It's not often that we get to declare that there's a new gaming genre in town. What began as a hybrid of real-time strategy and role-playing game elements, stitched together by a talented team of modders, has become a dominant online game type with millions of players. Those millions are now the target of two of the biggest game developers in the world: Valve and Blizzard.
This genre includes Heroes of Newerth, Demigod, in-development StarCraft II mod Blizzard DOTA, League of Legends and the forthcoming Dota 2 from the mighty Valve. The latter two will be facing off at the gamescom convention in Cologne this week: the hugely popular League of Legends will be showcasing its latest update, Dominion, while Valve will be debuting Dota 2 by giving away an unprecedented amount of money in a tournament.
How much money? The prize pool is $1.6 million, the largest for any single e-sports event ever, with exactly $1 million of that going to the winning team. That's how big this genre has become.
But what is it, exactly? Where has it come from and how has all this grown from just one mod? The jury's still out on whether to call the genre MOBA, for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, or DOTA, from Defense of the Ancients, one of its origins - and that may be more than a mere turn of phrase if Valve's move to trademark the word "Dota" ends up going to the courts.
A video games archaeologist dusting off the genre's genesis would uncover its RTS roots in the StarCraft map, Aeon of Strife. This was a considerably modified map on which, instead indulging in the usual base construction and unit command, each player controlled a single, powerful hero unit. While they still had a base and an army, the AI managed these, spawning and sending waves of units against a similar, opposing base along three different lanes of attack. These lanes were dotted with defensive towers, which the heroes and their armies would have to take down (or defend) before reaching the base proper.
This has caused some to liken the genre to tower defence, but it's a misleading comparison. Sure, there are towers involved, and you can defend them, but the gameplay is quite different.
In Aeon of Strife, the role of players was neither to micromanage this battle of attrition nor to build any structures, but instead to carefully nudge the balance of the carnage by being in the right place at the right time. By supporting their AI units, players could help them destroy enemy defensive structures and, eventually, the base. The other side's heroes would be doing the same and often both would clash upon the field of battle.
With the release of Warcraft 3 in 2003, a keen modder known by the handle Eul began development on a similar map that would support up to 10 players, which he called Defense of the Ancients (DOTA). This was where the RPG elements were further refined.
The core of the game remained the same - RTS-style point-and-click control of a single hero - but now these heroes wielded wildly different abilities, could purchase a variety of different weapons and would level up and gain even more skills. Killing opposing heroes and AI units rewarded a player with both experience and cash - and, of course, during the time that opposing heroes were respawning, their opponents could swing the battle in their favour.
After its release, Eul stopped work on DOTA and other modders stepped in and tried their own versions. The most successful of these was Steve Feak, better known by his bizarre handle: Guinsoo.
Guinsoo developed DOTA: Allstars, a kind of greatest hits mixing the best elements of other DOTA mods and adding his own content. Allstars featured a map dotted with neutral monsters, boasted many heroes and had an overwhelming array of special items, some of which could be combined in recipes to create even more powerful artefacts.