Every week two editors debate a new topic —it's a binary exercise we use to seek common ground conclusions or identify fundamental differences. The "my MOBA vs. your MOBA" argument is a heated one, so we reached outside our walls to SOE game designer and former PC Gamer Senior Editor Josh Augustine for his expertise. Josh was our resident League of Legends authority when he was here, so he's arguing on its behalf, while T.J. stands up for Dota 2.
Argue your own side in the comments, and jump to the next page for opinions from the community. Josh, you have the floor:
Josh: No one can question Dota's contribution to the genre—heck, it created it—but in the second generation of MOBAs, League of Legends is the king. It innovates where Dota 2 stagnates, and provides a much better experience for new players.
T.J.: Innovation and stagnation in MOBAs is almost an entirely different discussion. The real innovators are games like Demigod (as comparatively unsuccessful as they are). At the end of the day, both of the big dogs have way more in common than they do in difference. But when it comes to those differences, I think Dota 2 is the more engaging contender. What it lacks in mass accessibility, it makes up for in depth. I'd say the spirit of PC gaming favors the latter.
Josh: I'd love to hear what you think gives Dota 2 deeper gameplay. It's certainly not skillshots or mechanical complexity, like being able to respond to opponents' abilities. Like Dota 2, there are a ton of abilities in LoL that must be targeted at a location rather than an opponent. In LoL, most of these abilities can be blocked with skillful dodging, creep manipulation, or sacrificial leaps by allies. You know how many skills allow for that complex variety of reactions in Dota 2? One. Pudge's hook. Every other “skillshot” hits everyone in its way with no regard for collision. There's no counterplay.
[Update: A few readers pointed out that there are a couple other skills in Dota 2 that can be blocked, including Clockwerk's ultimate and Mirana's arrow. Thanks for reminding us, but Josh feels his overall point still stands. T.J. just didn't bring them up because he didn't feel like he needed to in order to win. Yeah, that was it. Absolutely wasn't just having a total brain flop at the time.]
T.J.: Dota is all about counterplay, way more so than LoL. Sure, there may not be a lot of collision-deniable skillshots, but that's a very niche case to hang your argument on. A lot of Dota's heroes are designed to counter other specific heroes, or kinds of heroes. It creates an interesting rock-paper-scissors meta. Except if instead of rock-paper-scissors, you had rock-paper-scissors-garden rake-tow truck-banana cart-[insert several dozen other things here].
Josh: It's not niche at all! That ability to counterplay enemy skills completely changes the laning interaction, making it much more important to gauge your movement, and track the positioning of creeps and enemy champions.
I want some examples of counterplay that Dota 2 has that LoL doesn't. Other than denying (which, let's be honest, is kind of a stupid mechanic), LoL has all the counterplay Dota 2 has and then some.
T.J.: I'll go ahead and say it: I don't find denying particularly fun. But at a high, competitive level, it gives you more to do in the lane (especially early on). And if you want another example, just look at the subtle differences in the maps. Dota 2's lanes have more variation between top and bot, more potential gank paths, and the distance between towers means you can't just camp out and farm XP.
Josh: So I guess the question is: What do you want your laning phase minigame to be? It can either be a complex game of cat-and-mouse poking with the enemy players, using creep waves as mobile defenses, or it can be shooting your own soldiers in the head.
I'm happy to admit that Dota 2's map has some very cool elements, including those gank paths and the ability for some heroes to cut through trees to make their own path. That's awesome. But so is LoL's brush, which allows skilled players to perform great jukes and manipulate vision in the field. Dota 2 has some of that with its height variance, but it's not nearly as interesting or fun to play with.
T.J.: Not to pop a scroll and concede defeat here- I think we've both made an argument for complexity. But that's only one of many differences. So much of what I prefer about Dota is apparent when you're not even in a match. LoL gives you a very small pool of rotating champs to start with, whereas Dota unlocks every hero immediately.
Josh: Yeah, it's awesome that Dota 2 unlocks all the heroes at once (for free, too, if it ever actually leaves beta), but Dota has to because, like you said earlier, it's built on hard counters for every hero. Without access to the full roster, game balance would be broken. LoL, on the other hand, is balanced around team compositions—a late-game team, a poke-damage team, an AoE ult team, etc.
I'm not saying that it makes paying for every champion individually feel better on your wallet—LoL is a much more expensive game if you want to own every champion—but you can be completely competitive with just the free champions, if you wanted to. And you can buy everything but skins for free, with currency earned from playing game.
T.J.: But that's part of the problem. I like the idea of thematic team comps, but I think it puts you in danger of having a patch-dependant metagame. Balance changes always lead to early experimentation, but the über-teams are almost always going to eventually find a “best” way to do each of the strats you described as a cycle progresses, which can mean a smaller percentage of the champs being in the meta at a given time. Dota's hard counters mean you can't ever really feel safe in a draft, and you're less likely to see a dominant comp emerge in any given patch. Both games will have their no-brainer, god-tier, autoban carries and what have you, of course.
Josh: I do really enjoy Dota 2's balance—those heroes have been around forever and have been carefully tweaked with consistent skills and items in mind. But that also makes it feel a bit stagnant to me—LoL's balance and meta is constantly changing, so that a great team comp may be dominant for a few weeks, until someone figures out how to counter it, and then everyone's experimenting again. They both have their merits in this regard, I think it just comes down to preference.
T.J.: Absolutely. It's a matter of preference. It's just that my preference is objectively better. You made a good point about Dota's heroes having a longer balance history. And Riot's business model forces it to keep releasing champions to keep making money—whether they're ready for primetime or now. We also haven't even addressed how LoL's rune and mastery system keeps you in a stat ghetto until you've invested dozens and dozens of hours into the game.
Josh: The Rune and Mastery system adds a ton of depth to stat tweaking and theorycrafting builds at high levels, and the matchmaking system keeps you playing with people around your same level. It is a minor penalty when trying to play with max-level friends as a brand new player, but I'll trade that for a massive boost to customization at high-level. Another win for LoL's depth.
T.J.: I don't object to the concept of runes and masteries, I do object to having to unlock them over weeks or months. And the difference between a beginner account and a maxed one makes you almost re-learn each champ at certain milestones. You can't just go look up a good jungle Warwick build, because they all assume you have certain runes and masteries. But I can look up a pro-level jungle Lycan. And while I may fail utterly in the execution, at least that's my fault, and not some stat deficiency I have to grind my way out of.
Josh: You know what else isn't your fault, T.J.? The fact that Dota 2 didn't bother to tell you that it chose to recreate bugs caused by the original Dota's RTS engine. Are you familiar with creep stacking, T.J.?
T.J.: Why yes, Josh. Yes I am.
Josh: Then you're, no doubt, also familiar with the fact that it is absolutely ridiculous to expect players to know that if they pull jungle camps far enough away from their spawn points, the game will create a duplicate camp on top of it. Oh, and that you can only do it at the minute mark because that's when the map checks most jungle camps, and respawns the ones it thinks are dead. Gameplay is balanced around this opaque, archaic design! That is some of the stupidest, most unintuitive, lazy game design I've ever seen.
T.J.: Josh, do you know what the following things have in common? Potato chips. X-rays. Velcro. Post-it notes. Silly Putty.
Josh: They're delicious in small doses?
T.J.: Yes. But they're also inventions that came about by accident, and we kept them around because people like them. Both in a limited culinary sense, and for their original purposes. You can call Dota 2's mechanics “archaic,” but if they were such a bother, people would have all abandoned the game by now.
Josh: 70 million people have, according to Riot's last released registration numbers, with 12 million of them playing every day!
T.J.: And “Call Me Maybe” had 367 million views online last year. I never contended that LoL isn't the more accessible, or even more popular game. Consoles also tend to have a higher install base than high-end gaming PCs, typically, and Call of Duty is more popular than Crusader Kings. And yet here we are on PC Gamer, because we love things that aren't the most popular. I'm saying Dota is the superior experience. I could go on and on.
The stronger abilities and items combined with smaller health pools make team fights more interesting. It feels like a high-stakes samurai duel, where one misclick can result in a triple-kill for the enemy team in the space of seconds. I've been in too many mid-game brawls in LoL where a couple people die, and the other eight walk away with lowish health to lick their wounds. That's just not as exciting.
Josh: Fights are definitely faster in Dota 2. Getting one- or two-shotted isn't uncommon, and that goes back to hero balance: Dota 2 makes everyone overpowered and hopes you pick the right counters for the enemy heroes. It's a different playstyle.
Unreal Tournament's fast-paced instagib mode, where everyone wields laser rifles that explode the enemy in one hit, is a ton of fun when we play it casually in the office. But when I want a competitive, team-based experience that relies on working together with other people, I want it to be at a pace where meaningful strategy can be coordinated during the fight. There are still plenty of burst damage moments in LoL—you just have to work a little harder to make them happen.
T.J.: Yeah, that one pretty much comes down to a stylistic preference. I know it sounds silly to try to frame MOBAs in anything resembling reality, but I prefer games where the lethality is a little closer to how an actual such fight would work. Hollywood aside, most sword fights last a couple seconds, then someone gets stabbed. (That's the only conceivable reason fencing never took off as a spectator sport.) It's the same argument I make about shooters feeling boring when you can soak up bullets for a half hour.
Josh: I've never actually been gored by a rampaging minotaur, but I do concede that I probably wouldn't last very long.
T.J.: Speaking of rampaging minotaurs, how's LoL's solo queue treating you? Now, before we get into this: Both games have a higher than acceptable percentage of bad-mannered, text-based shouting matches. And I admire LoL's Tribunal system. But the fact is that a game with as many players as LoL has is inevitably going to attract a lot of... less than mature community members. Same thing happens in just about every explosively popular game. WoW, Call of Duty, you name it.
Josh: Yeah, and being free-to-play certainly doesn't help either game. Riot's done a lot to help improve the community beyond just the Tribunal, but there are still plenty of jerks clogging up the chat channels. There are friendly people in both games, and as long as you queue up with friends, you'll be okay.
T.J.: Oh, absolutely. Both games are far superior played with a pre-made.
Josh: And my teams learn from watching the best teams, and this is an area I think LoL stands as the uncontested champion.
Josh: ...Right, hero. LoL's new league hosts 16 pro teams in NA and EU, pays them salaries and has them play weekly matches in a giant stadium in LA. Rivalries are developing, player stories are getting a spotlight, and it's building a huge community around eSports, which is great for everyone.
It's exciting to finally have reliable eSports scheduling. I've been watching at least 3 days a week and I can't get enough. Ive learned a lot from the great commentary and play of the pros, and I've never been more motivated to play LoL.
Best of all, the entire thing is livestreamed in HD for free, while Dota 2 fans are often asked to pay real cash for tournament passes to watch tournaments in the game client. That constant entertainment is reason enough to choose LoL.
T.J.: Technically, StarCraft II has had regular eSports scheduling for years in Korea... but that's beside the point. (Though I'd gladly argue “StarCraft II is the best eSport ever” any day.)
You're right, though. I objectively can't argue that LoL eSports has way more going on, more of an in-person tournament scene (which I think is a far superior format), and more viewership because of it. But part of that is due to Riot not having... really anything else going on. LoL has been out for a while, and their resources are dedicated to it. Valve has a lot more on its plate, including but not limited to a little thing called Steam. And their game isn't even out yet. Give it time.
Josh: That's a good thing for LoL players—they get their dev team's full attention all the time. As a gamer with choices, I don't want excuses, I want the highest quality content as frequently as possible.
T.J.: And I'll give you that one. In terms of how much eSports goodness you can get, and the regular spectacle of it all, LoL is a more fun scene to follow at the moment. But Dota 2 is like the early days of mixed martial arts, when it was all underground, and only a select, cliquish cadre of fans could see that it was going to be something bigger. It's a microcosm of eSports itself. And the core part of Dota 2's scene that really matters—the game—is superior. I think time will vindicate that, like a late-game tower dive on that jerk who's been ganking you over and over.
Ultimately, I enjoy playing and watching both. The rivalry is almost silly, with how similar they are at the end of the day. I choose Dota if I have to choose, but I don't see why they can't coexist.
Josh: Yeah, I think both games are going to thrive and do well—and they should! We don't have to forsake one for the other, and it's probably better that we specialize in different games. You carry me in Dota 2, and I'll get your back in LoL. Teamwork OP!