Video games have always had a competitive edge. Whether trying to beat the high scores in the local arcade or attempting to gain a competitive ranking in a modern shooter game, players have consistently sought to outperform their peers in the virtual world, and walk off with the bragging rights. But in recent times, competition in video games has escalated with the rise of eSports, and if you want in on the action, our guide will explain everything you need to know.

What is eSports?

eSports is short for electronic sports, and typically describes professional video games competitions. This transcends casual gaming, as professional players across the world take each other on in organized leagues and tournaments, either individually or in teams. These competitions range from small local matches to live international tournaments in packed-out stadiums.

When did eSports start?

1970s: The birth of eSports

eSports’ popularity has skyrocketed over the last decade due to the unprecedented advancements in networking technologies, but competitive gaming has actually been around since the 1970s. The first ever video game competition took place in 1972, where twenty four Stanford University students competed in the “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics” for a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. The next — and earliest large-scale — video game competition took place eight years later, with Atari’s Space Invaders Championship. Over 10,000 Americans competed, with the live final taking place in New York. This event is seen as the precursor to the huge spectacles we regularly see today.

1970s to 90s: eSports’ profile rises

Video game competitions grew more popular throughout the 1980s, with more tournaments and even televised events being established. This included the US show Starcade, where contestants played arcade games against one another, and the incorporation of competitive video gaming in shows like First Class in the UK. However, eSports really took off in the 90s following the release of Street Fighter II, which introduced the notion of direct, tournament-level face-offs. Before this, competitions were won by whoever achieved the highest scores, but Street Fighter II enabled players to go head-to-head to crown a winner. eSports tournaments grew larger and larger throughout the decade, especially as games benefited from increased internet connectivity. The Evolution Championship Series, the Nintendo World Championships and the World Game Championships were just three events launched around this time. Now, players were not only competing for gaming glory, but huge, thousand-dollar jackpots as well.

2000s to today: eSports explodes into the mainstream

The normalization of online gaming throughout the noughties saw eSports’ profile continue to rise, but it reached peak popularity in the 2010s thanks to the take-off of streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube. By this point, more and more people were interested in watching video games, rather than just playing them. From then on, it became common to see sell-out stadium tournaments and six-figure prize money. eSports hit the mainstream, even beginning to rival traditional sports.

How does eSports work?

Types of games

  • First-person shooter (FPS) games  – These simulate firefights from a first-person perspective, and can be played individually or in team-based competitions. Popular games include Call of Duty, Halo and Overwatch.
  • Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games – A real-time strategy video game, where each player controls a single character as part of one team competing against another. It’s common to win by destroying the opposition’s base. Common competitive MOBA games include League of Legends, Dota 2 and Smite.
  • Fighter games – These involve close combat between a small number of characters on stages with fixed boundaries. Examples include Tekken, Super Smash Bros and Mortal Kombat
  • Sports games – Many sports-inspired games are played in eSports competitions. These include FIFA (soccer), Madden (hockey) and NBA 2K (basketball).

Other games that regularly feature in eSports competitions are racing games, card games and third-person shooters.

How competitions are played

eSports has both ongoing leagues and one-off tournaments, with the latter tending to attract greater interest due to their condensed nature. There are multiple professional and amateur competitions per sport (game) that can be either national or international. While smaller eSports events are played online from the comfort of the players’ homes, many of the largest ones are incredibly similar to traditional sporting spectacles. These often incorporate multiple tournaments, and also take place in dedicated venues (including sports stadiums) with commentators and thousands of fans in attendance. For instance, 43,000 fans packed into Beijing’s Olympic “Bird’s Nest” stadium for 2015’s League of Legends Championships. Millions also watch online — the most watched event ever is the League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational 2018, which saw 60 million people tuning in. Online broadcasters dominate the eSports broadcasting market, but many mainstream networks have also started getting involved, including ESPN, ABC and NBC.

Notable leagues and tournaments

eSports leagues

Overwatch League

Founded in 2017, those competing in the Overwatch League play the team-based FPS Overwatch. The league runs over a six-month period with the overall prize pool standing at $5 million for the 2020 edition. The 2019 Grand Finals attracted 1.12 million viewers per minute, with mainstream channels including ESPN, Disney XD and ABC broadcasting that season of the league.

Call of Duty League 

Replacing the incredibly popular Call of Duty World League, this competition began in January 2020. Competing in the classic FPS Call of Duty, the league’s predecessor ran a series of tournaments from 2016 onwards, with $6 million worth of prize money handed out in 2019. The 2020 Call of Duty League has a more traditional, ongoing league format with all games from March 13 onwards taking place online in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. 

ESL Pro League 

The ESL Pro League launched in May 2015, with competitors playing the FPS Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Taking place across Europe, the Americas, Asia and Oceania 24 teams compete for a prize pool of $1 million. The 2019 season ran over two months, with the finals playoffs taking place at the Sud de France Arena in Marseille, France. Overall, it broke viewership records, clocking up over 16.1 million hours watched overall.

eSports tournaments

League of Legends World Championship 

The biggest eSports tournament is undoubtedly the League of Legends World Championship, where players compete in the MOBA game League of Legends. Running since 2011, the competition has attracted unprecedented attention for an eSports event. Tens of millions of people regularly tune in, with the 2019 edition passing the 100 million viewers mark overall (with a peak of 44 million concurrent viewers), and it sells out stadiums each year. The League of Legends World Championships is also going to be a medal event in the 2022 Asian Games, while its mainstream impact has led to rumors of it becoming a future Olympic inclusion.

The International 

Established in 2011, The International is an annual eSports tournament for the MOBA game Dota 2. Past editions have had the largest single-tournament prize pools of any eSports event, with the 2019 tournament worth over $34 million. Eighteen teams compete, twelve of which are directly invited based on their performances in the Dota Pro Circuit tournament. The remaining six teams qualify via playoff brackets from the regions of North America, South America, Southeast Asia, China, Europe, and CIS.

The Intel Extreme Masters 

The Intel Extreme Masters is an annual series of international eSports tournaments. Founded in 2007, it includes events in a range of games, such as League of Legends, Starcraft II and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The series regularly attracts huge numbers of fans, with March 2019’s Intel Extreme Masters Season Championship welcoming over 174,000 attendees over two weekends. 

Where’s the money in eSports?

The players

Just like traditional athletes, eSports stars can rake in huge figures. Some single games have prizes up to $200,000, while tournament winners can take home jackpots worth millions of dollars. Teams and event organizers earn a portion of tournament ticket sales as well, and players can also pocket money from sponsorships, endorsements and league salaries. For instance, NBA 2K League players earned a base salary of $33,000-$37,000 for the 2019 season. In addition, many eSports pros stream their games and are paid by platforms like Twitch according to how many subscribers they have, then top up their profits with advertising revenue and subscriber donations. All in all, the highest paid eSports player (by playing earnings) at the time of writing is Johan “N0tail” Sundstein, who has won $6,898,191.79 from 110 tournaments.

The video game industry

eSports has proven incredibly profitable for the video game industry itself. According to Forbes, eSports events now account for around 9% of gaming companies’ revenues, while media rights from lucrative broadcast deals make up another 14%. For example, Activision Blizzard (the producers of Overwatch) signed a two-year, $90 million deal with Twitch in 2018 that gave the streaming platform exclusive rights to show the Overwatch League in North America. Once the partnership ended, YouTube swooped in, paying Activision a whopping $160 million for a similar contract. The eSports market is expected to be worth $1.79 billion by 2021, so expect video game companies to keep benefiting from the rise of competitive gaming.

The betting industry

Once unregulated, the eSports betting sector now has a huge selection of dedicated eSportsbooks, while conventional bookmakers are increasingly offering lines on all types of eSports events. It’s estimated that around $8 billion was wagered on eSports in 2019, and when the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to worldwide sporting events, 2020 saw an increase in video game wagering as many bettors turned to eSports for the first time. Fans can even take part in eSports fantasy leagues to win money, with competitions organized by the likes of DraftKings and FanDuel as well as dedicated eSports platforms.