Dota 2 and League of Legends are the two most-played MOBAs ever.
Both games rank among the most streamed and viewed games on Twitch. While League is more popular by a mile, the loyal Dota 2 community stays committed to it, bankrolling Valve through the Battle Pass every year. Don't forget that the amount of money Valve gets through it has seen linear growth for many years now. The two games dominate the scene so thoroughly that newer entries like HoN or Smite have not made enough of a dent to grow a flourishing pro circuit like Dota 2.
The Precursor of Dota 2 (and of LoL)
Proponents of the two games are sometimes at each others’ throats regarding which one is the superior MOBA. Interestingly enough, the polarizing estrangement of the two communities is a by-product of their shared origin. The origin being the popular DotA Allstars map, a custom mode on the Warcraft III engine that drew inspiration from Aeon of Strife (itself a custom map on StarCraft). DotA was obviously the prototype for Dota 2. More importantly, though, one of the lead developers in League of Legends, Steve ‘Guinsoo’ Feak, was a core part of the DotA Allstars community.
Naturally, LoL owes some debt to DotA when it comes to core concepts. But LoL had its initial niche because not all DotA Allstars players were happy with the state of the game. Specifically, there are many janky aspects of the Warcraft III engine that League does away with.
This is where the first point regarding difficulty can be addressed: cast points and turn rate.
League of Legends feels admittedly much ‘smoother’ to play. The original DotA oftentimes felt sluggish with long cast times and janky animation transitions. It was improved somewhat in the later patches, and even more in Dota 2. But LoL had the advantage of starting from scratch. As a result, it does not have any hero turn rate.
In Dota 2, if the player faces in a certain direction and then Blinks away the other way, the hero will spend some time turning in the other direction. This is a matter of mere microseconds, but it does make a difference in critical moments. In a game of Dota 2, the turn rate could be the difference between Tinker queue-blinking away into safety and getting caught in a Chronosphere.
LoL still has cast time, or a delay, where certain skills must be ‘prepared’ before they are cast. But they are not nearly as common as they are in Dota 2. Dota 2 ported its cast time mechanics directly from the final DoTA Allstars patch. Much of this was done in the transient Dota 2 alpha stage, i.e. pre-6.71. They are integral parts of Dota 2’s balance, and thus could not simply be removed in the name of a more streamlined experience.
A new Dota 2 player learns the lesson of cast point the hard way: that a Lion must initiate with Hex for its instant cast point, while Earth Spike takes 0.3 seconds to wind up. There are many such features of DotA that stand as hurdles to a smooth new player experience.
League has its own set of unique mechanics to learn and game knowledge to study. Dota 2 may have backdoor protection from the tier-2 towers onwards, but it is not as advanced as the tower plating system. Until recently, League also had a creepy-denying mechanic.
The one place where Summoner’s Rift sets itself apart massively from Dota 2 is jungling. Even with the addition of neutral items in 7.23, exclusive jungling has little incentive in Dota 2. League, on the other hand, has a clear-cut jungler role.
Which game allows more freedom?
The biggest difference between the two only manifests in the bigger picture. League of Legends is much more straightforward in terms of build variety and general strategy. Dota 2 is much more freeform. In both games, the struggle is to eventually push and destroy a central structure: the Nexus in League, or the Ancient in Dota 2. But the ways to achieve it can vary in both games.
The fact that it varies more in DotA is visible from the lane distributions. League nearly always has a mid-laner, a top, a carry, a support, and a jungler. In Dota 2, there is the traditional 2-1-2 distribution. But there are exceptions in every other game. A support hero in Dota 2 might do well in mid, an off-laner could be played as a carry, and a single lane could be cluttered with three heroes flanking one enemy core.
The same heterogeneous nature is also to be found in power curves. Champs in LoL tend to itemize and scale with stats in an almost similar fashion. They do have their peak moments where they shine. But Dota 2 power spikes and dips are much more abrupt. A hero might be weak for the entirety of the early game, where they farm an essential item, while another hero (like Timbersaw) might be insanely strong up until the opponents eventually counter them with items (like BKB).
Mechanically speaking, Dota 2 might be the more difficult game to learn. Getting good at Dota is a long and arduous exercise. It can be as taxing as a day job to gain MMR while clawing at the secrets of farm patterns and correct drafting. But ultimately, the difference comes from the different approach to MOBA that LoL takes.
The spell design in the two games is telling. League is designed to be smooth and fast-paced with its skillshot-heavy repertoire of low-cooldown abilities. In Dota 2, the big moments usually occur in strong game-changing spells with high cooldown. Dota 2 is more tactical and also more unpredictable. A game of Dota 2 might be a rare 20-minute breeze. But it also might turn into an hour-long uphill struggle of blood and tears against a farmed Medusa and a Techies.
This complexity, and oftentimes inscrutability, even, sometimes shows new players the door. There is, after all, some explanation as to why League of Legends always leads in terms of popularity and concurrent player numbers.
But to call one game ‘easier’ because the other game is more complex would be wrong. Both games demand a great investment of time and study from the players if they are to improve. League of Legends might sound more cookie-cutter in its gameplay, but both games have a high skill ceiling, which is high enough to allow for the symphony of skills that get the audience to cheer and chant at the edge of their seats, be it LoL World Championship, or The International.