Electronic sports

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This article is about video game competitions. For depictions of traditional sports in video games, see sports game. For games involving exercise, see exergaming.
Players at the 2013 Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice, Poland

Electronic sports (also known as eSports or competitive gaming) is a term for organized multiplayer video game competitions. The most common video game genres associated with electronic sports are real-time strategy, fighting, first-person shooter, and multiplayer online battle arena. Tournaments such as the League of Legends World Championship, The International, the Battle.net World Championship Series, the Evolution Championship Series, and the Intel Extreme Masters provide both live broadcasts of the competition, and cash prizes to competitors.

Although e-sports have long been a part of video game culture, competitions have seen a large surge in popularity from the late 2000's and early 2010's. While competitions around 2000 were largely between amateurs, the proliferation of professional competitions and growing viewership now supports a significant number of professional players and teams,[1] and many video game developers now build features into their games designed to facilitate such competition.

The increasing availability of online video streaming platforms, particularly Twitch, has become central to current eSports competitions.[2] In 2014, sports broadcaster ESPN broadcast the The International finals, marking the first time an eSports event had been simultaneously broadcast on a mainstream channel.[3]

Historically, fighting games and arcade fighters like Mortal Kombat, Tekken and Super Smash Bros. have been popular in amateur tournaments, although the fighting game community has often distanced themselves from the eSports label.[4] In 2012, the most popular titles featured in professional competition were real time strategy and multiplayer online battle arena games Dota 2, League of Legends, and StarCraft II.[5] Shooting games like Counter Strike and Call of Duty have enjoyed some success as eSports, although their viewer numbers have remained below those of their competitors.[6]


Geographically, eSports competitions have their roots in developed countries.[original research?] South Korea has the best established eSports organizations, officially licensing pro-gamers since the year 2000.[7] Official recognition of eSports competitions outside South Korea has come somewhat slower. In 2013, Canadian League of Legends player Danny "Shiphtur" Le became the first pro-gamer to receive a United States P-1A visa, a category designated for "Internationally Recognized Athletes".[8][9] Along with South Korea, most competitions take place in Europe, North America, Australia and China. Despite its large video game market, eSports in Japan is relatively underdeveloped, which has been attributed largely to its broad anti-gambling laws.[10] In 2014, the largest independent eSports brand, ESL, partnered with the local eSports brand Japan Competitive Gaming to try and grow eSports in the country.[11]

In 2013, it was estimated that approximately 71,500,000 people watched competitive gaming.[12] Demographically, Major League Gaming has reported viewership that is approximately 85% male and 15% female, with 60% of viewers between the ages of 18 and 34.[13] Related this appreciable male majority, female gamers within the industry are subject to significant sexism and negative stereotypes.[14] Despite this, some women within eSports are hopeful about the general progress in overcoming these problems.[15][16]

Labelling video games as "sports" is somewhat controversial. While some point to the growth in popularity of eSports as justification for designating some games as sports, others contend that video games will never reach the status of "true sports".[17] In a 2014 interview, when asked about the recent buyout of popular game streaming service Twitch, ESPN president John Skipper described eSports as "not a sport - [they're] a competition."[18] In addition, many in the fighting games community maintain a distinction between their competitive gaming competitions and the more commercially connected eSports competitions of other genres.[19]


Early history (1972–1989)[edit]

Attendees of the 1981 Space Invaders Championship attempt to set the highest score.

The earliest known video game competition took place on October 19, 1972, at Stanford University for the game Spacewar, where students were invited to an "Intergalactic spacewar olympics" whose grand prize was a year's subscription for Rolling Stone.[20] The Space Invaders Championship held by Atari in 1980 was the earliest large scale video game competition, attracting more than 10,000 participants across the United States.[21]

In the summer of 1981, Walter Day founded a high score record keeping organization called Twin Galaxies.[22] The organization went on to help promote video games and publicize its records through publications such as the Guinness Book of World Records, and in 1983 it created the U.S. National Video Game Team. The team was involved in competitions, such as running the Video Game Masters Tournament for Guinness World Records[23][24] and sponsoring the North American Video Game Challenge tournament.[25]

During the 1970s and 1980s, electronic sports players and tournaments begun being featured in popular newspapers and magazines including Life and Time.[26] One of the most well known classic arcade game players is Billy Mitchell, for his listing as holding the records for high scores in six games including Pac-Man and Donkey Kong in the 1985 issue of the Guinness Book of World Records.[27] Televised eSports events aired during this period included the American show Starcade which ran between 1982 and 1984 airing a total of 133 episodes, on which contestants would attempt to beat each other's high scores on an arcade game.[28] A video game tournament was included as part of TV show That's Incredible!,[29] and tournaments were also featured as part of the plot of various films, including 1982's Tron.[30]

Esports goes online (1990–1999)[edit]

In the 1990s, many games benefited from increasing internet connectivity, especially PC games. For example, the 1988 game Netrek was an Internet game for up to 16 players, written almost entirely in cross-platform open source software. Netrek was the third Internet game, the first Internet team game,[31] the first Internet game to use metaservers to locate open game servers, and the first to have persistent user information. In 1993 it was credited by Wired Magazine as "the first online sports game".[32]

Large eSports tournaments in the 1990s include the 1990 Nintendo World Championships, which toured across the United States, and held its finals at Universal Studios Hollywood in California. Nintendo held a 2nd World Championships in 1994 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System called the Nintendo PowerFest '94. There were 132 finalists that played in the finals in San Diego, CA. Mike Iarossi took home 1st prize. Blockbuster Video also ran their own World Game Championships in the early 1990s, co-hosted by GamePro magazine. Citizens from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Chile were eligible to compete. Games from the 1994 championships included NBA Jam and Virtua Racing.[33]

Television shows featuring eSports during this period included the British shows GamesMaster and Bad Influence! the Australian gameshow A*mazing, which would show two children competing in various Nintendo games in order to win points.

Rise of global tournaments (2000 onwards)[edit]

Esports tournament prize amounts, 1998–2014.[34]

Recently, eSports has gone through tremendous growth, incurring a large increase in both viewership and prize money.[35][36] Although large tournaments were founded before the 21st century, the number and scope of tournaments has increased significantly, going from about 10 tournaments in 2000 to about 260 in 2010.[2] Many of the largest tournaments today were founded during this period, including the World Cyber Games, the Intel Extreme Masters, and Major League Gaming. The proliferation of tournaments included experimentation with competitions outside traditional eSports genres. For example, the September 2006 FUN Technologies Worldwide Webgames Championship featured 71 contestants competing in casual games for a $1 million grand prize.[37]

This period was also the peak of televised esports. Television coverage was best established in South Korea, with competitions featuring StarCraft and Warcraft III regularly televised by dedicated 24-hour cable TV game channels Ongamenet and MBCGame.[38] Elsewhere, eSports television coverage was sporadic. The German GIGA Television covered eSports until its shutdown in 2009. The UK satellite television channel XLEAGUE.TV broadcast eSports competitions from 2007 to 2009. The online esports only channel ESL TV[39] briefly attempted a paid television model re-branded GIGA II from June 2006 to autumn 2007. The French channel Game One broadcast e-sport matches in a show called "Arena Online" for the Xfire Trophy.[40] The United States channel ESPN hosted Madden NFL competitions in a show called Madden Nation from 2005 to 2008.[41] DirecTV broadcast the Championship Gaming Series tournament for 2 seasons in 2007 and 2008.[38] CBS aired prerecorded footage of the 2007 World Series of Video Games tournament that was held in Louisville, Kentucky.[42] The G4 television channel originally covered video games exclusively, but broadened its scope to cover technology and men's lifestyle, though has now shutdown.[38]

The popularity and emergence of online streaming services have helped the growth of eSports in this period, and are the most common method of watching tournaments. Twitch, an online streaming platform launched in 2011, routinely streams popular eSports competitions. In 2013, viewers of the platform watched 12 billion minutes of video on the service, with the two most popular Twitch broadcasters being League of Legends and Dota 2.[43] During one day of The International, Twitch recorded 4.5 million unique views, with each view watching for an average of 2 hours.[44]

The modern eSports boom has also seen a rise in video games companies embracing the eSports potential of their products, In 2014, Nintendo hosted an invitational Super Smash Bros. 4 competitive tournament in lieu of their traditional Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) press conference. It was additionally streamed online.[45] Halo developers 343 Industries announced in 2014 plans to turn Halo into an esport with the creation of their own dedicated Halo league and a prize pool of 50,000$ USD.[46] Both Blizzard Entertainment and Riot Games have their own collegiate outreach programs, aimed at cultivating new eSports talent at the university and college level.[47][48] Recently, universities and colleges throughout the United States such as Robert Morris University and the University of Pikeville have recognized electronic sports players as varsity level athletes and have begun offering scholarships to encourage competitive competition.[49]

Physical viewership of eSports competitions and the scope of events have increased in tandem with the growth of online viewership. The Season 3 League of Legends World Championship, held in 2013, was held in a sold-out Staples Center.[50] Its successor, the 2014 League of Legends World Championship in Seoul, South Korea had over 40,000 fans in attendance and featured musical talent, and opening and closing ceremonies in addition to the competition.[51]


A number of games support professional competition. The tournaments which emerged in the mid 1990s coincided with the popularity of fighting games and first-person shooters, genres which still maintain a devoted fan base. In the 2000s, real-time strategy games became overwhelmingly popular in South Korean internet cafés, with crucial influence on the development of eSports worldwide. By 2010, multiplayer online battle arena games had become very popular as esports. Competitions exist for many titles and genres, though currently the most popular games are League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and StarCraft II.[5] Hearthstone has also popularized the digital CCG genre in the electronic sports community since its release in 2014.[52]

Video game design[edit]

While it is common for video games to be designed with the experience of the player in game being the only priority, many successful eSports games have been designed to be played professionally from the beginning. Developers may decide to add dedicated eSports features, or even make design compromises to support high level competition. Games such as Starcraft II,[53] League of Legends,[54] and Dota 2[55] have all been designed, at least in part, to support professional competition.

Spectator mode[edit]

In addition to allowing players to participate in a given game, many game developers have added dedicated observing features for the benefit of spectators. This can range from simply allowing players to watch the game unfold from the competing player's point of view, to a highly modified interface that gives spectators access to information even the players may not have. The state of the game viewed through this mode may tend to be delayed by a certain amount of time in order to prevent either teams in a game from gaining a competitive advantage. The practice of using a stream to achieve an unfair advantage is commonly called "ghosting".[56][57] Games with these features include Call of Duty,[58] Starcraft II,[59][60] Dota 2,[61] League of Legends,[62] and Counter-Strike.[63]


A very common method for connection is the Internet. Game servers are often separated by region, but high quality connections allow players to set up real-time connections across the world. Downsides to online connections include increased difficulty detecting cheating compared to physical events, and greater network latency, which can negatively impact players' performance, especially at high levels of competition. Many competitions take place online, especially for smaller tournaments and exhibition games.

Since the 1990s, professional teams or organized clans have set up matches via Internet Relay Chat networks such as QuakeNet. As eSports has developed, it has also become common for players to use automated matchmaking clients built into the games themselves. This was popularized by the 1996 release of Blizzard's Battle.net, which has been integrated into both the Warcraft and StarCraft series. Automated matchmaking has become commonplace in console gaming as well, with services such as Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. After competitors have contacted each other, the game is often managed by a game server, either remotely to each of the competitors, or running on one of the competitor's machines.

Local area network[edit]

Additionally, competitions are also often conducted over a local area network or LAN. The smaller network usually has very little lag and higher quality. Because competitors must be physically present, LANs help ensure fair play by allowing direct scrutiny of competitors. This helps prevent many forms of cheating, such as unauthorized hardware or software modding. The physical presence of competitors helps create a more social atmosphere at LAN events. Many gamers organize LAN parties or visit LAN centres, and most major tournaments are conducted over LANs.

Individual games have taken various approaches to LAN support. In contrast to the original Starcraft, Starcraft II was released without support for LAN play, drawing some strongly negative reactions from players.[64] League of Legends was originally released for online play only, but announced in October 2012 that a LAN client was in the works for use in major tournaments.[65] In September 2013, Valve added general support for LAN play to Dota 2 in a patch for the game.[66]


The International, an annual electronic sports Dota 2 tournament.

Esports tournaments are almost always physical events in which occur in front of a live audience. The tournament may be part of a larger gathering, such as Dreamhack, or the competition may be the entirety of the event, like the World Cyber Games. Competitions take several formats, but the most common are single or double elimination, sometimes hybridized with group stage. Competitions usually have referees or officials to monitor for cheating.[67]

Although competitions involving video games have long existed, eSports underwent a significant transition in the late 1990s. Beginning with the Cyberathlete Professional League in 1997, tournaments became much larger, and corporate sponsorship became more common. Increasing viewership both in person and online brought eSports to a wider audience.[1][68] Major tournaments include the World Cyber Games, the North American Major League Gaming league, the France based Electronic Sports World Cup, and the World e-Sports Games currently held in Hangzhou, China.

For well established games, total prize money can amount to millions of dollars a year.[69][70] Often, game developers provide prize money for tournament competition directly,[69] but sponsorship may also come from third parties, such as companies selling computer hardware, energy drinks, or computer software. Generally, hosting a large eSports event is not profitable as a stand alone venture.[71] For example, Riot has stated that their headline League of Legends Championship series is "a significant investment that we're not making money from".[72]

There is considerable variation and negotiation over the relationship between video game developers and tournament organizers and broadcasters. While the original StarCraft events emerged in South Korea largely independently of Blizzard, the company decided to require organizers and broadcasters to authorize events featuring the sequel StarCraft II.[73] In the short term, this lead to a deadlock with the Korean e-Sports Association.[74] Ultimately, an agreement was reached in 2012.[75] Currently, Blizzard requires authorization for tournaments with more than $10,000 USD in prizes.[76] Riot Games offers in-game rewards to authorized tournaments.[77]

Esport competitions have also become a popular feature at gaming and multi-genre conventions. Riot games hosted their 2014 League of Legends European Regionals live at Gamescom, and hosted the North American counterpart at PAX.[78][79]

Local Prized Events[edit]

Not all tournaments are strictly for professional level players, Riot Games allows anyone to organize a local tournament and will provide in game prizes like RP and a tournament-exclusive skin Triumphant Ryze. [80] Small local prized events like these sponsored player tournament allows anyone to jump into the growing world of e-sports.

Teams and associations[edit]

Professional gamers, or "progamers", are often associated with gaming teams and/or broader gaming associations. Teams include Evil Geniuses, Fnatic and Team Liquid. In addition to prize money from tournament wins, players may also be paid a separate team salary. Team sponsorship may cover tournament travel expenses or gaming hardware. Prominent eSports sponsors include companies such as Razer.[81] Associations include the Korean e-Sports Association, United Kingdom eSports Association, and the International eSport Federation.

Ethics in esports[edit]

Pro gamers are usually obligated to behave ethically, abiding by both the explicit rules set out by tournaments, associations, and teams, as well as following general expectations of good sportsmanship. For example, it is common practice and considered good etiquette to chat "gg" (for "good game") when defeated.[82] Many games rely on the fact competitors have limited information about the game state. In a prominent example of good conduct, during a 2012 IEM Starcraft II game, the players Feast and DeMusliM both voluntarily offered information about their strategies to negate the influence of outside information inadvertently leaked to "Feast" during the game.[83] Players in some leagues have been reprimanded for failure to comply with expectations of good behavior. In 2012, professional League of Legends player IWillDominate was banned from competing for a period of one year following a history of verbal abuse.[84] In 2013, the well known progamer Greg "Idra" Fields was fired from his team for insulting his fans on an internet forum.[85] League of Legends players Mithy and Nukeduck received similar penalties in 2014 after behaving in a "toxic" manner during matches.[86]

There have been serious violations of the rules. In 2010, eleven StarCraft: Brood War players were found guilty of fixing matches for profit, and were ultimately fined and banned from future competition. Two teams were denied prize money for collusion during the 2012 MLG summer championship.[87] In 2012, Azubu Frost was fined $30,000 for cheating during a semifinal match of the world playoffs.[88] Dota 2 player Aleksey "Solo" Berezin was suspended from a number of tournaments for intentionally throwing a game in order to collect $322 from online gambling.[89]

Player exploitation[edit]

There has been some concern over the quality of life and potential mistreatment of players by organizations, especially in the competitive market of South Korea. Korean organizations have been accused of refusing to pay competitive salaries, leading to a slow exodus of Korean players to other markets. In an interview, League of Legends player Bae "Dade" Eo-jin said "Korean players wake up at 1pm and play until 5am", and suggested that the 16 hour play schedule was a significant factor in causing burnout.[90] Concerns over the mental health of players intensified in 2014 when League of Legends player Cheon Min-Ki attempted to commit suicide a week after admitting to match fixing.[91]

To combat the negative environment, Korean League of Legends teams were given new rules for the upcoming 2015 season, including the adoption of minimum salaries for professional players, requiring contracts and allowing players to stream individually for additional player revenue.[92]

Women in esports[edit]

The number of female viewers has been growing in esports, and in 2013 30% of eSports enthusiasts were female, an increase from 15% in the previous year. However, despite the increase in female viewers, there is a dearth of female players in high level competitive esports. The top female players that are involved in eSports mainly get exposure in female-only tournaments, most notably Counter-Strike, Dead or Alive 4, and StarCraft II.[93]

The first professional female Starcraft 2 player, Kim "Eve" Shee-Yoon, was the subject of controversy in 2011 when her team manager stated that she had been selected for "her skills and looks.”[94]

Canadian StarCraft II Zerg player Sasha Hostyn (Scarlett) first gained notoriety in the open qualifiers of IGN ProLeague 4, where she defeated top-tier Korean players.[95] She is well known for being one of the few non-Korean players who can play at the same skill level as male Korean players.[96]

Team Siren, an all-female League of Legends team, was formed in June 2013. The announcement of the team was met with controversy, being dismissed as a "gimmick" to attract the attention of men.[97][98] The team disbanded within a month, due to the negative publicity of their promotional video, as well as the poor attitude of the team captain towards her teammates.[99][100]

Accusations of sexism in professional eSports have been commonplace, and one Hearthstone competition drew headlines for only being open to male players, although the host of the tournament maintained that this was in accordance with the International eSports Federation's guidelines as was only meant to avoid possible conflicts with the rules down the line. Following the coverage of the event, the male-only tournament was opened to female players.[101] In 2012, Street Fighter x Tekken player ArisBakhtanians commented on the lack of female players in the community, saying "sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it's not the fighting game community." He later apologized for his comments.[102]

Media coverage[edit]

StarCraft match televised on MBCGame in Seoul, South Korea

The main medium for electronic sports coverage is the Internet. Coverage of eSports by general news organizations is generally sparse; most reports come from news organizations with a technology or video games focus. Esports Heaven, Esports Nation[103] (ESN), and ESFI World[104] are among the few independent news organizations specifically dedicated to electronic sports. Other typical sources for information include video game developer's websites, websites of professional teams, and independent community websites.

Electronic sports tournaments commonly utilize commentators or "casters" to provide live commentary of games in progress, similar to a traditional sports commentator. For popular casters, providing commentary for electronic sports can be a full-time position by itself.[105] Prominent casters for StarCraft II include Dan Stemkoski and Nick Plott.

Live streaming[edit]

Many eSports events are streamed online to viewers over the internet. Dreamhack Winter 2011, for example, reached 1.7 million unique viewers.[106] With the shutdown of the Own3d streaming service in 2013, Twitch is by far the most popular streaming service for competitive gaming. However, newcomers like Hitbox are growing fast and getting more attention.[107][108] While coverage of live events usually brings in the largest viewership counts, the recent popularization of streaming services has allowed individuals to broadcast their own game play independent of such events as well. Individual broadcasters can enter an agreement with Twitch in which they receive a portion of the advertisement revenue from commercials which run on the stream they create.[109]

The other major streaming platform is Major League Gaming's MLG.tv.[110] The network, which specializes in Call of Duty content but hosts a range of gaming titles, has seen increasing popularity, with 1376% growth in MLG.tv viewership in Q1 of 2014.[111] The 2014 Call of Duty: Ghosts broadcast at MLG's X Games event drew over 160,000 unique viewers.[112] The network, like Twitch, allows users to broadcast themselves playing games, though only select individuals can use the service. Currently, MLG.tv is the primary streaming platform for the Call of Duty professional scene; famous players such as Matt Haag have recently signed contracts with the company to use its streaming service exclusively.[113]

For The International 2014, coverage was also simulcast on ESPN's streaming service ESPN3.[114]


Especially since the popularization of streaming in esports, organizations within eSports no longer prioritize television coverage. Ongamenet continues to broadcast as an eSports channel in Korea, but MBCGame has shut down. Riot Games' Dustin Beck has stated that "TV's not a priority or a goal",[115] and Dreamhack's Tomas Hermansson has said "eSports have a proven record to be successful on internet streaming only."[sic][116]

On the night before the finals of The International 2014, ESPN2 broadcast a half-hour special profiling the tournament.[114] ESPN Inc. president John Skipper has since ruled out e-sports as a programming venture for their networks because they are, in his opinion, a "competition" rather than a "real sport".[117]

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