There was a time back in the day when DotA wasn't a just a game but a description of an entire genre. Any game that took place on a single map, featured a series of characters to choose from and a primary objective of 'destroy the enemy base' was simply described as being like Defense of the Ancients, there really wasn't anything else to compare it with. A few years (and game developers), later there's more competition on the market than just a single Warcraft III custom game map. League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth have been fighting it out, seeing some very respectable success on the Free-to-Play front alongside a very active and happy player-base. Both games have done a great job keeping some fairly unique characters, maps, and easily identifiable art styles so there's really no confusion regarding the two, but no one's forgotten the roots of either game. Most still remember that DotA isn't just a genre, it's an experience in and of itself, and in the world of competitive gaming there's something to be said about the old champ trying to make a comeback.
Its hard to even say that 'comeback' is the appropriate term for this scenario either. After all, how many PC (or console) games announce their launch with a globally observed pre-release invitational tournament? I think the list for said events is relatively small (perhaps even limited to DotA 2 itself), which just goes to show the power that the franchise still has even after years of relative inactivity. Unlike most other genres on the market there are really only three major games to fight amongst each other for the same player-base. As a result the competition is a lot more fierce than the rivalry of say Battlefield vs Call of Duty. This means that when a new competitor enters the fairly small arena developers have to work extra hard to be noticed, let alone maintain interest from their players in the long-term.
That's where DotA 2 maintains an amazing advantage against the competition, everyone already knows what it is. Or at least everyone that matters. I've no doubt that there are quite a few gamers out there that have never even heard of the original mod and have spent the last few years judging the genre solely between HoN and LoL, but the majority of old school dedicated tournament players (and any fans of Basshunter) will know that DotA 2 isn't just a newcomer but it defined the series itself. With current reception to DotA 2 being extremely positive at this point, it's not a matter of how well the game will do, but rather how well the competition will do after launch. Does LoL have a plan to counter the mass of players who plan on picking up DotA 2 just to see what it's like? How will HoN cope with the fact that it's already lagging behind League of Legends in popularity, before yet another competitor enters the market?
These are the questions I would love to have answered sooner rather than later because quite frankly the genre itself hasn't really changed at all since its inception. Map design across each title offers some ability for each game to differentiate itself from the next, but the main breaking point for these genres is with the characters themselves and after a while that simply won't be enough. For either of these games to stand up against DotA by simply releasing a new set of characters would almost be equivalent to an FPS title attempting to stand aside from the crowd by saying it's added more guns, and while the tools of the trade certainly have a hand in defining parts of any game experiences, the weapons alone will never be enough to make or break a series. What's exciting to consider is that with DotA 2 coming back to reclaim ownership of the 'core' elements of the genre, this gives both S2 and Riot a chance to actually push their titles forward in design. If they're smart, it will mean big changes for their games in ways that will further separate themselves from the crowd. It's a much better decision than choosing to meet DotA 2 head-on, and one that will certainly draw more respect from the gaming community as a whole.
Now naturally LoL and HoN won't simply fall apart once the competition thickens and it will take a little bit of time for them to develop something to respond to such a threat, but developing content isn't the only challenges these two titles face. They'll also have to work very hard to keep their communities together, active, and interested in their respective games. Crafting a unique experience isn't simply about gameplay and the makers of DotA 2 are very well aware of that. Not only has Valve shown off what their game can do in the Invitational, they've also taken steps to put together an environment that a particular playerbase will enjoy. By strictly targeting competitive gamers Valve knows that a particular flock of people will find DotA 2 more interesting than the competition; it's a strategy that's particularly useful when trying to piece together the original Warcraft III followers, or anyone who would be interesting in playing the game for a shot at a much larger prize pool than what most other companies even have access to in funds.
Alongside sales numbers for DotA 2 come release day it would be interesting to see activity levels across LoL and HoN trending a few months forward to better determine exactly how many players were waiting for the original king to make a comeback. Granted much of this won't come to pass for a while, so Valve's competition still has a little while longer to develop a strategy against the old school challenger. With many players willingly admitting that they've been using one game to brush up for another I have a hard time seeing a bright future ahead for either League of Legends or Heroes of Newerth without some major changes, but whether or not either game is ready to make a such a series commitment is something yet to be seen. One things for sure, DotA 2 isn't going to be a storm that can be just ridden out easily, so if either S2 or Riot Games have an ace up their sleeves, now would be the time to throw it down.