E-sports: a true phenomenon of globalization

10 minutes to read
Pieter van Rhee

People who are unfamiliar with e-sports might wonder what the 'e' stands for. It's short for electronic, which confuses people even more. How can a physical activity take place on the internet? This is, of course, not exactly the case.

The simplest definition of the phenomenon is: in e-sports, video game players compete against each other to win tournament prizes. This may seem ridiculous, as you can also compete with your friends when playing videogames together. However, when you delve deeper into the subject, you realize that e-sports may be one of the truest forms of globalization that exist in sports.

This article will analyze what makes e-sports such a true form of globalization. Moreover, by looking at some analytical models on globalization, I will also explain what e-sports contain in more detail and how e-sports are so closely linked to globalization.

E-sports, zones and scapes

Wallerstein (2004) explains the concept of globalization by defining a world-system in which innovation has connected groups of people and industries into a large scale network over the course of history. These people and industries are defined by local characteristics and can be divided into three zones: centers, semi-peripheries and peripheries. From these local characteristics, inequalities between the three zones are created that are the driving force of Wallerstein’s world-system.

Each zone is distinguished by different aspects. Centers are zones of innovation, finished products and marketing with low labor intensitivity and maximum yield. Semi-peripheries are defined by their transit economy, semi-finished products and an automated production industry. Peripheries are based on an economy of primary materials, where labor-intensive work is central. These zones are characterized by the fact that they have different scales in size, but can also shift as they are very dynamic. Furthermore, these zones are very specific to its core, as for example Jamaica can be a periphery for wealth, but a center for sports and reggae music (Wallerstein, 2004).

While Wallerstein explains globalization in a ‘hard’ way (using the economy, trade and industry) Appadurai’s (1996) view on globalization is focused on the soft side of globalization, the cultural side. According to Appadurai, globalization creates transnational dimensions through which culture flows. He calles this ‘scapes’.

The first dimension, called ethnoscapes, explains cultural flows through the migration of people between cultures and borders. In mediascapes, culture flows through the production and distribution of information through different sources such as, television stations. Within financescapes, capital is distributed across borders. Ideoscapes contain the more political side of culture, where certain common ideologies are spread throughout the world, but get their own interpretation in each culture.

E-sports back then

In the introduction for this article I mentioned a simple definition of e-sports: ‘video game players that compete with each other to win tournament prizes’. When looking for a more well-rounded definition, the one that ticks all of the boxes is the definition given by the Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.): “The activity of playing computer games against other people on the internet, often for money, and often watched by other people using the internet, sometimes at special organized events”. But where did e-sports originate from?

Before e-sports were a thing, the concept of competitive gaming dates back to 1972, when an event was held for a game called “SPACEWAR”. Here, 24 students competed against one another to win a one-year subscription to “Rolling Stone” magazine (Brand, 1972). Between 1972 and 1980, one of the more notable tournaments organized was the Space Invaders Championship by Atari, a pioneer in Arcade games and game consoles. More than 10,000 participants competed for an Asteroids table worth $2.000 (Edwards, 2013).

Figure 1: Space Invaders Championship

In the 1990s, e-sports made a significant development (Nagpa, 2015), with proper e-sports competitions being set up for predominantly action, sports, arcade-style and strategy games, while prize pools grew significantly more and more with this development.

At the turn of the millennium, the South Korean government encouraged the setup of a network of internet cafés, called ‘PC bangs’, to promote gaming. This was a big step forward, because it meant that even if you do not own a computer, you can still have access to them in these hubs, where people come together to play and compete. These PC bangs are supported by South Korea's broadband network, which at that time was and still is the best in the world (Hattenstone, 2017).

Nowadays, e-sports is continuously professionalizing with professional media and sports companies investing in this fast-growing industry.

E-sports now

Nowadays, e-sports is a huge industry and will continue to grow in the future. To get a good grasp present day e-sports, this section uses the same division for e-sports as was used for globalization.

First of all, the ‘hard’ way: e-sports as an industry. Throughout its incredible development, e-sports have grown to become a multimillion dollar industry. In 2017, the global total revenue for e-sports was $696 million dollar, with the forecast for 2020 being that e-sports will grow into a billion dollar industry, with a revenue growing towards $1.488 billion dollars (Newzoo, 2017).

With the development of this industry came the professionalization of gaming. Instead of independent players or teams signing up for a tournament, players were signed to organizations, that cover the costs of their travel expenses and accommodation during the tournaments, providing players with a (temporary) living and practice space and even salaries (Kolev, 2015).

However, during these early stages of the professionalization of e-sports, e-sports organization were limited to finding players in their own country, as it was difficult for foreign players to obtain a visa in order to attend tournaments abroad. In 2013, the U.S. government officially recognized e-sports players as professional athletes, which made it a lot easier to grant them visas. Now, players from all over the world can compete in these tournaments (Tassi, 2013). These are all indicators that e-sports are becoming a global industry.

Another party in the e-sports industry are tournament organizers. Game developers and independent businesses have recognized e-sports' growth in popularity by organizing competitions and even franchised leagues. When looking at examples, some of these leagues seem to outgrow existing traditional sports leagues in their global scope.

A recent example is Activision Blizzard, the company that produced a game called ‘Overwatch’, which created a franchised league called ‘The Overwatch League’. Activision Blizzard invited e-sports organizations to invest in this league, in which teams were created that were linked to cities all over the world. Cities ranged from Los Angeles and New York to Seoul and London (see figure 2).

In this league, Activision Blizzard created a structure where e-sports organizations were obliged to provide their players with a minimum salary of $50.000 a year and even health insurance (Conditt, 2017). All these sources point to the fact that e-sports  show no sign of stopping.

Figure 2: Overwatch League teams on a world map

The ‘soft’ way of looking at e-sports is looking at the culture. The biggest part of the e-sports culture is viewership. In 2016, the NBA finals took place in the United States, which was viewed by almost 31 million people. This was the highest viewed NBA final in a decade. Compared to the finals of a game called ‘League of Legends’, we can see that the difference between the two is relatively small, as the e-sports final was viewed by around 36 million unique viewers in 2015, (Walker, 2016). This example shows the sheer scope of e-sports viewership.

One party e-sports have to thank for their huge viewership is the media on which they is broadcasted. Most e-sports are broadcasted live on the streaming service Twitch. On Twitch, independent people, but also organizations, can stream whatever games in whatever context they want. Some live streamers show casual gaming as entertainment, but it has become the standard that tournament organizers stream their events on Twitch as well (Twitch, n.d.).

As Twitch is free to watch, anyone with access to a computer or mobile device with internet can watch these events anytime, anywhere in the world. Another thing that makes the viewing experience special, is the fact that you can chat with all the other viewers who also watch the stream live. This chat is a massive interactive experience, where viewers and streamers come up with different phrases and emoticons (called ‘emotes’ on Twitch) that represent certain scenarios that happen. Combining this with responding to these events via social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, these events become a massive interactive global online experience.

Zones and scapes in e-sports

Now that some analytical models of globalization and the development of e-sports have been explained, we can look at fitting the e-sports industry into these models.

When analyzing e-sports, we can fit different parts into the zones used by Wallerstein (2004) in his world-system analysis.

  • When looking at centers in the e-sports industry, we can define different centers for different parts of the e-sports industry. When talking about zones of innovation, South Korea comes to mind. They were the first to promote gaming, going beyond just people playing at home, and continue to be one of the leaders of the e-sports industry. Other zones of innovation may include Sweden and Denmark, because of their position in adopting an advanced digital infrastructure. The United States is also seen as a center of the e-sports industry, but more as a zone of marketing. The United States’ global appeal makes them perfect for reaching as many people as they can for tournaments, viewership and professional players
  • Semi-peripheries in E-sports can be seen as the zones which may not have an advanced digital infrastructure or global reach, but are beginning to professionalize the industry more and more in their respective zones. Good examples for semi-peripheries are countries like the United Kingdom, France and Germany. These are countries that only recently started look more into the e-sports industry. In these countries, professional football teams are signing e-sports teams and players across multiple games for example.
  • Peripheries would be the zones that have no or very limited access to computers and the internet. As the internet is probably the biggest part of making e-sports possible, there needs to be access to this resource.

Appadurai’s scapes can be used to analyze the culture within the e-sports industry.

  • Ethnoscapes are really interesting when looking at the e-sports culture. Frankly, in e-sports there are no borders. As long as people have an internet source, they can interact with each other in this community. This creates a huge melting pot of different cultures.
  • The biggest mediascape that culture flows through are social media. Social media platforms like Twitch, that have been mentioned before, enable the boundaries created by the ethnoscapes.
  • Financescapes grow every day in e-sports. Because of e-sports becoming more global and professionalized, both new and established organizations are trying to invest their capital in the industry.
  • There are some cultural aspects of e-sports that touch ideoscapes. The most common aspect is looking at e-sports as an actual sport. Many people who are new to e-sports do not agree that e-sports players should be considered athletes. The video below shows a compilation of people first reacting to the notion of gaming as a sport.

Where does it stop?

E-sports are definitely a true example of globalization. From the scope of the viewership, to the decrease in limitations for players to play all over the world, e-sports definitely are destined to become a staple of globalization.

However, where does it end? Does it even have an end? Only one answer truly comes to mind: the end is nowhere in sight.


Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.). Meaning of “e-sports” in the English Dictionary.

Conditt, J. (2017). Overwatch League pro players will earn at least $50.000 a year plus health insurance!

Edwards, T. (2013, April 30). Esports: a brief history.

Hattenstone, S. (2-17, June 16). The rise of eSports: are addiction and corruption the price of its success?

Kolev, R. (2015, June 25). How much money clubs spend on pro teams upkeep?

Nagpa, A. (2015, July 22). The evolution of eSports.

Newzoo (2017). 2017 global esports market report.

Tassi, P. (2013, July 14). The U.S. Now Recognizes eSports Players As Professional Athletes.

Twitch (n.d.). About.

Walker, A. (2016, June 21). More People Watched League Of Legends Than The NBA Finals.

Wallerstein, I. (2004). World-systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham, London: Duke University Press.