.
The game focused on being more closely inspired by the original DotA than League of Legends, separating the games’ play and art styles. It received a large amount of success, claiming over 8 million active players at one point.
Heroes of Newerth was acquired in 2015 by Garena, which set up FrostBurn Studios to handle its development. In 2019, they told players that there would be no more major updates to the game after a patch released that year, other than random hotfixes. And while a couple thousand play people still play the game, this pillar of the MOBA genre is definitely a shadow of its former self.
2012 - 2013: Clone Wars
Five more games released in this time period, three of which were spin-offs of other established franchises.
Guardians of Middle Earth released on PC, PS3 and Xbox360, and was an introduction of the genre to many console only players. Being able to choose from 36 different characters of the Lord of the Rings mythos, it received decent reviews. But the servers for console players were shut down years ago and Steam removed the game from its store in 2019. The servers are still running on PC, although you will never be able to find enough players to fill a multiplayer game.
Warhammer Online is another title in the long list of Warhammer games that enter beta or received a full release without much acclaim or support. The game never left beta and was cancelled as it was obvious that it would never make enough money to justify supporting any longer. The developer, BioWare Mythic, decided their time and money would be better spent developing mobile games.
Related: The top 10 games of 2019
The last game in this section that deserves some time is DC’s Infinite Crisis. It entered beta testing in 2013. The game tried to add its own twist on the genre giving players unique maps and gameplay mechanics such as picking up and throwing cars in the streets. It also drew characters from DC’s Multiverse, letting players choose different versions of their favorite heroes. Batman could be played in his normal style, or as a bruiser or assassin-type character.
This is a game I actually spent a few weeks with during the initial closed beta, but it was obvious that the game was not as unique as advertised or making a name for itself. Many of the items and abilities in the game were exact copies of League of Legends’ items, and the game had trouble pulling in a player base from other MOBAs. It finally had a “full release” in early 2015, but it was shut down in August of the same year.
2014 - 2015: Middling Mediocrity
Remember when I said that Warhammer has trouble releasing successful games?
While it is a table-top giant, and it has seen great success in different genres such as the Total War franchise, it has had dozens of video games that never succeeded. Dark Nexus Arena was a twin-stick shooter MOBA that went into early access in May 2015, but the game never saw a full release and was cancelled less than a year later.
Outside of Warhammer, I think this span of two years really shows that it takes more than just putting out a game and hoping that it sticks.
Sins of a Dark Age, for example, came out as a free-to-play Steam game in May 2015. Just a month later, one of the developers posted on the Steam forums for the game to let players know that the game was not sustainable with its small player base, and would cease development at the end of June 2015.
The small number of players it did have helped keep it alive for several more months, but in the end it just did not become popular enough to support itself.
2016 - 2017: A Paragon of the Bygones
Alright, let’s talk about Paragon. Developed by Epic Games, the game tried to separate itself by being a third-person, action-based MOBA. It was in early access for the entirety of its lifetime, but promised it would develop more characters and content to bring players into their PS4 and PC crossplay player base.
However, when Epic Games saw the growing success of their newest project, Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode, they pulled support from Paragon. It was cancelled and shut down in April 2018. You can still find the assets of the game and its characters living on in the Unreal 4 engine, however.
Star Wars: Force Arena is the only mobile game I’m going to bring into this list, as mobile games have been a dime a dozen for years now.
It was a cross between the clash royale-style of games with the team-based gameplay of a MOBA. where you would send units down a lane that would attack and use abilities based on a timed cooldown. Over time, the game became increasingly pay-to-win, and Korean developer Netmarble lost favor with Disney.
Due to issues the players had with the game, they started to leave in droves, eventually forcing the game to be shut down in 2019.
2018-2019: Copy Cats
We really didn’t see much release in the genre apart from mobile games during this time.
Mobile games are a special distinction for me, because as far as mobile MOBAs, none of them have really made waves in the U.S. Looking beyond whether they are popular on mobile or not, it is important to note that when it comes to mobile MOBAs, many of the ones you see blatantly steal assets from already successful games like League of Legends and World of Warcraft.
Mobile Legends Bang Bang is one such title, having stolen assets from games like League of Legends.
Riot’s parent company, Tencent, successfully sued Mobile Legend’s developer, Moonton Games in 2018 for copyright infringement. Tencent was awarded $3 million in the case. Though it wasn’t enough to deter Moonton apparently, as the developer has moved onto stealing assets from Heroes of the Storm.
Mobile Legends Bang Bang is the most profitable MOBA in Asia right now, according to Sensor Tower, pulling in just over $214 million last year.
The Past and Future Kings
So, here we are. Nineteen games that have come and gone into obscurity, but is that all?
Hell no. Do yourself a favor right now and go on Steam and search the term “MOBA.” There are around a hundred different games available for download right now, free-to-play or otherwise. And more are still coming out.
But at the end of the day, the games that top the list continue to be League of Legends, DotA 2, Smite and Heroes of the Storm. If you were to combine the amount of people playing every other MOBA on the PC and console market, you still wouldn’t be able to breach a single percentage point of the total.
By looking for a quick buck and not understanding what made the other games popular, many companies have had to back out of the competition. With active Esport scenes (aside from Heroes of the Storm), regularly updated content and experiences that grow and change every week, the big four will likely continue to succeed in what they’ve done over their time.
If you’ve never played these games, they all include practice modes against AI-controlled teams to ease you into the game before taking on the competitive mode. Now, if you need me, I’ll be out on Summoner’s Rift, defending my Ancient, flying through the battlefield of the gods, and…wait, did Thrall just smack a Terran tank?
See you on the battlefields, everyone.