TOP Esports Games
There are plenty of games that are played online. Plenty of them are, or were, played in professional competitions and can therefore be considered as esports. However, only a couple of them have become so successful that they’ve shaped the whole esports ecosystem and gained massive amounts of both players, spectators and bettors.
We’ve compiled a handy list of the most popular and influential games of today:
After the original DotA custom map for Warcraft III took the world by a storm, Valve recognized its potential and hired the lead designer of the most popular and critically acclaimed Defense of the Ancients variation, the DotA Allstars, to develop a sequel named Dota 2.
Being a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), the goal is similar to many of the other games in the genre (such as League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm or Smite). Two teams of up to five players each compete to destroy the other team’s main structure, the Ancient, which is protected with guard towers. The map contains three paths, “lanes”, that connect the opposing bases and where neutral soldiers, “creeps”, fight each other and attack the opposing structures.
Players control heroes with unique abilities and can purchase various items to enhance their skills with gold obtained from slaying enemy heroes, creeps and destroying the opposing structures. The abilities cost “mana points” to activate; these points replenish over time. Heroes are divided in three categories – “carries”, meaning fragile heroes with a tremendous damage output, “supports”, spellcasters with healing, immobilizing or other utility skills, and “tanks”, heroes that can absorb a lot of damage and have tremendous health regeneration. Proper choice of heroes is crucial and can, in itself, determine the outcome of the game. Certain heroes are good against particular heroes, they are “counters” and can neutralise a dangerous opponent. In-depth knowledge is heavily rewarded. Every hero comes with a short backstory; these stories are often interconnected among heroes.
The game is strategically very deep, and there is a very steep learning curve. It takes a while to master all the heroes and legacy game mechanics, but in the long term, it is very rewarding for most players. The learning curve is somewhat mitigated with help of a matchmaking system that aims to pit players of about equal skill against one another. The MMR system (Matchmaking rating) is used to determine the individual player’s skill, and is often worn as a badge of honour.
With the financial support of Valve and the logistics of Steam, this multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) was bound to be a huge success. And it indeed has been – with peaks of more than 1 million concurrent players online, and over 13 million active monthly players, it is bested only by another MOBA title, #2 on our list, League of Legends.
Ever since its release, Dota 2 has been the most played game on Steam. The game is free to play, with optional cosmetic items and event spectator tickets costing money, but without any effect on gameplay. There are no heroes to pay for and unlock; each player is on an equal footing from the get-go, in which lies part of its appeal.
However, what it doesn’t have in terms of player base, at least compared to the League of Legends, it has when it comes to prizes. Valve has been nothing but generous when it comes to prize polls, with close to US$100 million in prize money awarded.
The top contributors are Valve’s own yearly tournaments called “The International”, held at KeyArena in Seattle, where 16 teams battle for supremacy and smaller “satellite” tournaments known as “Majors”. Each year, the total prize pool for the International has steadily increased and broke US$20 million in 2016, up from $18.4 million and $10.9 million from 2015 and 2014, respectively. Most of the money is provided by Valve, but crowdfunding makes a substantial contribution to the overall sum. Australians have also jumped on the bandwagon and won their share of the prizes. Damien Chok, playing under the nick “kpii”, won over US$ 450 thousand, while Anathan “ana” Pham, cashed over US$ 250 thousand. Not bad.
Dota 2 betting is a very common pastime of many esports spectators, and Dota 2 seems to be made with betting in mind. For example, betting elements have been built into the game from the get-go. Within the game, it is often possible to wager special seasonal coins on the outcome of the match, and for a time betting sites could use Steam’s official API. Nowadays, most esports Dota 2 betting is conducted live, via various online betting platforms, such as Unikrn, or traditional bookmakers like Pinnacle Sports, among many others.
League of Legends
Just like Dota 2, League of Legends is a MOBA game considered as a spiritual successor to the original DotA Allstars map. It is developed by Riot Games, a then-indie game developer based in Los Angeles. Eul, the person who worked on the original DotA map, also gave his input during the development of League of Legends.
The game was released on 27 Oct 2009. It was well received and has hugely grown in popularity since. The official figures state that over 100 million players per month play League of Legends, with over 7.5 million peak concurrent players. The game operates under a freemium model. Not all champions are unlocked and they must be purchased using Riot Points, a virtual currency that is also used to purchase other cosmetic items and Runes, which boost a player’s stats in-game.
The premise is similar as with other MOBAs. Two teams of three or five players vie to destroy the opponent’s base, called “nexus”. Each player controls a unique character (“Champion”) with unique spells and characteristics. The story underwent several changes and was finally overhauled in 2014, thus giving every champion a rich backstory and. Games usually last from 30 minutes to an hour.
Even though League of Legends is more popular when it comes to player base, and consequently more tournaments have been hosted, the total prizes distributed amount to about US$ 40 million, which is at most half of the total for Dota 2. In 2016, for example, the World Championships, hosted by the developer, Riot Games, had a prize pool of $6 million.
Riot Games organize professional leagues and tournaments, with the highest level being the League of Legends Championship Series, culminating in the annual World Championship. The league takes place in the USA and Germany; with 10 teams competing against one another, per league. Team SoloMid is the most successful in the North America league, while across the Atlantic, Fnatic’s dominance has been usurped by G2 Esports in the last two seasons.
The most successful Australian team competing in the Oceanic League is the Chiefs eSports team, with LG Dire Wolves being a close second. The league consists of eight teams.
Unlike with the majority of other esports games, Riot Games has opted to provide a salary to the players in the Championship Series. This adds a layer of sustainability and is certainly the reason for overall lower prize pools.
Just like with Dota 2, League of Legends esports betting is mainly live. Being the most popular esports game, many traditional bookmakers offer attractive odds on many League of Legends tournaments, even those of lesser importance. Furthermore, other platforms enable players to bet live from within the game, with the help of add-ons for software platforms like Overwolf.CS:GO
Counter-Strike is one of the most popular first-person shooter video game series of all time. It was first release in 1999 as a Half-Life mod, after which Valve bought the intellectual property and eventually released a stand-alone version, retroactively named Counter-Strike 1.6, which is still being played even in esports tournaments.
The most popular game, however, is the newest, fourth game in the series named Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. It was released in August 2012 on many platforms. Cross-platform multiplayer was planned but ultimately scrapped due to discrepancies in update schedules.
CS:GO is currently the second most popular game on Steam, right after Valve’s own Dota 2, with peaks of about 600 to 700 thousand daily players. It has sold over 28 million copies – the game is not free to play, and costs $14.99. A great surge in the number of players is expected, as CS:GO has recently become officially available in China.
The game had a rocky start at first; many players were dissatisfied with the game and quickly went back to Counter-Strike: Source or even 1.6. But, after some updates and more fleshing out, the game eventually regained the players’ confidence and is currently the most popular game in the CS series.
The gameplay is in line with the previous titles in the series. Two teams of counter-terrorists and terrorists have a task of eliminating one another, as well as performing various tasks, depending on the game mode. The terrorists must either plant the bombs or defend the hostages, while the counter-terrorists are tasked with defusal or hostage rescue.
CS:GO is attractive to new spectators since the game rules are easy to learn and follow, unlike with MOBA and similar strategy games. This attracts new viewers to esports. The competitive scene is very vibrant and over 2200 major tournaments have been hosted, more than with MOBAs. However, Valve has opted to cap the tournament prize pools to US$250,000 so as to prevent competition with its flagship title, Dota 2. Still, some of its tournaments are regularly televised in the USA and total prize money awarded is over US$30 million, a tad less than League of Legends. The MLG Columbus tournament was watched by 1.6 million spectators.
Unfortunately, the Australians haven’t had much luck In CS:GO. No teams qualified for MLG Columbus, but Team Immunity and the Renegades have started to make a name for themselves in the international scene, the former by playing in the World Cyber Arena and taking 7th place.
CS:GO used to be an esports betting-friendly game. Skin gambling played a prominent role in the August 2013 Arms Deal update. Players taking part in the game could bet cosmetic items (“skins”) that include camouflages and clothes and “gamble” on the outcome of the match.
Eventually, these in-game items began to serve as a virtual currency. These items could be bought and sold, but cash could not be withdrawn. Over time, various third-party sites sprang up and were offering betting on outcomes of the match with these virtual items. Even though betting on sports is illegal in most of the US, gambling with virtual goods isn’t. Via these sites, virtual items could easily be converted into real money.
This unofficial market raised a lot of eyebrows and was a huge concern to Valve, mainly due to regulatory pressure and lawsuits. Eventually, Valve had to budge and forbade third-party sites from providing gambling services via the Steam API. Most of those sites closed shop soon afterwards. However, CS:GO betting is still going strong, even after Valve’s crackdown, although the exact figures are unknown.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
Call of Duty started as a WWII mainstream first-person shooter developed by Infinity Ward and released by Activision. At that time, esports was still in its infancy, but even the older Call of Duty games had (and still have!) very vibrant multiplayer game modes with large player bases. Modern titles get consistently lower ratings than the first four titles in the series, but are still extremely popular, especially among console players.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 is the twelfth title in the Call of Duty series, and is developed by Treyarch. It is the official competitive successor to the Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Up to date, the games were released every year, but it appears that Activision could move away from that schedule and opt for a new game every two or three years, likely for esports reasons. There were many problems with the launch, and the game still isn’t well polished. But Call of Duty esports is far from dying, as some news outlets were quick to proclaim. If anything, it’s slowly recovering.
The competitions themselves are fairly complex for a first person shooter game. Players compete in several game modes, such as Hardpoint (Hold the Flag), Uplink, Search and Destroy and Capture the Flag. Every game mode has its own intricacies, and a good team, consisting of four players, must be proficient in all of them.
This is mostly due to Activision deciding to funnel some money into the prize pools for many new tournaments. Besides, Activision is the owner of MLG and uses that infrastructure to host their tournaments. The prize pool has consequently grown. The previous title, Advanced Warfare, disbursed over $2.5 million in prize money, while Black Ops 3 has already topped that figure. The Call of Duty League alone is worth $4 million!
The Call of Duty World League began in January 2016 and serves as a qualifier for the Call of Duty Championship, with two tiers – Professional and Amateur, both with separate leagues and chmapionships. The last year’s Championship featured a $2 million prize pool. Brits and Americans dominate the Championships. The winner of the 2016 Championship are folks from the Team EnVyUs, with Splyce from UK, coming in second. The all-Australian team, Chiefs eSports Club, snagged 19th place.
When it comes to Call of Duty esports betting, it is less developed than the other markets. Most betting is concentrated on top-level tournaments, and not all esports bookmakers offer betting on Call of Duty.
The king of strategy games in many aspects, StarCraft and its expansions quickly gathered a very dedicated following. The sequel, StarCraft II, picked up the baton and didn’t disappoint; it was critically well received. The StarCraft series is still considered the benchmark real-time strategy series. The game is constantly being updated and the balance between the three warring races tweaked. What players and reviewers disliked was the absence of LAN play. All traffic goes through Battle.net servers. This has caused latency issues, even during some official tournaments.
The “what” of the game is simple to understand, but “how” is exceedingly complex and difficult to master. The learning curve is as steep as it can get. There are three races, each with their own unique abilities, and the goal is to set up a base, create army units and destroy the opposing player (or team). The game is played on maps of various sizes and with varying amounts of resources with which the structures and units are built.
Ever since the release of the original game, the South Koreans have been the undisputed leaders, both in player numbers and especially in trophies won. The following is very dedicated and decidedly hard-core. South Korea is home to two television channels dedicated to broadcasting StarCraft matches. In fact, the popularity there is so astounding that playing StarCraft has been referred to as a national pastime. About half of all copies of StarCraft sold (some 5 million out of 10 million) were sold in South Korea. Twitch.tv massively benefited from StarCraft, as in its infancy, it was StarCraft streaming that kept it alive.
Several major bookmakers offer odds on StarCraft esports betting., but a thriving underground, illegal market also operates, especially in South Korea. The world of StarCraft II betting was shaken in 2015 because of match fixing that took place in the 2015 ProLeague and the GSL Season 1 match just a couple days later, among many others. Pinnacle Sports was forced to void all bets on these matches due to suspected manipulation. The scandal resulted in arrests and at least five other matches were fixed or otherwise manipulated with. Similar things happened before (in 2010) and after (in 2016).
At least US$22 million has been awarded to players to date, and over 4 thousand tournaments have been hosted. Even though its popularity has plateaued, mostly due to the rise of MOBAs, the prizes have steadily increased, and the StarCraft II World Championship Series had a prize pool of US$500,000. The winner? Byun “Byun” Hyun Woo, from, you guessed it right, South Korea. Entry to the WCS is secured via qualifiers held in 6 regions of the world. This also increases the number of non-Korean players, but the final standings are still very much predictable. About 70 percent of all prize money has been awarded to Korean players.
Still, there is still plenty to enjoy and it appears that the tournaments are here to stay, even if Blizzard’s focus has been shifted to their other games like Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone, all with great esports potential as well. Only time will tell, though.
Not all games could make the top 5, although they have plenty to show. All of the following games are free-to-play, so why not try them yourself? Among these are:
- SMITE, a MOBA with a third-person perspective
- Hearthstone, Blizzard’s online trading card game with a wide esports and casual appeal,
- Heroes of the Storm, a Blizzard’s twist on the MOBA genre, again with a more casual undertone,
- World of Tanks, a massively multiplayer tank skirmish game, currently most popular in Eastern and Central Europe.