How eSports became mainstream

18 minutes to read
Lucas Westphall

Referring to eSports (electronic sports) as a professional athletic sport has been controversial right from the start. The idea of being a professional player of online video games always seemed to be fairly distant to what was considered the norm for a career in society. However, with the growth of internet connectivity and the popularity of eSports, this profession has slowly established itself as a mainstream culture in the last decade. ESports are slowly but certainly taking root in what a 21st century society would accept as a 'normal' career in the western world. This paper will focus on how eSports grew from a subculture into a mainstream culture from a globalized perspective. 


eSports and its history

In an electronic sports setting such as eSports, competitiveness thrives through the players playing a specific online game. It is often facilitated with organized tournaments by organizations that hold the players that play at the highest professional level across the globe.

Competitiveness has always had a huge impact on how humans, animals, and organisms, for that matter, evolved throughout the ages.  It is a biological trait that has always been part of humans’ will to survive. The progression of globalization and a lesser need for a general survivability for humans, however, meant that this competitiveness slowly switched focus from real life to athletic sports. The latter, for example, became an essential part of the Roman Empire. However, with the increasing internet connectivity and a bigger need of using a computer in our modern daily lives, a new way of maintaining the feeling of competitiveness has emerged through the late 20th century into the 21st.

As early as 1972, we saw the prospects of competitiveness that could be promoted by video games. The first tournament was established the 17th of October of the same year, for the game Spacewar, which paved the way to the 21st century’s enormous impact of the eSports market (Good, 2012). A year’s subscription to Rolling Stones magazine was the prize for placing first (Farokhmanesh, 2012). Not necessarily a tremendous prize. However, with the rise of the PC in the 1990s a tournament for Quake Live in May 1997 exceeded the prize pool for winning an offline gaming tournament. First priza was lead developer of the game, John Carmack's Ferrari sports car. The tournament even attracted over 2,000 participants, which at that point in time was a significant number (Davison, 2016).

By the 21st century, eSports took offe in South Korea which started the globalized eSports activity and community that is in existence today. In response to the Asian financial crisis, the government of South Korea focused heavily on internet infrastructures. This meant that a huge amount of gaming communities emerged where gamers could test their individual skill and show dominance. Ultimately, this caused the government to involve itself with this market. The South Korean government created the Korean eSports Association (KeSPA) in 2000. In addition to the government’s support for eSports, non-premium channels started to broadcast eSports because of the newly implemented internet infrastructures. In other words, South Korea contradicted the world’s current view on eSports by making it a mainstream culture (Mozur, 2014). ESports became in South Korea what soccer was in the rest of the world. This influenced how the western world became to view eSports, i.e. in a positive manner.

Tournament growth, 2000-2012

A huge boom of offline and online tournaments showed how popular eSports had become, going from a mere 10 tournaments at the beginning of the 21th century to 260 in 2010 and 696 in 2012 globally. Ultimately, this caused a significant rise in prize money since the biggest tournament holders wanted to attract the best professional players by promising the best prize pool.

This caused a scenario where many casual gamers started developing into more hardcore gamers to get a chance to win these enormous prizes. Likewise, the popularity of online streaming platforms provided a different form of entertainment and a different way of watching tournaments. Instead of watching tournaments in offline gatherings, it is now possible to watch them online through Twitch.TV. Twitch is an online streaming platform launched in 2011 that routinely streams popular eSports competitions. Twitch recorded 4.5 million unique views in 2015, with each viewer watching for an average of two hours during The International, a DotA2 tournament (CongoKyle, 2015). While League of Legends recorded a massive 27 million unique viewers for the League of Legends World Championship in 2015. This shows how much of a globalized phenomenon eSports have turned into. (Van Allan, 2015).

The current most popular videos of 2016 are Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA2), Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS: GO) and League of Legends (LoL) (Esportsearnings, 2016). Both DotA2 and LoL are associated with real-time strategies, while CS: GO is considered an action game. However, all three games are associated with high levels of cognitive abilities. A Wonderlic Cognitive Abilities Test is used to assess the NFL draft prospects on quick-thinking and problem-solving abilities needed when they enter the field. The top two picks of the 2016 draft scored 36 and 40, respectively. However, a League of Legends player named Eugene Park took the test as well and scored 41. Because of how quickly online games change from start to finish, the player needs to be in a constant state of flux (Erzberger, 2016).  


eSports in a globalized world

The question that should be asked about eSports is: What caused its massive growth in viewership and its general significant rise in the player base within the different types of game genres throughout the world? First, we need to understand what kind of games are currently dominant in the eSports scene and why these specific games are showing dominance. As mentioned earlier, the most dominant eSports games in 2016 are games such as LoL, CS: GO and DotA2 (Gamefaqs, 2016).

CS: GO is a multiplayer first-person shooter game, which is played in a five-man team, where players either play as Counter-terrorists (CT) or Terrorists (T). The objective of the game is fairly simple. The T team needs to either plant a bomb within the bomb territory or kill all players of the CT team. If they are unsuccessful within the time limit of two minutes, they will lose the round whereby the CT will win the round. Whereas, if the CT team kills the T team before they manage to plant the bomb or if they defuse the bomb when it’s planted, they will secure the round. At the start of each round, players of both teams are able to purchase weapons and gear to help them succeed. The amount of virtual money they are able to spend depends on various actions, from killing opponent players to winning or losing the round. This type of gameplay is referred to as Bomb Scenario and is a mod that exists for both the casual players and those who play competitively. There are different kinds of game modes within CS: GO, but the Bomb Scenario is the most dominant one (Meer, A. 2011).

League of Legends

On the other side of the sphere, we can see games such as LoL and DotA2, that are both known as ‘strategy video games’ that have their roots in the genre of Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA). MOBA is a team-based genre that typically consists of five players per team, each controlling an individual character, where the main intention of the game design is to collectively destroy the enemy teams’ objective before they destroy yours (Leahy,  2010). Like CS: GO, it is a game mode that sounds fairly simple and can be played by casual more players without too much of a hassle.

All three games offer something unique to players, a sort of niche product that has been seen before, but not in the same well-designed manner. In other words, all three games offer a classic ‘it is simple to learn but hard to master’ game-design. This means that these types of games offer something for the more casual player base, but still maintain a high skill ceiling for the most competitive players, who want to show off their individual and team-oriented skill level. The developers of the games have implemented a way in which the players can show off their dominance by implementing a ranking system. The higher you are on the ladder, the better you theoretically are. If you have slightly more experience, faster reflexes, and better game knowledge you will rise higher on the ladder than players who are not as good as you. Your ladder placement is determined through a system known as the ‘Elo Rating System’ (ELO). ELO is a system that thoroughly calculates the relative skill levels of players in competitor-versus-competitor games. It was originally invented to improve chess rating systems, but it is also used for sports and eSports.

The ranking system offers players a way to provide their narcissistic behavior with a fix they most likely could not get somewhere else. Evidently, it does not provide enough of an explanation as to why these types of games exploded in popularity, from an average of 352,640 daily players from the 8th of December until the 8th of January for CS: GO (Steamcharts, 2016), 588,49 for DotA2 (Steamcharts, 2016) to a massive 27 million unique players playing LoL daily on a global level (Tassi, 2016).

This opened for a new kind of crowd where eSports became popular, especially among the non-athletic youth.

With so many players worldwide, it is safe to say that eSports have become a global cultural phenomenon, which provides individuals with a new opportunity to thrive. ESports features a competitive scene where the competition is based on how skilled your brain is, rather than on your athletic abilities. This meant that eSports became most popular among non-athletic youths. Of course, those people who are indeed athletic can also compete, but eSports has provided non-athlethic youths in particular with a way to compete with one another in a different way. In the past, they might have been bullied because they were geeks who play chess; they are now able to use their brain to play eSports. This, in other words, facilitated eSports to become a subculture. ESports address people who may feel left out of regular sports. There is still an unfortunate stigma, though, regarding professional players and people who spend lots of time on playing video games, especially in the western world. A player devoting energy and resources to become a professional at video games seems rather eccentric to a lot of people. The perception of being a professional gamer differs significantly in the western world, compared to Asia, where it is more socially acceptable to devote a lot of time to become good at playing video games. Video games are even seen as a national pastime (Mozur, 2014).

Luckily, western companies, with the rise of players, started to see eSports as a lucrative business (Bryant, 2016). As described earlier, a massive jump of tournaments in a ten-year period caused the global eSports revenue to skyrocket from an unmonitored scene, to generating a massive revenue of around $500 million in 2015 (Grubb, 2015). ESports are currently predicted to generate a revenue of $1 billion by 2019 (Riddell, 2016). This prediction is, obviously, a remarkable indication of how eSports are slowly turning into a global business industry, which gives it a more mainstream profile, rather than being known as a subcultural phenomenon.

League of Legends: World Championship 2015

The main factor why eSports has been growing significantly over the past years can be attributed to LoL. As described earlier, there is a ranking system determining who is part of the best group of players. Many of these players have an organization they play under, as a team of five. In this group, they play and compete against other teams in different tournaments globally. Riot Games, the founder of LoL, has specific regional competitions across the globe. The winner of each regional competition will enter the group of sixteen teams that will participate in the ‘League of Legends: World Championship(Jackson, 2016). This, ultimately, means that teams across the globe will play against each other, live, across several cities. The 2016 edition was held from September 29th until October 29th and group stage matches, the quarter-finals, the semi-finals and the final match were played in locations such as the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, The Chicago Theater in Chicago, Madison Square Garden in New York City and at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, respectively. This meant, that the final was held in front of a crowd of a massive 20.000 fans (Rozelle, 2016). Riot Games announced that the prize pool for the World Championship had grown to over $5 million, with 40% of the prize pool being awarded to the winner (Magus & Bradmore, 2016). The statistics of the 2016 edition are currently unavailable, but the 2015 edition of the World Championship reached approximately 334 million viewers throughout its four-week-long duration, with an average viewership of 4.2 million watching over an hour per viewing session (Magus, 2015).

This is an undeniably important factor in attracting huge investors throughout the globe, that can possibly contribute to more social acceptance of eSports. In Asia, this trend of companies tremendously investing in eSports has been common, where companies such as Samsung and SK Telecom both invested hugely in eSports. The trend of important companies investing in eSports in Asia is not an entirely new thing. Samsung started its investments alin 2013, when they acquired an LoL team. However, in Europe and the U.S. investments in eSports have until recently been almost non-existent. In 2016, the owners of aXiomatic announced that they had bought a controlling interest in Team Liquid, an organization founded in the Netherlands in 2000 and currently residing in the U.S. (Businesswrite, 2016). AXiomatic has major names in its investment group, such as the celebrity Magic Johnson, and investors as Peter Guber, who co-owns Golden State Warriors. All of them were involved in the purchase. The announcement of the controlling interest purchase follows the acquisition of Team Dignities, which was bought by the Philadelphia 76ers (NBA, 2016). Other noteworthy celebrities such as Rick Fox and Shaquille O’Neal both see eSports as a proper investment (Vold, 2016). Such recent investments also surfaced in Europe, where major soccer teams such as Paris Saint-Germain and FC Schalke 04 both purchased their personal team (Volk, 2016).

With investments by such significant parties, a turning point for eSports seems possible in the nearest future. ESports has turned into one of the most lucrative global business investments within a decade and will possibly attract even more investors. With this, a massive backing of the eSports scene came from the U.S. government. In 2013, the U.S. recognized eSports players as being professional athletes (Tassi, 2013). This meant that foreign players from across the globe can now enter and attend events and tournaments within the borders of U.S. The U.S. are now able to provide visas under that identifier. Likewise, it gave foreign players the possibility to work within U.S. borders as an eSports athlete. Ultimately, this made eSports even more interesting for possible investors across the globe. This can help make eSports more acceptable and eventually part of mainstream culture.

Additionally, because of the investments and the U.S. government acknowledging eSports players as being professional athletes, a lot of foreign players - mainly from Asia -  entered the regional scenes of North America. 


The Influence of eSports online

Twitch.TV or Twitch is an online live streaming platform that focuses primarily on video games. Twitch has approximately 154 million monthly views, of which 12.6 million weree unique viewers in 2016 (Quantcast, 2016). This kind of live streaming platform opened up a new way to entertain the professional gamer, the casual gamer and even viewers who just find it entertaining to watch people play video games, globally. Twitch provides different opportunities for both the viewer and the broadcaster. The viewer can both communicate with the broadcaster and other viewers by using a chat window. The broadcaster – if he has enough viewers – can earn money through subscriptions and donations. The broadcaster is able to create a community with his viewers, even though there is a nationality barrier in place. In 2015, research from Newzoo showed that 21.3% of all hours watched on Twitch from July to December 2015 were spent on eSports related content (Newzoo, 2016). This, in short, meant that approximately 30 million viewers were watching eSports specific games such as LoL, CS: GO or DotA2 throughout this period across the globe. These statistics indicate how much of a lucrative market eSports is, and how globalization helped to turn eSports into a mainstream culture. However, besides providing eSports with a streaming platform, Twitch also provides an alternative for both current professional athletes and retired athletes to earn some extra money through donations and subscriptions while streaming games

Ultimately, with his donations, subscribers and ad revenue he makes approximately $2 million a year, compared to the $30.000 he was making as a pro player for Team Dignities.

The current biggest LoL streamer is Michael Santana, who’s also known as IMAQTPIE. IMAQTPIE is an old professional LoL player who played for Team Dignitas from 2011 to 2014. IMAQTPIE broadcasts himself playing LoL every day, while interacting with his viewers, and apparently, he is a very alluring broadcaster who has over 1.53 million followers with 182,564,376 million channel views as of the 8th of January (, 2017). Ultimately, with his donations, subscribers and ad revenue he makes approximately $2 million a year, compared to the $30.000 he was making as a pro player for Team Dignities. He can even earn upwards of $7.000 per hour, if game companies want him to stream their game on Twitch (Mueller,  2016). IMAQTPIE has surely turned streaming into a lucrative business for himself. IMAQTPIE is currently at the forefront of the first generation of entertainers who brought together eSports and streaming audiences. He is not alone, however. A retired professional player like Marcus Hill, also known as Dyrus, has a significant base of followers and also makes a living from broadcasting himself playing LoL. Even rival professional eSports athletes turn to Twitch to broadcast themselves and make an extra paycheck. Søren Bjerg, also known as Bjergsen, who currently plays for Team Solo Mid also tends to broadcast himself playing LoL. He, as well, has a follower base that has reached over 1 million followers already. However, being a professional player, he is unable to broadcast himself as much as the retired players, since he has a schedule that does not allow him to broadcast every hour of every day. He has events, tournaments, practice, and other affairs to take care of. 

The reason why eSports athletes are able to turn to Twitch.TV, to turn streaming into a lucrative business, is because of how internationally oriented the streaming platform is. In other words, Twitch.TV has used globalization as a resource to bring people together - across nationalities - with the same common goal of being entertained by a broadcaster. 


The future of eSports

ESports is currently in flux. It is moving in a positive direction and, hopefully, in the foreseeable future will end up as a mainstream and accepted sports culture without being abhorred by western societies. This state is already implemented into the minds of many Asian countries, such as South Korea. While eSports is without a doubt growing rapidly, we must remember that eSports as a genre is new to the world of sports. It was only introduced in 1972, while sports genres such as soccer and basketball have been around for much longer.  

There is no denying that eSports are on the course to become a massive industry. Its path seems bright, with investors from impactful corporate companies and a viewer base that only seems to grow. With the impressive increase of revenue from the industry, which grew from $325 million in 2015 to $463 million in 2016, it is certainly a lucrative market for both investors and upcoming professional eSports athletes. Unfortunately, as indicated earlier, it is still an immature market that relies heavily on future game titles. The chances of either LoL, CS:GO or Dota2 being the dominant eSports titles in ten years are vague. Professional players often hop from old dominant games to new ones because of this.

...eSports is paving the way for globalization. 

Likewise, the technological future is equally unknown and this can cause a change in what is the dominant factor in eSports, which makes the market very unpredictable. Will mouse and keyboard still be the future? However, there are three important factors that can help determine whether eSports will grow into a respected sports genre with a global perspective. Newzoo identifies Diversity of Game Genres, Geographic Expansion of Leagues, and Alignment of Digital & Traditional Media (Newzoo, 2015) as being the determinants to how positively or negatively the future of eSports will be. A diversity of game genres can help provide both viewers and new players with a way to adapt themselves to a specific game genre. As described earlier, MOBAs do not require a significant skill level but have a rather easy-to-play-gameplay, while games such as sports games would require a higher skill level to even participate in the competitive scene. Therefore, more accessible game genres could theoretically gain a wider audience and player base throughout the globe. This goes hand in hand with a geographic expansion of Leagues. Right now, eSports is lacking local eSports tournaments that can help provide a safe hierarchy for newer organizations. Therefore, many tournament organizers and organization owners struggle to find help in local communities and sponsors that can help in setting up events, so they would be able to attract foreign teams to compete in their tournament. This scenario can be tackled through a more locally organized connection with the larger regional and global events. Lastly, a focus on how competitive gaming should be broadcasted on traditional media will also heavily affect the future of eSports and the societal acceptance of it. While online broadcasting has had a huge impact on eSports, help from the traditional media is much needed to break the barrier of social acceptance. As it currently stands, eSports and traditional media have yet to align perfectly. Conclusively, as we see eSports slowly grow in popularity we also see eSports pave the way for globalization. Both players and viewers can interact and work together to build a community and achieve a common goal across nationalities. 



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