Demystifying MOBAs - The Pantheon in Action

Bridging Worlds is a series by LA-based artist and VGT author Eron Rauch about the blurred line between games and art. His multi-part essay "Demystifying MOBAs" takes an in-depth look at the game design of esports and MOBAs. Part one, part two

Wait, What’s A Mid-Fielder Again?

Moving on from last week’s examination of representation and art styles in mobas, each of the three games we’ve been looking at in the series also has a rather different idea about your relationship to your character and what it should be doing in the game. It’s important to note that in all three games, each of the five players that make up a given team will fill different roles, which are similar to positions in other sports like baseball or football. DotA2 has by far the most complexity and fluidity in character positions, but as is typical for all three games, each player will eventually come to specialize in a particular role or position.

There are unofficial subsets of the characters that are considered “correct” in each role, though there is nothing aside from poor strategy to prevent “wrong” characters to be used in any given position. At the most basic level, each character in all three games has a combination of six or more abilities. These abilities determine the characters’ usage in any given team. For instance, one character could be very fragile but have abilities that rain down damage afar, while another character might be able to only attack up close, but can go invisible to close that gap to the fragile character. Similar to a football match, games are played out strategically based on the strengths and weaknesses of each team.

For DotA2’s positions, you typically have two “cores” split between mid-lane and top-lane, two “supports” and then a more flexible position that called a “safe-lane.” There is a large degree of flexibility in team composition even at the pro level. Sometimes these positions are also called by number, one through five, which designates how much of the in-match resources the team is trying to gather for the player. So if you’re position one, your team is actively trying to find you the most gold and items, while if you are position five, you are deliberately trying to avoid taking resources away from the rest of your team.

This is not hard-coded into the game, and can change within any given match. If for instance, the mid-lane core, typically position one or two, gets totally shut down, but the another position such as the support somehow got way ahead the team can make the call to now treat them as position one, giving them more money and protection. In DotA2 tournaments, it’s typical to see almost 90 % of the characters get played at some point across all the games, and players are expected to know all the main characters in their position, which is emphasized by having every champion available to all players. Occasionally there are sneaky player-champion-position change-ups that are used to confound the opposing team. That is, sometimes teams will put players on non-standard or weird characters for their position simply because the other team won’t know how to play against it.

In LoL, you have characters in positions named after the physical location on the map they occupy: top-laner, mid-laner, jungler, and then what is called the “duo lane” at the bottom, made up of support and the marksman (though almost no one calls it that - instead informally terming it “AD Carry,” referring to the fact that this position is the ranged character who does physical, or “Attack Damage”). Occasionally at the highest level of professional play, the top and bottom lane will switch position for tactical reasons, but everything else is pretty locked in place. Note that LoL is the only game out of the three with jungler as a fixed position. The jungler is a position that roams the entire map to gather resources and help teammates while moving through the areas between lanes; DotA2 allows that style as a team choice with a certain subset of characters, while HotS has no equivalent (since resource allocation is universal, not individual).

LoL is very different than DotA2 in that players, even top-tier pros, have what are termed “champion pools”, which are a small subset of characters from their role, usually between three and six, that they play well enough to field at the highest level. To emphasis the difference to DotA2, one of the best marksmen of the first few years of competitive LoL, known as Genja, only played one character (Ashe) in all of his many hundreds of games prior to reaching the upper echelon of the rankings! Much like fighting games, this means that even at the lowest skill levels of LoL most players will have what are dubbed “mains,” which are the small handful of characters they are skilled at. In tournament terms, that means you’ll see a much smaller percentage of the champions played across the games and a large part of the meta-game is tripping up the other team by preventing them from playing their mains.

Everyone fights to play the spectacular positions - often based on what was making superstar plays in esports broadcasts.

In HotS, there isn’t nearly as developed a metagame as in the other two titles yet. But the strategy for picking characters and assembling a team is mostly focused around the players each having a specific role to enact. The game, very much like a basketball team, is mostly about moving around the map as a unit. One player specializes in the burly tank character (warrior), two specialize in fragile damage dealers (assassin), one specializes in support (known as… support), and then the fifth member is a generalist “flex” player, who can play most of the champions in the game to round out whatever team setup is needed. Much like DotA2, HotS players are usually required to play every character in their role, often with a few overlapping characters from other roles, and most tournaments see most characters played, though there are always an upper tier of priority or strong characters that define the game at any given moment. In all three games, one of the most common conversations (arguments) before a pick-up game is who will take which position. At any given moment everyone fights to play the spectacular positions, often based on what was making superstar plays in esports broadcasts. Traditionally, these superstar roles have been the mid-lane and carry positions, but one of the defining changes that LoL enacted (which carried over to HotS) is to make support positions more equitable and to actively promote supports as impacting play in major ways.

Glorious Limitations and Limitations To Glory

Having picked a character and role (or been forced into one by a bunch of rude strangers), in each game a new player will very quickly start to notice there are wildly differing notions for how each character has the power to affect a given match. DotA2 has a massive spectrum of character strength and circumstances in which a given character is strong. Though that sounds rather abstract, it is practically felt everywhere in that some characters can easily win the game by themselves if they can collect resources for the first thirty minute of the game; while some characters basically don’t become any more useful after 20 minutes no matter how many resources they get; some characters dominate the game if they get the resources they need, but are wet noodles if starved out; others don’t need any resources and don’t even grow much if they do have resources; some characters provide general support; others can almost instantly kill another character but add nothing else to the team. Some characters have just two active abilities, while others have a dozen, with all the pratfalls and mistakes that come along with that complexity.

In fact, in DotA2 it’s common for supports to finish even a winning game with basic boots and one small item that buffs the team while the core positions might have a small army’s worth of magic swords and glowing armor by the end. Radical diversity of options is the motto of DotA2 and putting together a selection of five characters that have interesting interactions and knowing where and when they are strong is a huge part of professional play. If, for instance, you see the other team forming around characters that start off weak but slowly become unstoppable, you can build a team that starts off insanely strong but doesn’t get much better and completely run them over at the beginning of the game.

(Video: An example of counterplay in LoL)

In LoL there is an emphasis on very precise 1v1 solo play in lanes early, and then transitioning into coordinated teamwork later in the match. Some characters are stronger earlier and fall off later, while some grow more in strength, but those extremes are much closer together than in DotA2. It is possible for a character in LoL to get out of hand, but that is because they were able to earn their way to that position though garnering many small advantages early, not because of some automatic rock-paper-scissors character picking. There is some difference in the kinetic nature of champions in different roles, particularly with supports not having quite the same level impact on the game as the other positions (top ranked players are mostly mid and jungle). But while Riot started with LoL being quite similar to DotA2, with Riot’s interest in fighting game ideals of “counterplay” (which will be discussed in greater detail later) they have been explicitly giving supports more equal resources and playmaking opportunities and also been actively down-tuning characters that run away with games.

In HotS, characters interact like Voltron - all five combine to fight as one, or in less metaphorical terms, teamwork provides almost all the playmaking potential. The game is tuned so that dying in a 1v1 is pretty hard to do unless a player makes a large mistake. The gathering of resources also doesn’t require attacking the minions, merely being near them, which means that pro play revolves around making smart, fast, decisions to call for help, assessing danger, or going to help teammates all over the map. Almost all the champions contribute evenly to a given game, though there is still a split between what precisely damage dealers, tanks and support try to do. Since all resources are shared (such as experience points) all characters on a team are at the same power level, any player choice, successful or not, is actively balanced by the overall performance of the team.

I was told there wouldn’t be math

One of most subtle but weirdest differences is the way each game uses numbers. All three utilize a typical Role Playing Game style stat system with hit points and mana that are based on the Japanese Final Fantasy mode with characters that have many thousands of HP. But for all other numbers, the three games are very different: DotA2 uses really small numbers, LoL has inflated numbers, and HotS mostly hides statistical numbers. For instance, a character in DotA2 that has 10 base armor is pretty amazing, while in LoL all characters have somewhat arbitrary numbers, so that an armor of 110 is about the same as that 10 DotA2 armor. Interestingly, in the newest game, HotS, there aren’t any easily user-visible stats like armor, and Blizzard has chosen a streamlined but more opaque way of dealing with bonuses by merely having abilities say they “reduce” or “increase” certain kinds of damage, usually by a percentage. This means that at the most superficial level you can’t really talk about armor in HotS (novel for a fantasy RPG game!).

These numerical choices really showcase the differing philosophies of the games. DotA2, with its massive free champion pool and wildly dramatic game and team differences, uses smaller numbers to facilitate on-the-fly conscious decisions about what you want to do with items and abilities within each match. It’s easy to do 10-5 or 5+5 even while you’re sneaking around a massive forest. LoL’s approach is based on the fact that most players only play a few heroes, and that relative to DotA2, they have to make less subtle choices about items, and that much of the subtle math is handled during an out-of-match system called runes and masteries. Like car racing setups, these are small but highly complex multi-tiered systems of tuning that includes things to pre-shape and slightly customize the stats of those small number of characters you’ll be playing to find small advantages. These setups are then additionally modified by items in the match which are picked less for their actual numbers than because they are tailored toward a scenario or another. Most characters have an ideal “build” and any deviation is then only going to probably be swapping one item for another.

In HotS, Blizzard is very openly trying to simplify these traditionally arcane systems that require great deals of outside research and has jettisoned items, runes, and masteries altogether and instead designed an simple in-match system where you pick your character’s bonus abilities as you go from a small handful of options such as, “on reaching level 5 chose one: buff melee attacks; or receive an aura that heals friends.” Choosing a unique path for each match as you level up means you can have some flexibility to tune the character, but with no out-of-match tuning nor in-match items to make modifiers on the champion, there is no reason to worry about the small numbers. To make up for this, the game is unique in that at it offers not one, but two options for the characters’ ultimate ability which often has radically different and drastic effects. These decisions make for a vastly more accessible game that tries to limit knowledge-based boundaries for casual players.

In summary

From the representational choices and history of the artwork, to the way they envision the roles each player-character combination should take in their team, to the very subtle ways they deal with translating strengths and weakness in to math, each node in the vast field of MOBA design decisions provides a small window to peer at the way these three games work differently from each other. Not only that, but the way these design decisions interact with economic realities of these mammoth games and indicate certain world views for their respective esports audiences shouldn’t be underestimated even if they exist primarily in a nearly subconsciously accepted fashion for the average player. Above all, characters are the foundational element of all three games and the notion of a player taking real-time control of a single unit in a Real Time Strategy game while also interacting with numerous other players in a team setting is one of the most novel and dynamic ideas to come from the rise in MOBAs.

In next week’s installment, we’ll take a closer look at the battlefield in which these character act.

Part 1 - Demystifying MOBAs: An Introduction to an Introduction

Part 2 - Demystifying MOBAs: Characters - Representing A Digital Pantheon

Part 4 - Demystifying MOBAs: A Charming Stroll Through Flatland’s Battlefield

Part 5 - Demystifying MOBAs: PLAY - The Gory Farming of Glory

Part 6 - Demystifying MOBAs: A History of Speed

Part 7 - Demystifying MOBAs: The Grand Spectacle

Part 8 - Demystifying MOBAs: The Heralds of High Drama



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