The History of MOBA Esports

MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games have kept on pulling players into the esports scene for well over a decade now.

Familiar MOBA games League of Legends and DOTA 2 are at the forefront of esports today, but there’s more on how MOBA games have developed into their current glory. 

In this post, we’ll cover the full history of MOBA esports. And in case you are interested, we wrote a similar post about FPSBattle RoyaleFighting GameCard Game, and Real-Time Strategy esports.

What is a MOBA

MOBAs are a game genre in which games combine both strategy and action, where two teams aim to destroy each other’s main structure on a symmetric map with the help of automatically-generated, computer-controlled units.

Players control unique characters, enhancing the strategic depth of these games.

Popular titles like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Mobile Legends are part of the esports scene, reflecting the competitive nature of the MOBA genre.

The predecessors of MOBA games

The MOBA games we know today transitioned from real-time strategy games in the early ’90s and ’00s.

Unlike FPS games which seemed to be one of the first game genres ever when you look at their history, MOBA games seemed to spring up out of various other genres.

The first game that had many of the features of modern MOBA games was Herzog Zwei back in 1989. It is a real-time strategy game that was published by Sega and developed by Technosoft.

The game had a lot of similarities to current-day MOBA games and it was the inspiration for many popular upcoming games such as Warcraft and Starcraft.

Although not a MOBA game itself, it is seen as a precursor to the genre.

Herzog Zwei
Herzog Zwei

In 1998, Future Cop: LAPD was released. This game had more of the features we expect from MOBA games today and is often classed as one of the first true MOBA games to be released.

Although officially a third-person shooter, the game mode called Precinct Assault is seen as one of the first MOBA-style games.

The PC version of Future Cop: LAPD was even available to play online, making team games possible and further establishing itself as the first-ever MOBA game.

Future Cop: LAPD
Future Cop: LAPD

Between then and the early 2000s, various games and mods were released by various esports game publishers that continued to morph the MOBA genre into what we know today.

The first true MOBA game modes & maps were created on games like StarCraft and WC3. Both games weren’t officially launched as MOBA games but maps and mods that were added to the games allowed for true MOBA gameplay on these titles.

This was back in 2003 when PC real-time strategy games were already in huge demand and had been trending for a good few years.

The first MOBA game

DOTA gameplay
DOTA gameplay

DOTA was released in 2003 and was the first MOBA esports game, with tournaments being held after its release with real-money prizes. DOTA (Defence of the Ancients) was a mod developed for the highly popular Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos PC game.

The real push of modern MOBA games started when League of Legends was released on October 27th, 2009, and DOTA2 a few years after on July 9th, 2013. It was around this time when MOBA games moved to the forefront of esports gaming and the audiences saw more and more competitions being hosted worldwide.

From then on, various different maps, mods, and standalone games were developed in the MOBA genre which further helped to establish them as their own unique class of games.

MOBA esports

Funnily enough, the two games League of Legends and DOTA 2 which started the MOBA esports genre are dominating the scene still today. The popularity of these two games is astounding and the growth of the user base seems to be continuing year after year.

Let’s take a closer look at the history of MOBA games:

League of Legends (2009-)

It’s only fair that a game that started the whole MOBA esports genre in 2009 is now one of the most popular esports games in the world.

Riot Games is not only known for developing the League of Legends, but also for organizing all the big tournaments in the game with some pretty massive prize pools.

League of Legends gameplay
League of Legends gameplay

DOTA 2 (2013-)

There’s your slam, there’s the dunk, there’s the game, the savior of esports – DOTA 2. 

DOTA 2’s first beta version was launched already in 2010, but it took several years before the official full launch in July 2013.

When the game was launched, so was the tournament The International which since became one of the biggest yearly esports spectacles which can not be missed by any esports enthusiast.

DOTA 2 gameplay
DOTA 2 gameplay

Smite (2014-)

The closed beta of Smite was first announced in the middle of 2012 and moved into open beta on January 24, 2013.

The official launch of the game was in March 2014 and it quickly took off by reaching 4 million registered players just a couple of months after being live.

The game studio, Hi-Rez Studios has been able to keep the players happy as 6 years after the launch the game reached a base of 40 million registered players.

Smite gameplay
Smite gameplay

Vainglory (2014-)

Vainglory was originally built for tablets, but over the years expanded to other platforms and is now known as the no-compromise cross-platform MOBA.

The game was soft-launched in September 2014, and full release a couple of months later in November 2014.

At the time of the release, Apple played Vainglory in the announcement event of the iPhone 6 to demonstrate the hardware capabilities of the device.

Vainglory gameplay
Vainglory gameplay

Heroes of the Storm (2015-)

In 2013, the game studio giant Blizzard Entertainment made a strategic decision to jump into the wagon of MOBA games.

Back then, they had already started to develop an RTS game called StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, but decided to switch the direction, and re-launched the project as the MOBA game Heroes of the Storm.

Heroes of the Storm launched as a closed beta in January 2015, with the full release coming out 5 months after in June 2015.

Heroes of the Storm gameplay
Heroes of the Storm gameplay

Arena of Valor (2016-)

In 2015, the Chinese video game vendor Tencent decided to launch a mobile MOBA game of their own.

After acquiring Riot Games, they asked the developers of League of Legends if the game could be turned into mobile. The team of LoL did not see this as a possibility, so a project called Arena of Valor was started.

Mobile MOBA Arena of Valor was released to the Asian market in November 2016, following up the launch in Europe in August 2017 and the US in December 2017.

Arena of Valor gameplay
Arena of Valor gameplay

League of Legends: Wild Rift (2020-)

5v5 mobile MOBA, released October 27, 2020. LoL: Wild Rift is the long-awaited mobile version of the game from Tencent.

League of Legends: Wild Rift gameplay
League of Legends: Wild Rift gameplay

What’s still to come in MOBA esports

With innovation in the esports sector as well as the gaming industry as a whole expected to skyrocket over the next few years, we expect great things from MOBA esports in the future.

Larger prize pools and even more tournaments for big names like League of Legends and DOTA2 are almost a given, but also the growth of more recent releases.

As esports grow as a whole and new MOBA games are released, we expect to see an even more diverse MOBA esports landscape within five to ten years. Including adoption in more countries, far more players, the switch to viewer-first game development, and bigger and better tournaments and competitions.

Teemu "ecnuob" Pesonen

Teemu "ecnuob" Pesonen

The editor is a huge fan of FPS games and an igaming professional with more than 15 years of experience. Favorite esports teams: NaVi, FaZe, HAVU, and ENCE.