Video game competitions have been around since the 1970s, at least, but professional esports have become a recent phenomenon. Many point to South Korea as their place of origin; gaming became wildly popular there after the government built out its nationwide broadband network.

In 2000, the region’s Ministry of Culture, Sports & Tourism then founded the Korea e-Sports Association—a Korean Olympic Committee and International e-Sports Federation member—to manage and legitimize esports. Game makers, organizing bodies and players in other countries were quick to follow suit.

Today a large and sometimes confusing mix of international tournaments exist for team and solo play, as do leagues which offer opportunities for seasonal play.

Players, Revenue & Viewership

Online video game retailer Green Man Gaming reported that the number of professional esports players had grown to more than 25,000 worldwide by 2019. has made a habit of tracking player earnings and estimated that the world’s Top 10 players take in $3.7 Million to $6.9 Million overall while those ranked Top 88 stand to make $1 Million or more.

According to “Athletic Panda,” global esports revenues are set to top $1.1 Billion this year. That would put them on par with Japan’s Nippon Baseball League. The figure is especially impressive given how young organized esports are compared with the NFL, MLB and the NBA which, respectively, are known to pull in $13 Billion, $10 Billion and $7.4 Billion in annual revenue.

With esports viewer numbers bundled in, the story gets ever-more interesting. Viewership is expected to top 495 Million worldwide in 2020. That would put it above the 410 Million who watch football/rugby and get it close to the 500 Million who watch baseball. Importantly, the global reach of esports has given it greater growth potential than U.S. football, for example, which has failed to grow in popularity beyond the North American continent.

‘Top’ Games by Prize Money

Esports Earnings named Valve Corporation’s Dota 2 the most-lucrative esports game in terms of prize money given out, its prize pools often exceeding $1 Million through use of crowdfunding. An older title, it is described as “an action real-time strategy game (and) standalone sequel to the WarCraft III custom map Defense of the Ancients: All-Stars.” It and other titles to “Top” the website’s prize money awarding games list are:

 $226 Million – “Dota 2”
 $100 Million – “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive”
 $93.9 Million – “Fortnite”
 $76.8 Million – “League of Legends”
 $33.4 Million – “StarCraft II”

‘Top’ Gaming Tournaments

Dota 2 is also tied to the richest tournaments. An annual esports world championship hosted and produced by Valve, The International was first held at Gamescon in 2011 to promote the title. In 2019, the event gave out $34 Million in prize money—an increase of $9 Million over 2018. The world’s “Top” tournaments, each giving out prize money that totals in the millions, include:

 The International (“Dota 2”)
 Fortnite World Cup Finals (“Fortnite”)
 LOL World Championship (“League of Legends”)
 ELeague (“CS:GO,” “Injustice 2,” “Overwatch,” etc.)

U.S. high schools, colleges and universities have increasingly launched varsity-level esports
programs. And some have speculated that esports may find a home in the Olympic arena one day. At the same time, noted Nielsen Co., LLC, in its 2019 “Esports Playbook for Brands,” various players involved—from game publishers and leagues to individual teams, organizing bodies and sponsoring brands—continue to define their roles and relationships.

Nicole Pike, managing director of Nielsen Esports, wrote that 1-in-5 fans worldwide began
following esports in recent years and that ongoing growth brings with it “rapid change that is hard to keep track of, even if you’re working in the industry.” Brands have found esports
investing to be daunting but should persist, she said, since its fans represent “some of the
hardest-to-reach consumers” where traditional media channels are concerned.

Yet, why? Well, Pike said, “they’re young, digital natives who are also cutting cords and
blocking ads at rapid rates. Esports (sponsorship) allows brands to reach those fans while they’re engaging with their No. 1 entertainment passion point: video games.” Esports’ heavy reliance on sponsorship, she added, opens up pathways for awareness and relationship building.

Everyone involved from the “Top” down, it seems, has a role to play.

[Editor’s Note: John Sailors’ feature, “Higher Ed & Esports Programs: Why Not Major in Video Games,” appears in the Q4 2020 print edition of Digital Unicorn.]

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Green Man Gaming. “Esports—the Money Game: Esports Is Not All Fun and Games, It’s Big Business” slideshow.