What is esports?

Fans watching esportsRiot Games

Esports is the term used for competitive video gaming. Like professional sports, esports are organized and incredibly lucrative. We’re here to give you a beginner’s guide to the world of esports.

What are esports games?

Games based around PvP (player v player) gameplay make for the biggest titles in the esports industry. Some of the biggest games in esports include:

However, there are thriving esports communities for games you might not expect, such as Tetris and Farming Simulator.

Esports communities typically come out of games where players have found a consistent way to compete against one another.

League of Legends Worlds 2019Riot Games
League of Legends is one of the most popular esports titles. The final of the 2019 World Championship sold out Paris’ AccorHotels Arena

How do esports work?

The two main iterations of esports are league and tournament play.

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League play operates like any other league-based sport. You play a group of teams that are based in your geographical region. After a regular season, most league-based esports then move to a playoff bracket to determine the winner of the league.

League of Legends operates a league-based system, with each region (China, Korea, Europe, North America, etc) running two league stages a year – the Spring split and the Summer split. Each league stage, played in a round-robin format, is followed by regional playoffs to determine a split’s final standings. The Spring split’s playoffs also grant qualification to League of League equivalent to an All-Star Game, the Mid-Season Invitational. The Summer split’s playoffs serve as qualification for the League of Legends World Championships, the game’s season-ending tournament that sees the best teams from around the world compete.

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CS playoff systemRiot Games
The playoff system used by League of Legends’ North American league, the LCS

League play has become more formalized in the past half-decade or so. Traditionally, many leagues operated a promotion/relegation system. However, as esports have grown more lucrative, leagues have started to transition to a franchise-based format. Entry to the top leagues now often requires buying a spot in that league.

These spots can be expensive – League of Legends team Schalke 04 sold their spot in Europe’s LEC for $31.5 million in July 2021, while Matthew ‘Nadeshot’ Haag, owner of esports organization 100 Thieves, revealed in September 2021 it cost him $27 million to buy a spot in the Call of Duty League.

Some esports forgo a league format altogether and instead run a tournament circuit throughout the year. Teams may qualify for these often global tournaments through regional qualifiers, and often earn points based on where they finish. These points are then used to determine qualification for season-ending tournaments.

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VALORANT uses a circuit system. Each region runs a number of tournaments throughout the year, with teams earning points based on where they finish. There is also a number of international tournaments that also offer points. At the end of the season, the top teams from each region then compete at the year-ending VALORANT Champions tournament.

Some esports, such as Call of Duty, League of Legends, VALORANT, CS:GO, and Overwatch, are team sports. While the size of the team varies from game to game, most fall in the 4-6 range. Other esports, such as Fortnite, Hearthstone, PUBG, and Pokémon, are individual events.

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Who plays esports?

Esports athletes are typically in their late teens or early 20s, though it’s not uncommon for the top players to play into their late 20s or even early 30s.

Esports athletes come from all over the world, though games are often more prominent in some regions than some others. League of Legends is considered to be dominated by Chinese and South Korean teams, while Call of Duty’s professional scene is primarily comprised of players from North America and Europe. VALORANT’s talent pool is largely concentrated in Europe and North America, but there are also strong teams from Latin America, primarily Brazil, and South Korea.

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Women in esports

Esports are open to all. Unlike sports such as soccer and basketball, there is no gender segregation. However, women have historically struggled to break into the highest levels of the industry.

Some women have managed to find success as esports athletes. The late Maria ‘Remilia’ Creveling spent some time in the LCS, North America’s top league for League of Legends. Sasha ‘Scarlett’ Hostyn was the first woman to win a major Starcraft II tournament. Rumay ‘Hafu’ Wang was a dominant force in competitive World of Warcraft before she chose to focus her career on streaming. Li ‘Liooon’ Xiaomeng became the first woman to win the Hearthstone Grandmaster Global Finals.

Liooon wins Hearthstone MajorActivision/Blizzard
Liooon became the first woman to win a Hearthstone Grandmaster Global Final

Women have succeeded in esports in spite of the challenges many have faced. There is a misguided perception in some quarters of the male-dominated industry that women don’t possess the skills to compete at the highest level, while a lot of women regularly receive verbal abuse when playing multiplayer games online.

The esports industry has begun to try and help elevate women. There is a history of women’s-only tournaments, and 2021 saw Riot Games begin the Game Changers program, an all-women VALORANT circuit. Esports organization SK Gaming also announced a project to help develop female and non-binary talent in the League of Legends scene.

Who is the best at esports?

There is no simple answer to who is the best at esports, as it varies from game to game. China and South Korea are widely seen as producing some of the world’s best esports talent due to their firm embrace of the industry. But every esport has its dominant region.

The same principle applies to the “household names” of esports, with each game having its own icons. League of Legends has Lee ‘Faker’ Sang-hyeok, a three-time World Champion and a personality so revered he has essentially become part of the game’s lore. Call of Duty has Ian ‘Crimsix’ Porter, who has won three World Championships with three different teams. CS:GO has Oleksandr ‘s1mple’ Kostyliev, who is widely seen as one of the most technically skilled players of all time.

Crimsix with DallasCall of Duty League
Ian ‘Crimsix’ Porter (center) is one of the most successful Call of Duty players of all time

How do I join esports?

The first step to becoming an esport athlete is mastering the game you want to compete in. It requires complete dedication, with esports athletes centering their life around professional gaming, spending hours upon hours every day perfecting their skills. A good esports athlete needs fast reflexes, exceptional hand-eye coordination, good communication, and an unrivaled knowledge of the game they play. A successful esports athlete needs to be able to do all of this better than the thousands of other players fighting for a place at the top of their game.

Most games offer a way to climb the competitive ladder. League of Legends has ranked soloq, CS:GO has the FACEIT system, a private matchmaking system that eventually leads to the FPL, a private league that pits you against some of the best talent in the world. Robin ‘ropz’ Kool, a player for CS:GO team mousesports, is one of the most famous examples who gained a spot on a professional team after coming through the FPL system.

Teams keep an eye on their game’s ranked game mode in order to snag the next generation of stars. However, to increase your chances of being spotted by a professional team, you need to be active in your game’s community.

This often means joining a small, amateur team and playing in tournaments. Many esports professionals spend the early years of their career jumping from team to team as they hone their skills and grow their reputation in the scene. League of Legends player Adam ‘Adam’ Maanane was playing at the second level of the game’s French scene as recently as August 2020. In October 2021, he heads to World Championships with one of the most storied teams in the game’s history, Fnatic.

How much do esports players make?

The amount of money an esports athlete makes is a very subjective question. A good player might be able to make a living from esports, through salary, prize money earned at tournaments, and sponsorship deals with brands. Elite esports athletes may make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

But there are those whose esports earnings might be a few hundred dollars a year, earned at local or regional amateur tournaments. These individuals might have full-time jobs and enter these tournaments primarily for fun.

A lot of factors determine how much a full-time esports athlete will make – the game they play, how much success they can achieve, how marketable they are seen as by sponsors. Many athletes also supplement their income through streaming on platforms such as Twitch.

The list of top-earning athletes in esports is dominated by Dota 2 players, in large part due to the huge prize pools offered at The International, the game’s end-of-year tournament. The 2021 prize pool exceeds $40 million.

Top 10 esports by all-time prize money awarded
Dota 2 $235,512,526
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive $120,313,820
Fortnite $108,281,355
League of Legends $86,509,498
Starcraft II $35,605,779
Arena of Valor $34,789,485
Overwatch $28,529,882
Hearthstone $25,674,830
Rainbow Six Siege $18,776,030

Thanks to a rapid rise in popularity and external investment from major companies, esports is estimated to be a billion-dollar industry.

N0tail with OGValve
Dota 2 player Johan “N0tail” Sundstein has earned nearly $7M through esports

How do I watch esports?

There are two types of esports events – online and offline.

Online events are played remotely, with the players not competing in the same place as one another. To watch these events, people will tune in to live broadcasts of the event. These can often be found on websites such as YouTube and Twitch.

Offline events are played in a single location, with competitors traveling there to take part. Offline events are also known as LAN (Local Access Network) events. This can be done for the sake of fairness, especially in the case of international events where things like internet speed may differ. Or it can be done due to the scope of the event  – the organizers may not have the resources to host all their competitors online. Offline events will often have a live audience at the venue, as well as broadcast for people to watch online.

Major tournaments are watched by hundreds of thousands of fans. The biggest tournaments are watched by millions. The 2020 League of Legends World Championships was watched by a reported 3.8 million viewers.

Schedules for events are maintained by tournament organizers and are easily found online.

How long do matches take?

Match length depends on the game being played.

League of Legends matches take around 35 minutes to complete but playoff series are played in a best of five format. The Call of Duty League season is broken down into ‘stages’, with each day of competition running for six or seven hours. VALORANT matches can last around two hours.

It’s best to do your research for the esports you are interested in watching.

Why do people enjoy watching esports?

Esports are like any other sport. People have their favorite teams. There’s drama, heartbreak, and moments that take your breath away. It’s a showcase of what happens when someone dedicates their life to something and perfects it.