Esports (also known as electronic sports or e-sports) refers to competitive video gaming events and leagues. Players face off against each other in popular multiplayer online games including League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, Overwatch, and Fortnite. While video games have been around since the 1970s, competitive gaming leagues are a relatively modern phenomenon that has exploded in popularity over the past decade.
The roots of esports can be traced back to the early 2000s, when tournaments formed around popular games like StarCraft and Quake. However, esports truly emerged as a major industry and spectator event in the 2010s. Live streaming platforms like Twitch allowed fans to easily watch competitions, while improvements in internet connectivity and PC hardware enabled more advanced multiplayer gameplay. Big name sponsors and serious prize pools legitimized esports and attracted top-tier talent. Today, esports is a billion dollar industry with hundreds of millions of fans around the world. Major tournaments like the International and League of Legends World Championship sell out huge arenas and offer multi-million dollar prize pools. As gaming continues to define pop culture, esports has cemented itself as a massive form of competitive entertainment moving forward.
Popularity and Viewership
Esports has exploded in popularity and viewership over the past decade. Major esports tournaments now rival traditional sports in terms of viewership numbers. For example, the 2021 League of Legends World Championship had over 74 million peak concurrent viewers, exceeding the viewership of the NBA Finals and World Series that same year.
In total, over 200 million people tuned into esports events in 2021. And global esports viewership is expected to grow to 347 million by 2024, according to market research firm Newzoo. This massive growth is being driven primarily by live streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube Gaming which allow fans to easily watch competitions.
The esports audience also skews younger than traditional sports fans. A 2021 survey showed that 58% of esports viewers are between the ages of 18 and 34. This means esports present an exciting way for brands and advertisers to reach the valuable Gen Z and millennial demographics. Esports fans are also highly engaged, with many spending significant time watching live streams in addition to tournaments.
Major Leagues and Tournaments
Some of the biggest and most prestigious leagues and tournaments have emerged in esports over the past decade. For popular games like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Overwatch, official leagues with professional teams have been established.
The League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) is the official North American league for League of Legends, featuring 10 long-standing teams. Its European counterpart is the League of Legends European Championship (LEC). These leagues follow a regular season and playoff format with millions of viewers.
Blizzard's Overwatch League (OWL) also follows a traditional sports league model with 20 teams across North America, Europe, and Asia. OWL's inaugural season in 2018 garnered a large audience right from the start.
For Dota 2, The International is considered the pinnacle championship, boasting record-breaking prize pools in excess of $30 million in recent years. Other major Dota 2 tournaments include the EPICENTER and DreamLeague circuits.
The Evolution Championship Series (EVO) is one of the longest running and largest fighting game tournaments globally. EVO features popular fighting games like Street Fighter, Super Smash Bros., and Mortal Kombat.
Other notable global tournaments include the League of Legends World Championship, Dota 2's The International, the Overwatch World Cup, and IEM Katowice for CS:GO. The growing viewership and revenue around these major competitive gaming events points to a strong future for esports.
Top Teams and Players
Professional esports teams are supported by major corporate sponsorships. Top esports players become celebrities in their own right, with large fanbases and lucrative salaries and prize winnings. Some of the most prominent esports teams and players include:
FaZe Clan - Founded in 2010, this US esports team is one of the most popular and successful in the world. They have top squads in games like Call of Duty, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Rainbow Six, and Fortnite. Their brand value is estimated at over $240 million, and they were named Esports Team of the Year at The Esports Awards in 2018 and 2019.
Natus Vincere (Na'Vi) - This Ukrainian esports organization was founded in 2009 and is best known for its Counter-Strike lineup. Na'Vi has earned over $7 million in tournament winnings and is sponsored by brands like Monster Energy and GG.bet.
Tyler "Ninja" Blevins - Arguably the biggest gaming influencer, Ninja rose to fame as a professional Fortnite player, known for his massive Twitch following. He currently has over 16 million Twitch followers and 24 million subscribers on YouTube. Ninja has earned millions from streaming, endorsements and partnerships.
Johan "N0tail" Sundstein - A Danish professional Dota 2 player, N0tail is considered one of the greatest esports players ever, having earned over $7 million from tournaments. He plays for OG, which he co-founded in 2015. OG has won The International Dota 2 tournament two years in a row.
Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok - A South Korean pro League of Legends player, Faker has dominated the LoL scene for years. Nicknamed the "Michael Jordan of Esports," he has won 3 World Championship titles with his team SK Telecom T1. Faker has multi-million dollar contracts and lucrative endorsement deals with brands like Nike and Razer.
College Scholarships and Education
As esports has grown, colleges and universities have taken notice and started offering scholarships and even degrees related to competitive gaming. Schools like the University of Utah, University of California Irvine, and many others now have official esports programs and facilities. These programs field teams that compete in various games like League of Legends, Overwatch, Rocket League, and more against other colleges.
Top esports players can now earn scholarships to attend college, just like athletes in traditional sports. Colleges are using esports scholarships as a way to recruit talented gamers and stand out. There are now hundreds of colleges offering scholarships and over $15 million in esports scholarship funds available. Some schools offer full-ride scholarships worth over $50,000 per year.
Beyond scholarships, some colleges have gone as far as offering degrees related to esports. These programs combine business, marketing, event management and gaming into specialized degrees designed to support the esports industry. Notable schools with esports degrees include Becker College, Full Sail University, Shenandoah University, and Boise State University. As interest grows, more colleges will likely add esports programs and curriculum options.
The integration of esports into higher education shows the growing legitimacy of gaming as a career path. Young people can now aspire to turn professional gaming into an education and job opportunity. This infrastructure will be key for further establishing esports in the mainstream.
Business Side of Esports
The business side of esports has grown rapidly along with the popularity of competitive gaming. Esports generates revenue through multiple streams, with sponsorships, media rights, advertising, and merchandising being among the largest sources.
Sponsorships from companies like Intel, Coca-Cola, and Toyota provide direct revenue to esports leagues, teams, and events. Brands sponsor leagues like the LCS (League of Legends) and OWL (Overwatch), or sponsor individual esports athletes and influencers. These deals can be worth millions based on the size of the league, team, or player's audience and fanbase.
Media rights have also become big business in esports. Major streaming platforms like Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook bid for exclusive rights to broadcast major esports tournaments and leagues. Traditional media companies like ESPN have also gotten into the mix. These media partnerships generate substantial revenue opportunities through subscriptions, advertising, and licensed content.
Within esports events themselves, companies pay for advertising just like with traditional sports. Brands and games advertise through commercials, branded segments, sponsored replays and highlights, and on-screen banners. Esports advertising spending reached nearly $200 million in 2018 and is forecasted to surpass $300 million by 2020.
Finally, merchandising creates another revenue stream through esports team and league-branded apparel and collectibles. As esports fanship grows, major esports brands have increasing opportunities to generate sales from their fanbases through merch.
Esports Arenas and Facilities
As esports have grown, dedicated arenas and facilities designed specifically to host competitive gaming events have begun popping up around the world. These state-of-the-art venues are built to accommodate both in-person audiences and live streaming infrastructure, providing the ideal environment for esports competitions.
Some examples of custom esports arena projects include:
- Esports Stadium Arlington - A 100,000 square foot facility in Arlington, Texas with seating for up to 2,500 spectators.
- HyperX Esports Arena - A 30,000 square foot arena in Las Vegas inside the Luxor Hotel & Casino.
- Esports Arena Oakland - A 15,000 square foot arena in Oakland, California.
- Esports Stadium in Santa Ana, California - A 25,000 square foot arena currently under construction.
- Esports Arena Orange County - A proposed 120,000 square foot facility in Santa Ana, California.
Major esports tournaments like the League of Legends World Championship have also been held in large traditional sports stadiums and arenas like the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. However, dedicated esports-specific venues allow for customization and amenities tailored to competitive gaming and the needs of professional gamers during tournaments. As esports continue to grow in popularity, expect to see more of these dedicated arenas and stadiums built to host events around the globe.
Impact on Gaming Industry
With the rapid growth and increasing popularity of eSports, game development studios and publishers are designing more competitive multiplayer games specifically with eSports competitions and leagues in mind. Many popular esports titles like League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Overwatch were created with competitive online team play as a focus. The companies behind these games actively manage them as eSports titles, by organizing tournaments, leagues, and balancing gameplay mechanics.
Game publishers are also increasingly supporting the esports scene for their titles financially and through promotion. Large tournaments and leagues for games like Call of Duty, Hearthstone, and Rainbow Six Siege are funded by their publishers. This symbiotic relationship benefits both the games and their publishers. The competitive gaming heightens interest in the game and provides marketing, while the support from developers helps foster a thriving competitive community.
In addition to influencing development, the growth of esports is changing how publishers market and monetize games. Titles like Fortnite are incorporating in-game purchases of character skins and emotes to capitalize on esports visibility. Some publishers use cosmetic microtransactions to fund esports tournament prize pools and operations. Free-to-play is also becoming more common in esports-focused titles, with publishers generating revenue from in-game transactions rather than game sales.
Esports betting has exploded in popularity alongside the growth of competitive gaming. The global esports betting market was valued at around $8 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach nearly $20 billion by 2027. Several factors are fueling this rapid expansion.
First, the number of regulated betting operators offering esports wagers has greatly increased. This provides more opportunities for fans to bet conveniently and legally on esports matches and tournaments. Major sportsbooks like DraftKings, FanDuel, and BetMGM now operate dedicated esports betting sections.
Second, live streaming and data feeds enable real-time esports betting opportunities. Fans can wager on in-game events as they watch matches unfold. This is similar to live betting on traditional sports.
Third, the growing esports audience provides a large base of potential bettors. As more fans tune into major events like the League of Legends World Championship, betting handle has surged.
While the esports betting industry is still in its early stages, regulation remains a key issue. Most jurisdictions have not passed laws specifically addressing esports wagering. There are also concerns around match-fixing and protecting the integrity of competition. However, many anticipate that regulated, legal esports betting will continue expanding as the games reach the mainstream.
The future looks extremely bright for esports. Analysts project that global esports revenue will surpass $1.5 billion by 2023 as the fanbase continues to expand rapidly. Major investments from sponsors and broadcast partners will fuel prize pools and production values to rival traditional sports.
Esports will continue to cement itself in the mainstream through media rights deals, franchise-based leagues, city-based teams, and dedicated esports arenas. More colleges and universities are expected to add esports programs and scholarships to capitalize on surging interest. Esports athletes will be treated and compensated like professional athletes.
However, esports still faces obstacles to mass market acceptance. Concerns around excessive screen time for youth and video game addiction persist. The male-dominated demographics also limit appeal to some advertisers. Esports will need to diversify participants and appeal to broader audiences to achieve its full potential.
But with video games more popular than ever, the momentum is on esports' side. It is poised to shape the future of live entertainment and transform how audiences engage with sports. The lines between traditional and esports will continue to blur into truly integrated competitive gaming experiences.