What is Esports? [2019 Edition]

What is Esports
  • Although the esports industry has seen a large surge in popularity in recent years, there are many people who still don’t know what it is, or know how it functions. In this article, we explore what is esports in 2019.

What is Esports?

Esports is short for electronic sports. It is basically a sports branch. Esports has all the elements of traditional sports such as competition, tactics and strategies, mental aspect, tournaments, TV (stream) coverage, prize money and so forth. Just like traditional sports have different disciplines, Esports have different video games. Let’s say that each game represents a different Esports discipline. In laymen terms, the National Football League (NFL) is a sports league, just like the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) is an esports league. Football is a sport, and League of Legends is a game in esports.

Moreover, professional esports players are those who had been playing video games and decided to turn pro and put their effort into mastering the game skills.

Esports doesn’t really have a physical aspect, at least, not at the same level as traditional sports. Furthermore, esports requires exceptional concentration, excellent motoric skills, sharp eyesight, and quick reflexes. As a result, many professional esports players work out and go to the gym to stay on top of their game.

There is a prejudice that esports players only sit behind screens and play video games. But, it’s rarely the case these days. You will even see some esports players in better physical condition than some traditional sportsmen such as Sonii for Sk Telecom T1. Also, some esports teams even have their own psychologist to improve their mental aspect of the game. Of course, there are other people on a team like coaches, analysts, managers, statisticians and so on.

The popularity of esports has been increasing since 2010, and has seen a surge in recent years. Currently, the search term “what is esports” shows in Google trends to be in an uptrend. More and more people are wondering what it’s all about, especially in 2019. As more competitions pass, and more media sites reference esports, awareness, and understanding continues to grow.

Google Trends What is Esports Search Term
Source: Google Trends

Esports in the Early Days

Although Esports started being popular in the late 2000s, the first Esports tournament was held in 1972 at Stanford University. At that time, students organized the tournament for Spacewar, a space combat video game for the PDP-1 console. The winner of the tournament earned a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine (source).

Newer games were released, and gamers continued holding events for the most popular titles at the time such as Pac-Man,  Netrek, Street Fighter, Virtua Racing and so on. However, those tournaments still were either regional or online events. As not everyone was able to travel to a specific location, and the Internet wasn’t quite accessible back then, there weren’t so many people who were able to compete at those events (source).

Esports started expanding exponentially in the late 2000s. Games such as Counter-Strike, Quake, Warcraft, and StarCraft started getting huge attention. The number of gaming community members were increasing by the millions. Esports started to get its first organizations, big international competitions, and huge prize pools. In the beginning, esports grew the fastest in South Korea (source), and the rest of the world started to catch on to this gaming phenomenon.

In the present day, esports is one of the biggest Internet industries in the world. It features thousands of teams and millions of viewers. Almost every week, there is a significant esports tournament somewhere in the world.

What are the most popular Esports games (disciplines)?

When it comes to Esports disciplines (games), there are so many of them. Literally, any video game with a multiplayer mode can be used for building the competition around it. However, only several games get the attention of the majority of esports fans. We can separate these games according to their genres on:

  • FPS (First Person Shooters)
  • MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena)
  • Battle Royale
  • Sports Simulation
  • Fighting and Real-Time Strategy Games

Of course, there are many other video game genres, but these are the most popular ones. Here is the list of most popular esports games separated by their genres.

FPS (First Person Shooters)
1).Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO)

CS:GO is undoubtedly the most popular esports FPS game. Furthermore, it is one of the top 5 esports games in terms of prize money (source). Counter-Strike had other titles such as Counter-Strike: Source and the legendary CS 1.6. But CS:GO is the one that has the largest following and is the most recent title of them all (2012). Here is a brief explanation of the game objectives and rules.

CS:GO is FPS shooter game with two teams (five members) facing each other on different maps. There is a Terrorist and Counter-Terrorist side. The terrorist side has an objective to plant the bomb in a specific area and to defend it until it explodes, which takes 35 or 40 seconds. The goal of the CT side is to deny the bomb planting, or, eventually to defuse the planted bomb. The secondary goal is to eliminate every member of the other team which ends the game if the bomb hasn’t been planted.

Esports matches have 30 rounds, and after 15 rounds, teams switch sides. The winner of the match is the team with the most rounds won. If the game ends in a tie, it can go into overtime if competition rules allow it. CS:GO also features other modes, but this is the most common one used in competitive play.

The Most Relevant Tournaments

There are countless of CS:GO events held all around the world. Literally every day a tournament is played. Nonetheless, we need to separate the wheat from the chaff to figure out what tournaments are more relevant than others. We measure the relevance of the tournament by considering many factors.

Primarily, we look at the strength of the teams who compete at these events. However, we also need to take other things into account such as format, prize pool, popularity, and so forth.

When it comes to CS:GO, there are only two events per year that are considered to be the pinnacle of this esports game. In the CS:GO community, these events are known as Majors, and they are organized by the creator of this game, Valve Corporation. They change host cities every year, but they basically have the same format featuring two group stages and playoffs. There are 24 teams in total competing for the prize pool of $1,000,000.

Alongside the two Majors, there are other significant events such as ESL Pro League, ECS Finals, IEM, StarSeries, and DreamHack Masters events. The most successful team recently was Astralis, who claimed three out of the last five Major titles, as well as a number of other mentioned events. Additionally, they are the most successful team in the history of this game, according to the opinions of many CS:GO experts.

Esports Team Win Championship Trophy
Source: Astralis Twitter account

All these events are using slightly different formats, but most of them eventually end with eight or four best teams who compete in the playoffs. Usually, each match in the playoffs features a Best of 3 games, with an exception of some tournaments who features Best of 5 Grand Finals.

2). Overwatch

Overwatch is another team-based First Person Shooter game played on different maps. Unlike CS:GO, Overwatch has many different characters or heroes with different abilities. It features a 6 vs 6 matches on 28 different maps divided into five groups according to main objectives. As a result, there are Assault, Escort, Hybrid, Control, and Arcade maps. As the names suggest, each map has a different objective.

There are over 20 different heroes that you can choose from, and every hero is different. The heroes have different weapons, abilities, strong and weak sides and so forth. All of those heroes are split into three different types: Tank, Damage, Support.

Just like in traditional sports, professional Overwatch players don’t play with all these characters, but they rather choose one role and stick to it. Overwatch is one of top 10 esports games in terms of prize money (source).

The Most Relevant Tournaments

The biggest events in Overwatch are organized by its developer studio, Blizzard Entertainment. There is one big event which is played throughout the whole year and that’s the Overwatch League, which has 12 teams in total competing at the Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles. It was held last year for the first time, and it is separated into two parts. The first part is a regular season that features four Stages.

Overwatch League Esports Logo

Every team plays ten matches during each Stage, and there are playoff matches for the title. As well, there are League Season Standings that includes results and points from all Stages. All teams are separated into two Divisions: Pacific and Atlantic. When all is set and done, the winners of these two Divisions advance further to the Overwatch League Championship Playoff, as well as the next top four teams.

Afterwards, two division winners start off in the semifinals of the Overwatch League playoffs, and the other four teams have to play in the Quarter-final first. Last year, the prize pool of the Overwatch League was $1,800,000, and a prize pool of Overwatch League Playoffs was $1,700,000. The most successful teams so far have been New York Excelsior, London Spitfire, and Los Angeles Gladiators.

The most dominant country in Overwatch is South Korea, as there are 110 South Korean players out of 194 players in Overwatch League this season, although these organizations are mostly from America (source).

3). Call of Duty

The Call of Duty games was first created by Activision. With the success of earlier titles, Activision acquired publishers to continue creating Call of Duty games. Some of the publishers are Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Sledgehammer Games. There’s a variety of different Call of Duty titles from the popular Modern Warfare and Black Ops series, to one-offs like Advanced and Infinite Warfare.

Call of Duty is another major FPS esport which has a rich history in competitive gaming. In its early days, there have been organized teams since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Esports tournaments were organized by MLG (Major League Gaming) starting from Modern Warfare (2007-2008). MLG hosted the “Game Battles Pro Circuit Ladder” series in May of 2008, and the first tournament was held in July of that year. The Prize pool was $7500 (first place won $4000).  However, the growth of Call of Duty esports started with Call of Duty Black Ops 2.

Since then, MLG had a long run in Call of Duty esports right up to 2015. Many other tournaments were held under UMG , Gfinity, and EGL. In 2016, The Call of Duty World League was formed (CWL), and the inaugural season consisted of sixteen teams that were invited to compete for eight spots in Stage 1 of the 2016 Call of Duty World League. Since then, the CWL has seen massive success and continues growing each year.

Call of Duty World League Esports Logo

The CWL Pro League runs throughout the year, with teams competing against each other in scheduled matches. The structure of the league has changed from year to year, and this year there are two divisions consisting of 16 teams who have earned their spot through the league qualifiers. Teams play against each other in their division, and for the first time in the league’s history, there was cross-divisional play.

Within the CWL Pro League, there are a number of Majors (tournaments) that take place in a number of cites throughout the year.  Some of the more popular cities that have hosted the Call of Duty World League are Anaheim, London, and Las Vegas. Traditionally, before the tournaments, the CWL experiences an event called “Rostermania”, in which teams change their roster around; removing and adding players. Towards the end of the CWL Pro League, the season wraps up at the Call of Duty World League Championships which are typically held in August. Here is how the 2019 Season looks like:

CWL Pro League 2019

Every year the league plays the most current CoD game, which in 2019 is Black Ops 4. The CWL Pro League 2019 format has teams play 5 vs 5 (changed from 4 vs 4). In both the league and Majors, teams play three types of game modes:

  • Hardpoint
  • Search and Destroy
  • Control

Of course, depending on the next Call of Duty game, these game modes can change. Some of the best teams in the history of Call of Duty esports were Complexity Gaming, OpTic Gaming, and Evil Geniuses.

This year, the CWL prize pool is $6 million dollars, which is the largest the league has ever had. Next year there will be new city franchises in the league which will change the entire league format.

4). Rainbow Six Siege

Rainbow Six Siege is a tactical FPS game developed and published by Ubisoft in 2015. However, this popular franchise based on Tom Clancy‘s novels has started all the way back in 1998. It featured so many different games and expansions until 2015. In 2015, Ubisoft finally published the game which was adapted and adjusted for the esports environment. As a tactical shooter, it is similar to CS:GO, but there are some significant distinctions.

When it comes to esports, Rainbow Six Siege wasn’t very popular at the beginning. However, this game made a breakthrough in 2018 when it got the attention of a big number of viewers. Moreover, since last year, the prize pool of its best tournaments became four times bigger.

Rainbow Six Siege Pro League by ESL Esports Logo

The most popular events of Rainbow Six Siege are organized by Ubisoft and ESL. There are two Pro League Season Finals per year as well as one Invitational and one Major event. There are different Qualifiers that contestants have to go through to reach the main draw of these LAN tournaments.

Pro League Finals have eight teams who start off straight away in the playoffs. All matches in the Pro League are Best of 3. But, the pinnacle of Rainbow Six Siege is considered to be Six Major and Six Invitational events. Although they have different names, the only difference between these two tournaments is that four teams at Six Invitational are invited and there are no invited teams at the Major.

Both events feature 16 teams. They kick off in double-elimination (GSL) Group Stage (4 groups with 4 teams). The best two teams from each group advance further to the playoffs. All matches are Best of 3, excluding the Grand Final, which is Best of 5. The biggest prize pool in Rainbow Six Siege, so far, was $2,000,000 at Six Invitational 2019. However, the prize pools in this game are not usually that lucrative. For example, the prize pool of the Pro League is “just” $167,000.

The most successful teams recently have been G2 who won the last three big events (Six Invitational, Six Major, and Pro League Season 8 Finals). But we have to mention other teams such as PENTA, FaZe Clan, and Evil Geniuses who also had notable achievements in the last couple of years.

MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena)
1). League of Legends (LoL)

League of Legends is undoubtedly one of the two most iconic and the most successful esports games. The other one is, of course, LoL’s biggest competitor Dota 2. It’s hard to talk about these two games separately as they were growing and expanding together. Additionally, they have a common precursor (Warcraft) and they are both made as community mods. Therefore, they have so many things in common.

League of Legends was developed and published by Riot Games in 2009. It was free to play, however, there are in-game microtransactions which Riot Games earned $2.1 billion US Dollars in revenue (source). This was the biggest amount of money earned by a free-to-play game that year.

Therefore, Riot Games had enough resources to organize big tournaments already in 2011. The prize pool of Riot Season 1 Championship was barely $98,500. For the sake of comparison, the 2018 World Championship featured $6,450,000. Notice that, for example, the World Chess Championship 2018 had $1,000,000 in prize money.

World Championship event in LoL organized by Riot Games
Source: LoL Esports

As you can see, there is an official World Championship event in LoL organized by Riot Games. Twenty four teams are separated into two divisions: Play-in and Group Stage division. Teams from Play-in division have to go through two Play-in rounds in order to join teams in Group Stage. Only four of twelve Play-in teams can do that. After Group Stage ends, two best teams from each of eight groups proceed to Play-off.

The second biggest event is the Mid-Season Invitational and it has a slightly different format. Qualifier events for these two main tournaments tend to have lucrative prize pools as well.

The most successful team in the history of this game is SK Telecom who won the World Championship three times. Plus, they are double champions of Mid-Season Invitational. The reigning world champions in LoL are Invictus Gaming who bested Fnatic in the Grand Final.

2). Dota 2

Dota 2 is the most developed esports branch without a doubt. When it comes to prize money, Dota 2 easily reaches the top of the table with no competition whatsoever. Moreover, Dota 2 awarded more prize money than the following three games put together. Just like LoL, Dota was developed as a community mod for WarCraft. However, the original Dota game came out before LoL. That’s possibly one of the reasons why Dota 2 is more successful than LoL, at least when it comes to Esports.

After realizing the potential of the game, Valve decided to “legally steal” the game from Blizzard Entertainment. Hence, they released Dota 2. The game achieved huge success the same year when it became playable. The first Dota 2 event and the biggest event at the same time was ‘The International’ 2011. It had a prize pool of $1,600,000, which was an unimaginable amount of money for the game tournament at that time. Natus Vincere defeated EHOME in the Grand Final and won the first Dota 2 tournament and one million dollars.

Valve kept organizing The International event until today, and its prize pool was gradually growing over time. Valve decided to add the money earned from Battle Pass sales (particular in-game microtransactions) to the initial prize pool each year. So, last year, The International had about $25,000,000. No need to emphasize how much money is that. Not so many traditional sports events feature more prize money than The International.

However, The International is not the only big event in Dota 2. Last year, there were eight big events, considered to be Major events according to Valve. Every one of these events had at least one million dollars in prize money. Teams who compete at these events earn points, which they need to qualify for The International. Besides these points, there are also many Qualifiers that teams need to go through to get to the pinnacle of Dota 2.

Dota 2 Esports Team Win Championship Trophy
Source: Dota 2 Twitter

The most successful team, in the beginning, was Natus Vincere who claimed the first International title and finished as runner-up at the following two tournaments. Afterwards, many other teams and organizations joined the competition. But, no team managed to win The International two times. That tells us how hard is to win that tournament. Other notable teams are Virtus.pro, Team Liquid, OG, PSG.LGD, Secret, and so on.

How much money do Esports players make?

This is perhaps the most asked question when it comes to esports. Everyone would like to know how much money esports players make. Well, it depends on many different things. First of all, it depends on the game. Some games make more money than others. For example, only four out of the 50 best-paid esports players are CS:GO players. All others are coming from Dota 2. (source)

Furthermore, it depends on which level you play the game. The best players in the world make a real fortune from esports. They literally earn millions of dollars. Average players, however, are doing just fine. On the other side, less known and less successful players struggle to make a living from esports. Also, you need to take many other income sources into account. Esports players usually get a salary from their organization regardless of results. Plus, they can make some money from streaming, making tutorials and so on.

Where you can watch Esports events?

Unlike in traditional sports, you don’t have to pay a single penny to watch an esports event online. Organizers of esports events usually broadcast them on Twitch and other social media such as Facebook, YouTube, etc. You can listen to the commentary of analysts, coaches, former players and other members of the broadcast crew. Most of the events are broadcasted exclusively in English, but the most important ones have Twitch channels in other languages as well.


Esports can be confusing to those who are new to it. There are many complex structures in place, and it’s quite difficult to stay on top of everything that is happening in esports. This is why, traditionally, fans stick to a few esports disciplines (or games) to follow. If there’s big news in the industry, fans can read up on it at various news sites.

Esports continues to grow, and will continuously evolve at a fast pace. The direction esports is heading is that fans will be able to root for their hometown team, as they do with traditional sports. A sports fan who lives in Houston can cheer for their NBA team, the Houston Rockets one day, and can cheer for their esports team, the Houston Outlaws the next. More cities are participating in the world of esports, which will grow the industry exponentially. We’re definitely excited to see where this goes in the near future.

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