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A beginner's guide to esports

Since the early days of video games, there's always been a competitive side. Whether the high scores spewed from arcade classics or the competitive ranking in modern shooters, players have always desired to rank themselves in relation to others in their category.

In recent years, the community around competitive gaming has blossomed, with multiplayer online games placing a bigger focus on player-versus-player combat. This has birthed a new age of competitive gaming known as eSports, which is becoming an increasingly popular topic in both the gaming and sports industries.

What is esports?

In summary, esports is the term given to playing video games at a competitive level. More recently, the term has gravitated towards big-budget tournaments with sponsorships and audiences. Esports (derived from electronic sports) often involves opponents facing one another through multiplayer matches or through a time/score based competition.

Over recent years with the rise of online multiplayer and video streaming, the industry has grown exponentially, reaching a much wider audience. This has resulted in millions of viewers and more potential esports stars, feeding the corporations hosting tournaments across the world. Between sponsors and tournament prize pools, individuals are now able to earn a living with their gaming skills, similarly to how many professional athletes have operated for years.

In many countries, the support for such tournaments has been on the rise, following the influence from South Korea, where esports stars are idolized. South Korea is now an esports hub and acts as proof that mainstream competitive gaming has a place in the modern world. With dedicated stadiums and a cult following for these iconic cyber-athletes, the culture around video games has shifted, setting an example for others to follow. A similar shift is now being seen in the west, with dedicated arenas also being established to house esports.

Are esports actually considered sports?

As video games have started to be broadcast across well-established sports television networks such as ESPN, casual sports fans have questioned the crossover. Decades-long debates have existed surrounding the legitimacy of chess as a sport and a similar principle applies here.

Based on a strict dictionary definition, a sport requires physical exertion to qualify:

"An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment."

By the same token, esports have a similar method of training and preparation and share a commitment to ethics with other sports.

Broadcasts of esports matches may never seamlessly transition into mainstream networks, with the core sporting audience having little interest in the growing trend. While many gamers hope for esports to continue growing, its place in the western sports industry is still far from solidified.

Both the audience and commentators of these networks have shown polarized opinions on the topics, some arguing the modernization disregards the legacy the networks were built upon. A notable instance of this was when Colin Cowherd of ESPN/Fox Sports fame threatened to quit over the rise of esports, referring to the practice as "the nerd equivalent of Band on the Field."

In recent years, heavily established teams in traditional sports have also jumped on board with the trend, hiring their own group of players. These players are given professional coaching with in-depth strategies, mimicking the training process of traditional athletes. While sports teams are beginning to usher in competitive gaming into their rotation, the world is still far from recognizing esports as a globally accepted activity.

Like professional athletes in traditional sports, esports players can gain their own followers — and controversies. As the top leagues continue to increase in popularity, the drama between cyber-athletes and their trainers becomes an increasingly common occurrence.

Video games have been around for decades – why are esports only now gaining traction?

A rapid advancement in networking technologies over the past decade has contributed to the sudden growth in esports, easily putting competitive gaming into the homes of millions of players and viewers. The entry point to competitive gaming is now easier than ever, giving online communities a simple platform to refine their skills. With internet speeds having soared since the early days of internet-enabled consoles, creating a lag-free experience is much easier for developers.

While the first recorded video gaming tournaments took place in the early 1970's, the integration of online multiplayer was a massive leap to the point we're at today. Companies are now pushing local area network (LAN) based multiplayer aside, with similar connectivity being offered via official dedicated servers.

On-demand video and more importantly, live-streamed video, has been another major factor in growing esports communities, with matches accessible via dedicated video gaming streaming sites. By cutting out television broadcasters, matches are now broadcasted live over the internet, bringing millions to watch the biggest matches of the year. In some countries, competitive games have grown larger than the Super Bowl.

The growth of esports has also influenced game developers, who have started to tailor features to accommodate competitions at a higher level. As this becomes an increasingly common trend, publishers are dropping larger investments to ensure their presence in the competitive scene.

Funding also comes from large hardware manufacturers renowned for producing gaming accessories and PC components, which choose to sponsor teams, or the leagues themselves. Such partnerships can improve the standards of esports tournaments while additionally advertising the top gaming brands.

What makes a game suitable for esports?

While competitive gaming isn't restricted to specific games, certain gameplay mechanics play a major role in the game's success at a professional level. Developers are now tailoring their games towards the esports scene, which makes it harder than ever to gain a large following.

Currently, the most common genres in esports are multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs), first-person shooters and real-time strategy games. Not only do all these genres require a substantial amount of skill and strategy to master, but more importantly, offer entertainment for spectators.

An accessible entry point has also proven to be a large factor in a game's success, with gameplay features understood by the audience. While it's assumed that esports viewers are invested in the games they watch, an easy-to-grasp premise widens the game's reach to more casual players.

Games which offer features designed for competitive gaming and live-streaming are also becoming more frequent, hoping to foster tournament communities without additional equipment. Titles such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Halo 5: Guardians offer a spectator mode for live viewing, along with private matches with configurable settings, and other elements to expand their competitive reaches.

While hundreds of games are played competitively, here is a brief overview of the top games played in major competitive leagues:

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive brings together the best elements of competitive first-person shooters into a refined experience. With a low price point and an active player base, the 5v5 tactical shooter provides a platform where skill and communication are essential for success. With active support from Valve via frequent updates, the game is now among the biggest titles in the esports industry.

See at Green Man Gaming (opens in new tab)

Overwatch

Overwatch has proven to be yet another success for its developer Blizzard, taking esport leagues by storm. With strong core mechanics backing the hero-based shooter, the first-person shooter allows for consistent, yet varied experiences fit for competitive play. The Overwatch League (OWL) has been the latest example of the game's success, with teams representing cities across the globe to win lengthy seasons.

See at Amazon (opens in new tab)

League of Legends

League of Legends has captured a dedicated player base through its free-to-play model, offering unbeatable MOBA gameplay across a range of maps and characters. The game has been placed at the forefront of esports in Asia, thanks to a strong investment from publisher and developer, Riot Games. The game has been given a yearly World Championship, recently bring the best players into a single venue to compete for nearly $5 million.

See at LeagueOfLegends.com

Dota 2

Dota 2, another Valve title, acts as its sole competitor to League of Legends. While the game retains a smaller player base than Riot's world-famous MOBA, heavy investment from Valve has continued to push its esports presence. The game currently holds the record for the largest prize pool in esports history, when over $24.6 million was offered during the game's International Championship in 2017.

See at Steam

Hearthstone

Blizzard's digital card game, Hearthstone, has also gained similar traction in the competitive scene. Although its one-versus-one turn-based gameplay doesn't fit the traditional template of esports titles, the game still maintains a strong following. Its competitive scene has also been built around the game's character, even hosting tournaments in tavern-styled locations, instead of a traditional arena setup.

See at Blizzard

Where can I experience esports online?

A majority of the world's biggest esports matches are broadcasted through dedicated gaming live-streaming services such as Twitch and Mixer. With a built-in public text chat and other community features, these platforms provide a stable place to host the largest esports events.

Depending on the scale of the tournaments, some events can also be attended in-person. Big-time gaming leagues also upload previous matches to their official YouTube channels, for on-demand viewing of the best esports moments.

As with other competitive events, the esports scene also supports a growing betting culture, with huge profits to be obtained through third-party sites. Through these sites, players are able to bet on ongoing matches between well-established teams, with in-game items and real world money up for grabs. While esports aren't tailored to the same audience as traditional sports, the industry around it has a growing number of similarities.

Can I participate in competitive gaming?

Getting started in the esports scene is now relatively easy, with online matches being hosted daily. Nowadays, thanks to online services which match gamers into larger groups, competitive teams can be found with less hassle than ever before.

This doesn't mean that you'll be playing video games for a living any time soon — the industry is still mostly treated as a hobby by most people. Gamers who land sponsorships as professional players get there from years of risk-filled hard work, but others stumble into the scene almost by accident.

In many countries, in-person tournaments are regular occurrences, with only a small entry fee required to be in with a chance of winning. These tournaments are often higher-stake competitions than online-based events, with small prize pools up for grabs. For more information on in-person tournaments, search for upcoming gaming events in your area.

What do you think?

Do you think esports are legitimate sports? Are you interested in participating in any upcoming esports events? Make sure to let us know in the comments!

Disclaimer: Images of esports tournaments have been obtained from ESL

Updated February 8, 2018: Updated with new information to reflect the current state of esports.

Matt Brown
Matt Brown

Matt Brown is Windows Central's Senior Games Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.

27 Comments
  • Interesting. Thanks
  • Ugh. Sorry, but honestly, this is one that I don't get.
  • ok I love the pc gamming but I don't think its actually a real sport.I don't think its sport either.
    They are some lucky guy and good players who take money while they are playing their favorite game.But they are not athletes.C'mon.
  • Snooker players and darts players aren't athletes either. Darts players especially, yet those are considered sports.
  • Maybe because throwing a projectile actually requires some physical exertion, much like throwing a discus. Only difference is one is mostly about strength while the other is about touch or technique (although tossing a discus requires a fair bit of technique too).
  • What about carrom, chess, poker, card trading and some board game players? They aren't athletes but those games are professional sports.
  • Calling any of those activities "sports" is just a ridiculous as video games.
  • Are you really questioning the authenticity of those games being called as sports? Turn yourself to Google and do a thing call 'Search' and then maybe you will get to know what you've been missing from the world.
  • ofc not.Just I don't want to compare athletes with e-athletes
  • No, they are not "sports". Calling "card trading" a sport is absurd. And no, I'm not going anywhere near "Google" nor do I acknowledge them as an authority on anything. Pathetic.
  • Do you consider shooting a sport? It's in the Olympics. I'd actually argue that esports are actually a lot harder than you'd think on the body. You have to practice 8-12 hours with your team then are expected to play another 3-4 hours of solo queue. With traditional sports their comes a point in time where your body just cannot do more and you need to rest. In esports, you're not limited to that until you burn out mentally or develop severe wrist and arm problems.  Oh, and you get paid way less.
  • I can agree with you and with the others but I don't want in the future to see LoL players at the Olympics and remove some other sport
  • I don't see how eSport will be merged with traditional sport tho. Even if it ever makes into Olympic (VERY unlikely) it will be an other department, like Paralympic, just with the Olympic title.
  • Shooters have to control their heart rate, and shooting clay requires some pretty strong core strength to aim and shoot on the fly.
  • Which is why it's called "esport", and not "sport".
  • Make the teams belonging to states or even countries and see the rise of eSports in mainstream media.
  • Mainstream media is allready tying to get into esports, MTG has been on a buying-spree the last year, and Turner is launching their own tournament. Setting it up like a traditional sport where team are linked to cities/states doesn't really work out overall. But i Starcraft and CS, there has allready been played "world cups" where players come together to form national teams to see which country is the best.  
  • In a lot of ways esports athletes have it way worse than traditional sports players. Compensation isn't really up to the point it needs to be at considering the viewership a lot of events draw, burn out is really high, and careers rarely last more than 2-3 years.  These kids are basically sacrificing a lot during their MS/HS/College years to maybe make it in a profession that's going to have them practice for 8-12 hours a day for months on end. Some develop really bad wrist problems and most don't really have the educational background after they exit the limelight to make it in the real world. In the case of traditional sports, the compensation is generally high enough to warrent sacrificing your future. Combined with the scandals that occur on a semi regular basis (player mistreatment, lack of payment, etc..) being a player is pretty bad at the moment. On top of that, game engagement is fleeting. League has started its downturn and that came out in 2009. Since then we've seen DoTA2, CSGO, etc... come out. All of these majorly effect viewership, salaries and prize pools and fracture the viewerbase.   
  • Maybe one day they will be considered as sports, I mean the amount of brain power required to master these games at a competitive level is really hard. I used to play street fighter and thought I was a gee until I discovered these guys that play online,my goodness the way they use the mechanics of the game is insane. But I guess it will take a long time for people to get that if not ever. I enjoy Esports especially fighting.
  • Watched the last chance qualifier for halo yesterday and boy was it nerve wracking. Really fun competitions to watch especially since the only other sport to follow atm is baseball (soccer too I guess) so it'll be nice having halo pro league. Team Envyus ftw!
  • Surprised this article didn't mention that ELEAGUE is premiering this Friday on TBS.
  • I have two boys that both watch videos (mostly YouTube) of people playing video games.  I've been dumbfounded for a while now -- I mean, they're not even playing the game, just watching!  Finally, the other day, I asked the older boy "What do you get out of watching people play video games?  I don't understand it at all."  His reply?  "Why do people watch baseball on TV?"  I had no comeback -- he completely put me in my place.  Now I realize that I'm just becoming a typical old man who doesn't understand "the kids these days..."
  • Don't feel bad. To be honest it's all about desire. I watch baseball on tv because I want to. I also watch people play video games online. I do both because I like them and I want to. It's that simple.
  • a bit disapointed that Starcraft wasnt even mentioned, Starcraft one basically made E-sports as big as it is today!
  • So true. Starcraft is the best e-sport game ever! Last Gsl final (korean league) : https://www.twitch.tv/gsl/v/63880038 Enjoy!
  • I was considering adding Starcraft to the list, but its eSports presence has undeniably dropped over recent years. Still a great game for competitive play though!
  • It is not "eSports", it is "esports", or "Esports" if it's the first word in a sentence.