The success of esports these days is undeniable. It’s all huge; the viewership, playerbase, production value, prize money and even the stadiums that live events fill up. The only thing lacking, perhaps, is wider mainstream understanding of esports by those not directly involved, so let’s get that sorted!
I’m Peter ‘Aezure’ Dakin from the National University Esports League and today I’m your guide for this tour of the esports world.
So First Off, What Are Esports?
The word esports is literally short for ‘electronic sports’. Don’t misunderstand though, esports aren’t just traditional sports but played electronically. Esports is synonymous with professional gaming. Whilst there is no formal definition, I would say that an esport is any computer game with a large competitive focus (i.e. a clear winner) and an organised competitive scene (beyond just online and in-game competition).
It’s nearly impossible to track when esports began, the phenomenon certainly predating the term itself. One could argue that it began with very early gaming tournaments such as for Space Invaders in the 1980s, though I doubt anyone would agree that Space Invaders was an esport. The first game that could obviously be classified as an esport would be Quake. Released in 1996 as successor to Doom, it included multiplayer features. This resulted in a 1997 Microsoft-sponsored Quake tournament called ‘Red Annihilation’ in the USA which was one of the earliest esports competitions.
From then on esports just grew and grew. Leagues and regular tournaments formed, dedicated esports organisations appeared, teams became established and top players took up the mantles of professionals. All things, incidentally, which are parallel with traditional sports.
There was, however, one further difference between traditional sports and esports: the roster of popular esports was constantly shifting. What began with Quake became Counter-Strike and Starcraft. All three remained relevant to varying extents with remakes and sequels. This is all accompanied with an ever-shifting roster of fighting games. This is due to one of the inviolable rules of computer gaming: no game remains at the top forever and esports aren’t exempt. In nearly all cases a game needs an established player base to become a successful esport and as the former declines so does the latter.
The ‘Esports Boom’
Esport was established, but was still definitely underground with a relatively niche following. This was all set to change from 2010 with two events: the emergence of the MOBA genre and the rise of streaming.
MOBA stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, a sub-genre of Real-Time strategy. Teams of players each control a single powerful unit and are assisted by AI controlled ‘minions’ with the end-goal of destroying the opponent’s base.
This all originated from a Starcraft map, which was replaced by a Warcraft 3 mod called Defense of the Ancients. This was soon, in turn, replaced by standalone games. Around 2010 the original ‘big 3’ appeared: League of Legends (LoL), Heroes of Newerth (HoN) and Dota 2. These games led the genre to gain huge popularity. By 2014 LoL had 7.5 million concurrent players during peak hours, 67 million per month. It had quickly become the most played game in the world.
With this came huge interest in the competitive side of it. However tournament organisers hadn’t waited to get the esports side of the game off the ground and in 2011 the Season 1 championship took place at DreamHack, Sweden. European team Fnatic walked away as champions with the US$50,000 first place prize. Total viewership for the event was 1.6 million. That viewership and prize money was nothing to scoff at, but merely three years later those numbers were a drop in the ocean. To compare, the 2014 World Championship had 27 million total viewership and US$1,000,000 first place prize. It even had its own theme song: ‘Warriors’ by Imagine Dragons. The recent Dota 2 ‘The International 5’ tournament had over US$6,600,000 as first place prize, approximately 5 million of which was driven by crowdfunding.
These numbers weren’t entirely driven by the huge popularity of the games themselves though, one has to acknowledge the part played by a new phenomenon in the gaming and esports world: streaming.
Streaming meant an unheard of ease of access to event coverage for enthusiasts at home, they could get the live experience without being there. In 2011 twitch.tv went live, with a purpose of being a platform for gamers to stream, with own3d.tv having appeared a few years earlier with the same purpose. This opportunity was leapt on by esports tournament organisers as a way to turn their competitions into an online spectator experience whilst the pro gamers themselves found there was a huge audience who would watch them play. Streamed tournaments would get hundreds of thousands of concurrent viewers. The top pro gamers would get tens of thousands on their streams, with multiple streams going at all points of the day. By the middle of 2013, with the decline of own3d (their main competitor), Twitch would report 43 million monthly viewers. In 2015, after its purchase by Amazon for just under 1 billion USD, Twitch was getting up to 100 million monthly visitors.
Between them, the rise of MOBAs and streaming caused what I would term the ‘esports boom’. The popularity of the MOBAs twinned with the ease of access for casual fans offered by streaming brought esports to the mainstream gaming audience and beyond. Mainstream media commonly includes features explaining the esports phenomenon (akin to this one). If you were to look at lists of team and tournament sponsors you would recognise a lot of the organisations on there.
Professional Gaming vs Traditional Sports
These days esports is eerily similar to sports, except with the ‘e’. Viewership and production quality is comparable (or higher in some cases). There are also dedicated media outlets, and numerous pundits (often retired players). When comparing professional gamers with traditional athletes you find that both are serious, albeit short-term, career opportunities that are highly fought over by the most talented and dedicated. Both are supported by large teams of managers, coaches, analysts and even psychologists.
Teams often fight to sign top players (though the exact volumes of money are rarely disclosed in esports). In fact, I would say that the training regimes of professional players are often longer hours than those of traditional athletes, though they are mentally instead of physically draining.
Both professional gamers and traditional athletes have short careers. Competitors are only at their best for a short window of time. Injuries force retirement and repetitive strain injury & carpal tunnel are real threats. Burnout is common, this is where training too hard for too long causes complete breakdown of motivation, even for those at the very top. Professional gamers competing in the US are now even eligible for the same athlete’s visas as, well, athletes.
The Current Top Esports
I mentioned earlier that the roster of popular esports constantly shifts. Well what are currently at the top?
Undoubtedly the biggest is still League of Legends. With huge leagues everywhere from South Korea (widely accepted as esports capital of the world) to Europe, North America, China and even Oceania. On top of that the viewership and playerbase are still undoubtedly at the top worldwide.
Dota 2 is hot on the heels of LoL as ever. With the recent conclusion of its yearly tournament, The International 5, the chase clearly won’t stop anytime soon. The tournament featured the largest prize pool ever in esports, of over 18 million USD, incidentally beating the previous record of 10 million USD set the year before by The International 4. The finals were a clash of east and west with North America’s Evil Geniuses earning the trophy (known as the Aegis of Champions) by beating China’s CDEC to conclude what I would rate as the best-spectator experience in an esports event ever.
Behind the two established titans that are LoL and Dota 2 there are almost too many other popular esports to list. Counter-Strike is regaining popularity with the 2012 release of Global Offensive (CS:GO). In fact, this past weekend ESL ONE took place in Cologne, Germany to crown the world’s best CS:GO team (which ended up being Fnatic). It’s too soon for statistics to be out but the viewership was huge, particularly considering its minimal popularity in Asia.
Starcraft II is still popular (particularly in South Korea) though it remains to be seen whether the upcoming expansion, Legacy of the Void, will prop up its declining popularity.
Hearthstone is something new and completely different for esports: an online card game. It combines the gameplay of a trading card game with the accessibility of an online game whilst having the competitive aspects of an esport. As such it successfully draws from all three fanbases.
The MOBA Smite is established and popular but nowhere near the top two. Another MOBA Heroes of the Storm (HotS is new and upcoming. How high HotS rises remains to be seen.
Why No Console Games?
You may have noticed the complete lack of any console game mentioned. Do these not classify as esports? Actually they do, but their popularity is nowhere near that of PC titles (the esports side at least).
Games like Call of Duty, Halo and Fifa do have organised competitive scenes, they are just far smaller. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Firstly, when streaming gained its popularity and contributed to the esports boom, it was on the back of PC streamers, streaming from consoles simply wasn’t a possibility. This also meant that console esports missed out on the benefits. In fact streaming from consoles has only recently become possible.
Another possible cause is that console gaming titles change even more than PC esports do. The requirement for a new Call of Duty game or a new Fifa game every year causes an inevitable dilution of the playerbase. Add that to the fact that retail sales of console titles are falling and there’s a lot for console esports to overcome to catch up.
What About the UK Scene?
The main limiting factor with the UK scene is that it is part of Europe. This means that the best players from the best UK teams get cherry-picked to play in European teams. After all, they get paid more, get to go to bigger tournaments, get to play with bigger teams and get more fan exposure. Why would they say no?
Having said that there is a thriving UK scene, though not always at the top-tier of play. Online tournaments such as the ESL UK Premiership (for CS:GO and LoL) as well as major offline gaming festivals such as epic.LAN and Insomnia form the main tournament circuit for the UK. Also the National University Esports League (NUEL) offers a platform for university students, who often lack time for serious practice alongside their studies, to compete in Hearthstone and League of Legends tournaments.
LoL, Dota 2, Hearthstone, CS:GO and Call of Duty are the top esports in the UK in terms of popularity and actual strength of the scene. The First-Person Shooter (FPS) genre is a strong one in the UK, with Call of Duty teams being able to compete at a European level and CS:GO gaining popularity rapidly.
Mainstay UK esports organisations include fm-esports, Team Infused, Choke Gaming, TCM gaming and Epsilon esports. Each has multiple teams in a variety of titles.
There’s also Team Dignitas who rose from humble UK beginnings to have tonnes of competitive teams at all levels of play around the world. Then there are numerous teams who just form and play; sometimes a team comes along that can challenge the larger organisations and in doing so earns the reward of being picked up by one of said organisations.
So What’s Next For Esports?
The obvious thing that’s next for esports is further mainstream acceptance and with it reduction of the stigma of ‘sitting in front of a computer in a basement all day and all night’. With streaming at its current popularity the push for getting TV broadcasts is now considered outdated, though mainstream media coverage is likely to continue to increase.
This in turn could increase wider awareness of esports and bring it to a wider audience. Twitch viewership demographics show a majority of esports enthusiasts to be male in the 18-24 age bracket, which could be set to change as a result.
One new thing to look forward to is YouTube Gaming, YouTube’s new streaming platform. It’ll undoubtedly have an effect but what effect is up in the air.
Beyond that it’s hard to say what’s next for esports. Right now event organisers seem to be trying to compete to see who can book out the biggest stadium and have the highest production value, to spectacular results. From the Wembley Arena, London to the Staples Center, Los Angeles and the massive Sang-am World Cup Stadium in Seoul, Korea: all have been booked out. With live audiences already in the tens of thousands it’s hard to see how they can grow any further.
As ever I expect the roster of games to gradually shift, in particular Counter-Strike: Global Offensive looks set to keep growing and Hearthstone likewise.
That ended up being long and despite that there’s way more I could say and whole areas I haven’t mentioned. Though webpages can nearly scroll forever I’ve sadly reached the limit of today’s article.