How the hell did I become a MOBA player?

Out of my Comfort Zone #02

Okay, I’m going to let you take a peek behind the curtain on this one. I chose to tackle a MOBA for the second entry of Out of my Comfort Zone because I thought it would be funny. I thought it would be a story of failure, pain, abuse, and befuddlement. I thought I would suck at it, that I would hate it. That I could write a cheeky article about being out of my depth, but maybe, if I really stuck with it for a few weeks and tried my hardest, I could finally understand the appeal of these games to other people.

Maybe I should have played Dota 2 like I was planning to. Maybe that would have provided me with the brutality and misery I expected. Instead, I played Heroes of the Storm. In fact, I’ve played the game almost every night for roughly three weeks now. I don’t think I’m going to stop playing it anytime soon.

I’m a MOBA man now. How the hell did this happen?

I remember trying Dota 2 a few years ago. I had just watched the International and it seemed like everyone else did too. Hype was at an all-time high, and it felt like the moment to finally try it out for myself. I did it right, I did my homework before I started playing: read a few beginners guides, watched a few videos to prepare myself; I was a professional. I had modest expectations, I knew the game’s rep, that it was complicated, had an abrasive community, and could be rough on new players. I thought I was ready for it.

As you might have guessed, I wasn’t.

I wasn’t just bad at Dota, I was horrific at it. Looking at the action on my monitor was like staring into a void of despair. Every single one of my few matches was a ghastly car wreck that would tumble and twist and dismember over the course of 40 excruciating minutes, and I was forced to look it all straight in the eye. After all, I was the one behind the wheel.

I was, despite my best intentions, despite my goody-goody studying and prep work, possibly the worst Dota player of all time. It turns out there is a huge gulf between knowing what you’re supposed to do, and actually doing it. I was never where I was supposed to be, never doing what I was supposed to, constantly buying the wrong items, requesting the courier at the wrong time, and my teammates were sure to let me know it.

I’ve been playing online multiplayer games for more than half my life, I’m used to a little shit talk now and then. But I’ve never encountered vitriol so purely distilled and highly concentrated as I did as a noob in Dota. The worst part was that it didn’t even make sense. Sure, I sucked. I sucked hard. But so did they. I was being matched in with other new or low-performing players, and while I didn’t have an expert eye, I could tell none of the chucklenuts I was teamed up with were exactly pro-players in their own right.

They were heaping scorn on me, and each other of course, not out of a place of superiority, but a place of expectation. They knew Dota was supposed to be foul and mean, so they acted that way. It didn’t matter if they had the chops to back it up, shit talking was done for the sake of shit talking. Not that I want to imply being great at a game gives you license to be an asshole (it doesn’t), but there is something especially grating about being told to “git gud” by someone failing just as hard as you. Is there anything less appealing than a community that embraces an ethos of shittiness?

So yeah, I might have been the one driving, but there were four other assholes in the backseat pulling my hair and messing with the radio. Is it any surprise we all wound up mangled in a ditch?

So I begged off. MOBAs were not for me and never would be. I couldn’t hang in that group and I had no interest in even trying. However enchanting the action on the International tournament stage was, however interesting the genre seemed to be in the abstract, however cool/funny/cute any particular character was, it wouldn’t be worth putting up with all the crap surrounding it.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago. I’ve got the nebulous idea of giving a MOBA another shot for this series, I’m thinking, obviously, Dota. But, when I tell a few friends about it, they remind me they’ve been trying to get me to play Heroes of the Storm with them for months now and if I’m gonna play a MOBA, it’s going to be that one on pain of excommunication. Well, might as well hit two birds with one stone right? Heroes of the Storm will give me plenty of material to work with, right?

Well, yes and no. Sadly, I don’t have sadomasochistic stories about suffering to share. On the bright side, I am pretty excited to talk about my new favorite game.

I have to explain to you how bad it’s been. How quickly this new addiction spiraled out of control. I went from begrudgingly playing Heroes of the Storm as an academic exercise to subscribing to two different Heroes of the Storm-centric podcasts to listen to while I’m not playing. I went from thinking “oh, some of those characters might be kind of cool” to owning a bunch of mini-figs of the cast. Please understand, I haven’t bought plastic crap for my desk in years. I got away from the pre-order statue, premium action figure game when I realized it was getting difficult to find room for a coffee mug in my work area and never looked back — until now that is. What the hell is wrong with me?

I can’t say what exactly it is about Heroes that makes it so much fun. I mean, the basics are obvious, it’s a well-constructed, highly polished game with excellent variety and constant influxes of new content in the form of characters, maps, skins, and balance adjustments. It’s more welcoming to new players, with (from what I’ve experienced) a less abrasive community. Sure, you still run into the occasional jerk, but they’re rare (it helps that there is no communication between opposing teams and muting someone is as easy as clicking their name). I’m not sure that explains it entirely, but for some reason this one hooked me, badly.

When I love a game, I really love a game. I’ll play them with a pretty scary amount of fixation. Since becoming a (somewhat) more professional games writer in the last year, I haven’t had the time or focus to really deep dive on a game like I used to. But I can feel it happening with Heroes, all the old symptoms are there. I’ve already started pushing the game on others as a per-emptive defense mechanism, building a network of enablers. Like some cliche schoolyard drug dealer straight out of a PSA, I got my girlfriend and family to “just try it out” too and dragged them down to my level. Judge me now, but know that you judge yourself.

To me, Heroes triggers the same impulses as Team Fortress 2 did when I was at the height of my passion for it. A wonderful combination of enjoying the silly characters and goofy aesthetic (Blizzard knows the premise of the game is ridiculous and the characters are appropriately flippant about it) while being absolutely captivated by the mechanics underneath. I’ve always loved class-based team games, and Heroes is very up front with character roles and the niches they occupy. If you squint hard, it almost like playing something like Team Fortress 2 from a bird’s eye view, or maybe the commander’s chair.

I like the wheedling, the finagling, the uncountable little nuances of positioning and timing and situational awareness that make all the difference. How spotting just the right place to be in a team fight can secure a crucial kill that you know deep in your bones wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t scout it out right. How using the right skill at exactly the right time can be game winning. While using the same skill half a second earlier or later would be meaningless. How the mini-map becomes your very best friend in the world. How you slowly learn to fear the enemies you don’t see on it more than the ones that are clearly charging towards you. The ones you don’t see are the clever girls about to Velociraptor you from your blindside.

Right now, all the MOBA players reading this are shaking their heads, “No shit, that’s exactly what we’ve been saying for years!” and they’re right. What I’ve discovered isn’t some big secret about MOBAs that I’m sharing the hot scoop on. It’s only revolutionary to me. But life is made of tiny, personal revelations. Practically everything you love was appreciated by others before you stumbled onto it.

I don’t want this to read as a hit piece on Dota 2 while I lavish praise on Heroes of the Storm. Despite my rough introduction to it, I still think Dota 2 is one of the most entertaining and interesting games on the market. I bet that if I tried it out now with the skills and basic familiarity with the genre that I’ve built up with Heroes I’d have a much better time with it.

Really, it’s the concessions and cuts from other MOBAs that are a big factor of why Heroes is so much more fun for a new player. There’s no item shop to overwhelm you with options, no last hitting, or creep stacking. Ideas like jungling, capturing Roshan, and using minions to push lanes are more formalized into mercenary camps and map objectives in game. Everything has timers on it, things are explained. The inscrutable mysteries and highly specialized, uber-obscure knowledge of Dota is one of the things that makes that game so interesting to watch and to think about. But, and you’re free to call me a wimp here, when it comes to actually playing something, maybe explaining what you’re supposed to do isn’t the worst idea in the world.

I like mystery in games, I like mental work, but it has to be in the proper context. In something like Dark Souls I’m more than willing to explore the world, experiment with mechanics, and generally take a few lumps in the process. But that’s a (mostly) single player experience built on those ideas. MOBAs are more like a sport, a competition between two teams where you have up to 9 other people depending on you to do your part to make it a good match. Thinking about it like that, it seems insane to me to hide half the rules of the game. To suddenly throw another ball onto the field and then scream at someone when he gets hit in the face with it.

You could call Heroes of the Storm “baby’s first MOBA” and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But is it really that bad to want to get your feet under you before being asked to run a race (on a course with deathtraps and spike-pits, where all the other competitors are swinging around bicycle chains and throwing lawn darts at one another)?

Who knows, maybe my infatuation with Heroes won’t last. Maybe in a month or so I won’t be feeling the rush as much as I did the first time, and I’ll be looking for a more concentrated, more complex dose of MOBA action. I’ll come sheepishly up to Dota, or even League of Legends, looking for a new kind of hit. Who can say?

I’m a MOBA man now, and whatever the flavor, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Previously on Out of my Comfort Zone:

#01: Thirsty, hungry, and crappy in ARK: Survival Evolved

Nic Rowen