Esports (electronic sports) as a term and as a field has grown in popularity quite a bit in the last 20 years, however not everyone knows what it is or whether or not it is related to “real sport”.  In essence esports are “organized video game competition” according to Jenny (7) that have arisen with the increased popularity and capabilities of video gaming in recent years. These competitions also happen to attract a lot of viewers and fans as “more than 70 million people worldwide watch esports over the Internet or on TVs” and the industry is estimated to be worth $700 million USD. Playing video games has become a popular form of entertainment whether it is through smartphones, consoles or computers, but with numbers like those the act of competing in or viewing esport events stops seeming like a niche subculture and becomes more comparable to traditional major league sports.

Currently the main distinction that puts the “e” in esports is that the games itself are created by a developer and players compete against each other through electronic devices. The missing physical activity is often mentioned by critics who wish to declare that video gaming cannot be considered a sport but Blum believes that

at the end of the day, reasonable minds can disagree about the definition of what constitutes a sport, but, it’s entirely beside the point. Esports doesn’t need to be considered sports

Whether or not society as a whole decides if video game competitions are sport does not deter from those who enjoy playing in and viewing these events and it does not change the fact that it’s a growing industry expected to reach a value of $1.5 billion by 2020.

List of popularity among games (MAU= Monthly Active Users)(Image Source: Esports Observer)

One fact that is for sure is that relative to traditional sports and sporting events that goes back as far as the Olympia games started in 776 BC, esports is very young in terms of rules, regulations, infrastructure and history. This may contribute to people’s hesitation of seeing esports as comparable to other major league sports of today such as the national North American leagues for hockey (NHL), baseball (MLB) football (NFL) or basketball (NBA). These “major leagues” have a long history with teams that in some cases have existed for over a century. Franchised leagues structured around a particular game has not consistently existed for any video game up until 2017 where the developers of two of the currently most popular video game , League of Legends (LoL) and Overwatch created franchise leagues for the highest level of competition for their game. Prior to this almost all esports events where ran as stand-alone tournaments by third party organizers which did not provide much monetary security for teams and players or give fans a consistent schedule of when to watch their favorite game.

A brief introduction into esports events

The first player versus player (PvP) tournaments for video games started in the 1990s that included a 1997 tournament for the first person shooter (FPS) game Quake where the winner received a Ferrari. This event was “widely considered to have been the first real instance of eSports, drawing over 2,000 participants”. Jin says esports first league started “in 1998 when the game StarCraft became popular in Korea”(13). From that point through to current day most video game competitions with noticeable prize pools are hosted at video game conventions by 3rd party event organizers or a select amount of events by game developers that are more of a way to promote the game then a competition itself. Broadcasts of these events never took off on television so the online streaming platform Twitch became the go to for video game event coverage. Top players often represent sponsors or a professional team with sponsors but a large part of their income relies on prize money from finishing in the top spots of events.

Some of the early esports events organizers (Image Source: Gamespot)

For games that have dedicated player and fan base such as LoL, Counter Strike (CS), Dota 2 or Street Fighter there are “leagues” or circuits that provide a more consistent potential form of income for professional players and teams. However even these leagues require players and teams to always be preforming at their best as they may lose their spot to compete. Hollist highlights the stress that teams faced in the League Championship Series (LCS) that game developer Riot hosts for its game League of Legends. The LCS system prior to 2018 had two competitive seasons each year with 10 teams for each region, at the end of each season the 3 lowest ranked teams would have to play in a tournament with the top performing teams from the league right below (Challenger League) to determine who would get the 3 spots in next seasons LCS, in other words “Twice a year 30% of all Riot’s professional teams must fight to retain their status” (Hollist 833). These conditions where players and team owners are always worried about losing their spot at competing on the highest stage is a deterrent for sponsors or investing into growing organizations that may lose their spot. This level of volatility may be driving away many from the thought of investing their time and/or money into the industry and perhaps has stifled its growth to some degree.

The demand for more structure in esports

With the announcement “eSports to be a medal event at 2022 Asian Games” in 2017 by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) Hallmann believes it “could constitute a milestone for eSports to be officially and worldwide recognized as a sport” (14). Yet even with the OCA inclusion of esports, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) still has concerns over including any esports events in the Olympics as Hallmann states that esports’s lack of organization structure as “an obstacle for esports to be accepted by the (IOC) as a sport.” (16). One way this is apparent is how each game has an entirely different structure for its top level of competition as well as varying rules if any when it comes to topics such as drug usage.

Boffard covered how esports teams have openly stated they used drugs such as Adderall in a major Electronic Sports League (ESL) tournament where “they were competing for $250,000 in prize money”. The ESL team stated “we don’t have a doping policy at the moment” and how the issue was caused by “how young the industry is” (69). Another area of concern was the wellbeing of players on esports teams being undervalued and overworked. Hollist attributes this to players being “inexperienced and uneducated in the complexities of contract negotiation” as ““most of the industry’s players are either teenagers or in their early to mid-twenties” (831). This combined with the fact that there isn’t currently any unions for esports players means “players are unable to negotiate better terms due to lack of collective bargaining power” (834). With cases like this it becomes apparent how important details for esports are still being figured out by organizations and leagues.

The introduction of esports franchising

In 2016, popular game developer Blizzard released its FPS game Overwatch which quickly became a huge success, with that demand for a competitive scene for the game rose. Later that year Blizzard announced it would support the esports side of the game by creating the Overwatch League (OWL). This league would consist of all franchised teams who would have a permanent spot in the league once their bid had been accepted and they paid the initial entrance fee of $20 million USD.

Closely after in 2017 Riot games announced that its North American6 LCS leagues for LoL would become franchised with teams currently in the league able to bid in for $10 million and outside organizations would pay an extra $3 million in their bid. Blum as well as many others believed this choice was made because it would “bolster investments in each game and help promote the long-term viability of both League of Legends and Overwatch as spectator sports”

Both of these franchise esports leagues had major esports organizations that were already part of each games respective scene join but also brought in outside investors in organizations and individuals who also owned traditional sports teams. Some of these outside investors include Robert Kraft, owner of NFL’s New England Patriots, Jeff Wilpon, COO of the MLB’s New York Mets, Comcast Spectator which also owns the Philadelphia Flyers, Team Liquid which is an esports organization that Disney has invested in, and Chinese Internet provider NetEase (TNL). Many of these outside investors partnered with already established esports organizations as it seems the esports teams needed money to buy a franchise and outside investors wanted esports professionals to help them enter the industry.

Image Source: TNL MEDIA

The Good

For team owners who are able to afford a franchise, this security will now allow them to safely try and develop their teams and take risks with roaster choices as poor performance will no longer lose them their spot. This also makes their teams much more attractive for sponsors and additional investors as this level of security in the field of esports is unprecedented.

For players each games franchise created a minimum salary of 50k for Overwatch and 75k for League as well as revenue sharing from league profits and team performance bonuses. Additional for League of Legends its pro players got a Players Association meant to give players a voice in league decisions.

The (Potentially) Bad

While teams and players able to be a part of these leagues will be reaping in the benefits listed above, the cost to enter for an esports organization is not a small factor. Even for the largest esports organizations the cost of franchising is in the tens of millions means many organizations were simply locked out of participating unless they took on investors from outside the esports industry. It also doesn’t look like it will be getting any easier as additional spots that will open up for the OWL next year are predicted to cost up to 60 million after the apparent success of the league so far.

Additionally as we see esports franchise similarly to how traditional major league sports have, we may be seeing esports go through “the process of sportification” (Jonesson 289). With investors from traditional sports franchises joining in they may see the undeveloped industry of esports and believe it can be molded to fit the same model of traditional sports leagues, as another cultural product that to be produced and sold to consumers.

The Ugly

While it is apparent what benefits franchising can introduce that esports seems to have been lacking, there are also concerns over where this decision will take esports in terms of who has control over the professional gaming industry and its media coverage.

Hollist states “the fact that game developers are now also league owners gives them even greater control over the players” (836). We now see that the same group that has creative control over the video game also has complete control over its competitive scene as well as the media side with production and coverage of high level gameplay. According to Boffard ““the biggest moneymakers fall into two categories: those who make the games, and those who run the leagues.” (67). This is concerning as to Corrigan “Historically, sports organizations, leagues, and personnel have all exerted instrumental control over sports coverage” (44). In this case Blizzard and Riot now control both of these elements and these game developers now have the most influence over what content the fans are able to see and which types of games and players are showcased.

Additionally among the outside investors that now have a stake in these league include companies like Disney, Comcast and NetEase. These media companies may take interest in the distribution of esports entertainment as they have connections with traditional media channels like television where esports has traditionally not been showcased on. If these organizations were to bring coverage of these league to television while also having ownership in particular teams in the league, there would be issues with potential bias on coverage of teams.

The End Game

Overall as an esports competitor and viewer myself I believe franchising for some of these games that will remain popular for years is a positive step for those games and esports as a whole. For a long time esports could not get any mainstream coverage because television channels didn’t see potential in showing these games over traditional major league sporting events. Through esports events and leagues found a place to grow its fan base and now are able to attract higher viewers them many major traditional sporting events. Will franchising ruin video game culture because of  groups with no history in esports entering the field? No, I think investors, sponsors and viewers who just now have taken interest in esports are actually trying to play catch up with understanding the culture behind video gaming and esports as it starts to be treated like a real profession and industry with organizations with history, star players and “mega events” as Compton would put it.

2017 LoL World Championship Finals held at Beijing National Stadium (Image Source: LoL Esports Flickr

But at his point a lot is still up in the air as both franchise leagues are still in their first season, so nobody can be sure what will be the short term or long term effects of this move, all we can do is sit back and watch the games for now.

What do you think?

Do you think of esports as similar if not equal to traditional sports?

Do you take games like League of Legends and Overwatch more seriously because of their franchise leagues?

Should more esports games franchise their professional play?


Works Cited:

Boffard, Rob. “Esports: How to make money [Sports Technology Gaming].” Engineering & Technology 11.4 (2016): 66-69.

Compton, James. “Mega-events, media, and the integrated world of global spectacle.” Mega-events and globalization: Capital and spectacle in a changing world order (2015): 48.

Corrigan, Thomas F. “The political economy of sports and new media.” Routledge handbook of sport and new media. Routledge, 2014. 61-72.

Hallmann, Kirstin, and Thomas Giel. “eSports–Competitive sports or recreational activity?.” Sport Management Review(2017).

Hollist, Katherine E. “Time to be grown-ups about video gaming: the rising eSports industry and the need for regulation.” Ariz. L. Rev. 57 (2015): 823.

Jenny, Seth E., et al. “Virtual (ly) athletes: Where eSports fit within the definition of “sport”.” Quest 69.1 (2017): 1-18.

Jin, Dal Yong. Korea’s online gaming empire. The MIT Press, 2010.

Jonasson, Kalle, and Jesper Thiborg. “Electronic sport and its impact on future sport.” Sport in Society 13.2 (2010): 287-299.