Executive Summary

  • Mobile Legends: Bang Bang is a competitive 5v5 free-to-play action MOBA developed and published for mobile in 2016 by Chinese developer Moonton Games, now a subsidiary of ByteDance.
  • The game has grown in popularity, particularly in the South East Asia region, and by the end of last year had generated $851 million in lifetime revenue with 511M downloads, according to data.ai. The latter figure jumps to more than 1 billion when accounting for third-party Android data in China, which data.ai does not count toward its metrics. 
  • The action MOBA genre has not traditionally resonated well in the West, with the first MOBA title to enter the U.S. 2022 top grossing charts at #123 being Mobile Legends with revenue of $28.7 million and the second being League of Legends: Wild Rift at #242 with $11.3 million in revenue. In sharp contrast, Tencent’s Honor of Kings has generated $6.51 billion over 307M downloads with a China-only release.
  • Riot Games and parent company Tencent have filed a slew of lawsuits against Moonton Games’ Mobile Legends for copyright infringement, accusing the developer of ripping off League of Legends. In 2017, a copyright lawsuit was dismissed in the U.S., as the judge said it would be better suited to the courts in China (link); another lawsuit in 2018, which Tencent won for a settlement of $2.9m (link); and yet another lawsuit in 2022, which was similarly dismissed (link). 
  • Mobile Legends features a cosmetic economy of hero skins and gacha-based monetization with some limited time banners featuring six of the rarest new skins costing players near $2,100 to collect.
  • The biggest innovation in gameplay Moonton delivered is reducing the duration of matches to 10 minutes, keeping the strategic depth of the MOBA intact but helping make the title more accessible than the competition and a stronger fit for the mobile audience. 
  • MLBB has been able to engage and grow its active users with clockwork live ops: the release of a new hero every month, a monthly season pass with seasonal skins, monthly collaboration events featuring new skins, two new modes a year, and annual regional and world championships that break esports viewership records (link).
  • MLBB is bound to continue on its trend as the most global MOBA on mobile with the largest active player base.

Out With a Bang!

Mobile Legends: Bang Bang (MLBB), which launched in 2016, is a competitive free-to-play 5v5 multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) for mobile developed and published by Chinese studio Moonton Games, now a subsidiary of ByteDance. The gameplay and presentation was heavily influenced by Riot Games’ PC hit League of Legends (LoL), pitting two teams of five heroes in battles on a three-lane map to destroy the enemy base while defending their own. MLBB grew in popularity — particularly in the South East Asia (SEA) region — and by the end of 2022 had generated $851 million in revenue with 511 million downloads, according to data.ai, with the latter figure climbing to more than 1 billion downloads when accounting for third-party Chinese app stores not counted by data.ai. 

The action MOBA genre has not traditionally resonated well in the West, with the first MOBA title to enter the U.S. 2022 top grossing charts at #123 being Mobile Legends with revenue of $28.7 million. The second is League of Legends: Wild Rift — at #242 with $11.3 million in revenue — which was built from the ground up for smartphones in 2021 and arrived 12 years after the original LoL’s PC release. Yet MLBB has dominated as the No. 1 top-grossing position in 2022 for SEA countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore. China, meanwhile, has been dominated by another China-only MOBA, Tencent’s Honor of Kings, which has generated $6.51 billion over 307M downloads.

Before unraveling some of what went on behind the scenes in the development of the MOBA genre, let's put a timeline on the notable MOBA game releases:

Defense of the Ancients (DotA), a popular mod released for Blizzard’s Warcraft III in 2003, helped establish the MOBA genre and was the first such game for which competitive sponsored tournaments with ever-increasing cash prizes were held. One of the early developers of DotA joined Riot Games in 2006, where they worked on and helped release the studio’s flagship title League of Legends (LoL) in October 2009. 

Meanwhile, Valve hired the lead designer on DotA to make an official sequel and franchise starting with Dota 2, which launched on PC in July 2013. LoL and Dota 2 have remained the flagship MOBAs on PC for the last decade, and both have helped pioneer innovative games-as-a-service concepts around monetization and update frequency, though LoL has maintained the larger audience of the two. 

In February 2011, Tencent acquired a majority stake in Riot Games (link) and in December of that year fully acquired the company (link). Tencent saw an opportunity for LoL on mobile considering Vainglory, launched in November 2014 by ex-Riot developers at Super Evil Megacorp, was the only notable MOBA title on smartphones at the time. Riot, at the time, declined to work on a mobile version of LoL as the platform didn’t seem suited to the title’s complex gameplay and competitive nature. Tencent was still determined to launch a mobile game and after a few internal studios competed to make one, TiMi Studios, a subsidiary of Tencent and the eventual creator of Call of Duty Mobile, developed and launched Honor of Kings (HoK) in China in November 2015. 

In July 2016, Chinese developer Moonton launched its own mobile MOBA, Mobile Legends. Later that year, the studio relaunched the game under the title Mobile Legends: Bang Bang after Riot complained to Google about potential infringement of LoL IP and demanded the game be removed from the Play Store. In October 2016, Tencent launched an international version of HoK outside of China, branding the game Arena of Valor (AoV). Riot had acknowledged the potential for LoL on mobile, but the company wouldn’t develop and release League of Legends: Wild Rift (LoL: WR) until March 2021.

Tencent’s launch of HoK in 2015 as a mobile take on LoL caused strain on Riot’s relationship with its parent company (link), as the gameplay, heroes, and abilities in HoK closely mirrored those of LoL. Given the popularity of LoL, which was also published by Tencent, in China, HoK was a smash hit and remains the No. 1 top-grossing title in the region. Further straining Riot’s relationship with Tencent was the release of AoV, in which Tencent used notable LoL players to promote the new international version of the game in esport tournaments. 

It was during this time that Moonton entered the market with MLBB. Riot immediately took action against Moonton over the game’s likeness to LoL, contacting Google and demanding the company remove the game from the Play Store (link). Moonton removed the game before Google could take any action and relaunched it with the slightly altered title. 

In 2017, Riot Games became more aggressive in its pursuit of Moonton and filed a lawsuit against the studio (link), claiming MLBB infringed on its copyrights for containing “a vast array of elements that were directly and deliberately appropriated from LoL, including but not limited to LoL’s characters, artwork, map designs, and unit and monster designs.” Riot’s lawsuit went on to say, “And, to add insult to injury, Moonton marketed and distributed certain of its games with a logo that is confusingly similar to Riot’s LoL logo, using the exact same font and color scheme as Riot’s LoL logo.” The case was eventually dismissed, with a U.S. court judge determining that Tencent’s crucial role in the case made it more a matter for the Chinese court system. 

Overseas, Riot Games’ parent company Tencent launched a separate lawsuit targeting Moonton Games’ CEO and a former Tencent employee for violating non-compete agreements, and Tencent won the case for a settlement of $2.9 million in 2018 (link). In March 2021, Moonton Games was acquired by ByteDance through its video game subsidiary Nuverse (the publisher behind card battler hit Marvel Snap), for $4 billion, outbidding Tencent in the process. In the same year, with the release of LoL: WR, Riot and Moonton butted heads once again as MLBB-affiliated esport organizations were reportedly forced into exclusivity contracts barring them from competing in LoL: WR competitions (link). 

Riot filed yet another lawsuit in May 2022 in the U.S., attempting to keep the case in California by accusing Moonton of plagiarism and “blatant copying” of LoL: WR, which we covered in our market update at the time (link). That suit was similarly dismissed last November (link), with US District Judge Michael Fitzgerald issuing a ruling similar to the 2017 case arguing the lawsuit was more appropriate for the Chinese courts.

Seemingly unscathed by this tumultuous legal journey, MLBB has continued to perform strongly thanks to its first-mover advantage and the philosophy of Moonton CEO Justin Yuan of arriving first and perfecting later. Initially launching with 10 heroes, one game mode, and overall buggy tech, MLBB has since been refined with the added intent of distancing the product from LoL. 

In this deconstruct we’ll cover:

  • A look at the action MOBA market
  • The mobile-first gameplay of MLBB
  • Monetization of the gacha-based cosmetic economy 
  • The future of MLBB and takeaways for the industry

The MOBA Market

Source: data.ai

Of all MOBAs, Tencent’s China-only HoK dominates the list with $6.51 billion in lifetime revenue from 307 million downloads, with the major caveat that data.ai excludes third-party Android app store data from the China market. 

Released a year later, MLBB takes second place with $851 million in revenue with 511M downloads, making it the most downloaded title. AoV comes in third with $566 million and 224M downloads, less than half the install base of MLBB. LoL: WR, which has been live for a little under two years, comes in fourth at $514 million and a lower 95.4M downloads. 

LoL: WR looks to be generating near equal revenue from fewer installs versus AoV, with MLBB generating more revenue spread over a larger install base. In 2022, LoL: WR’s $339 million beat MLBB’s $185 million in revenue for second place with MLBB still being the highest downloaded MOBA title with 62.5M downloads. 

Source: data.ai

The all-time revenues by country split shows how these games have found distinct audiences in different markets, with HoK collecting 100% of downloads and spending in China. MLBB performs strongly in the SEA region, with Indonesia accounting for 35% of all downloads. 

The data also shows MLBB’s global appeal outside of Asia, with the US being the No. 1 country by revenue, at $149 million (or 17.5%). AoV, as the international variant of HoK, still performs best in Asia, with Taiwan leading the revenue $223 with million (40%) and Vietnam leading in downloads (38%). LoL: WR has found its success in China with 21.9M downloads (23%) and $371 million in revenue (72%), with Brazil coming next in downloads and the U.S. in revenue.

All-time MOBA downloads split by game and region:

All-time MOBA revenues split by game and region:

With China accounting for 27% of MOBA downloads and 80% of MOBA revenue, the genre clearly skews China-heavy in impact. MOBAs have been a top genre in F2P PC gaming and mobile MOBAs in particular have found a strong audience in the East, a market where PC gaming is not as accessible due to high costs and the pandemic shutting local gaming cafes and where the use of gacha monetization is more normalized. 

Source: data.ai

Surprisingly, LoL going mobile and launching with the power of Tencent hasn’t negatively impacted Moonton’s audience;  MLBB’s active players trend line remains on the same growth curve. LoL: WR made a big splash on release, but Riot hasn’t been able to grow the active player base. In terms of revenue, being a more recognized brand, LoL: WR managed to heavily cash in on its release in China and the U.S. with large revenue spikes just now stabilizing at +$10 million/month above MLBB, though MLBB continues to show strong long-term revenue growth. 

Overall, it's hard to see significant competition between MLBB and LoL: WR, as they largely compete in different regions, with SEA being a dominant player for MLBB where mobile MOBAs have become the norm and China and the U.S. for LoL: WR. The U.S. in particular is a notoriously poor market for mobile MOBAs due to high attachment to the genre on PC. 

Source: data.ai

MLBB’s go-to-market strategy was converting a complex PC game like LoL to mobile for a sizable, underserved audiences, including emerging markets in Brazil and SEA countries. The game to this day supports devices running Android 4.2 and higher, an OS version launched July 2012. That makes the game playable on a vast majority of the lowest-end smartphones. This low spec requirement ensured MLBB’s accessibility right out of the gate, with LoL being popular but confined to PCs, which are generally more costly and require an array of peripherals, especially in markets like Indonesia and the Philippines. With COVID-19 shutting down ‘compshops’ and internet cafes popular for LoL players starting in 2020, MLBB grew in popularity as an alternative to playing PC MOBAs.  

MLBB is also optimized for speed, with under 30-second matchmaking and automatic separate asset downloads on Android devices to minimize load times and support the aforementioned wider range of phones. Adding to support the mobile environment of real-time action games, the game has an offline AI assistance system to take over if the connection drops, avoiding an unsatisfactory 4v5 situation. MLBB also features a brighter color palette with more stylized art that appeals to broader audiences, something LoL: WR also incorporated when bringing its flagship MOBA to mobile years later.

Moonton doubled down in following LoL’s playbook by tapping into the professional esports scene with the South East Asia Cup held annually since 2017 with top teams from Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore. This boosted MLBB’s popularity even further as the SEA audience had plenty of local talent to root for among their favorite teams and players. LoL, on the other hand, has traditionally fielded top teams from the U.S. or South Korea. In 2019, Moonton established an annual worldwide championship, the M World tournament, with the latest M4 World Championship being broadcast from Indonesia and concurrently watched by 4.36 million viewers, making it the third most-watched esports event in history (link).

With its explosive popularity in SEA, MLBB has capitalized on the growth by adding heroes inspired from regional myths like Lapu Lapu (the Philippines), Minsitthar (Myanmar), Kadita (Indonesia), Badang (Malaysia), and Gatotkaca (India), though the game has been banned in India since June 2020 (link). Filipino professional boxer Manny Pacquiao became the brand ambassador for the game and Moonton even created an in-game character based on his likeness called Paquito. 

This first-mover grassroots foothold in the SEA region is one part of the story. What sets MLBB further apart and on its path to success is its gameplay. Since their inception, MOBAs have always been F2P, and many of the most successful have also been early pioneers of games-as-a-service monetization and design. Let's take a closer look at MLBB beginning with the classic gameplay of action MOBA games and then discuss Moonton’s unique approach.

Skill Leads to Victory

In MLBB, like essentially all MOBAs, each player controls a hero in a 5v5 team match on a map called The Sanctum, which has three lanes connecting the two team bases with a sprawling jungle and perpendicular river in between. The main objective is to break through the enemy turrets and destroy the enemy base, with the help of minions spawning and traveling along each lane. 

As the heroes battle one another along with AI-controlled minions and creeps (neutral monsters found in the jungle), the heroes grow in power, unlocking new skills and gold to buy augmenting equipment. Winning or losing a match affects the player’s ranking, and as a competitive game the player’s goal is to climb the ranked leaderboards to reach the highest rank, Mythic.

The game features several progression vectors outside standard skill progression (or the quest to “git gud” as some players might say), with rewards for the player including multiple currencies and quest progress to upgrade their collection of heroes and cosmetics. MLBB currently has over 118 Heroes with five-plus skins each and several other cosmetics like battle effects, emotes, paints, and avatar borders. 

With strong live ops that introduce new heroes and skins — alongside limited time events that tie into exclusive cosmetics and a rotating virtual shop — the game does a powerful job of keeping players hooked and making the game’s 10-minute matches feel dynamic and rewarding. 

The Heroes come in six main classes: 

  • Tanks are the most durable Heroes with high health, armor, and magic resistance, usually leading the charge on the front lines. They have a low attack and usually act as a shield for the more powerful but vulnerable heroes. Their skills are suited for crowd control with effects like stun, slow, and taunt. 
  • Assassins are agile heroes with low health but high burst damage, used as opportunistic hunters prowling the map for defenseless targets. Their skills are suited for chasing enemies, quick damage, and getting out of crowded situations.
  • Fighters are balanced between tanks and assassins with a mix of offensive and defensive capabilities that serve a versatile role on the roster.
  • Marksmen are ranged heroes with their role commonly referred to as carry (attack damage carry), as they play it safe at a distance and deal continuous, massive damage with a high basic attack. 
  • Mages deal magic damage from a distance with area of effect (or AOE) skills useful for crowd control. They have low defense and high damage output, making them a high-priority target in team battles.
  • Support roles rely on shielding and healing other teammates on the battlefield.

The map lanes start off as asymmetrical and have specialized conditions based on the kind of minion waves that travel along it: the gold lane minions drop extra gold, the experience points lane minions drop extra experience points and the mid lane has smaller minions that are easier to deal with. After the first five minutes, all lanes revert to identical minion waves. The jungle area between the lanes is full of creeps with different buffs. 

Each class described above has their own affinity for their choice of lane: marksmen rely on equipment bought with gold to deal good damage and make for the gold lane, while mages prefer the mid lane with crowds of weaker minions to kill. Fighters usually go to the experience points lane for 1v1 fights, while assassins make for the jungles with spells equipped to give them higher gold and experience points for killing creeps. Tanks and support heroes roam between the lanes to be present for emergent situations in which they’re most useful. 

Having a balanced team with distinct roles is the most effective for team play and heroes come in a mix of classes — like Nana (mage/support), Tigreal (tank/support), Zilong (fighter/assassin), Kimmy (marksman/mage) — to increase the diversity of strategies allowed by any one team composition. As the heroes level up on the battlefield by killing competing heroes, minions, and neutral creeps, they grow in power. With each level up they can increase a level of their skills, usually increasing their damage or decreasing their ability cooldown. Gold is used to buy items for the hero, starting with tier-1 items that act as materials to gain stronger and tier-2 items and so on, with each item enhancing the hero's attributes over the course of the match. 

If a hero is killed, they are sent back to their base to respawn, with the respawn time increasing over the duration of the match. Killing enemy heroes is the best way for a team to progress in battle as it gives their heroes experience points and gold to become stronger while denying the enemy hero from doing the same after they’re sent back to their base to respawn. Dying repeatedly can cause a snowball effect in which each death makes the enemy hero get stronger and makes the respawned hero easier to kill. Destroying enemy turrets gives the whole team gold and reduces the safe area for the enemy. 

A neutral creep called the Lord (a blatant rip off from other MOBAs like the Baron in LoL) spawns in the river area separating the map in the middle, 8 minutes into the match. Killing the Lord gives gold and experience points and he spawns together with the next minion wave of the team that killed him, helping them push the enemy’s weakest lane with the fewest turrets. After dying, he respawns on the river area after 2 minutes. The Lord also grows stronger as the match rages on, evolving into a more stronger version at 12 minutes and 18 minutes. The Turtle is another neutral creep in the river area spawning 2 minutes into the match and killing it rewards the team with gold and a shield buff. 

As the match progresses, there is a positive feedback loop created by the game’s various systems to push the boat towards its conclusion. The timeline of some of these events is shown below:

There are also diminishing returns to achieving the same goal repeatedly. For instance, killing an enemy hero rewards gold, but the reward is reduced when the same hero is killed over and over until that player manages to score a kill themselves. Similarly, killing a dominating hero with a kill streak rewards bonus gold, incentivizing players toward more dynamic play over time. 

MLBB’s Mobile-First Approach to MOBA Gameplay

What sets MLBB apart from other MOBAs is its ability to translate a hardcore PC gaming genre into a more casual and mobile-friendly setting, starting with optimizing the duration of matches to last about 10 minutes, nearly half the average time of other mobile MOBAs like HoK and LoL: WR. The shorter duration speeds up power progression, making for a more accessible experience while still maintaining enough strategic depth. Most importantly, the shorter duration makes MLBB’s MOBA gameplay perfect for on-the-go gaming. 

Source: data.ai

This can be seen in the average session duration for MLBB: 13:39 minutes, which is enough to complete a satisfying, strategic MOBA match and ensure players feel its a snackable experience on their phones they can return to several times a day. In comparison, LoL: WR’s matches last for longer, with an average session duration of 16:15 minutes. MLBB’s duration makes it a highly repeatable experience with MLBB’s average sessions per user coming in at 90.93 sessions/matches per month. This far outpaces LoL: WR, which has 39.36 average sessions per month per user. MLBB also leads in user engagement, a crucial metric for ensuring player retention and growth. 

Let’s now have a look at the systems outside of the 10-minute matches.

The Meta

Other than progression for heroes on the battlefield within a match, there are progression systems outside of the match under the so-called Preparation Phase. Emblems give bonuses to hero attributes and unlock unique talents with innate effects as they level up, giving older players a slight advantage over new players. Upgrading emblems requires resources like emblem fragments, magic dust and BPs (Battle Points, MLBB’s version of coins) won from playing matches and completing quests. 

There are nine types to choose from, two obtained from the start and the rest unlocking once the player account reaches level 10. Depending on the role players want to master, they are free to upgrade them in any order once they’re unlocked. Each emblem can currently be upgraded to level 60, with diminishing returns after level 45, nudging players to first upgrade all to level 45 before proceeding to 60. Emblem fragments for upgrades are primarily obtained through a gacha machine costing BPs. 

Battle spells are an extra skill that can be used in matches and players can choose one from any of the unlocked skills to bring into battle. Players unlock battle spells as their account levels up with the last one unlocking at account level 23. Players can also buy access to them immediately using the game’s premium currency, Diamonds. Spells range from offensive like Inspire that increase damage from basic attacks, defensive ones like Aegis that grants a shield, and support ones like Sprint that grants a short movement speed bonus. Battle skills can be selected in the pre-game lobby but cannot be changed once a match has begun.

Item builds help players plan build paths for their desired equipment before a match, streamlining purchasing them with gold in the heat of battle. Each hero can equip up to six pieces of equipment which increases their attributes and can grant some unique abilities as well. Building items that counter the enemy team’s lineup, like building magic shield equipment when facing an enemy team with multiple mages, is key to mastering battles. Information on all players’ item builds is available at all times during a match and is used for countering and evolving strategies.

The game has several game modes to choose from:

  • Classic: the casual gameplay of 5v5 MOBA without competing for ranks.
  • Ranked: same as classic but with ranks on the line. 
  • Brawl: a simplified, arcade style 5v5 match on a single lane.
  • Vs A.I.: same as classic, but with A.I. opponents.
  • Custom: same as Vs A.I. with options to play with fewer players ranging from one to five. 
  • Training Camp: tutorials and practice rounds.
  • Arcade: special event modes and a permanent auto chess mode called Magic Chess.

The competitive, core experience lies in ranked mode where a majority of the game’s matches are played. Once players get a hang of the MOBA gameplay with tutorial matches, the game introduces players to the first part of the meta: unlocking more heroes.   

Heroes For Hire

To use a hero in a match players first need to purchase them using BPs, Diamonds, or Tickets. Heroes can also be obtained in certain events like making a first purchase. Freya is the only non-grindable hero in the game, available to purchase via Diamonds only. A weekly rotation of five heroes are made available to all players and can be used in all modes except ranked. Trial cards are another way to play a locked hero for a limited time, though again during ranked mode. MLBB releases one new hero every one to two months and frequently rebalances heroes to ensure their pick rate keeps the meta fresh and ever-changing.

These systems follow closely to Tencent’s HoK and LoL: WR with their reliance on grinding to unlock or real-money purchasing for instant access, with the rotation of trial heroes giving players a taste of the large roster available to them. HoK and MLBB do lean a little toward the paid-only access by gating one hero behind a real money purchase, something LoL: WR strays away from to avoid any pay-to-win mechanics. Obtaining and playing with an assortment of heroes opens players to the game’s most sought after cosmetics: the hero skins.

Skin in the Game

Hero skins are character cosmetics with unique 3D models and splash art. In some cases, skins can also add altering particle effects, animations, voices, and sound effects. Skins range from high to low in quality starting with basic skins and upward to special, epic and legendary. Skins can be purchased directly with Diamonds for a range of 269-1,089 Diamonds costing $4.99-19.99 or won in limited time events, while the most sought after legendary skins can be won through the game’s various gacha shops and by spending hundreds of dollars. 

Lower-quality skins can be upgraded into higher-quality skins using Diamonds via a skin upgrade feature, with the lower-quality skin being destroyed in the process. Painted skins are a palette swap of existing skins. The game nudges players to unlock or purchase a skin for the hero they’re playing by giving a small attribute bump, such as a physical/magical attack +8 stat boost, for using a skin other than a base one.  

The skin collection and its reliance on gacha monetization is prevalent in HoK and is common among other top-grossing games in the East. The skin monetization was slowly rolled out in LoL: WR at the end of 2022 in the form of Hextech Chests similar to their PC counterpart (link), while MLBB and HoK have dozens of different in-game gacha machines already. LoL: WR does stray away from giving any boosts from skins outside of their visuals to again avoid any P2W signs. The common costs for direct purchases of skins falls between $4.99-$19.99. The gacha monetization drives the bulk of the spend towards obtaining and collecting the rarest skins, which have a fractional chance of dropping from randomized pulls. 

The Magic Wheel is one of the many gacha shops available in the game for obtaining legendary skins, with the available loot table below:

Every spin grants the player magic points, with a pity system that grants a magic crystal at 200 magic points. If a player receives a magic crystal before that, the magic points are reset. With five spins costing a little over $5, a legendary Skin can cost a maximum of $200 to obtain. These skins boast great detail, as seen here in Moonton’s promotion for a ‘King of Hell’ skin (link) for the hero Franco (link).

Event gachas run for a limited time and feature the rarest of the rare skins, sometimes featuring collaborations like the present King of Fighters (KOF) skin costing close to €49.99 for 10 pulls with the following loot table:

An epic skin is guaranteed every 10 pulls. Every 10 pulls also lights up a 3x3 bingo card and completing a row, column, or diagonal rewards a KOF skin, hence a KOF skin can cost a maximum of $350. Duplicate skins are converted into fragments and there are six unique KOF skins to be collected in total, with a spend of about $2,100.

MLBB is filled with gacha machines similar in design to the one mentioned above: 

  • Zodiac Summon gacha for obtaining a zodiac skin for every 100 pulls ($40).
  • Aurora Summon gacha for obtaining an epic Venom skin for every 90 pulls ($80).
  • The New Arrival gacha for obtaining the latest skin or hero with a 0.5% chance and no pity costing $2 for 10 pulls.
  • Lucky Spin gacha has special skins in exchange for lucky gem fragments, with one dropping about every 10 pulls for 200 tickets, a separate item earned primarily via subscriptions.

Gacha being at the heart of the hero skin collection feature with different rotating drop pools and limited-time banners makes it exceedingly difficult (and expensive) for players to obtain the rarest ones, which in turn increases engagement and by extension maximizes player spending through the game’s lifetime. Sometimes the pulls may feel unrewarding, but MLBB does a solid job with the pity systems and masking bad luck with more randomized rewards like filling bingo cards or rewarding the player with tokens to use in other gacha machines. 

The driving factor behind these cosmetics is the competitive nature of the game, as players compare their collections with both teammates and opponents during matches as a way of expressing individuality and drawing deeper satisfaction from the minute-by-minute gameplay. 

Gacha Game Monetization

Source: data.ai

The top in-app purhcases for MLBB are for Diamonds, used for 5 to 10 pulls of the game’s various gacha machines. The special packs of the elite and epic bundles give heavily discounted Diamonds and tokens for the gacha machines, limited to one purchase every week and month respectively. The season pass and season pass plus are priced in diamonds at $9.99 and $19.99 respectively, making it one of the top in-app purchases (IAPs) for Diamonds. Diamonds for direct skin purchases in the shop also range from $4.99 to $19.99.

The season pass, called Starlight, comes with privileges if purchased, like gaining bonus experience points and BPs for matches as well as choosing one out of five unique Starlight skins. Rewards are unlocked by completing season pass tasks with separate tracks for free and premium players. There is also a seasonal shop for cosmetics bought with Starlight magic fragments, a seasonal currency obtained only on the premium track. 

MLBB’s season pass is priced in Diamonds in lieu of a direct IAP purchase, with Diamonds being a tightly controlled paid-only currency. The season pass is, as advertised, a great value for getting rewards worth 2,800 Diamonds immediately on purchase, with the season pass plus granting rewards worth 6,000 Diamonds on purchase. The $9.99 Diamonds purchase leads the top IAP charts with $19.99 coming at No. 4. 

The game also features weekly and monthly auto-renewing subscriptions that grant tickets on purchase as well as tickets for daily logins, which can be missed by skipping a day. While the subscriptions are active, players also receive bonus experience points and BPs for each match and both plans can be activated at the same time to get a compounded benefit. 

Ticket subscriptions also act as appointment mechanics notifying the player when the next daily login rewards are ready to be collected as well as engagement mechanics to maximize on bonuses by playing as many matches as possible in the subscribed duration. Since these don’t show up in the top IAPs, they appeal only to the top engaged section of the audience who play the game as an everyday hobby.

(Mobile) Legends Are Forever

MLBB has come a long way since launch (link), with game improvements targeting optimizations for smoother gameplay like automatically providing each mobile device with the most suitable game assets (link), auto-detection of cheating in matchmaking, and score ranking.  Moonton also launched Project Next (link), a three-year project started in September 2021 to improve old heroes overlooked frequently in the meta by rebalancing and improving their models, animations, and in-game effects. 

With competitive games being an environment for in-game toxicity, Moonton has also frequently addressed the long-term health of the player community by adding better AFK detection and penalties as well as post-match likes and kudos to reward good behavior. 

Chinese developers are are well-known for the speed and quality of their updates, best evidenced by Moonton’s additional of an auto chess mode complete with its own economy of commanders, commander skinsk and other cosmetics six months after Riot launched an auto chess for LoL in 2019. Riot then launched Teamfight Tactics, a standalone auto chess game for mobile and PC in 2020 (link), as its first ever mobile game. Tencent’s HoK’s auto chess follow-up, announced last year as a standalone game called King’s Chess (link), is still awaiting release. MLBB has gone a different route, keeping the auto chess mode as a permanent in-game side activity expanding the progression and rewards pool. 

Moonton has altered and changed almost every similarity MLBB shares with LoL in the wake of its legal challenges. At the same time, the developer has maintained a healthy cadence of new content releases featuring heroes, collaborations, and mini-game events. On a monthly basis, MLBB adds a brand new hero, a new season pass with seasonal skins, a new collaboration event with additional skins, additional content on their arcade modes, and a revamp of live heroes. These live ops have arrived like clockwork, with the longest gap between hero releases being only 98 days between Fredrinn (August 12th, 2022) and Joy (November 18, 2022).

Source: data.ai

Since its release, MLBB has been able to grow its active user base with revenue to follow, and the key takeaways for the industry can be summed up in its name. Mobile Legends, by replicating the success of LoL with a game made for mobile, serves a fundamentally more casual and broadly appealing audience, and Moonton’s targeting of lower-end devices and go-to-market strategy created a strong foothold with a sizable, underserved player base in fast-growing emerging markets. This audience is one Moonton has shown it can grow over time, too. 

In 2014, five years after the release of LoL, Riot hired Warhammer writer Graham McNeill to help reboot the game’s fiction, with the Fields of Justice map replaced by the new narrative setting of the planet Runeterra. Very little of this work is seen in gameplay, but it created the foundation for the franchise’s expansion into other media like comic books, an animated show, and spin-off games. 

Moonton followed suit with Mobile Legends: Adventure, a spin-off mobile game that grossed $51.9 million with the No. 4 position of 2022’s top grossing Idle RPGs, as well as an animated television series titled Legends of Dawn set in MLBB’s fictional Land of Dawn setting and premiering on Tencent’s streaming platform as well as on broadcast TV in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

While MLBB does owe a great deal of its success to Riot’s LoL, Moonton’s approach to borrowing and copying from its rivals is best summarized by the Chinese saying, “Stealing a book is an elegant offense.” Without substantial legal hurdles, MLBB is bound to continue as the most globally successful MOBA on mobile with the largest active player base, simply because it can move faster and more efficiently than its rivals. 

Tencent is working on launching HoK globally this year, with a closed beta live in Brazil (link), as well as expanding the property with an open world spinoff titled HoK: World (link). Tencent, to its credit, can use its knowledge of Riot’s LoL expansion into other media formats to gain a stronger foothold for expanding the HoK brand using a similar strategy (link). 

Yet, Tencent has an uphill battle when it comes to expanding HoK outside of China, with audiences already engaged with MLBB, LoL: WR, and AoV. Continuing with its strong live ops and deep gacha-based collection economy, and unfazed by Tencent’s push into the market with not only LoL:WR but also Pokémon Unite, MLBB is here to stay as one of the dominant players in the action MOBA genre. 

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