Esports & its future in sports

Jul 17 2019 8 min read

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It was autumn of 1972, Stanford University. A group of students got bored playing Spacewar just for fun within a closed clique. Suddenly, one of them got struck by a lightning: "Why don't we call out for other players to compete with us?" And on 19 October 1972, the first-ever documented video game tournament was held: Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics. Bruce Baumgart won the championship (there were only five participants!) and Tovar and Robert E. Maas brothers were the best in the Team Competition. Prize pool: year's subscription of Rolling Stone

Five different space ships, each with a dot indicating torpedo tubes are loaded, five scores, each at zero, a convincing starfield, and four space mines orbiting around a central sun, toward which the spaceships are starting to fall at a correctly accelerating rate.


Source: Rolling Stone, 1972

August 2019, Shanghai. The International 2019 with the biggest prize pool in history will be held in an 18,000-capacity Mercedes-Benz Arena. People from all over the world travel to China to become a part of so-called Dota 2 World Cup, and not even to visit the arena (obviously because all the tickets were out of sale in a few minutes after Valve has launched pre-ordering) but just to spend time in bars, pubs, movie-theatres and esport activity zones which will be definitely opened across "the city of future."

Forty-seven years is a significant number in terms of human life, but a tiny one when speaking of sports history. But what is esports? Is it like the Olympics? Or like football? Maybe esports are closer to NBA? Let's figure it out. 

Esports compared to other sports

Let's take a look at the world's major sports disciplines: cricket, curling, bobsleigh, and water polo. Just kidding. Regular football (soccer), basketball, American football (rugby), tennis, hockey and baseball. And a bit of the Olympics in general in the end. We won't talk about the games, tactics, overall complexity, training, etc, just how they work as sports. 

Esports started as local competitions and has grown into something game-changing. It is difficult to say whether the companies thought of creating competitive scenes with their products back at the time. But the main difference between esports and sports is that no one will ever own basketball, football or even lacrosse. And you don't need hardware or Internet connection to do it: gather like-minded folks, get minimum equipment (a ball) and play. Esports is different. The games we play are products

Valve owns CS:GO and Dota 2. Riot Games owns League of Legends. Blizzard is in full control of StarCraft 2, Hearthstone and Overwatch. PUBG, Apex Legends, FIFA, Fortnite, Street Fighter — you can name literally any esport game, and in the end, there's always a company behind it. Except for Tetris maybe, because it is a cultural and historical heritage. It means that the companies are in charge, they tell tournament organisers how and what to do, they set and supervise metas, they work with community and audience. The ecosystems are regulated. And the most important is that all the Tier 1 esports games' servers are controlled by companies. 

In sports, worldwide organisations work with the rules and regulations: UEFA, FIFA, NFL, NBA, NHL, NBL, ITF — they all have committees, which overview a particular discipline and make sure that there are no real-life bugs to abuse and OP tactics. These parties have overseers and inspectors who manage all the tournaments and cups. The organisations are in charge, but every little local association is allowed to work in their own way. For example, only this year English Premier League will introduce Video Assistant Referee, while in Spain's La Liga, VAR appeared a season ago. You might say it will change the sport upside down, but realistically — VAR is just a tool. International Tennis Federation has the ultimate rating list of tennis players, and they assign the points, at the same time ITF will never change the rules to make the game look more attractive. 

The Olympics are a little more complicated as it is the first-ever international multi-discipline competition which roots way down the annals of history. You know, we gamers have our own Olympics: WCG. It's not that popular and life-changing, but systematically and in terms of sports diversity, they are practically equal. 


WCG Participants 

There is no rule book for how to manage an esport. 

But publishers came up with a wide range of strategies. Valve only "assigns" rights to hold Dota 2 and CS:GO events, not really mastering how and who does it if they are managing well, while Gabe's eyes are all over The International. We may call it "an open ecosystem." On the other side of the coin, Riot Games and Blizzard are the only organisers of their games' Tier 1 scene. Total monopoly, tight control of IP, "a closed ecosystem". 

And now the most obvious thing: esports work not as any sport that was ever made before. Due to several reasons. 

First, esports is about games, not disciplines

The most prominent example is Dota. Started initially with WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne custom map, tournament organisers stuck to it, but once Valve released Dota 2, they turned attention to the newly released game. There are Dota 1 tournaments nowadays, but can you compare them to what we have in Dota 2? The same thing happened to CS: Source and CS:GO. A lot of pro players suffered from "discipline transfer," some have even resigned because they just couldn't get into a totally new game Valve made. Graphics update, engine replacements, some minor changes — it may seem like a publisher's problem to keep up with modern trends alongside letting it be as it is, but heading back to what we said before: the game owners are in charge. And it's just Valve, as Blizzard (StarCraft) and Activision (Call of Duty) have done the same thing. 

But releasing sequels is a less sensitive part: it is about supporting the product, not a complete rethinking. In the 2010s, the publishers realised that creating game-as-a-service products might be more comfortable to control yet more profitable. Dota 2 switches to Source 2.0 as well as CS:GO; Overwatch and Rainbow Six Siege developers confirmed that there are no plans on making sequels (unless the hardware market will be capable and demanding at the same time), StarCraft 2 and Hearthstone are getting some visual updates and games like FIFA, 2K NBA, NHL, UFC, etc. just don't need anything besides graphics (and minor gameplay to entertain the audience) improvements. Again, most of these esports games were made based on existing and well-established sports.


We are talking about the inability to separate games into specific disciplines. Shooters? The gameplay is what matters because playing Apex Legends is much different from playing CS:GO. Strategies? MOBAs are just RTS branches. Fightings? We wish you will never meet two pro players who prefer different games (though Street Fighter's and MK's gameplay might seem similar). Racings? Project CARS and F1 are incomparable due to implied racing disciplines. CCGs? Autobattlers? Team sports? Solo competitions? Yeah, and don't forget mobile gaming.

Even if we divide disciplines into games, we won't get anything stable. The case of Apex Legends is indicative: coming out of nowhere, the game got its niche and now is a significant part of the esports world. And the autobattlers. It's been a little more than half a year since the genre was born, but these "chess-like" games have conquered our hearts (and mobile phones), while TOs are already preparing $1,000,000 prize pool tournaments. Artifact has vanished, and the only profit Valve has had was the knowledge on how to properly launch Dota Underlords

Genres appear and transform, combine and segregate. We thought that PUBG and Fortnite are pure Battle Royales, but then Apex appears, like a mixture of Overwatch and Titanfall wrapped into definite gameplay. There are Dota and LoL, but there's also Smite, which is a third-person action-slasher MOBA.

Second, esports is about the show

Esports are probably closer to NBA than any other sport. Specifically, because people who watch esports sometimes want the show more than the game itself. Recall any Tier 1 league finale in any esport discipline: fireworks, lights, famous people, massive arenas, thousands of people, the hype, the scenes, accompanying production, broadcasts, fun, emotions, tears, golden cups, brackets that were calculated to have more matches, fabulous ceremonies, additional content, photoshoots and fan meetings. All of it indicates that people are selling esports just as NBA sells basketball. 

Since esports is on its cultivation route, game-publishing and tournament-organising companies are trying to combine the best ways to both have a pure competition and to make the most profit they can. 

Spectacular is a synonym to esports. We just hope that one day, esports won't turn into pure entertainment like World Wrestling Federation once did. 


It is better to classify esports into genres and subgenres. 

Thus, we have lots of games that we can't really divide into disciplines. The game industry is growing so fast that it is easier to stick to a specific game than trying to follow a whole genre. You never know when the next Apex Legends or autobattler craze will happen. 

Publishers will stick to games-as-services

But eventually, there will appear new games to overcome the existing ones. Still, the companies will have loyal and money-making audiences as in 2019 people would pay money for something they want (cosmetics, Battle Passes), not for what they will be made to purchase (Artifact initial price was $15). 

It's the publishers who control esports. 

Not the players, not the tournament organisers, not the blue-collar workers. Only publishers. That's the difference. They say "Jump," we ask "How high." 

We can divide esports into players' mentality. 

Kyle Freedman and Peter Dager became Dota 2 top-players after abandoning HoN. Apex Legends first pro trios were formed of Call of Duty and Fortnite athletes. Autobattlers are popular among CCG streamers and pros. It's up to you what to choose, whether you like tactical or "hero" shooters, rapid or strategical MOBAs, Universe-bound autobattlers or not. 

Esport just isn't mature enough yet.

That's right. Esport is too young, the process has started less than half-a-century ago, and we don't really know what will happen next. Maybe, one day we all will watch mobile esports through VR head-sets. Who knows? 

There's only one thing that can be declared with a 100% confidence: esports will become entertainment more than sports. There, of course, will be hardcore players of hardcore leagues for hardcore games, but as we can see, esports is becoming more and more about "creating content for people" these days. 

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