View RSS Feed


On e-Sports

Rate this Entry
This weekend, thousands of fan’s gathered at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to cheer as the London Spitfire and Philadelphia Fusion competed in the Grand Finals of the inaugural season of the Overwatch League. While this isn’t the first major e-sports championship, or even the largest, the Overwatch League is the first e-sports league I've followed closely and offers a good starting point to consider the history of e-sports and recent efforts to bring e-sports to more mainstream audiences.

It is difficult to say when e-sports really began because competition has always been part of gaming. Whether it is competing directly against another opponent in a game like Pong or competing to beat another player’s high score in games like Space Invaders or Donkey Kong, many of the earliest video games have encouraged gamers to compete with one another. As early as the 1980s, competitive gaming events were televised. Shows like Starcade and Nickelodeon Arcade allowed players to compete against others playing video games. The 1990s saw the start of cross-country tournaments. In 1990, Nintendo of America launched the Nintendo World Championship which visited twenty-nine cities and culminated in title matches in Los Angeles. The growth of the internet during the 1990s also helped communities connect and develop their own competitive tournaments. For instance, started in 1996, QuakeCon is one of the oldest running gaming tournaments. QuakeCon started from a simple desire of fans to meet and compete in person, but has been embraced by id Software and has now become an annual celebration of the company’s games. This period also saw the formation of the first professional gaming league, the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) and prize pools that offered thousands of dollars.

While competition and e-sports developed over many years, the release of StarCraft in 1998 and the Brood War expansion, a few months later forever changed the trajectory of gaming. In 1999, South Korea decided to invest in upgrading the nation’s broadband internet network. StarCraft was perfectly placed to take advantage of this environment. StarCraft did not require high-end specifications, offered an incredibly high skill ceiling for the most devoted players, and unlike competitive first-person shooters, was less dependent on reflexes and twitch game-play, instead placing a greater emphasis on strategy and planning. During this era, e-sports began to take on a more professional appearance. Professional teams and leagues were established, corporate sponsors began to provide funding, and the South Korean government created the Korean e-Sports Association to provide supervision and oversight. South Korea developed an identity as the home of the best e-sports players which has persisted to this day.

For a time, StarCraft was synonymous with e-sports, but as time has passed, professional gamers have spread out to more diverse games. Maintaining the early first-person shooter roots, games like Counter-Strike and Halo have maintained professional competitive leagues, tournaments, and followings. Sports games like the Madden franchise and, more recently, NBA 2K have also seen some success at the professional e-sports level. There are also a number of tournaments for fighting games, but many of those maintain an intentional distance from the more professional e-sports scene. In 2009, League of Legends was released and opened the door for multiplayer online battle arenas (or MOBAs) to become some of the biggest names in e-sports. Two of the biggest e-sports are League of Legends and Defense of the Ancients which are the basis for a number of professional leagues around the world. Over the last ten years, there has been a significant increase in the number, size, viewership, and prize pools of e-sports. In fact, last year’s Defense of the Ancients championship, the International 7 currently holds the record for the largest e-sports prize pool, coming in at over twenty-four million dollars, although this year looks to be on pace to exceed that amount.

As e-sports have grown, there has been a greater push to create a more mainstream appeal. This past year has been especially noticeable for these endeavors with both the NBA 2K League, which paired e-sports teams with existing NBA teams, and the aforementioned Overwatch League drawing support from outside the typical e-sports scene. The Overwatch League has taken some of the biggest steps, such as Blizzard’s efforts to bring in ownership of existing professional sports teams during the league’s planning stages. While traditional e-sports ownership is definitely present, teams are also owned by relative outsiders like the Kraft group, owners of the New England Patriots, and Kroenke Sports, owners of the St. Louis Los Angeles Rams. Blizzard also looked at the structure of existing leagues for traditional sports and worked to create a global league built around local teams with the hope that it would foster team loyalty from fans.

Compared to most traditional sports, at least in the United States, e-sports have not been as burdened by broadcast contracts and have done a superior job embracing online streaming as a tool to reach a wider audience. Platforms like Twitch and YouTube have made it far easier to broadcast and watch e-sports than any other sports. Not only was I able to watch every single Overwatch League game without spending a penny, if I missed one, it was incredibly easy to watch a replay on Twitch whenever I wanted. And to my knowledge, e-sports have always employed this, or a similar, approach. Back when I watched competitive StarCraft, I can’t recall watching a single tournament live. Compare that to the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB where I’m not sure it is even possible to watch a game after it airs (except 2 am replays of college football) without jumping through more than a few hoops.

At the same time, there has definitely been a push to bring e-sports to a wider audience by showing important events on traditional media platforms, although this has largely occurred late at night or on some of the alternate ESPN channels. However, this might be changing as the Overwatch League worked to feature the grand finals live on ESPN. While the second day of the grand finals fell to ESPN3, the first day aired on ESPN during prime time on a Friday night. Of course, I’d be remiss if I discussed the impressive presence of the grand finals on ESPN if I ignored the far less impressive viewership. Nielsen estimates that Friday night’s ESPN broadcast was viewed in 215,280 households, Saturday’s afternoon finale on ESPN3 was watched in 59,800 households, and a recap that was shown on ABC on Sunday afternoon was viewed in 358,800 households. These numbers are not great. However, and completely ignoring the fact that Nielsen estimates are pretty terrible, does it really matter? The way that e-sports have embraced online platforms inevitably comes at a cost of traditional media platforms. Until the commentators pointed out the grand finals were airing on ESPN, how many viewers even knew it was available outside Twitch?

One of the bigger challenges for e-sports is that the leagues are still facing some growing pains. Some of it is expected as players need to adjust to their new roles as representatives of professional organizations. At the same time, many of the best players have roots firmly planted in streaming. These leagues need to find a way to ensure that the streaming lifestyle is not more lucrative if they want to keep getting the best talent. Another growing pain more inherent to the gaming platform that e-sports need to figure out is how to ensure their product features the best players playing at the pinnacle while necessary balance patches can produce an ever-changing gaming environment. Since the start of the Overwatch League season, there have been two new heroes released (although Wrecking Ball didn’t actually make an appearance), two new maps, and nineteen patches (some fairly minor, but others have been meta-shifting). Throughout this season, most fans would agree that the New York Excelsior was the team to beat. However, when the meta changed for the last quarter of the season, the team lost as many games as they had to that point and then barely avoided getting swept during the playoffs. It is an especially noticeable problem as the league MVP became largely ineffective in the final meta of the season. On one hand, the league understandably does not want these games played on old builds, but at the same time, there’s a reason the NFL and NBA wait till the off-season to make rule changes.

As someone who had never put a lot of effort into following an e-sport before this year, it has definitely been an entertaining season. Part of that undoubtedly stems from the fact that the team I arbitrarily picked because they had the best D.Va skin won the season, but like other sports, it is great watching the best players competing against each other. While there are inevitably more than a few people complaining that e-sports aren’t sports, just like I’m sure there were people who complained when motor sports became a thing, I have no doubts that e-sports will continue to grow and continue to make inroads with more mainstream audiences. All that said, I have no problem calling them traditional sports, but can we please stop using the t-sports distinction? It is dumb and I immediately write off anyone who insists on calling the NFL a t-sport..

Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing ~ Vince Lombardi


  1. Zetanio -
    Zetanio's Avatar
    I actually don't think there will end up being as much intersection with traditional sports. The ecosystems are so different and the revenue streams are wildly different. It's definitely not a bad thing, just two largely exclusive sets of spectators.