If you spend any time at all on the net, you’ve probably seen news articles and advertisements for video game competitions. Some offer ludicrous sums of money while others might appear to only have a prize of a couple hundred bucks. Some seem to be shooting games, while others are bizarre versions of soccer played with little cars and giant balls. What’s the deal?
What is esports?
Esports is a field of competitions in video games that offer prestige, money, and sponsorships, just like you might find with any established sport like tennis. These rewards can be practically nothing or tens of millions of dollars. The infrastructure can be as little as people playing in their own homes on their own cheap computers or as much as entire buildings owned by international organizations, dedicated to training players with a strict dietary and exercise regimen.
One of the big hangups for most newcomers is that esports is pretty poorly defined. It’s not like tennis, where going down to the neighborhood court and playing a couple matches with a friend is considered playing the sport (even if it’s just at a casual level). If you turn on a game and play a couple rounds, you aren’t really playing an esport, you’re just playing a game. If you get good enough and play for money, then it eventually becomes playing esports, but the transition is very vague and blurry.
On top of that, you’ve also got dramatic differences between different games. One game might have a flourishing esports scene where the best players are rewarded handsomely for their skill and expertise, but a very similar game might be completely dead when it comes to competitions. Fortnite might hand out hundreds of millions in winnings, but other games in the same genre (battle royale) might be so barren that you can’t even find a match to play in.
What’s the difference between esports and similar competitions like online chess and poker?
To get a better understanding of what esports is, it can help to figure out what esports isn’t. Specifically, esports isn’t playing chess of poker, even if you’re playing them online. There are plenty of apps, programs, and sites that let you play chess, poker, and the like with people from all around the globe. You’re competing, you’re improving, you’re increasing your rank, you may even be winning money, so why aren’t they esports?
The simple answer is that esports develop out of a single video game. It can’t go the other direction, which is what happens in poker when someone designs an online version of poker. Now, if someone were to make an entire new type of poker as a video game, that would qualify as an esport. For an easy example, take a look at Rocket League, which is a stylized version of soccer where you drive a small car that can execute insane stunts. It has a lot in common with soccer, but it is also dramatically different.
Of course, you can also make a more faithful video game adaptation of a real sport and have it be an esport. Franchises like Madden have made a lot of money by offering an American football experience from the comfort of your own couch. The key in them being esports is that they’re really not comparable to playing the sport in real life. Sure, it’s the same sport with the same rules, but consider the role of the player. You’re switching back and forth between players, managing franchises, and doing other things that simply aren’t part of playing the sport for real. As we get closer to virtual reality offering a way to play a video game that more perfectly mimics playing the real sport, the line between esport and real sport will get a lot blurrier.
How many different esports are there?
The short and simple answer is that there are a lot. Hundreds upon hundreds of games have created esports communities, but the real question lies in how long they last and how big they get.
To dive deeper into that, it’s first important to understand exactly what goes into creating an esport. Developers and publishers have been trying to figure out the exact formula for decades, but the simple truth is that players decide what makes an esport. Games are made, then players decide if that game will become an esport. Sometimes, the most unexpected games explode in popularity as an esport. Consider Fortnite, one of the most popular titles today. Near the beginning of its lifespan, Fortnite was actually a huge failure. It was only after pivoting the gameplay towards a massively successful battle royale mode that the developers found success.
In some cases, developers shovel massive amounts of money into games to get their esports scenes off the ground. They may design the entire game with an emphasis on esports, even going so far as to take away from other areas in the interest of attracting a hardcore competitive crowd. This is often seen with games taking away elements that might be considered “fun” and replacing them with what they consider “balanced.”
Today, there are dozens of games that have healthy esports scenes. Some of these, like Starcraft: Brood War are upwards of twenty years old. Others have exploded onto the charts only recently. Some are franchises that cannibalize themselves with every new release, pulling all the players from last year’s title onto this year’s.
Are there governing organizations for esports like the NFL?
There is no organization that governs all of esports. However, when it comes to individual esports, it gets a little interesting. Plenty of organizations that can pop up and run their own tournaments and support their own players, but at the end of the day, there is one big boss that stands at the top of the pile: the developer. The developer has the power to make sweeping changes to the rules and transform the game. Legally, they may even have the power to sanction tournaments and players, banning them from the game and events.
Contrast this with a sport like American football. Sure, there’s an organization that runs it in America, but there’s a separate organization that runs it for college players, multiple organizations for semi-pro leagues, then additional organizations in other countries for their own leagues. There’s no overarching organization that owns the rights to the game of football and can change the rules on a global scale at a whim. Football organizations may work together, but they aren’t all beholden to a developer that can kick them out of the game with a couple clicks.
Where does the money for esports come from?
This is one of the areas where esports should look pretty familiar. In the more established esports like League of Legends, you have contracts just like you have in major sports. Players are let go and traded by organizations, often with seasonal restrictions just like you’d find in any sport.
The money for these players comes from the organizations and sometimes the developer themselves. The developer makes their money back from these investments by more people watching these esport events and playing the game as a result. Microtransactions are one key way they can take advantage of such a heightened player count, by providing either cosmetic or gameplay rewards at a moderate price. In some cases, they may release cosmetic items that allow players to show support for their favorite esports players and teams.
Big events often have large prizes that are divided up among the winners. These prizes can come from donations, the tournament organizers, and sponsors. If the winning players are part of a team, then the team gets some of that money and the player gets their cut. This may seem a little unfair, but it’s important to note that these prizes often don’t make up the biggest portion of a player’s income. For players that don’t regularly dominate tournaments, they often make more money from personal sponsorships and streaming their gameplay (which involves viewers donating money). Esports organizations help house them and provide for them, then fly them out to tournaments where they can compete and catch the eye of potential sponsors.
What does the future of esports look like?
Esports really is a wild frontier. It’s difficult to pick out exactly what will happen next, but some trends are fairly easy to predict. Certain games that have been around for decades will continue to chug along, but who knows what newcomer will blast onto the scene and rake in millions upon millions? Who knows which games from the past couple years will puff away into dust and which will cement themselves as fixtures of the esports scene?
One area to keep an eye on is the law. As governments catch up, there will likely be more laws and regulations imposed on esports. Many will likely be concerned with loot boxes and gambling, which happen to be one of the primary ways that many games prop up their esports scenes. If those are put under heavy regulation, expect to see some scenes collapse wholesale.