Esports – What Is This Worldwide Phenomenon?

This billion-dollar industry might be the biggest thing since the 3-point line

Team Vitality from France takes part in a qualifying match at the 2015 Call of Duty European Championships
Players compete in Call of Duty.

 Rob Stothard /Getty Images

Esports refers to video games that are treated as a professional sport, featuring paid players, huge fan followings, sold out arenas, sponsorships, and huge tournament payouts. Over the past few years, esports has become a multi-billion dollar industry spanning every corner of the globe. With millions of fans and the buy-in of everyone from top-tier universities to ESPN, esports are here to stay.

What Are Esports?

Though the term rankles more traditional sports fans, esports function in many ways the same as a sport like basketball or baseball.

Picture each game (or esport) as its own sport, meaning it has its own rules, objectives, players, and requisite skillset. The developer of the game typically works to bolster its game’s esports scene by bringing in sponsors, hosting tournaments, and even paying player salaries. Esports mimic traditional sports in most aspects, using similar tournament formats, player contracts, and regulations. 

Most esports are not based on sports games. FIFA and NBA 2K do have esports scenes, but they pale in comparison to other games.

For many video game developers, esports function as an arm of their marketing department — providing content to keep players engaged and ideally spending money on their game. 

How Do Esports Work?

In the past, esports communities evolved naturally from games that naturally lent themselves to balanced competition. However, as the esports scene has grown over the years, developers have begun creating games with the goal of building an esports scene around them.

As an example, the most popular esport in the world today is a video game called League of Legends (LoL), developed by Riot Games. LoL features five players on each team controlling a variety of characters that have different abilities and attributes — the goal is to push into the opposing team’s base and destroy it. Because each game takes place on the same map, fans can easily follow what’s going on and every game offers a balanced playing board.

Riot has live film studios and team houses for their North America and European leagues, which feature ten teams. The players live with each other in a home, drawing a salary from Riot and playing weekly matches in the studio, which culminate in a championship. 

Because most esports leagues typically take place in the same city, fandoms are not usually built around a region like most sports. However, fan followings are often large and big tournaments fill out huge stadiums like the Staples Center and Seoul’s World Cup Stadium.

What’s more, teams and players stand to make millions in prize money if they win any of a number of international tournaments. The biggest of these tournaments, The International, is based on a game called Dota 2 and last year boasted a prize pool of more than $20 million.

Much of the money raised for The International comes from Dota 2’s community itself, through the sale of a digital in-game item for Dota 2. Just imagine football fans raising tens of millions of dollars for the winning team of the Super Bowl.

Why Do Esports Matter?

Esports matter primarily because of how many people watch them. To wit, in 2015, a brand new game with a nearly non-existent esports scene called Heroes of the Storm hosted a tournament aimed at college students. Cleverly titled Heroes of the Dorm, this tournament was notable for not only attracting 800 teams and awarding $375,000 in scholarships, but because it was broadcast on ESPN2. 

The world outside of video games has taken notice. The NBA recently announced its own esports league with teams of esports athletes in 17 NBA cities. Esports regularly attract big-name sponsors like Samsung and Coca Cola, and ESPN’s website even features an esports tab on its homepage.

To get a glance of where esports is headed in the future, just look to South Korea, where esports has well and truly taken hold. Players and characters from certain esports adorn soda cans and billboards, while games are broadcast regularly on television.

Esports — the Sports of the Future

Professional competition emerges from just about any hobby, from Cornhole to barbeque, so it comes as no surprise that video games, too have spawned their own competitions.

In a short time, Esports have become important because:

  • Popularity: Esports tournaments regularly attract tens of thousands of fans and millions of online viewers. In 2013, LoL's World Finals attracted 27 million viewers, surpassing the viewership of the NBA Finals and World Series that year.
  • Dollars: the top 10 biggest esports payouts total more than $71 million, and that's just between two different games.
  • Buy-in: everyone from the NBA to Coca-Cola to ESPN has entered the esports arena, through sponsorship or direct involvement, and things are just heating up.