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What Are eSports? Games, Teams & Leagues Explained


A common question asked by many non-gamers today is whether esports really qualify as sports even though they involve very little physical movement.

Dictionary.com defines a sport as being ” an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.,” which doesn’t squarely include esports.

I’d argue so and for several reasons. Esport athletes funnel tens of hours a week into practicing their title of choice to become the best in their field. The audience size at many of the professional competitions maxes out at anywhere between 5,000 and 173,000 people, the number of which there was at the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship Katowice 2017 for League of Legends. That’s around 100,000 more than the Super Bowl last year. The largest esports event ever, the World Championship, brought in over 46 million unique online viewers too, over 10 million more than Trump’s inauguration broadcast.

Esports are a force of nature that’s taking the world by storm as a global phenomenon. As the industry grows to be worth over $1 billion and a projected annual revenue of over $5 billion, here’s a short history of some key events in the esports realm, along with some important teams, leagues and games.


Technically, the history of esports begins at Stanford University after the invention of Spacewar!, a game some consider to be the first competitive video game ever created.  Stanford hosted an “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics,” with the grand prize being a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. A soft start, but it was still a start. Then in the ’80s, competitive gaming took off with the first popular esports tournament, Atari’s Space Invaders tournament, which gathered together over 10,000 participants to try and achieve the highest score.

The ’90s brought online gaming into the picture, and with it came the rest of the esports movement. The release of Doom, Quake and Warcraft kickstarted the movement, and both games became widely considered to be the first official “esports” titles. Blockbuster Video began running competitive online tournaments at their stores (you heard me right) and later became one of the most celebrated venues in esports competitions.

These games largely drove growth and interest in esports in the ’90s and the 2000s.

The bulk of the early popularity in the 2000s was driven by South Korean esports leagues after huge investments in broadband internet networks post-financial crisis created a boon in competitive gaming. Internet cafes popped up across the country, and Starcraft became a critically-acclaimed and widely popular televised esports title.

In 2010, things grew to even bigger proportions with the hugely popular MOBA games, which blended together RPG and tabletop strategy games, and a surge in first-person shooter games.

The industry is expected to continue to grow at an exponential rate. SuperData research suggests the net viewership of competitive esports is on track to exceed 300 million viewers per year by the end of 2019, and the industry will only continue to grow from there.

From here on out, expect to see esports make long-term progress and, at long last, acceptance in the mainstream media as an official category of sport.


Mousesports, NiP and SK Gaming were some of the first esports teams that are still some of the most well-respected esports teams in the scene. These top teams were earning hundreds of thousands in prizes, and the esports world was increasingly becoming stable to work in.

More of the biggest competitive teams, including Fnatic, Team Dignitas, Cloud9 and Team Liquid popped up as well shortly after those did. Legends like Patrik “f0rest” Lindberg from NiP and Filip “NEO” Kubski from Virtus.pro made a splash onto the scene and eventually became some of the most respected figures in all of esports after coming into fruition post-2000.

Now esports teams continue to pop up across several games and larger esports teams have presences across several games. OpTic Gaming, an American team, is one of the most renown Call of Duty esports teams that also has a presence in CS:GOHalo and Gears of War, worth an astounding $25 million. Evil Geniuses has a presence in StarCraft II, Halo and Street Fighter V, but they’re most known for their Dota 2 team, which has catapulted their organization’s worth over $33 million.

Fnatic is also in a league of its own with a presence across all of the major esports titles. Worth an estimated $42.6 million as of 2015, Fnatic has grown to be one of the most expansive and popular names due to its marketing and business ventures. Fnatic also boasted some of the best players in the CS:GO scene between 2014 and 2016.


Two popular MOBA games, League of Legends and Dota 2, quickly became the largest esports games in the industry between 2010 and now. LoL now boasts an annual 100 million active players, and Dota 2 is home to the annual Dota 2 International, a tournament with a prize pool exceeding $20 million this year, breaking yet another record for the largest prize pool in an esports event.

Counter Strike: Global Offensive carried on the legacy of its predecessors to become the most popular first-person shooter esports game in existence, beating both the Call of Duty franchise games and all of its predecessors in popularity.

Call of Duty remains one of the big titles in esports despite its decline in popularity after the release of CS:GO. Teams like FaZe Clan and OpTic Gaming are some of the prominent figures in this scene, and yearly viewership figures continue to grow for the franchise after that steep drop-off.


Broadcast companies Ongamenet and MBCGame grew to support huge online tournaments and were some of the first of their time. In 2007 alone, these channels netted a clean $200 million in esports revenue. Ongamenet still broadcasts esports tournaments occasionally, but MBCGame folded in 2012.

Major League Gaming has held a legendary presence in the scene, organizing tournaments across many different gaming titles in its 15-year lifespan. MLG players were looked at as being some of the most respectable in the scene.

The International hosts the largest Dota 2 tournament annually, boasting the largest prize pool in an esports competition in the world. This year, the prize pool has already broken the $20 million barrier and continues to grow as more sponsors trickle in.

The League of Legends World Championships is the flagship annual tournament for the most-played video game in the world. The broadcast for last year netted a total of 43 million viewers and a peak viewership of 14.7 million viewers concurrently.

The Halo Championship Series is the esports league for Halo. In 2016, the prize pool for the series capped at $2 million.

Intel Extreme Masters is run by Turtle Entertainment. This tournament series involves several different game competitions with tournaments for each of them. The convention lasts several days and is regarded as one of the largest esports conventions in existence.

Dreamhack is the world’s largest computer festival, which includes several esports competitions across a number of esports games including CS:GO.

Call of Duty World League is the largest esports league for the Call of Duty franchise that serves as a qualifier for the main annual Call of Duty Championship. The league is separated into an Amateur and a Professional division.

The Battle.net World Championship features a host of tournaments for games created by Blizzard Entertainment, including StarCraft II, World of Warcraft and Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft.

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