Warcraft III was a bit different. Whilst the first two games in the series were very much fantasy re-imaginings of Dune II, the genre-defining RTS from Command & Conquer devs Westwood Studios, Warcraft 3 put Heroes (powerful units with special powers/skills) upfront and centre. The action-RTS genre was conceived, although nobody knew it just yet.
The game went on the become very popular in its own right, but the impact it made was to come from left-field, and not even Blizzard saw it coming.
Map Editors for RTS games were common place at the time, and Warcraft 3 was no different in this respect. Once again the community were able to put their own stamp on their experience via an array of customisation options, and from this creative freedom a mod was born; Defense of the Ancients.
The premise is simple (the best always are); a team of up to five players control one powerful character (the aforementioned heroes) and engage in keenly contested battles across a fairly standard, symmetrical map design. In opposite corners of the arena there are the titular Ancients; towers that provide the focal point for much of the action. The end goal is to destroy these towers.
Beyond that it starts to get incredibly complicated, but that's the underlying essence of the game; play as a hero, destroy the opposing team's base. Simple.
But it's not that simple, really.
Hard as nails
DotA is tough. Really tough. At first there's so much to take in. Too much in fact. It can be daunting to newcomers, because with so much happening, and with so many permutations, it can be easy to get confused, or even worse, make a mistake.
The community has a reputation for being unforgiving towards new players, because an inexperienced player can offer the opposing team a massive advantage.
Throughout combat heroes level up by killing Creeps, collecting gold and upgrading their character. Like a traditional RTS, there is an element of resource management, but in DotA this has been stripped back considerably. By killing enemy Creeps (and your own - to deny opposition kills/exp) players become more powerful as the game progresses.
A weak link in the chain allows savvy opponents to pick away lesser players, leveling themselves up more quickly, and handing an instant advantage to his or her team. As such, a poor player can be a massive inconvenience to a team, and attitudes towards them can be harsh and uncompromising.
In fact, this high barrier for entry might well be the reason that the genre has remained niche (albeit a very popular niche), rather than becoming the mainstream genre that it has the potential to be.
In the beginning, DotA was a community thing. Over the years a number of dedicated members guided the burgeoning genre, updating characters with new powers, and by tweaking gameplay mechanics to create evenly matched battles.
The first mod to appear was by a user known only as Eul, who used the Starcraft scenario "Aeon of Strife" as inspiration for the scenario. The idea was developed further by Guinsoo, who created the variant of the map that went on to become the dominant take on the concept.
Another notable name in the mod's history is IceFrog, a user who took the reigns and managed the community (then over 1 million strong), tweaking heroes and adding fixes as he went.
Under the stewardship of these community members, DotA grew and grew, becoming something more than just an adaptation of a game mode. It might have been born as a map variant, but it would grow up to be a game in its own right, in turn spawning numerous spinoffs and improvements.