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The Rise & Rise of eSports 11.07.17

The score is 2-1. Wings have a three-player advantage that is quickly running out as they approach Digital Chaos’ home base. With smell of victory lingering in the air, they push when a quick regroup would have been a safer option but it works, an auditorium erupts and 5.8 million viewers across the internet are immediately on social media to congratulate, gently troll or a mixture of both.

Dota 2 has just won 5 young men from China a cool $9,000,000 to share.

Many readers will be unfamiliar with the popularity of eSports or the growing prize-pools that their competitions offer. However, if I were to tell you that there was over €20M on offer for the tournament's entrants at large or that entering the competition simply involves buying a Battle Pass for about €37 and wrangling four talented friends together, you might understand a whole lot better.


What is Dota 2?

Defense of the Ancients 2 is a free-to-play multiplayer online-battle arena (MOBA) that sees two teams of five attempt to destroy the sacred contents of each other’s base at opposite sides of the map. The game is highly praised for its gameplay balance, overall quality and incredible depth. This ‘depth’ is largely a result of Dota 2’s versatility - there are an infinite number of ways to achieve a very simple goal. Dota 2 is only the second most-watched eSports title in the world with around 16 million hours watched on Twitch alone in May 2017. League of Legends, another MOBA recently overtook Dota 2 as the most-watched eSport on Twitch with over 21 million hours watched but we will get to that.


Not Just MOBA

Between the three largest gaming leagues and the countless independent groups pitting gamers against each other, there are dozens of titles played by full-times professionals for cash and hundreds of others played less formally for much smaller pools.

The entire multiplayer spectrum of gaming genres is covered. From ’casual’ EA Sports games like FIFA to technically-demanding sweatfest shooter Counter Strike: Global Offensive. Many developers see eSports as a great way to foster a loyal fanbase, maintain enduring interest and ultimately, make money.

League of Legends rivals Dota 2 in terms of popularity and visibility, if not single-sum prize figures. LoL is another MOBA which sees a player ‘summon’ their selected character while working as a team to accomplish one of a few goals - it’s basically Dota but played quite differently. LoL is a much more forgiving game that is apparently easier to get into and better to watch, that is if sales, streaming hours watched, concurrent player numbers and streaming figures are anything to go by.

MOBA games are undoubtedly the single most popular genre in the eSports sphere with Heroes of the Storm (developed by Blizzard, geddit?) giving MOBA three of the top ten spots.


That Kind of Money

Players usually pay to enter and/or otherwise pay indirectly pay into a pool. The organisers may supplement the pool for publicity. On other occasions, a publisher looking to foster interest in their title may front some cash to build an eSports community. For instance, large houses like EA Sports have the financial clout to drop one million dollars on a Madden NFL tournament, as seen for their latest American football title.

The prize-pool for Dota 2 is determined by Battle Pass sales and sales of special items in-game.

A cut of special items or a entrance fee is diverted to the communal pool while a cut is taken from these items for production of the event and to fund any infrastructural changes the developers need to make for the uptick in play and the rigours of competitive play.


eSports in the Mainstream

It can be easy to dismiss something popular amongst an internet-based community, no matter how large. When it appears in the broader cultural sphere, it becomes more legitimised or ‘real’. With mass media being our usual cultural pipeline, for better or worse, it can be assumed that reading the results next to the horse racing on Aertel (ask your parents) or seeing a game on TV would be that.

With so many satellite channels available to be filled by the ample content that eSports can provide, it’s easy to imagine a place for the competitions down the pages, away from real television like reruns of Friends or actual sport. While eSports haven’t quite hit international first-tier sports networks, they have had promising display on ESPN. Not ESPN 5 or some eSports spin-off, the proper one. That first game played live in a major broadcaster’s flagship channel: FIFA 17, the popular soccer simulator.

While the uptake of eSports by television can be seen to legitimise eSports as a mainstream source of entertainment, the venture into that same validation as a form of widely-acknowledged competition come should from elsewhere. After all, we see professional wrestling on TV regularly but not at sporting competitions.

Just this April, the Olympic Council of Asia announced that eSports would be added to the 2018 and 2022 Asian games as medaled, albeit experimental, events. As the most popular eSports in the world, Dota 2 and League of Legends were the natural choices for the Games. There are reports that Los Angeles bid for the Olympics comes with a promise to add eSports to the programme.

Until such a time as it makes its Olympic debut, eSports has its equivalent in the eGames. First held as a small showcase at Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the eGames proper begins in South Korea in line with the 2018 Winter Olympics. With no prize money at stake, the eGames will be a series of competitions held amongst individuals and national teams across the globe.


Follow the money

While the full acceptance of eSports into public consciousness is still a few years away, its standing as a serious discipline amongst millions is already long-established. The generation who grew up watching eSports will soon become gainfully employed citizens ready to be advertised to and that is a euro that won’t remain untapped for long.