Pre-game, players are divided into two teams of one to five people: the Legion and the Hellbourne. Players on each team choose one of 69 different heroes, each with various abilities and advantages to form their overall strategy. Both teams are based at the opposite sides of a map. Each base is defended by towers placed in the lanes belonging to the team. Every thirty seconds a wave of computer-controlled units (known as "creeps") is sent from the base to defend lanes and attempts to push into enemy territory. Victory is achieved when one of the teams manages to push into the base of the opposing team and destroy their "main" structure, the Sacrificial Shrine for Hellbourne or the Tree of Life for Legion, or if either of the enemy teams agree to concede, which requires 5 out of 5 of the enemy players to vote yes on the concede vote.
Players in Heroes of Newerth control a single hero and their development from a top-down perspective, while other common features of real time strategy games such as base management and resource collection are removed. Each hero has 4 different abilities which can be learned and upgraded as the hero gains experience and level ups. Experience is gained for killing enemy heroes and creeps. The maximum level a hero can achieve is 25 and experience required for each gain in level increases with each new level. The only resource that a player controls is gold which is used for buying various items for his hero. Every hero has small periodic gold income but most of it is gained for killing creeps, enemy heroes and destroying base structures(like defensive towers). An important part is that only the hero which inflicts the final, killing blow gets gold, otherwise they only gain experience, except for in hero kills, where teammates near the kill get gold if they are in proximity. In turn, enemy heroes can terminate their own creeps when they are almost dead to prevent the enemy from placing the killing blow and gaining additional gold and experience. These techniques are called last hitting and denying, both of which are very important early in the game. When a hero dies, he loses a part of his gold and after a certain amount of time, based on their level, respawns at the well located in their team's respective base.
Once started, average game length is around 35–40 minutes. Players on the winning team gain ranking points while the other team loses them. Ranking points are used to place players on the ladder system and it has no influence on game play- players are always on equal footing despite their ranking.