This article is part of a series of Norton Rose Fulbright articles about legal, regulatory, commercial and governance issues facing the esports industry.
Author: Tong Lap Way
Do the phrases “esports is the future” or “we should get into esports” sound familiar? It may be a great idea in theory but if you are new to this field it is tough to know where to begin. In an industry notoriously mistrustful of outsiders, filled with indecipherable acronyms and constantly evolving in-jokes, it can be difficult to understand what is happening. Esports is not a monolith; it is diverse and varied, with a multitude of games and entry points. This article focuses on one of the key questions when entering esports – which game do you back?
One can naturally work with tournament organizers that are involved in a wide variety of games in order to avoid that issue. However, each game has a unique and distinct audience and it is important to understand each game, its audience and its history to be able to capitalize on the opportunities in esports. Hence, we have prepared a brief summary of the most popular games below to give you a quick guide to each of them.
League of Legends – League of Legends (LoL) is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) where two teams of five players control champions with unique abilities and battle against each other. The goal is to destroy the opposing team's nexus, a structure that lies at the heart of their base, which is protected by turrets. As a successor to the hugely popular Dota mod, LoL was one of the early entrants into esports and one of esports’ oldest games. LoL is currently the most popular esport around, and its flagship annual tournament, the World Championship (otherwise known as Worlds), was established in 2011 and continues to thrive, hitting a peak viewership of 1,958,619 viewers in 2018. LoL is a mature game with a stable franchise model, well-known players and a large player base supporting the underlying game. The publisher has also invested heavily into its esports division. As an indication of the scale of this investment, the 2018 Worlds was held in a sold-out Bird’s Nest stadium with an augmented reality dragon soaring above the fans. LoL is currently fighting to maintain its position as the leader in this field, battling against player fatigue and new and exciting games.
Dota 2 – Dota 2 is another MOBA and a direct successor to the Dota mod. It made headlines in the esports community in 2011 when its first ever global tournament, The International or TI, offered the first million dollar prize pool. It was streamed online with commentary in four languages: English, Chinese, German and Russian, and has only grown since. The TI prize pools are funded by the game’s player base, certain in-game items bought by players contribute to the total prize pool. This system resulted in a significant prize pool of more than US$25 million in 2018 with a peak viewership of 1,195,309 viewers.
CS:GO – Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) is a first-person shooter that pits two teams against each other: the terrorists and the counter-terrorists. Both sides are tasked with eliminating the other team while also completing separate objectives such as planting or defusing a bomb. The CS:GO scene consists of various tournaments, referred to as Majors, and its largest tournament, the 2018 Eleague Major, had a peak viewership of 1,342,107 viewers. While the Counter-Strike series has existed as an esport for quite some time, CS:GO is growing rapidly and is one of the most accessible games out there as viewers can appreciate it without necessarily understanding every nuance. However, due to teams playing as terrorists, there are organisations and companies that prefer not to be involved with the game due to potential public relations and branding concerns.
PlayerUnkown’s Battlegrounds - PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) is an online multiplayer battle royale game. In a battle royale game, up to one hundred players parachute onto an island, scavenge for weapons and equipment, and eliminate each other. The last surviving player or team wins the round. The 2018 PUBG Global Invitational had a peak viewership of 797,150 viewers and the game is consistently near the top of the videogame streaming charts.
Overwatch - Overwatch is a team-based first-person shooter described as a "hero shooter". Overwatch players play as two teams of six, with each player selecting from a roster of 30 colorful and distinctive characters, each with a unique style of play. The first season of the Overwatch League started in January 2018, with teams vying for a US$1 million first-place prize and a total prize pool of US$3.5 million. The 2018 Overwatch League had a peak viewership of 436,789 viewers. It is a relatively new entrant into the market but was the first to announce and pioneer the franchise model in esports, with guaranteed player salaries and significant financial backing from the developers.
Rainbow Six Siege – Rainbow Six Siege is a tactical shooter game released in 2015. The game puts heavy emphasis on environmental destruction and cooperation between players. The Pro League was announced in January 2016 and began in 2017, with the 2018 Six Invitational having a peak viewership of 321,125 viewers.
Fortnite – Fortnite is a battle royale game that mixes third-person shooter elements with creative building mechanisms. It is consistently at the top of videogame streaming charts and the game of choice of Ninja, one of the world’s most famous streamers. Their World Cup began in April and consists of 10 weekly online tournaments which will culminate in the finals to be held in New York with a total prize pool of US$40 million.
Apex Legends – Apex Legends is another battle royale game that was recently released in February this year. The game created significant buzz with its creative use of influencer marketing and unique blend of the battle royale and “hero shooter” concept. Within a month of launch, the game garnered 50 million players and rocketed to the top of the videogame streaming charts. Despite sparse details, large esports teams like Cloud9 and 100 Thieves have already announced Apex Legends teams.
Finally, there are niche games with very dedicated but smaller audiences including Super Smash Bros, Tekken, and StarCraft II. Looking at the list above, the games tend to fall into three categories: MOBAs, first person shooters and battle royales. However, each game is at a different stage of its development cycle, with Apex Legends and Fortnite being at the beginning of their journeys and LoL having a significantly more mature esports scene. Furthermore, each game has a different organisational structure; for example, Overwatch and LoL adopted a franchise model whereas other games like CS:GO and Fortnite have adopted an open/relegation model.
Just as with teams, there will be winners and losers in the games industry. Organisations make investment and sponsorship decisions based on a multitude of factors such as risk appetite, target demographic and budget.1 Furthermore, unlike with traditional sports, esports games are in constant flux; organisations have to deal with persistent bugs, in-game balancing issues, the threat of new games being developed, and player fatigue. It is therefore essential when making decisions in this industry to have up to date information. We hope this article has given you a good introduction into the esports landscape. Please do not hesitate to contact us for further information.