Is Esports a Real Sport?
The status of professional video gaming within the society has been a point of contention since its inception. It has been successfully swept under the rug, though, as the gaming phenomenon had been confined to a small number of enthusiasts and thus largely confined within a niche subculture.
However, with the explosion of popularity in Esports due to better communications (internet) infrastructure and the advent of games amicable towards professional video game competitions, the state of affairs has changed. Esports have become a major phenomenon with a large audience – poised to reach 400 million in 2020 – and this question has consequently become more pertinent than ever.
You may have heard about a case where a Swedish Super Smash Bros player William Hjelte had major visa issues that eventually led to his deportation from the USA, as he could not get a P-1 visa (for athletes) and thus could not compete in tournaments. This resulted in a petition to the White House. This case is not isolated and not specific to the United States – Germany, for example, also fails to recognize Esports as a legitimate sport, as do all other countries. The German Olympic Committee fails to recognize it as a sport not due to its nature, but due to the fact that most tournaments are “for-profit”, and there is no “voluntary” Esports community in Germany.
While our stance on Esports is clear – that, of course, they it is a legitimate sport – it is prudent to consider the arguments against that and try to refute them one by one.
Most people consider a sport as something requiring athleticism, physical fitness and exertion. Most sports do satisfy these conditions, although a case can be made that many sports don’t require much athleticism at all. But that’s a weak argument – just because chess, for example, should not be considered as sport by this definition, it doesn’t mean Esports should. Most average people simply feel it is wrong to have a “sedentary activity” classified as sport. Besides, these guys are just playing video games, so how could that be serious at all – it’s just plain ol’ entertainment, not unlike TV shows.
But research from German Sports University has shown that Esports athletes also exert a lot during competitions and training, no matter how silly it may seem. Their motor skills and quick reflexes are especially important, with over 400 mouse and keyboard movements per minute, which is more than even in table tennis, a sport notorious for requiring quick reflexes. The amount of stress hormones produced is equivalent to that of race car drivers and the players’ heart rate can easily exceed 160 bpm while competing. Many professional gamers do not pay heed to the warnings of doctors and do not exercise enough, leading to burnouts in their early thirties.
And we haven’t even touched upon the mental exertion that these games require. The stigma that gaming is something requiring no particular effort is hard to get rid of, but it must be done. With growing popularity of Esports and younger generations growing as digital citizens, it should be an easier task.
All Esports games require quick thinking and deep strategy, not unlike chess, and quick reflexes and motor skills to put that plan into practice – making it a sport at least as much as darts, chess or snooker.
Some might put forward an argument that technology somehow taints the purity of sport and that Esports cannot be considered as one – but they should also consider the technological advances in swimsuits or running gear, which have enabled sprinters and swimmers to achieve better times.
Additionally, the community and spectatorship behind Esports is equivalent to those of traditional sports. Many spectators root for teams they support, and there are plenty of high-profile teams battling for the glory, prestige and prize money.
The recognition of Esports is not only semantics or blind spite. There are important consequences for its recognition, such as visas that facilitate entry into competitions for international players. While most of us realists aren’t holding our breath expecting to see Dota 2 or League of Legends at the Summer Olympics, a certain degree of regulation and benefits that official recognition brings would certainly help the development of Esports and possibly change the mindset and the perception of Esports in the mainstream society.
Esports Audience: Numbers & Trends
Like with any sport, a healthy viewership of Esports is important for its sustainability and popularity. An engaged audience is a huge driver of growth, both by further widening the potential user base and by spending money on merchandise, tickets and betting.
It is expected that the global Esports audience will reach nearly 400 million viewers (Newzoo reports a figure of 385 million). The audience is almost evenly split into about 200 million occasional viewers and about 200 million Esports enthusiasts. Newzoo considers people who actively participate in Esports tournaments at any level, or those who watch Esports on a regular basis as Esports Enthusiasts. Occasional viewers watch Esports less than once a week.
What’s interesting is that strong growth is predicted in this market. The number of Esports enthusiasts is expected to grow by 50 percent to 285 million in 2020. The number of Esports participants is also set to increase to 58 million, up from 50 million in 2016. The most significant growth drivers are the TV broadcasts and new games like Overwatch and EA’s FIFA.
The most watched event so far has been the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice, held this year and watched by 46 million unique spectators, with 173 thousand fans physically attending the event and the corresponding festival. It was also viewed by 340 thousand spectators who watched the tournament in VR, a large number for a rather small user base. Contrast that with Valve’s The International in 2014, which had an audience of “measly” 20 million unique viewers and it will soon be clear that the overall growth rate is astounding.
A large audience is a boon for advertisers as well, who see an opportunity to reach a large audience of potential customers. Newzoo reports that in 2016, advertising budgets for Esports amounted to about $325 million. With growth in viewership numbers, these figures will certainly grow. Currently, the demographics of Esports audience is primarily male (about 60 percent male), young adult and rather well-off. Esports enthusiasts are more likely to be employed full-time – 62 percent vs 50 percent for the online population. Half of the Esports enthusiasts belong to the 21 – 35 age group, 71 percent of which are men. Some 54 percent of Esports enthusiasts hail from Asia, where South Korea is the most vibrant market, in which Esports has largely been accepted as mainstream.
Total revenue from tickets amounted to $32 million in 2016, with almost a half coming from North America and a third from Western Europe. This is nothing unusual, as the largest share of tournaments is held in these two regions. Newzoo reports a total of 424 Esports events featuring a prize pool of over $5000. League of Legends generated the largest share of this revenue, about 10 percent, closely trailed by Blizzard’s Dota 2. Of course, these sums may be considered as just a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things now, but they are expected to grow as the audience does – possibly even faster if more tournaments are held with increasing popularity of Esports.
This state of affairs is serendipitous for advertisers whose primary consumer demographics corresponds with the Esports audience demographics. Such examples include producers of gaming equipment, gaming-themed apparel, online services and so on.
However, this rather narrow demographic limits the potential advertiser base. That is why it is important to create interest in Esports in people of all sexes and ages; i.e. to help it break into the mainstream. That way, success is all but guaranteed and Esports would cease to be a niche market, which would attract big brands and advertisers with huge budgets for sponsorships and promotion.
Revenue per fan is still well below those of traditional sports. The expectation for 2017 is $3.64 per fan (Newzoo), with a projected growth to $5.20 by 2020. By contrast, the revenue per fan for basketball worldwide is about $15, and about $75 for the NFL.
With increased awareness of Esports and organic growth aided by generous funding of high-profile tournaments by major game publishers, Esports is poised to get on the radar of a large share of online population, including both hard-core and casual gamer audiences. A lively Esports audience is not only a prerequisite for growth, but also its key driver. That’s why it’s integral to welcome as many people as possible into Esports, if this phenomenal growth rate is to be continued.
Top 5 Esports Tournaments
With the advent of competitive video gaming, it was only a matter of time until structured leagues with prizes and sponsorships arrived. Due to the rapid growth of Esports, plenty of leagues have begun popping up, with some becoming defunct and others prospering.
In this article we will take a closer look at some of the most successful Esports leagues. Most of those are game-exclusive, while others are independent and feature competitions in various popular games. Let’s get to work!
The International; Dota 2
Valve has left an indelible mark on Esports with its smash titles Dota 2 and Counter-Strike. The International is the most popular Dota 2-only tournament and one of the most popular tournaments in general.
The first International took place in 2011 at the Gamescom in Germany. Dota 2 beta was revealed at the same time. It had a prize pool of $1.6 million, which has steadily grown over time to a whopping $20.7 million, thanks to Valve’s crowdsourcing of prizes. Gamers buy ‘compendia’, i.e. tickets to watch the tournament along with special items, and Valve adds quarter of that money to the prize pool.
All subsequent Internationals were held in Seattle. There is no dominating team – no team has won the tournament more than once, and on one occasion, in 2016, a complete dark horse, team Digital Chaos, won the title.
The tournament was initially invite-only. 16 teams were invited by Valve and they battled in a round-robin group stage, with two top teams from each group proceeding to a knock-out phase in the form of a double-elimination tournament. The basic principle has remained the same in all subsequent tournaments, but Valve has steadily reduced the number of invited teams and opened up more spots for qualifiers.
Qualifiers were divided by regions, with 10 teams in each region (7 for Americas). 8 teams were invited, with two other teams coming from open qualifiers. Qualifiers begin in May and the main event is held in August each year.
The tournament is known for its prize pools, the largest in the world; The International has steadily broke the record for the largest tournament in the world by prize money, usually beating its previous-year record.
League of Legends World Championships; League of Legends
This tournament is the official and the largest annual League of Legends tournament. It is hosted by Riot Games, the game’s developer. Being the most played Esports game in the world, viewership numbers are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Last year’s tournament achieved 43 million unique spectators and a peak viewership of 14.7 million, a figure which will no doubt be dwarfed this October, when the 2017 tournament will take place.
Despite being the largest Esports game, its prize pools are not as extravagant as with the International. There is a reason for that, though. Riot Games has repeatedly stated that paying a livable wage is their preferred way of honoring the successful gamers, instead of huge one-off payments.
Consequently, the prize pools are smaller, but not too shabby. The 2016 World Championship had the prize pool of $6.7 million. 40 percent was awarded to the first-placed team, SK Telecom T1 (a team funded by the South Korean Telecom). The Korean teams have largely dominated the tournament in general. Only the first two seasons, 2011 and 2012 were won by non-Korean teams. The first title went to an All-European team Fnatic, while Taipei Assasssins won the second title.
The tournament is held in a different place each year. Teams qualify for the tournament via regional qualifiers and two wildcard spots. 16 teams in total qualified for the tournament. The first, group stage was a best of two round robin format. Top two teams advanced to the knockout stage. Unlike in the International, the knockout phase was single-elimination, best of five matches.
The forthcoming tournament will take place in China. The new tournament format will feature 24 teams. It remains to be seen whether the Korean dominance will be shaken, or if they will prove themselves once again to be the absolute masters of the League of Legends competitive scene.
Call of Duty World League Championship; Call of Duty
The Call of Duty World League Championship is an annual event held by Activision since 2013. The league has been reorganized recently and Activision has high hopes for its further success. The Call of Duty World League culminates in the World League Championships.
The last year’s tournament featured the largest prize pool for Call of Duty to date; $2 million. Call of Duty: Black Ops III was used for that season. 32 top teams battled it off in September 2016, and team EnvyUS won the title. They deserved it after two years of being runners-up, in 2013 and 2014.
This year’s tournament will feature the same structure: 32 teams in total in the group stage, and 16 teams progressing to double-elimination knockout round.
The CoD league is relatively new and the aim is to allow for lots of competitive play on each level. The league will serve as a feeder and a qualifier to the World Championships. 16 players will qualify from the CWL Global Pro League, while the other half will have a chance to qualify in the invitational Last Chance Qualifying LAN events. The invites will be based on the number of accumulated CWL pro points throughout the season.
The CWL Global Pro League takes place each April in Columbus, Ohio. It is a two-staged LAN-based league featuring four groups of four teams. Teams two qualify for Stage 2 automatically qualify for the World Championships.
The CWL appears to be on the right track. Activision has done a lot and responded to user criticism. Consequently, they’ve revamped the tournament structure and improved the competitive gameplay mechanics, with more LAN tournaments and better game modes and spawn points. A positive development overall.
Halo Championship Series
Halo Championship Series is the top-level Halo league sponsored by Microsoft and 343 Industries, Microsoft’s subsidiary and the developer of the Halo franchise. The league was founded in 2014. The first two seasons ran on Halo: The Master Chief Collection, but as of 2015, Halo 5 is the game which is played in the tournament.
The 2016 tournament saw the record prize pool of $2.5 million. The next year’s tournament – in 2017 – saw it dwindle to $1 million. Curiously, the 2016 tournament was held in Raleigh Studios Hollywood. This year’s tournament was much more modest, and plenty of fans complained of a shabby location, the ESL America Campus. This was probably the organizers’ last resort that they had to use due to failure to secure a better location.
Be that as it may, $1 million is not a trivial amount of money. 12 teams battled for the 1st prize of $500,000, and eventually OpTic Gaming emerged victorious. The tournament was invite-only, however top teams from each region were invited. The qualifications consisted of open LAN events. Three game types were played: CtF, Strongholds and Slayer.
There were 5 three team groups in the first stage. No team was knocked out at first; the last teams form the group stage were placed in the lower bracket. Obviously, the knock-out phase was double-elimination, best of 7.
While it appears that this year’s tournament was somewhat rocky for Microsoft, there is no sign that the league will be killed off. That’s good news for the fans!
Intel Extreme Masters
The oldest Esports league in the world, the Intel Extreme Masters never ceases to amaze. It was founded in 2007 as a brainchild of Electronic Sports League with, obviously, generous sponsorship from Intel. The list of games for which events have been held is long and includes Starcraft 2, CS:GO, League of Legends, Hearthstone and Quake.
The league is truly international, with events taking place all around the world. Note that the games that are played change from season to season. Last year’s World Championship tournament in Katowice featured League of Legends, CS:GO and StarCraft II.
The 2016 Katowice tournament was the most spectacular of all, attracting over 170 thousand fans to Spodek Arena and a peak viewership of over 1 million spectators. Criticism was directed at its handling of the LoL tournament – the absence of notable teams and player exhaustion among other, however strong viewership numbers showed that the competition was more than interesting.
All this was achieved with a modest prize pool of $650,000 total. $500,000 was split between SC2 and CS:GO. League of Legends got ‘only’ $150,000. That could explain the absence of some high-profile teams.
An average IEM league consists of a World Championships tournament and several qualification circuits. Most often, the (second) best teams from the regional leagues are invited to play in the qualifiers.
The season XII debuted in Australia with a CS:GO tournament featuring a $200,000 prize pool. The finale will likely be held in Katowice again to much fanfare.
Battle.net World Championship Series; StarCraft II
This year-round tournament is a culmination of two regional leagues, the World Championship Series Korea, for Korean players (duh) and the World Championship Series Circuit (for the rest of the world).
The best eight teams from each league participate in the final series – but nothing can be done to stop the Koreans from mercilessly crushing the competition – top two teams in the last year’s tournaments were all Korean teams. The prize pool in the finals was $500,000.
Smite World Championships; Smite
Being a fairly new game released in 2014, the first championship took place in 2015, however with a stunning prize pool of $2 million. The tournament is held in Atlanta, Georgia. As of 2016, two tournaments are held, one for the PC crowd and the other one on the Xbox 360.
Majors; Dota 2
In order not to let Dota tournaments delve into bottom of the barrel and The International, with no mid-tier tournaments to keep the scene afloat, the Majors were announced as the Valve’s attempt to improve the competitive landscape.
And improve it did, with prize pools of $3 million and great fan interest. There are for majors per year. Most of the teams get invited to play – and qualify.
Despite being overshadowed and a bit neglected by Valve over its flagship Dota 2, CS:GO has a lot of potential. It is even streamed live on TBS, a basic cable channel. In the first season, 24 teams compete in two 10-week leagues. The second season saw a structure similar to that of valve’s majors. 120 teams in total competed for a $1.1 million purse. The tournament featured a group stage and play-offs; OpTic Gaming went on to clinch the title. ELEAGUE was also the host of the 10th Valve’s CS:GO major, and the first one in 2017.
FIFA Interactive World Cup
This is a relatively modest tournament compared to the previously listed ones, but it has a rich history nevertheless. It is officially organized by FIFA and supported by EA Games, whose FIFA games are used in the competition.
Top FIFA Ultimate Team players become eligible to participate in qualifiers for the grand finale. The winner gets $200,000 and a paid trip to the FIFA Football Awards. The tournaments are streamed via Twitch and Youtube. Interestingly, the first tournament took place in 2004 – that’s 13 years ago!
Best Esports Betting Platforms; Esports Bookies
Unikrn is a fairly new Australia-based betting platform that has already made headlines and received plenty of investments form famous actors and institutions. The end-product is a well-crafted and optimized platform that lets you bet freely and in a very simple manner.
Currently, real-money betting is supported in Australia and the UK; expansion to other countries is planned, with Germany being the first in line. However, even players outside of these countries can bet by using Unikoins, a form of virtual currency that is earned by winning bets and playing games. These coins can be used to enter raffles and a chance to win prizes. These range from skins to merchandise, even gaming PCs.
The interface of Unikrn is simple. For example, there is an Overwolf app letting players bet on the outcome of their own games and earn Unikoins in-game, without much effort. Similar options are available for CS:GO and Dota 2.
Besides betting on yourself, you can bet on the outcome of pro matches, just like with any other bookmaker – whether with Unikoins or real money. There is plenty of games to choose from, and this is where Unikrn shines compared to its competition. While most other bookies cover only a few games, with Unikrn you can bet on a variety of games:
- Dota 2
- League of Legends
- Counter Strike: GO
- Rocket League
- Starcraft 2
- Heroes of the Storm
- Call of Duty
- World of Tanks
The odds are compelling, especially if betting on the underdogs, with minimal betting margins on high-profile matches, especially in League of Legends and Dota 2. There is currently $50 sign up bonuses and referral offers for players to get more Unikoins. Plenty of prop bets are also on offer for most of the games. This includes handicap bets, total maps over/under or map 1 winner – with enticing odds (1.90 / 1.86). First Baron / Dragon options are also available.
Live betting is also offered, along with the option to watch live streams of matches right within the website, where available. The website is also optimized for mobile viewing.
Overall, Unikrn is one of the best, if not the best, online Esports betting platforms in the world. It is oriented exclusively on Esports and as a result, offers great odds and a user experience tailored for this type of betting, as compared to regular bookmakers. We had no issues withdrawing our money or transferring skins we won to our Steam account. For those who currently cannot bet with real money, Unikoins are a great way to still play and win good prizes.
Betway is a global sportsbook and gambling operator with a number of brands. Its sports-betting related website, Betway.com, offers plenty of sports betting options, along with some Esports, so it is worth looking into.
Betway is, first and foremost, an ordinary online sportsbook. What we mean is that Esports is not its primary focus. That is fine if Esports are your occasional indulgence, but if you’re in any way serious about betting, these “old-school” sportsbooks may not provide you with a same feature level such as dedicated Esportsbooks like Unikrn.
It simple and legible interface facilitates easy and clear bet placement. There is a selection of the most popular games – League of Legends, Dota 2, CS:GO, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch. This selection is eclipsed both by Pinnacle and Unikrn.
Its odds are slightly lower than that of other major competitors, including Pinnacle and Unikrn. They might offer a line of 1.85 / 1.80, while Unikrn would spread the same as 1.9 / 1.85. Live betting is also offered, although without the possibility to watch these events live.
Despite offering slightly lower odds, Betway is keen to offer signup bonuses or match bets for new sign-ups. Always read the terms and conditions thoroughly so as to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Overall, if Esports betting is something you only do very occasionally and it isn’t worth the hassle of creating another wallet with another service, Betway is not a bad choice, especially if you already have an account there.
Pinnacle Sports has always been a bare-bones sportsbook focusing on what, they claim, really matters – good odds above all. They have generally stayed true to that promise – although with expanding number of sports and betting options, some odds have slipped to the level of most other bookmakers.
Pinnacle is no stranger to Esports and is one of the largest sportsbooks offering Esports betting, having reached 5 million bets in February 2017. Their Esports betting offer began as an experiment, but, as we’ve seen, it has proven to be quite popular and lucrative. Pinnacle offers esports betting on Dota 2, Halo, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, League of Legends, Overwatch, and StarCraft 2. This is among the best selection of games in the world, second only to Unikrn.
There are no particular sign-up bonuses; the company opts to entice its customers with good odds. And generally speaking, they are among the best – 1.909 / 1.909 is not unheard of, albeit it’s a far cry from 1.95 / 1.95 lines on NFL or 1.98 on tennis.
Live play is offered for certain matches and leagues – most often for Dota 2. However, the selection of bets is lackluster both in live and regular betting for most games. Money line and handicap are offered, and only in some cases complemented by totals, map, and first blood bets.
The website interface is simple, but we prefer the more polished look of Betway.
Overall, Pinnacle is a great option for discerning players interested in straight-up bets and a no-frills experience. Being a traditional bookmaker, you can bet on other sports as well, which is convenient if you bet on Esports only occasionally or if you’re an arbitrage bettor – Pinnacle doesn’t bar them from betting and does not impose subjective betting limits. That’s why Pinnacle is the best choice among the traditional sports bookmakers – if you don’t mind a barebones experience, that is.
Bet365 is one of the largest bookmakers in the world when it comes to revenue, and they certainly didn’t reach that without serious quality. They offer a variety of sports and have recently expanded to include Esports betting.
The selection of games is fairly standard. It includes Dota 2, CS:GO, League of Legends, Halo, Overwatch, and StarCraft 2. There are plenty of prop bets available, including, for example, first blood, the first team to slay Roshan / Baron, first team to X kills, etc. The prop bet selection for CS:GO is not as rich, but still serviceable. Cash-out option will sometimes be offered for high-profile matches during the game – you can settle your bet early, with payout depending on the current match result. This generally reduces your winnings, but also your potential risk.
We were impressed by such a variety, but the site is a hassle to navigate. The layout is simple and legible, but there is no simple way to view the odds, as with other sports. You have to mark the bets you’re interested in, and then click ‘Create a coupon’. This is a major hassle, as you cannot save your selections and it makes seeing all the games on offer, for example, extremely tedious and tiring. It’s not a problem if you know exactly what you want to be ton, but otherwise it’s a timewaster. We’re puzzled as to why they’ve made this design decision.
The odds are generally quite tight, on par with Unikrn and slightly lower than Pinnacle. Live betting is also available with plenty of action, one of the best we’ve seen. Unfortunately, there is no way to seamlessly watch the streams of live games. The customer support takes their time when answering your questions, but they’re fairly helpful should you have issues depositing or withdrawing your funds.
Bet365 would be a great bookie for Esports betting if it weren’t for its clunky interface with bad presentation – we simply cannot fathom why such a design choice was made. If you’ve already grown accustomed to it, then we guess Bet365 is what you’ll quite like. Otherwise, there are plenty of other options that are simpler to use.
Unibet has been a bookmaker for over 20 years, and as a result, it is home to a very large betting community. It also offers poker and casino games alongside betting. Unibet offers a wide array of sports to choose from, and Esports are no exception.
However, the choice of Esports games is limited to Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2 and League of Legends. Most matches that are available feature straight-up bets with no handicap lines or prop bets, with the exception of certain high-profile League of Legends matches, in which betting on the outcome of maps is available. The selection is not fantastic and only the major tournaments are covered, almost like an afterthought to other sports.
The odds are fairly standard, better than Betway but worse than Unikrn or Pinnacle Sports. We liked how the platform is simple and intuitive to use, with support for mobile users. Live betting is also available, but there are no livestream options.
The bonus options are scarce, but they do exist if you’re lucky or know where to look for them. Customer service is respectable and there are plenty of withdrawal and deposit options available.
Overall, it looks like Esports isn’t Unibet’s primary focus. It really shows in the lackluster selection of games and average odds. This site definitely isn’t recommended for your average Esports enthusiast. Occasional punters may find Unibet’s selection wide enough, especially if they are a long-term client of Unibet and don’t want to create new accounts. This, combined with a good layout and simple bet placement helps Unibet safe face, but it’s far from an ideal choice for Esports fans who are serious about Esports betting. Unikrn and Pinnacle are much better options.
No review would be complete without a novelty betting website. In this case, it’s about a bitcoin-based platform offering a variety of gambling options, including sports and esports betting.
Despite a rather interesting way of betting, and plenty of Esports games and tournaments covered, the odds aren’t as god as the competitors’ and there aren’t many side bets available. The most you can see – even in higher-profile tournaments, are money line and point spread options. There are no live Esports betting options available. The games covered are CS:GO, Dota 2, Hearthstone, HotS, League of Legends, Overwatch, Starcraft 2, and curiously, Halo. No complaints here.
The interface is simple, but can be a tad confusing due to a rather illogical presentation of teams and odds. There’s an interesting live chat option available, though, allowing punters to communicate with one another and either share tips (?!) or simply talk about upcoming picks. There are no welcome bonuses, but transactions are quick and on point – such is the nature of Bitcoin.
While noticeably weaker than top “regular” platforms, for an alternative market dealing with cryptocurrencies, this is a very fair attempt at a good service. And it generally is, although we think it won’t be of interest to anyone but the most devoted of cryptocurrency supporters – and individuals wishing to circumvent anti-gambling laws or taxes.