MOBAs had a very humble beginning as a mod for Starcraft in 1998, but the genre has since exploded. MOBAs have spawned a million dollar business and an avid competitive following. “Multiplayer Online Battle Arena”, or MOBA games, revolve around the same core mechanic: players take control of a single character/hero in a top-down perspective and join a team of five to destroy the enemy team’s base. Although game mechanics can be different, the game usually progresses with players leveling up their hero and earning gold to better equip themselves for team-fights. The main differences between MOBAs revolve around the characters, community and cost to play.

As a newcomer to MOBAs, I was looking to introduce myself to the genre with DotA 2, mainly due to its availability on Steam and its relatively new open Beta. I have also tried League of Legends, but I could not bring myself to continue playing it after DotA 2. Later in the article, I will attempt to explain the differences between the two MOBA giants.

However, before we get into the details of these two games, let’s explore their origins. After the original mod in Starcraft, many players felt they could improve on the MOBA game style with a better platform. Hence, multiple modders later released the original DOTA on Warcraft III. However, at its onset, the custom map did not gain the momentum it needed. After multiple attempts by modders, DotA All-Stars, the most successful iteration of the mod, was released. DotA All-Stars garnered a huge fanbase for MOBAs, and became one of the most successful mods/custom maps of all time. However, as good as it came to be, not everyone was satisfied, as the game was still a mod. As such, there was no unique matchmaking system or a way to deal with toxic players. Seeing the potential for this mod to function as a full-fledged game, a number of DotA players and founders, including Pendragon and Guinsoo, teamed up to found Riot Games and begin development on League of Legends. Meanwhile, Icefrog, one of the original developers of DotA All-Stars, continued to perfect the game.

This is where the games began to show their differences. While everyone at Riot Games loved the original DotA, they had to differentiate themselves from the mod if they were going to find success. Riot made their own art-style and champions, while stripping away all aspects of the game they found unnecessary.


After much anticipation and nearly 2 years of beta testing, DotA 2 was released on steam July 9, 2013. The game received critical acclaim and was praised by critics for its production quality, gameplay, and faithfulness to its predecessor. The free-to-play MOBA is now Steam’s most popular game, with an all-time peak of 1.3 million concurrent players.


Each match of DotA takes place on a symmetrical map that contains two strongholds or “Ancients”, the Radiant and the Dire. Beside each Ancient is a “fountain”, which is the spawning point of your character. The Dire and Radiant bases are connected by three lanes, each guarded by defensive towers and A.I. “creeps” which periodically spawn. Also scattered across the map are creeps which are not aligned to either faction, or  “neutral creeps”. These creeps are located in specific spawn points within the jungle. Besides all these autonomous characters, there is also a neutral creep “boss” called Roshan located in the river divide between the two ancients. The cooperation of multiple team members is often required to defeat Roshan. Once killed, team members receive gold and experience, as well as a unique item called “The Aegis of Immortality”. The Aegis can be picked up by any hero on your team to provide a second life, meaning they can be re-spawn 3 seconds after they are killed.

DotA 2 is restricting since you can only play on the same map with three lanes and two bases. DotA 2’s lack of map diversity is a huge drawback when compared to other MOBAs.

The custom map of DotA 2, containing three lanes connecting the two Dire (top-right) and Radiant (bottom-left) Ancients.
The custom map of DotA 2, containing three lanes connecting the two Dire (top-right) and Radiant (bottom-left) Ancients.

DotA 2 features an array of items which can be bought only from specific locations on the map. If you are unable to go to the shop in person, you can always send your trusty courier to pick up and retrieve items for you. Items in DotA vary in function; some are consumables that increase your stats, others enhance your attributes, while some may have active abilities which introduce new mechanics (e.g. a short-ranged teleportation). The items list in DotA is extremely diverse, and have the ability to change your character’s role. For example, if you start out playing as a support, the right items can transition your character into a damage dealing carry. This is where DotA diverges from most MOBAs – each hero is not restricted to just one role, since items can modify one’s preferred play style.

In order to earn gold and experience in the game, players must deliver the killing blow to creeps, be it neutral or enemy creeps. Larger sums of gold and experience are acquired upon eliminating enemy structures and heroes. This mechanic is usually consistent in all MOBAs, but DotA has taken this mechanic a step further. If you ever feel like your enemy is getting too many last hits and is racking up gold, you can always “deny” your creeps. Denying is a feature where players can deliver the killing blow to their own creeps in order to inhibit the enemy’s ability to accumulate gold. You can even deny allied structures and heroes… Just be sure not to deny heroes once they are out of danger!


DotA provides a diverse collection of heroes to choose from. The 110 heroes currently available are divided according to their primary role in the game. Most heroes are best suited for certain roles within their team, such as support, carry, jungler or mid. However, these roles are not set in stone, as I mentioned earlier. All the heroes that were available in the original DotA are available in DotA 2, and ALL of them are free to play right from the start; there are no restrictions. Each hero has a unique set of abilities, and they all scale differently throughout the game.

A few heroes from DotA 2
A few heroes from DotA 2

League of Legends (LoL)

For a long time, LoL was the undisputed king of MOBAs. The game originally release in October of 2009 and took the world by storm. LoL was the first MOBA to transform the concept into a free-to-play money maker. While LoL’s position as king is now disputed, it still remains the most played MOBA. The success of LoL can be largely attributed to its simplicity and variety, where I will elaborate in each context.


Unlike DotA, League has a much more inviting and “noob”-friendly gameplay. The graphics are easier on the eye and the heroes are colourful, but more importantly, League removed some of the complexities present in the original DotA. The most obvious modification in LoL is the absence of the deny feature. Players in LoL cannot deny their enemies’ experience and gold by last hitting friendly creeps. Furthermore, LoL removed the “turn-rate” feature –  the time it takes for your hero to physically rotate. In DotA, when heroes are commanded to move, they actually have to turn around and face the desired direction, which often take time. The turn-rate for different heroes is also different. In League, this feature was deemed to be unnecessary. Moreover, unlike DotA, LoL players are not limited to just one map, as they have a choice of up to four different maps and game modes. They can play on the classic map, Summoner’s Rift, where two teams of five battle in three lanes. Another map, the Twisted Treeline, scales down to teams of three in just two lanes. There are also some unique game modes, where a team of five is forced into just one lane.


LoL has a larger collection of vibrant champions when compared to DotA. With 126 unique characters, each available in multiple skins, players never run out of new combinations to try. However, although LoL is free-to-play like DotA, not all champions are available to newcomers. LoL restricts champions available by creating weekly rotations of 10 playable characters which are free to play that week. You can choose to purchase characters with real money using Riot Points (RP), or through the in-game currency of influence points (IP).

A few champions from LoL
A few champions from LoL

DotA vs LoL

Of all the MOBAs, the two biggest giants are LoL and DotA 2. Each game has its rabid fanbase eager to prove that their game is superior. The age old question has been, which MOBA is the best? In my opinion, both MOBAs are tailored for different audiences. DotA has been known to be harsh to newcomers and definitely has a steep learning curve, unlike LoL. This difference explains the large discrepancy in peak concurrent users between DotA 2 and LoL; with LoL having up to 7.5 million compared to DotA’s 1.3 million concurrent players. Although DotA 2 may never beat LoL in its peak concurrent players, with steady increases in players each year, it’s getting there. The 2015 DotA 2 international tournament featured a prize pool of $18 million, beating all previous records for any E-sport. Although this doesn’t prove anything, it shows DotA is here to stay and is making its mark. Despite all of this, both games cater to their own players and have furthered the legitimacy of E-sports.


If you are looking for a true free-to-play MOBA, DotA is your game. On the other hand, players in LoL unlock champions as they progress in the game, where a vast majority of characters are unavailable to newcomers. DotA 2 may be a free-to-play game, but you would never know it. The production value and gaming format is unmatched in any other free to play game so far. However, neither game requires any sort of monetary investment to improve your performance, where the majority of purchasable content are only cosmetics. If playing games is not enough to complete your gameplay experience, both games offer various alternatives. You can spectate any live game currently taking place, or in DotA 2, even gamble in-game cosmetic items for a chance to win more items. If you are looking to make some money, Valve also allows players to make cosmetic items and advertise them in the DotA community. Depending on the public response, your item can make it into the game, earning you a part of the revenue. Both DotA and LoL are more than just a game – they provide a hobby and a profession. With frequent patches, the meta-game for both MOBAs is continuously changing, keeping players on their toes and the game alive and interesting.