The MOBA Scramble: Surviving Decline

If you saw Startale’s podcast which I frequent, you’ll have heard me talk about the “MOBA Decline” and how the genre has plateau’d. I feel this could use some background and why I feel this way, albeit some of this will be less raw and heavy facts and more so looking about to infer meaning.

King of the Ring

For just under a decade, MOBAs have been the most enormous and possibly profitable genre bubble to hit video games. League’s explosive success in 2009 followed by the arrival of DOTA2 and more caused a scramble to get into the MOBA industry. It harkens back to the days of World of Warcraft where the MMO caused the entire genre to explode, albeit nobody expected it to last forever. Just as the MMO slowly phased away, so too would MOBAs eventually die out.

Now, to their credit, MOBAs are a part of the free-to-play explosion that has rocked gaming harder than any scandal could. League of Legends still makes money hand-over-first despite being almost a decade old. In fact, the only game that comes close to it is…WoW. A game released in 2004. Granted, WoW has a subscription fee but the sheer money coming in still speaks volumes. Along with that, DOTA2 is still the most played Steam game of the year and regularly smashes the prize pool record from each previous international.

You’d assume that there is nowhere but up, right?

The Scramble

Well, not quite.

If I had to put it to a single thing, I’d say the advent of the “hero shooter” (A FPS game with MOBA-esque mechanics like abilities and ultimates) has caused the biggest alarm for this genre. A genre that erases some of the biggest complaints people have about MOBAs such as long match times, steep learning curves and painfully annoying “It’s everyones fault but my own” mentalities. Sure, some of these still exist in hero shooters, but not to any degree they do in MOBA-style games.

It’s difficult to gain actual data but compare Google Trends for how often League and DOTA have been searched for. Since their peak around 2013, the games have slowly been looked for less and less. Sure, there are major tournament spikes, but people have either found their game or avoided the genre. New blood isn’t really coming into these games and they hold a static playerbase save for the occasional investigative “taste test” of the genre. Interesting enough, when I looked at DOTA2’s Playercount, the number spiked to nearly 14 million unique players. Yet according to Steam Charts (While they don’t tell the whole story), the average player count has dropped since December’s big announcement. What was December’s big announcement?

A Triage Situation

I’ll be blunt: Both games are attempting to triage the situation in their own unique way. While you could argue they’re just trying to keep both games “fresh”, reading between the lines shows more factual information that neither company would truly care to admit.

On League’s side, they’ve basically been making good on promises they made years ago: Replays and Practice Tools have come out alongside a new client, as well as increased bans for pro play.

For DOTA2, the 7.0 update includes a far-cleaner HUD, visual updates for heroes who have desperately needed it, and new gameplay updates that speak more of more casual games than of DOTA2.

When you step back, the intentions are quite clear. League is pushing updates to entice their more hardcore fanbase while DOTA is making a push for the more casual fanbase. Both games are attempting to draw in fresh faces as well as re-incentivize those who may not have wanted to play the game.

But most of all, these updates come off the back of one major thing: Overwatch. Blizzard’s hero shooter has blasted all expectations and has become a worldwide phenomenon. For how long, nobody can say, but it’s more than a coincidence that this game explodes onto the scene and suddenly two industry titans suddenly make sweeping changes to appease the other side of the fence.

Death Knell?

For those who fear for the game you love: Relax. These aren’t going anywhere. MOBAs are far too large to up and die. It’s arguable that they won’t even truly die, just not be number one anymore. Building on this, it’s possible League/DOTA will forever exist as esports. Games we watch rather than play. They still pull in enormous numbers and both games are still considered the pinnacle of esport play along with Counter Strike.

But Overwatch was a wake-up call. They won’t be number one forever. You can’t get by with just what you have as your game gets older. There will be challengers to your playerbase and throne…and that has sparked a massive change-of-pace in both games. MOBAs still have plenty of life in them and we’re not going to see them rot away too fast…but the question is how long they’ll be at the top as time goes on.

And that? I have no idea of.

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