Losing In MOBAs Should Be More Fun

Losing In MOBAs Should Be More Fun

I’ve had a bad losing streak going in League of Legends the past few nights, which made me realise a fundamental truth about the game and others like it: they’re a lot less fun when you’re not on the winning team. Uniquely so, I mean.

Saying something like, “a competitive game isn’t as enjoyable when you’re losing” might sound like such a basic point that it’s not even worth bringing up. But what cast this unpleasant aspect of my newfound MOBA obsession into sharp relief was how defeat in League, or Heroes of the Storm, or Dota 2, felt in comparison to the other great games I’ve been playing as of late.

I sank back into Mario Kart 8 last week, for instance, and immediately picked up on a crucial difference between it and a game like League: being the first person to cross the finish line in Mario Kart isn’t the only thing that makes that game fun. If anything, being in first place for most of a race can actually be pretty darn boring. That’s what makes the blue shell so great. If you’re always zooming along miles ahead of the competition, there’s no chance to indulge in the whimsical chaos that makes Mario Kart special. Races quickly start to seem drab if you’re not barreling forward neck-and-neck with some Bowser or Toad opponent who always seem to know the exact right moment to fire off a green shell.

Putting Mario Kart up against gaming’s greatest MOBAs is obviously comparing apples and oranges. So let’s consider Mortal Kombat X, another highly competitive game I’ve been playing a lot recently. Is getting stomped on match after match in Mortal Kombat fun? Not entirely. Especially when my roommate keeps spamming me with fucking ranged attacks. But even in the worst Mortal Kombat matches I’ve bumbled my way through so far, the game still manages to dazzle me with its sheer spectacle.

I mean: yes, it’s not ideal to see your character’s face bitten off, or having their testicles exploded out from under them, or suffering whatever other wanton bit of gratuity your opponent can punish you with. But at the very least, it’s entertaining. I’m willing to bet that’s an important reason why gory fatalities are such an iconic mainstay in the series: because watching something grisly unfold after a fierce fight is fun for both parties involved.

There isn’t anything like the enjoyably gruesome fatalities when you face defeat in League of Legends and its peers. There aren’t any of the “Thanks for trying!” type pity trophies players can still get even if they embarrass themselves in shooters like Call of Duty or Titanfall either — or just win through the sheer endurance of grinding for virtual tchotchkes. So what is there? The the long, drawn-out process of learning from your failures, honing your skills with time and practice, and ultimately improving enough to secure more victories. That might be a more rewarding process than anything I’ve gotten out of my months spent playing Mario Kart 8 with no tangible improvement to my online ranking. Landing a pentakill, or pulling off an awesome baron steal feels all the better when you know you’ve put in the hard work it takes to actually achieve such moments of mastery. But as my colleague Patricia said of Dota 2, the prolonged journey from scrub to not-quite-scrub status isn’t necessarily a fun one. Regardless of how one evaluates games, “fun” is undeniably an important part of what makes any game good.

The lack of fun in failure isn’t just a problem for a MOBA’s overall quality, either. It’s also a contributing factor that’s helped establish MOBAs’ sour reputation as breeding grounds for gross and offensive behaviour. While losing game after game might help one develop a better sense of themselves as a player in the long run, suffering a loss in the moment is a very different thing. It’s a rare thing to see when players on a League team work through a defeat with good graces and earnest efforts, in my experience. Tolerable ones, maybe. But everyone can easily descend into an unbearable “circle of blame”, a toxic dynamic the web comic Ctrl+Alt+Del immortalised in this strip about League’s “blamenomics”.

Something I’ve always found fascinating about League of Legends’ large, vibrant community is the way that vocal, serious players seem to have internalised these sorts of general criticisms and negative stereotypes to the point where they frequently chastise and instruct themselves on how to behave better in games. Very often when reading through forum threads between players sharing, say, basic gameplay tips, I’ll suddenly come across a profound, often philosophical moment of critical self-reflection. Like this one I just found the other day way down in a thread about beginner’s tips:

Its wonderful to see gamers lay their hearts and minds bare in this way to one another. But it’s also sort of odd at the same time, because it seems like they’re struggling to work through something the game they love so dearly is denying them: a better environment in which they can actually live with, and learn from, their mistakes.

Heroes of the Storm, for its part, recently decided to try and curb the violent excesses of failure and inter-team toxicity in its game by leaving out a surrender option and making games run short and shorter times. I guess that’s one way to deal with failure in a MOBA — albeit one I don’t agree with. But shaving down game time and limiting player choice also seem like excessive, defeatist responses to a problem that could be solved in a much simpler way: by making a loss something players can actually appreciate in its own right, rather than just endure as best they can.

I have a hard time believing that the people who’ve made some of the best games I’ve ever played can’t think of more ways to do that.


  • Heh. If only people know their role is in game. I’ve had supports that doesn’t buy wards or do actual “support”, carries that does not join fight.

    I think people playing moba need to know every hero have different roles and those roles are important.

  • Urgh!! Why did CAD have to be linked, why!?

    Anyways, I’d rather lose a close match then to dominate one. A lot of ‘competitive’ players like to act that destroying your opponent is the goal of good gaming.

  • The toxic nature of MOBA’s is built into their design – they’re asynchronous games where all team players can’t see what all other team players are doing, leading to a lack of accountability. You don’t have this problem in ball games because everyone is watching a singular point and there’s no mistake when someone stuffs up.

    • This reminds me of something I’ve been thinking of in relation to board games.

      A lot of -semi-cooperative board games give players a co-op goal, but also give them a secret personal goal. These personal goals may be counter-productive to the team goal.

      This makes the game exciting because you don’t know who you can trust.

      BUT in a game that is so dependent on good team functionality, any time there’s lack of clarity in a team mates actions and intentions leads to accusations of incompetence. And this is in itself counter productive to achieving the team goal.

      TL:DR, by obfuscating team members rationale, MOBA’s inherently force players to guess what their team members are actually thinking/planning/doing. Which is not really conducive to good team play.

      • This is less of an issue as you get into higher skill brackets. Unlike other games, good communication is actually a critical component of success in MOBAs. I mean, don’t get get me wrong, good communication is valuable in other genres, but it isn’t quite as critical to success as in MOBAs, where being out of sync by 1 second can be the difference between winning and losing a fight. In Dota, I’ve seen so many games where 2 heroes with a stun ability both throw them at the enemy hero at the same time (the effect isn’t cumulative), where is they had a bit of communication they could have decided who would go first and ‘chain’ them (where you throw the second stun just as the first is about to run out, extending the duration that the victim is stunned) and gotten a guaranteed kill.

        Playing with friends in a LAN is the best way around this; using a mic is nearly as good. Players that don’t have a mic and are playing at home are at a bit of a disadvantage, but there are still ways they can let teams know what they are planning.

        In MOBAs, poor communication actually is a form of incompetence, just like poor timing or poor decision making.

        • Indeed, solid communication is crucial in a lot of team activities, from sports to work etc. So it’s no surprise that for something as fast paced as a MOBA, the price for not communicating is quite steep.

          But what I do find quite prohibitive (and nasty) about these kinds of games is how “incompetence” is taken to equate to idiocy (not saying this is what you mean here, but it’s something I’ve noticed in a lot of the coverage). Players tend to say, “you stuffed up, you’re an idiot”, rather than “you show signs of incompetence with this game, try these things to improve your competence and grow.” By having so much of the actual players mindset and intention obfuscated, it’s a lot easier to jump to the former conclusion instead of deciding to do the latter.

          And as you say, the only way to get really good at these kinds of games is to develop those crucial communication skills – something some players may find hard to do in such a toxic environment.

          • I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been playing for so long, but I always try to offer constructive criticism if I need to say anything, and I generally hate flaming. If someone puts their hand up and says that they are relatively new to the game, or would appreciate some advice, I am more than happy to give it to them, and it’s usually well received.

            However, the Dunning-Kruger effect is absolutely rampant in MOBAs, from the newest player right up to professionals. So many players think they are better at the game then they actually are; this means that they can’t associate a loss with their own poor performance, and proceed to blame their team.

            I mean, I’ve been playing Dota for 10+ years, and I still learn new stuff about the game all the time. MOBAs are just to friggin’ complicated… which is why I love them.

  • I’ve played Heroes of the Storm and League of Legends and both of those game do suffer from the same issue – losing sucks. Losing streaks suck more and you just want to stop playing when that happens.

    After reading this article I had an idea. Why not make objectives in the current game affect the ‘outside game’ eg, Your team kills a tower everyone on the team get some IP in league or Team takes an objective or kills a tower in Heroes and you get gold.

    This way it makes it so losing the over all game doesn’t feel like you really lost and a close game would mean that both teams get almost the same reward, just not the stat that says ‘WIN’!

    There could be algorithms for smart play that give Gold or IP and just make the minute to minute game play feel rewarding in itself instead of having the whole thing focused on Winning or nothing.

  • I kind of enjoy the bit at the end where everyone blames everyone else in the team for losing. When generally you lose because some players were focusing on hero kills over map objectives. Annoys me no end.

  • Dota introduced a mechanic that made comebacks much more achievable following TI4. Prior to that, in what was known as the ‘deathball meta’, teams were picking heroes that were super-strong early in the game, grouping up to push into the enemy base very early on, and whoever secured the advantage early won the game. Frankly this was very boring to watch, and most games lasted under 30 minutes.

    After that, Valve introduced what’s commonly called the ‘rubberband mechanics’. Teams that are losing the game get a bigger gold and experience advantage whenever they kill a hero on the team that is ahead. Since the defending team has a serious advantage when defending their base (through the high ground and strong tier-3 tower), the rubber band mechanics mean that if a team that is very far ahead tries unsuccessfully to push into the base a couple of times, they can lose their entire advantage. Whereas previously they could get wiped a few times when pushing high ground and still be so far ahead that they would never lose their advantage, now there is a serious risk of giving up that advantage if you get over-aggressive when pushing into the enemy base.

    After this was introduced, it made playing the entirety of a game much more enjoyable. Previously it was nigh-on-impossible to come back from a serious disadvantage – now, you just need to win a couple of teamfights to get back into the game, which is quite possible when you are defending high ground.

    tl;dr – Valve introduced a mechanic that made comebacks much more of a possibility, and knowing you could still win made it much more enjoyable to be on the losing side early in the game.

  • I believe the lack of fun comes from the difference in power when you are losing, more so when you are really far behind. It’s not very fun to use your combo and they lose 40% hp then they combo you into oblivion. I think it’s also the mentality that the game is over after 10 minutes and the ff20 comes out more often than not especially in ranked.

  • It’s no fun losing, yes. That’s why I stopped being bad at the game so I could have some fun. :^)

  • Did anyone else, just for the briefest of moments, see the article pic and start thinking of Majora’s Mask? Something about those eyes…

  • Don’t entirely agree with you. Can only comment from a DOTA 2 perspective in relation to MOBA. Many times I’ve seen a team loose, but individuals have a really good game. Need to relish in the challenges and smaller battles that go on at all stages of a match and enjoy ‘learning’ from failures. You can have fun even in the late stages of a match where a loss appears immanent in frustrating your opposition into a ‘slower’ victory. Love that stuff.

  • And this is why I like HOTS. All defences down, 7% health on the core. Other team had 2/3 second tier keeps and 100% core. If there was a surrender function it would have been done and dusted ages ago as I’m certain we would have caved as we were on the back foot the entire game. Losing the game a little at a time. At around the 25 minute mark, we engaged the entire enemy team to try and steal a boss they were trying to take. We pulled the win off with a total enemy team wipe. 60+ seconds until respawn for them and a win for us.

    The only reason we got in that state was not because of anybody in particular, rather the team as a whole. We fucked it up and we nearly lost but because we pulled our collective shit together we won. A loss in HOTS is only certain when it’s a steamrolled game. Everything else you can pull it together if you can get people to see and sometimes it can take 1 team fight for people to see that you’re in with a chance and they perk right up.

    Of course there are idiots and you can’t fix those.

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