Picking a MOBA: LoL, Dota 2, HOTS, and Smite

These days, becoming a MOBA player begins with a single, all-important question: which one is right for you?

Back in 2009 there was only League of Legends, but currently we have four major players in the game – League of Legends, Dota 2, Heroes of the Storm, and Smite.

Each one of these games brings their own special twists to the MOBA genre, so how do you choose between them? Since I’ve been playing MOBAs since the days when DOTA was in the Warcraft III engine, I thought I’d lend a hand to prospective MOBA gamers by running down the pros, cons, special features, and professional scenes for the big four MOBA titles. 

Smite

Pros

  • All Characters(current and future) for approx. $30
  • Learn about the mythologies of the real world
  • Amazing game client
  • Low barrier of entry

Cons

  • Over-the-shoulder view
  • Some awkward default buttons
  • Can’t use mouse to hover over things unless you’re in a menu

Overview

The first thing that struck me about Smite was the ease of the tutorial for new players. It is extremely helpful and takes you through the multiple game modes that the game offers. The objectives and basic game mechanics are taught to you quickly and clearly.

The second thing I noticed about Smite is that it plays differently than any of the other MOBAs. Smite is almost in a different category altogether. The game feels more like a brawler because of the 3rd-person perspective you have. It feels a lot like Dynasty Warriors, only with enemy generals controlled by actual human players.

Instead of inventing champions like League of Legends does, Smite takes their Gods directly from the mythologies of the real world. You’ll see Gods from Roman, Greek, Norse, Japanese, and Chinese pantheons, along with many others.

And when the developers decide to put a new God into the game they really go all out with making them feel authentic. Everything from the way they look, their voice lines, and their abilities all make perfect sense. Each of these aspects are well defined allowing players, even new ones, to quickly and easily identify enemy Gods based on the abilities they see.

Gameplay

Like League of Legends and Dota 2, the leveling in Smite is done separately from your teammates, so you can fall behind. Which means one champion can snowball ahead and steamroll an entire team.

Speaking of levels, players are given Relics in place of LoL’s Summoner Spells. The main difference here is that you only get one at the beginning of the game, but they can be swapped, something that LoL can’t do. Once you reach level 12 you can pick up a second Relic.

Another major difference is how Smite deals with gold. In LoL and Dota 2 you have to last hit minions to get gold, but Smite doesn’t force you to do this. There is a very good passive gold rate in addition to the gold you get for being around minions when they die, and from clearing jungle camps.

Speaking of the jungle – the jungle is much more involved in Smite than it is in LoL. The camps all give various buffs that will benefit certain champs more than others, not unlike LoL, but there is more variety. In addition, you can only have one buff at a time in Smite. There are similar large-scale objectives in Smite, too.

Items are another crucial part of the game that has been simplified for beginners. Smite has an auto-buy system that you can keep enabled when you play. Whenever you return to the base the game will automatically purchase an item it deems suitable for the champion you are playing. There are some drawbacks to this system, of course. It doesn’t allow you to customize your build to what the enemy is doing, but it’s a small price for new players to pay.

The same thing goes for the leveling of abilities. This is useful in the beginning when you’re initially adjusting to the gameplay, but I found it is much better to level your abilities manually.

Extras

The information the developers bring to Smite is mind-boggling. One of my favorite things is the detail of the abilities screen for each champion while you’re in a game. The menu shows you a detailed readout of your abilities, their effects, their area of effect, and damage/healing/etc. at each level. For new players this is a great boon for learning how each spell/ability works.

I mentioned in the pros and cons that the client for Smite is absolutely amazing. Like everything else, the amount of detail and information put into it is astounding. You get things like better profile stats, total number of Gods owned, summoner icons, and specific stats tracked. They also have Accolades that track specific feats like the amount of quadra or pentakills, objectives taken, and even objectives stolen.

Finally we need to talk about unlocking the various gods. Smite uses a currency called Favor that you earn through just playing the game (IP in LoL). You can gain it through playing, completing the weekly quests, and by simply logging in every day. Compared to LoL, Smite is much more rewarding in this aspect.

Other things to note is that Smite has a quick 5v5 mode that is good for learning champions in a coliseum type map. Smite also has a Mario Kart-style racing game.

Pro Scene

The pro scene for Smite isn’t as big as League of Legends, but that doesn’t mean it’s a slouch. The Smite world championship gave out a grand prize of $1 million for the past two years, and in 2015 they had over a $2.3 million dollar prize pool.

Tracking the pro scene is much easier, too. All the information you need is in the game’s client. You can see when the seasons are, who is playing, and all sorts of useful information.

Surprisingly, there is also a pro scene for the console versions of Smite, though they don’t offer nearly as much money.

Dota 2

Pros

  • Less downtime
  • All champions available for free
  • More RNG for variety
  • Most satisfying announcer

Cons

  • Champions are less defined
  • Gameplay feels slower
  • Graphics don’t “pop”

Overview

Dota 2 is more like League of Legends than Smite is, but there are still some very significant differences between the two. The first thing that you need to realize about Dota 2 is how involved the map is. Champions are constantly moving in and out of lane for jungle objectives and buffs. Secondly, the map is broken up into many smaller areas that create more paths to go through, and more fog of war.

But let’s backtrack to the tutorial for Dota 2 for a moment. When you start up the game for the first time it goes through a simple questionnaire that asks you how familiar you are with the genre, which will define how detailed of a tutorial you get. I will say that the tutorials feel a bit long.

My biggest problem with Dota 2 is how undefined the champions feel. In a MOBA game you want the champions to “pop” out from the environment and the NPCs. Many of the heroes available to you do this, but there are champions like the Sniper who blend in and aren’t as defined. Champions can easily get lost in the visuals of the map and the NPCs.

The biggest selling point for Dota 2 is that all the champions are unlocked from the moment you start the game.

Gameplay

Let’s talk about one of the major differences between LoL and Dota 2’s laning phasea. While both require you to last hit creeps for gold, Dota 2 takes this mechanic one step further by allowing you to deny the enemy creeps. It’s a unique aspect of the gameplay where you can kill your own minions once they are below 50% health in order to deny your enemy some experience and gold.

The other major thing is that if you don’t die, you don’t actually have to leave your lane in Dota 2. Throughout the map there are Shrines, which act as mini bases for each team. If you approach and activate them they will heal you and replenish your mana. But what about buying items? Well Dota 2 has that covered, too. There are mini-shops on each of the side lanes, and each side has a secret shop they can access on the map.

In addition, each team has a courier that they can use to buy items, and then have the courier deliver those items to them in lane. This system eliminates the downtime you have in games like Smite and League of Legends.

Speaking of downtime, one of the major criticisms of LoL is the death timers. Dota 2 took care of that in an interesting way. If you die you can buy back into the game for a set amount of gold. This makes for much more interesting final pushes because if a team is defending their base you can die and be back up and fighting moments later.

Which brings us to another unique aspect of Dota 2; you can lose gold when you die, but only a certain type. The game uses two types of gold – reliable and unreliable. You lose unreliable gold on death, which can be defined as gold you gain from last hitting minions. The other gold type is reliable, which would be things like passive gold gain, champion kills, and securing objectives.

I want to talk about the actual map of Dota 2 because it’s quite important. It’s actually interactive in ways maps in other MOBAs aren’t. The major interaction is the trees of the map. You can consume them for health with a certain item, and you can destroy them with many abilities. By doing this it can change the fog of war, or allow you some extra means of escape.

Another thing to deal with regarding the map is the day/night cycle. Certain champions will see have better vision during the day or night.

And finally, the jungle camps for Dota 2 are much more randomized than in any other game. Each camp has random number generation behind it that determines what type of unit spawns in it. While that may not be a huge difference, it is something that makes the game stand out from its counterparts.

Extras

The Dota 2 client is just as extensive as the one in Smite. It does give you some extra features like a graph that will track your play style. In addition, it also tracks your lifetime stats of things like average gold and XP per minute, average last hits, and your various killstreaks.

You can also get all the information you want regarding pro tournaments in the game’s client under the watch tab. It features professional and games currently being played that you can watch. The ability to view high Elo games is a feature that I wish they’d bring back to the LoL client.

Pro Scene


Dota 2 has a thriving professional scene with some of the largest prize pools in e-sports. The last few major tournaments for Dota 2 had a prize pool of $3 million each. In comparison, the 2017 League of Legends MSI tournament clocked in at around $1.7 million.

Heroes of the Storm

Pros

  • All champions come from Blizzard IPs
  • Team-based leveling
  • No items/gold
  • Champion customization
  • Multiple maps for competitive play

Cons

  • Champion pool is becoming bloated
  • Many rewards require you to play other Blizzard games
  • Team-based leveling
  • No items/gold

Overview

Heroes of the Storm is the most unique of the four MOBAs in regards to the actual gameplay. Yes, the concept is exactly the same, but it’s the execution that’s a little different.

If you’re a fan of Blizzard games and their characters this is probably the game for you. Every champion is pulled from the existing IPs Blizzard has already established. You’ll get champions from StarCraft, Warcraft, Diablo, and even The Lost Vikings. It isn’t just the famous characters, either. One of the most recently released champions is a Protoss Probe.

Another big aspect of Heroes of the Storm is that it focuses on teamwork more than any of the other games (unless you’re talking about the pro level). There are also other unique elements, including the leveling system, the lack of items, and multiple maps for competitive play.

That said, Heroes of the Storm is quickly approaching the point of having a high entry barrier. Blizzard has released champions at an alarming rate, which has bloated the champion pool. Unlocking all the champions becomes a chore, much like it is in League of Legends. However, Heroes of the Storm does have the daily quests that help move your progress along.

Gameplay

The first thing that you need to know about Heroes of the Storm is the fact that it is team-based leveling. There are arguments for this being good and bad, but I’m not going to dive into it. Simply speaking, you fall behind or get ahead as a team, and if you want to see this illustrated watch some of the professional games that end in less than twenty minutes.

The biggest impact of team-based leveling is when each team gets their ultimate abilities. If one team gets there significantly before another, or during a fight, they can quickly turn the tides of battle, and then snowball from the advantage they created. This happens in League of Legends at level 6, but in Heroes of the Storm it’s the entire team and not just one or two players. The downside to team-based leveling is that when you bring up the in-game stats screen you can see how much each of your teammates has contributed to the team’s XP.

Items are another key element of MOBA gameplay, but Heroes of the Storm got rid of them. And with the removal of items Blizzard also removed the need for gold. Therefore, you don’t need to worry about last hitting mobs to maximize your income. Simply kill them as fast or slow as you want.

Where Heroes of the Storm really becomes unique is the leveling system and map objectives. We’ll start with the leveling system. On its face it’s exactly the same as others; kill creeps and champions for XP to level up. But because they removed items Blizzard had to find a way to allow you to adjust your character depending on your opponents, and your own play style. You get talent points that allow you to customize your champion in more meaningful ways than any of the other games. Additionally, you also have a choice of ultimate abilities, which is a really cool feature.

Finally, we need to talk about map objectives. Once again the other games have map objectives, but Heroes of the Storm has a different view on them. Each map has their own unique objective: collecting coins for a pirate cannon barrage, raven idols to curse the other team, or summoning a demon, to name only a few. These objectives can easily swing the tides of a match because of how powerful they are, and they occur far more often than any of the other games.

Along with those major map objectives we also have a jungle of sorts in Heroes of the Storm. It would be better to consider these jungle camps as mercenaries, though. Once you defeat a jungle camp you can activate them and the defeated camp will now automatically head to the nearest lane and fight for you.

Extras

A big part I haven’t talked about is the actual hero levels outside of the matches. Blizzard has both account level and hero levels. Once you level a hero to level five you get rewarded with 500 gold. If you continue to level a specific hero to level 10 you unlock a loot chest with one item guaranteed to be associated with that hero. In addition, in order to play at the ranked level you must have a certain amount of heroes at level 5.

With the recent revamp to Heroes of the Storm the loot system has been changed. It is most akin to how Overwatch loot boxes work. If you aren’t familiar with that; when you level up your account you get a loot box that contains random items. This can be anything from champions, skins, icons, or even voice lines. The amount of extra stuff that has gone into Heroes of the Storm with the revamp is quite impressive.

There’s also no cross-team chat, which I don’t really like, but it does mean that there is a lot less negativity from the community. And as I said in my pros and cons, a lot of the rewards for Heroes of the Storm require you to play other Blizzard games, and vice versa. If you’re fully immersed in the Blizzard universes this is great, though many of the Heroes of the Storm rewards require you to group with a friend. In fact, Blizzard rewards people who play with a group with extra XP.

Pro Scene

The professional scene for Heroes of the Storm is in a weird position at the moment. They are considerably late to the game, in terms of getting a market, but Blizzard did go after the collegiate market. The Heroes of the Dorm tournament has been met with great appeal and success these last 3 years with UT Arlington taking the championship this year in Las Vegas. With that win the players receive full tuition for the rest of their college careers.

The true professional scene for Heroes of the Storm has its own tournaments throughout the year like other games, but the finals take place at Blizzcon with Blizzard putting out a $500,000 prize pool.

League of Legends

Pros

  • Large community
  • Consistent feedback from devs
  • Well defined champions

Cons

Overview

League of Legends is known for a salty playerbase, and there’s no denying the truth of that. Of course I’ve met some wonderful people because of the cross team chat that is available in League of Legends. On the other hand, there are truly some despicable people that you’ll come across while playing LoL, and the tools to deal with them in a significant matter are still very limited.

LoL is the oldest of the MOBAs, being released by Riot Games back in 2009, and has become a titan of the genre.

The gameplay has a good mix of fast and slow mechanics. The champions are all well defined, and so are their abilities. This makes each of the current 136 champions easily identifiable once you are in game.

Whereas Smite really digs into the lore behind their champions, League of Legends is considerably lacking in that aspect, though they have been improving. Short stories have been bringing the lore and personalities of champions to light, allowing players to get a better feel for who these champions really are.

Gameplay

There is a great mixture of fast and slow-paced action in League of Legends. The beginning laning phase is slow in many cases, but can easily be changed if you, or your opponents, wants to be aggressive.

With items in the mix players must focus on last hitting to earn gold. It is a crucial part of gameplay that really does separate the chaff from the wheat; thankfully Riot released the practice tool to help players learn.

Items are a crucial part of the game. Players need to react to the enemy champions and what they are building. If a team is stacking armor you need to build armor penetration items in order to tear through them. Without proper itemization champions will easily lose once they engage the enemy.

Like Smite, League of Legends has Summoner spells. However, these have to be chosen at the loading screen and can’t be changed once you load in. While there are around a dozen total Summoner spells most don’t get used in competitive play. It’s almost an unspoken rule that you must take Flash if you want to play. Learning to use Flash, and the other spell of your choice, takes time to learn, but it is a vital part of the gameplay.

Warding also plays a big part when it comes to gameplay. Being able to see where your opponents are, or aren’t in some cases, is critical to winning. Often the role of warding is given to the support, but every player needs to keep it in mind. If you don’t believe me watch a pro game or two and see how much they fight over vision. Out of the four MOBAs, warding and vision control is the most impactful in LoL.

The death timers for League of Legends are the biggest criticism the game faces. They are the reason games can end on one bad engagement once you get past the 30-minute mark. And while this has been known for multiple seasons there still doesn’t seem to be a solution on Riot’s radar. Adding in the Dota 2 mechanic of buying back in could work, but the problem then becomes that players have too much extra gold at the end of long games.

Along that same train of thought, it is possible that a single player will snowball your game if they are fed. Not all champions are like that, but some can absolutely devastate a team if given a big enough lead. And even if a champion isn’t super fed there are times when you can go from 100%-0% health in half a second, making some matchups feel very unfair.

And if you’re worried that there isn’t a champion to fit your play style (because LoL lacks the customization that Heroes of the Storm has) don’t worry, many champions can be played passively or aggressively depending on the build and each role – Support, APC, ADC, Top, Jungle – has champions that play passively, aggressively, or a healthy balance between the two. If early on you find out an aggressive play style won’t work, or you fall behind, it is easy to adjust your builds to compensate.

Extras

League of Legends has its own loot system called Hextech Crafting. It rewards players for doing well (compared to others playing the same champion). The Hextech loot boxes contain a random item that can be opened once you earn keys. It’s a great way to unlock retired skins, wards, and icons. Champions can also be unlocked through Hextech Crafting, but it only becomes worth it if you unlock the 6300 IP tier of champions.

The game client has recently been updated and is receiving a lot of good features. However, it is still buggy and there are plenty of things that need to be added. Riot is continually working on fixing the bugs, and adding additional features.

Whereas Smite and Dota 2 have great interfaces for the professional scene, LoL just has notifications that a match is going on. You have to go to outside sources to get more info.

And finally, if you are lacking just a few RP (Riot’s paid currency) there is a tradition with customer service where if you draw something LoL related they will often give you the few RP you need to make a purchase.

Pro Scene

League of Legends has an amazing pro circuit. They have teams from all around the world, though Korea is still the dominant power. The year is split up into two official seasons with decent prize pools. It all culminates at the end of the year with Worlds in Los Angeles. The prize pool is heavily dependent on fan contributions, but the fans really contribute a lot through the in-game purchases. For the recent MSI tournament, fans contributed a total of $1.4 million to the prize pool.

Making the choice

There's more to say about every MOBA of course, but the information provided in this article should be more than enough to help you decide which one you want to try first. Since you can try all of these games for free, there's really no reason not to give each one a shot to see what clicks with you.

I personally am an avid player of League of Legends, but Smite has given me my favorite MOBA experiences overall. If it weren't for the established group of friends I have playing League of Legends, I would likely be playing Smite instead.

What's your MOBA of choice? Which one will you never touch? Let us know in the comments below.