One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard about MOBAs, often from people who I suspect would thoroughly enjoy them if they’d only jump in and try, is that they’re too intimidating. There’s too much of a learning curve, too much new stuff to wrap one’s head around, and too many opportunities to terminally botch things for the rest of the team. But that fear shouldn’t deter you, because the reality is you probably know a lot more about how to play MOBAs than you think. Here are five sets of training wheels that lots of potential MOBA-lovers have been using for years without even knowing it.
1: Diablo (and Other Action-Role-Playing Games)
MOBAs are so similar to action-RPGs that I wouldn’t be shocked if Riot announced a co-op League of Legends adventure mode at some point. The two genres are superficially similar in a lot of ways: They’re both played from isometric viewpoints, you guide a single avatar around a battlefield, and you click around and use your abilities to accomplish cool-looking stuff.
Of course, Diablo is the go-to action-RPG staple — and even the upcoming Diablo III was initially set to include a very MOBA-ish team-based versus mode until Blizzard recently announced that it wouldn’t make the cut in time for the launch. In any case, anyone who digs action RPGs already has a pretty good reference point for what MOBAs are all about.
2: StarCraft II (and Other Real-Time Strategy Games)
Seeing as how MOBAs are offshoots of real-time strategy games, this one’s a no-brainer. In fact, the two mods that every modern MOBA is descended from — Aeon of Strife and Defense of the Ancients — were based on StarCraft and Warcraft III, respectively. On more than one occasion, I’ve succinctly explained MOBAs to curious parties as “They’re like a five-on-five Warcraft III, except you control a single hero, and the AI controls the cannon fodder.”
Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but the basic idea of controlling terrain and resources, tailoring your build order (or in the typical MOBA’s case, your item build) to counter your enemy’s strategy, and toppling a deeply entrenched command center are all very much rooted in real-time strategy games. And if you’re any good at games like StarCraft II, those skills are very portable to League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, or pretty much any MOBA you take a shine to.
3: World of Warcraft (and Other Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs)
You’re probably sensing a “MOBAs are like every Blizzard game ever” theme unfolding here, but the truth is that Blizzard just pumps out some outstanding examples of each genre in question. Case in point: World of Warcraft. Or, more specifically, World of Warcraft’s player-versus-player battlegrounds. Or, even more specifically, the Alterac Valley and Arathi Basin battlegrounds.
Let’s look at Alterac Valley. Two heavily defended bases? Check. Critical waypoints to take down along the way? Check. Branching paths between the two command centers? Check. In practice, this battleground tends to play out as a bit of a mad Zerg rush — as opposed to the average MOBA’s drawn-out laning phase — but the basic idea is very similar, and much more intimate given the drastic difference between a 40-man team and a five-man one. And if you’re familiar with Arathi Basin’s control-point system (wherein you try to capture and hold as many of the map’s five nodes as you can, slowly accruing points until time runs out), you know just about everything you need to about League of Legends’ Dominion mode.
And, ya know, the really successful battlegrounds teach an important lesson for any team-based competitive game: If you don’t communicate and cooperate with your teammates, you’re gonna be fighting an uphill battle.
4: Plants vs. Zombies (and Other Tower Defense Games)
This is a bit of an oddball comparison, but tower defense games teach a very important lesson that’s applicable to MOBAs: No matter what happens, nothing is more crucial than preventing the enemy from invading your command center. Sure, it sucks if one of your lanes gets shredded, but the absolute worst thing you can do is allow your enemies access to the heart of your base. If it’s a choice between that and letting some of your outer defenses get absolutely devastated, go for the latter.
At their hearts, both game types are more or less about spinning plates — or, in other words, putting off Very Bad Things for as long as possible, in as many places as possible. If you’re especially savvy (and, in a MOBA’s case, matched with equally savvy teammates), you might even figure out how to address problems before they get really serious.
5: Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition (and Other Fighting Games)
Finally, we get down to something a bit more nitty-gritty. Fighting games are, of course, one of the most heated competitive genres out there. If you’ve played Street Fighter, Soulcalibur, Tekken, or any other fighter competitively for very long, then you probably know that “counterpicking” your opponent (choosing a fighter who’s strong against his) is an effective and sometimes necessary strategy.
This overlaps a bit with RTS build orders, but MOBAs share some common ground with fighting games in this respect, since (at least in a MOBA’s draft mode) you’re playing something of a chess game against the opposing team’s lineup before the round even starts. Suddenly, things like “match-up charts” and “team synergy” and “hard counters” become important watchwords. And really, if you’re inclined toward this kind of competitive spirit, MOBAs have all you can handle.