A casual observer would probably have a hard time telling the difference between League of Legends, Dota 2, and Heroes of Newerth. All three are spiritual successors to Defense of the Ancients, an insanely popular custom map for Warcraft III that pits two teams of five heroes against each other. That strategic, intense style of play has birthed a new genre, the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA).
We’re here to help you see the differences between the three most popular MOBAs currently out on the market. Some of the discrepancies may seem small, but they can make a big difference with games this complicated.
First, let’s talk about how they’re similar. They’re all free-to-play and offer plenty of microtransactions (many of which are cosmetic). They’re all based on the structure made popular in Defense of the Ancients: Your team has to destroy the enemy’s base before the other team does.
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You fight other players and monsters controlled by the computer to earn gold and experience so you can make your hero more powerful, which allows you to push through lanes of the other team’s defensive towers and monsters. Even the main map in each game is essentially the same. Each features two bases connected by three lanes, with a monster-filled jungle offering branching paths between them.
Now, let’s get into the differences. We’ll start by looking at some of the basic stats in the graph below, and then we’ll briefly highlight each game.
League of Legends (LOL)
League of Legends is easily the most popular MOBA out there. While its competitors offer all of their heroes for free, LOL only gives you 10 free characters at a time. Exactly which heroes changes every week. You’ll have to pay for any other champions you want, either with real money or in-game currency that you can earn (slowly) by playing.
LOL is the simplest one of the three to grasp. While still heavily based on the original Defense of the Ancients formula, gone are some of the more advanced techniques, like “denying” (the ability to kill your own monsters before the other team can, denying them gold and experience). LOL is generally faster than its competitors although by “faster” I mean matches may take 40 minutes instead of 50.
League of Legends also offers a couple of variants on the 5-on-5 play the genre is most famous for. One is just a smaller, 3-on-3 take on MOBA action, but the other, Dominion, is a quicker-paced mode where teams of five fight over circular control points. A fourth map, the Howling Abyss, let’s two teams of five battle on a chaotic, single lane .
Compared to LOL, Dota 2 is much more faithful to the original Defense of the Ancients. You won’t find any variants on the classic 5-on-5 map. However, Dota 2 does offer immediate access to all of its heroes, with microstransactions reserved for cosmetic stuff like character skins and announcer voices.
Being the newest of the bunch, Dota 2’s also the best looking. While all three feature visuals clearly inspired by Warcraft III’s art direction, Dota 2’s graphics have a cleaner gleam and shine to them.
Generally speaking, Dota 2 is slower than LOL. While the layout of the map is identical, Dota 2’s is a bit bigger. Actions, like movement speed and casting spells, are generally slower. Also, while LOL allows players to transport back to their home base at any time, you’ll need to have a stack of town portal scrolls handy if you want to get around in Dota 2. On the plus side, using the scrolls can send you to any friendly building, including towers.
Heroes of Newerth (HON)
Heroes of Newerth has more in common with Dota 2 than LOL. It’s a very literal spin-off of Defense of the Ancients. Dota 2 and HON even feature many items and heroes that, aside from their names, are pretty much identical. The biggest difference between them is the pacing. HON matches tend to move faster.
In addition to the standard 5-on-5 map, HON has two more official battlegrounds. One is a smaller field for 3-on-3 play while the other is another 5-on-5 map with a different layout. Players generally stick with the original.
Graphically, HON most closely resembles the original Warcraft III mod. It doesn’t have LOL’s cartoony, dark outlines or Dota 2’s sheen.
Those are the biggest differences, but fans of each game could argue endlessly over the smaller details of character balancing and other intricate mechanics.
Of course, these aren’t the only MOBAs on the market. Guardians of Middle-earth distills the experience for consoles by using a smaller map and featuring faster action. It also, of course, includes characters from Tolkien’s popular mythology. Super Monday Night Combat combines core concepts of MOBAs, like pushing lanes and attacking towers/turrets, and puts them into a team-based third-person shooter. Even mobile publisher Zygna has released a MOBA called Solstice Arena, which simplifies things by featuring 3-on-3 battles and getting rid of nonplayer monsters.
The genre will see new competition soon, too. Infinite Crisis will pit DC comic characters against each other in MOBA action later this year, and Blizzard is working on its own successor to the original Defense of the Ancients called Blizzard All-Stars.
Until then, if you’re feeling the itch to try your hand at this new kind of game, start with League of Legends. It’s the quickest to grasp, and it’s faster action is more satisfying for newer players. If you find yourself craving more complexity, try HON or Dota 2.