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Playing video games has been a popular pastime since the 1970s, when games like Computer Space and Pong were first introduced into arcades. As computer processing became more powerful (and cheaper) in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, console video games became a fixture in many homes, but largely remained a solo activity. The spread of the internet in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s enabled friends in small groups to face off in real time, marking the dawn of multiplayer online gaming. The introduction of high-bandwidth internet pushed that boundary farther, allowing thousands of people to play in a single game at once, from anywhere in the world.
Now, these competitions, known as esports, have become so popular they not only draw thousands of players but thousands of eyeballs as well, with a huge amount people tuning into massive video game matches, akin to watching live professional sports. Esports is defined as “competitive organized video gaming”, which is often organized into different leagues and teams. Over 100 million players worldwide compete in esports in 2019, for prize purses as large as $34 million dollars.
However, any competitive organized format with video games as a central component can be referred to as esports, making the esports landscape extremely broad. Because of the huge variety of options available it helps to know which games are being played most frequently. Currently the eight most-watched games in esports fall into five categories: MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena), FPS (first-person shooter), CCG (collectible card game), RTS (real-time strategy), and Battle Royale.
MOBAs are a meld of fantasy concepts with battle tactics, where each player takes control of a hero with a unique skill- and move-set, forms a team with other heroes (controlled by other players), and battles over a contested map with an opposing team. This genre is the most popular for esports, with four of the top ten most watched games (League of Legends, DOTA 2, Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm) falling into the MOBA category.
FPS games allow players to literally look down the barrel of a virtual gun. FPS’s were first popularized by the franchises Call of Duty and Halo, but the most popular titles for esports are Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch, the latter of which incorporates MOBA elements into FPS gameplay. CCGs allow players to form a deck of different effects and creatures that they then pit against each other. The most popular CCG esport is Blizzard’s Hearthstone, more than tripling the viewership of any other CCG.
Real-time strategy games rely on taxing players’ resource management skills in what are essentially the most sophisticated war games ever created. The first esports leagues were actually formed around the RTS game Starcraft, which exploded in popularity 19 years ago in South Korea, where multiple companies, most notably Samsung, KT, and SK Telecom, sponsored professional teams made up of the most notable players.
Battle Royale games, like Fortnite or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), drop players into a confined area and pit them against each other until only one is left standing. Fortnite is exceptional in its widespread popularity both in organized and unorganized formats, with a huge live streaming audience that watched over a billion and a half hours of the game in 2018. Fortnite live streaming is where the gaming personality Ninja, who plays mostly Battle Royale games, attracted many of his over 22 million YouTube subscribers.
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Now that you know what kinds of games are being played in esports, it’s time to introduce you to what’s big, who’s playing, and why you should care.
Esports is not only growing in viewership, but is also showing explosive growth as an industry, with 26.7% year-on-year growth. Total revenue topped $1 billion for the first time in 2019, with the largest contributions coming from sponsorship ($456.7 million) and media rights ($251.3 million). Total global viewership is estimated at 454 million people, with 201 million “esports enthusiasts”, defined as those who watch professional esports content more than once a month.
Across the board, esports are garnering more support and revenue each year. In July of 2018, Disney and Blizzard Entertainment reached a deal to broadcast the Overwatch League, Blizzard’s professional league for its popular MOBA-first person shooter hybrid Overwatch, on ESPN, Disney XD, and ABC. The National Association of College Esports, formed in 2016, has over 130 member schools, and currently gives out $15 million dollars in esports scholarship and aid to varsity esports athletes.
The most popular esport overall, League of Legends, drew over 90 million concurrent viewers for the opening ceremony of its 2018 world championships, featuring an augmented reality K-pop group known as K/DA. Invictus Gaming won the 2018 finals, marking the first time that a Chinese team has won the world championship. South Korean teams won the world championships five years in a row previously, headlined by SK Telecom’s 3 titles and the dominance of their star player, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, widely considered to be the greatest League player ever.
The majority of esports are contested on PCs, though the improvement in mobile and console technology has spread the access out across more platforms. Of the 10 most watched esports, five are exclusively available on the computer, and all ten have competitions primarily on computers, not consoles. However, 9 of the top 25 most watched esports are primarily console-based, and 2 more use mobile devices as the platform of choice.
In one of the most ambitious partnerships in esports so far, the NBA and Take-Two Interactive, publishers of the popular NBA 2K series, started the NBA 2K League in 2018, with 17 teams, each owned by a distinct NBA team. The 2K League even has an annual draft at Barclays Center, selecting from players who go through a rigorous tryout process to qualify.
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With a broadcast deal on ESPN and a partnership with the NBA, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the “e” in “esports” may soon become superfluous. As the electronic battlegrounds become mainstream, though, a whole host of other issues present themselves, ones more traditional sports have had far more experience in dealing with.
One of the highest priorities for esports is in getting official recognition as a sport. The International Olympic Committee has considered the rising popularity of esports since 2017, but the IOC’s president, Thomas Bach, said earlier this year that there’s no Olympic future for “a game which is promoting violence or discrimination.” This would disqualify a large percentage of the most popular esports games, centered as they are around two teams whose express goal is to kill each other as many times as possible. Additional issues include esports lack of a single governing body and the insularity of player bases for particular games. (71% of esports fans say they only follow one game.) Even with the IOC’s reluctance, esports is an official medal event at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, with six gold medals being awarded across multiple platforms.
These struggles for recognition are echoed in the experience of many professional esports athletes, many of whom are often uncertain whether or not their particular game has crossed the threshold for recognition. Danny “Shiphtur” Le, a professional League of Legends athlete, was the first esports player to be awarded a P-1A visa, reserved for foreign-born athletes who live in the US, in 2013. However, William “Leffen” Hjelte, one of the best-known players of Super Smash Bros. Melee, was denied a P-1A visa in October 2015, due to the US government not recognizing Melee as a legitimate sport. Leffen eventually got his visa, and esports athletes generally are finding more acceptance of their craft as sport.
With more acceptance comes bigger prizes, and with bigger prizes comes more people willing to do whatever it takes to win. At amateur levels, there’s a huge reserve of anecdotal evidence claiming that drugs like Adderall, Vyvanse, and Valium drastically improve esports performance. Some professional gaming organizations have a zero-tolerance drug policy, but many have no policy at all. Riot Games, publisher of League of Legends, does not test for drug use in its competitions and relies on an implicit ban on drug use rather than explicitly forbidding it. There’s no consensus on whether PEDs are a serious problem in esports, but the sheer lack of data and breadth of anecdotal evidence may indicate that a serious problem lies just below the surface.
Most esports athletes double as streamers, with channels on Youtube, Twitch, or Mixer. It’s easier than ever to find and to watch professional gaming and to meet the athletes behind it. With the advent of VR and AR, the growth of live streaming in concert with esports, and the spread of professional gaming to our phones, the future of esports looks bright.