Best MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games for Mac

The multiplayer online battle area — MOBA, for short — is a game genre that has exploded in recent years. And the Mac hasn't been left out of the equation — some popular MOBAs run natively on the Mac. Here's a roundup of the best ones you can get right now. What's more, all of them are free to play, so it won't cost you a dime to try them out.

First, for the uninitiated, let's answer the obvious question: What, precisely, is a MOBA?

MOBAs are real=time strategy games that involve multiple players divided into teams. Each player typically controls a single champion or hero character that leads others — computer-controlled minions — into combat. Teams square off and try to destroy or control each other's in-game structures in order to win.

MOBAs combine elements of action games and strategy games together, and have become a popular pastime for gamers looking for fun, challenging ways to team up with friends (and sometimes complete strangers) online.

Blizzard Entertainment's seminal strategy game Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos is often pointed to as the seed for the current MOBA craze. An active community of modders — hobbyists and programmers interested in expanding the capabilities of the game — took to Warcraft III, and one in particular, a fellow who went by the nom de mod of Eul, created Defense of the Ancients, a specialized map for the game modeled after another popular map for another Blizzard strategy game, StarCraft. Since then MOBAs have existed both as mods for other game and as entirely standalone projects. So without further ado:

League of Legends

Riot Games' League of Legends is nothing short of a phenomenon. Since it debuted in 2009 it's garnered millions of fans worldwide. For a long time Mac gamers were left out of the loop but the developer finally graced the Mac with a client in 2013. (Don't be scared off by the seemingly permanent "beta" status of the Mac client.)

League comprised well more than 100 different champions, each with different strengths, strategies and weaknesses. Players fight each other to gain experience and to win gold, which they can use to buy items to strengthen their champions. A variety of game modes exist and Riot is constantly improving and tweaking both gameplay and the in-game characters, which leads to constant new challenges. And it's paid off: At peak times, more than 7 million players can be playing simultaneously. League is the focus of professional gaming tournaments, too.

League is free to download and play. Riot makes money from the sale of Riot Points (RP), which help players get ahead in the game.

Dota 2

I mentioned Defense of the Ancients at the outset. Dota 2 is its proper sequel, developed by Valve Corp. As a result, it's available for download from Valve's popular Steam online game matching and download service.

The classic elements of MOBA gameplay are here: Two teams of five players each, each of which occupy a base at a corner of the map. Teams are divided into The Radiant and The Dire. The Ancient is a building inside each base that must be protected or you lose the game. Players have over 100 different Heroes to choose from, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Combat provides experience, which levels the character up, enabling players to imbue their Hero with better statistics and new skills.

Dota 2 has been criticized for having a steeper learning curve that League does, and my experience has been that the Mac client doesn't run very well on systems that are on the lower side of its system requirements, but that hasn't stopped it from being very popular: Dota 2 gets close to a million players at peak times.

Heroes of Newerth

S2 Games' Heroes of Newerth squares players off into two factions: The Legion and the Hellbourne. Each team has to either destroy the World Tree or Sacrificial Shrine (depending on which faction you're fighting), or force the other team to concede defeat. There are different game modes, more than 120 heroes to master, and more.

Newerth was heavily influenced by the original Defense of the Ancients, though S2 Games developed it independently of DotA. The game remains fiercely independent. While Riot is the 800 pound gorilla and Dota 2 gets lots of attention because of Valve's involvement, S2 has done very well over the years, but its player base is much smaller. That's not a bad thing; the game continues to do well and get new players all the time.

SmashMuck Champions

A relative new entry to the MOBA market, SmashMuck Champions lets you play as absolutely weird heroes like a robot shark and a platypus unicorn. It's got a great sense of humor and some truly wacky design, and its creators cite its "community driven development process" as a plus as well. Classic team-based play is here, though SmashMuck looks and plays a bit differently than the other MOBAs listed above, with five different game modes that include a capture the flag mode, tower defense mode, control point capture and more.

There's a more limited selection of champions to choose from, but more than 600 customizable items keep it interesting, along with daily challenge and alliance-based achievements.

Happy gaming

Hopefully these will get some of you started down the road of MOBA play. Are you already an avid MOBA fan? I'm sure I've left out a few that play well on the Mac without relying on a Windows partition. If I've left off your favorite or if you have any comments or suggestions, lay 'em on me.