Why are Mobas so Toxic?

“Players generally don’t AFK/troll when they’re winning.”

I think players become toxic mostly when they’re losing. And the worse they’re doing (relative to the opposing team) the more likely they are to become toxic.

Isn’t losing always bad? Why are moba’s different?

Someone might think that’s not a relevant piece of information. “Of course people are more toxic when they’re losing, that’s just human nature.” And while it’s true that nobody likes to lose I don’t think that’s enough to explain the way players react to losing in mobas. There’re plenty of competitive games out there and while many of them have some background level of toxicity only Mobas really stand out as having a particularly severe problem with toxic communities and persistent afking. Anecdotally, I find it much more frustrating to lose at a moba than I do in any other type of game. So what is it about losing in a moba that makes players lose their tempers so much more frequently?

Is it time? Matches in Mobas take a long time and it can be frustrating to lose after 50 minutes of effort. I don’t think this is enough to explain it, there’re plenty of other games that last a long time. A Starcraft set can take longer than that, competitive counter strike games can be played best of 21 or first to 15 and can run on a long time. A complete five round Overwatch game can run in excess of forty minutes. None of these games have anywhere near the same problem with players consistently losing their tempers though. It happens, certainly, but it’s not a genre defining trait in the way it is with mobas.

Is it team-play? In a moba you’re dependent on your team, you can lose because of factors totally outside of your control if your teammates can’t pull their weight. That can be frustrating. But again, FPS games are played as teams, so are some RTS’s even fighting games which are normally 1v1 have team formats. These genres aren’t known for their negative communities in the same way that LoL/Dota are.

So what’s the real problem?

Ok, here’s my theory: “Mobas are unusually toxic because they have a problem with excessive positive feedback.” Positive feedback (sometime called slippery slope) is a property in which doing well in the present increases the likelihood that’ll you’ll do well in the future. I.e. if I kill you now I get xp, gold, items, etc that increase my power and make it easier to kill you in the future.

Negative feedback would be something like a racing game with rubber banding (to speed up the racers in last position). In sports terms slippery slope is the effect you would get if each time you scored a touchdown in football you were able to field an extra player in your offensive line or remove a player from the opposing defence. Each time you score your chances of scoring again get better.

Of course all of this also means that if you lose early you’re more likely to keep on losing as the game goes on.  When you, or a teammate, dies your opponents get stronger from the kill and also from the time they’re able to spend farming experience while a member of your team is dead. The gap in power makes them more likely to kill you again in the future and also makes it easier for them to farm while it’s more dangerous for you. Not only are they more powerful than you now but it’s also easier for your opponents to increase in power. Once you start losing, things can snowball on you very easily and while comebacks do happen the set up of the game makes them inherently difficult to pull off.

I don’t think I need to make the case for how strong this effect is in Mobas. Though it should be easy enough to demonstrate from data. How often does the team who gets first blood go on to win? If a team is 10-15% ahead in gold/xp/points at the fifteen minute mark how likely are they to win the game?

This is what makes losing so frustrating in mobas: As you fall behind your opponents your viable options are restricted, you become less and less able to meaningfully influence the outcome of the game. As your opponents gradually widen the gap your ability to fight against them is diminished. I often describe losing in Mobas as “an exercise in mounting impotence”. As matches draw on and players fall behind they feel increasingly powerless to affect the outcome of the game.

As a point of psychological interest; it’s well documented by now that the best way to make someone throw a huge temper tantrum is to make them feel helpless, to take away their sense of agency and control.

Essentially, Mobas have a lot of positive feedback. Therefore players often feel (with some justification) that once they’re behind it’s going to be very hard to stage a comeback. Once they believe their odds of winning have fallen below an acceptable level they get frustrated and become toxic or try to surrender. If they can’t surrender they’ll become increasingly toxic or just quit.

Lame duck.There’s a secondary effect of slippery slope which is that games are over before they actually end. Players feel like a game is decided a long time before the core is destroyed and once they feel that the game is unwinnable the don’t see any point in continuing the game. The usual term for this is “lame duck” the game is over, you can’t win, but the match hasn’t ended. In mobas this can happen a long time before the match actually ends.

Players regularly feel that games are unwinnable at the twenty minute mark even though it might take another twenty minutes for the opponents to actually destroy the core. The “lame duck” situation can last as long as the meaningful gameplay does. We know this is true because we have a surrender mechanic. If it wasn’t the case that players regularly want to call a game before it’s technically “lost” then there’d be no need for a surrender mechanic at all.

This is important because it means the frustrating, toxicity inducing feeling of powerlessness can go on for a really long time. If players get far behind very early in the game they could potentially be looking at half an hour or more of getting stomped by an enemy team that’re close to numerically untouchable.

This is a good explanation for why AFKs track negatively with match length.  If players suffer a big loss and fall behind forty minutes or more into a game they’ll likely think “well, at least this won’t last a long time” and the match will probably end within five to ten minutes. Alternatively if they get teamwiped in the jungle at level two they’ll think “omg, it’s lost, I’m not sitting through half an hour of this” and since they can’t surrender that early they’re much more likely to go AFK.

Why does this matter?

I think this theory is important because it casts toxicity not as a problem of onboarding, messaging or progression structures, or as a problem of player education and community management but as a problem of gameplay. Players don’t afk because they’re confused by the tutorials or because they don’t understand that Mobas are “srs bzns”.

They become toxic and AFK because the gameplay of mobas is designed in such a way that it’s likely to make players frustrated and angry. It’s pretty telling IMO that while all mobas have inherent slippery slope the moba with the strongest inherent comeback mechanics is also the one with by far the least toxicity.

As long as losing at Mobas remains “a frustrating exercise in mounting impotence” players will feel that each set back is an exponential step towards futility and they’ll continue to act out in anti-social, negative ways. No amount of bans or punishments or external reward structures will compensate for a frustrating experience in game.
You could argue “All moba’s have the feature of slippery slope, they’re about gaining incremental material advantages over time”. To which I’d say “that’s true, but they’re also all plagued by constant toxicity and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

8 thoughts on “Why are Mobas so Toxic?

  1. All great points. I’ll be linking to you! :)

    I’m actually slowly working on a post about some of the things I’ve found with my first extended playing experience at a “Lane Pusher” (as I prefer to call them) – HotS.
    One thing I’ve noticed though that seriously adds to the toxicity in addition to all of the above is the camera. The fact that you can also see all of your teammates – and their mistakes – is another thing I find that’s pretty unique to this kind of game that I think causes a lot of negativity.

  2. Slippery slope is important, but I think you are underestimating the impact of team structure. Imo, the number one reason MOBAs are more toxic than average is because they are collaborative. Collaborative games are the only kind of games in which your mistakes hurt other players. And, compared to shooters, player mistakes in MOBAs are more clearly visible.

    I guess it’s team structure and slippery slope working in conjunction that creates the situation (as you point out above).

    1. Being cooperative within teams might be a necessary but not sufficient condition for toxicity. I guess you can’t curse out your team if you don’t _have_ a team ;) And you’ve certainly got more incentive to troll if there’s someone to blame…

      But…. there’re many collaborative games that, while certainly not free from strife, aren’t nearly defined by their negative culture in quite the same way that mobas are.

      Left 4 Dead and the various co-operative shooters, counter strike, team based RTS. None of these games are lacking in collaboration. Raid and dungeon gameplay in MMOs have both collaboration and visible mistakes (the last time I played an MMO the game would announce in huge golden letters exactly which player screwed up and caused the wipe.) And while I wouldn’t describe your average WoW player as “kind” it’s certainly nothing like the experience for which LoL is famous.

      This makes sense, you mess up, you wipe, you try again. You don’t get trapped in a twenty minute lame-duck nightmare of futility and frustration.

      More specifically, I’d go with the example of Heroes of the Storm. It’s very much a brother to League, Dota et alia but (at least anecdotally) it’s substantially less toxic. It’s just as collaborative as its cousins but notably really does have a much less pronounced slippery slope effect and that seems to be the difference between players losing their minds “occasionally” and “consistently”

      (Side note on HotS in addition to less slippery slope it also has less lame duck because the game ending mechanics are very strong and get stronger very rapidly over time. If you’re behind and you don’t come back, you lose quickly and the game ends. This is another important point in limiting toxicity.)

    2. I just played some left 4 dead 2 with a bunch of random faceless people. I assume most people have played but if not there are times in the game where you literally cannot do anything but wait for your team mates to save you. Half of the special zombies fully incapacitate you and need to be killed by team mates and there about 8-15 of these special zeds each round. If your team screw up, you die and It was the most friendly cooperative online experience I have had in a long while. After the game we all said goodnight to each other.

  3. Very great article adressing some of the most interesting mechanics of MOBAs. I’m a former DotA player and I can identify a lot with the feelings of impotence and hating the community and AFK/flamer players and with your article I realized is just part of the game experience.
    On the other hand, I am now a Heroes of the Storm player and I want to note that Blizzard made a great work with the game that, being a MOBA, has diminished the snowball effect. Having no items nor gold and team-shared experience, a comeback becomes more easy and it is a common thing that you can win a game even if your team goes 5-35 on kills. Also this has a positive effect on the community that, I can say from personal experience, is more open to new players and with less ammount of haters, and also easier to form new groups or teams with unknowns and play well together from the first time.

  4. I think toxicity is actually rooted in feelings of entitlement. That is, the player feels they deserve to win which makes them upset when they are denied victory by, as they see it, the other players on their team.

    I don’t know for sure why MOBAs would have higher ego and entitlement than other games, but my best guess is that a lot of it is due to matching by individual MMR for small group play. I’d bet that if you matched WoW dungeon finder groups by a dungeon MMR (do well in the dungeon, get matched with other players who did well) you’d get huge toxicity in dungeon groups that were unsuccessful compared to what would be expected for their MMR. Admittedly, this doesn’t explain differences from MMR-matched FPSs etc. Snowballing and factors mentioned by other commenters could be aggravating factors.

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