The League of Legends Worlds tournament, the biggest tournament of the year for the franchise, came to a close on November 6th, 2021, with the Chinese team Edward Gaming taking home the tournament cup as well as almost $490,000 of prize money. To unfamiliar spectators, such a result could be quite bewildering. How could the prize pool be so much money? How could a video game cause public displays of joy in China akin to what is seen when a team wins the Super Bowl?
The answer to all of those questions lies in how video games and esports have developed over the decades, as well as what steps they’ve taken to arrive at the massive popularity they have today.
If you were to look back 30 years, video games were something that only a few people played, and largely just for fun. Even if you look back only 20 years, esports were only just starting to gain traction, and still had a relatively small pool of people who were even willing to give it the time of day. So what changed? What happened within the last 20 years that has made esports so large, and has caused video games to explode in popularity alongside it? The reasons for the success are best split into two parts: The first is how the appeal and design of video gaming allowed it to support such intense competition, and the second is how companies channel existing interest into competitive play.
Video Games: The Foundation of Esports
If you were to walk up to someone and say: “video games are the foundation of esports,” one could hardly deny you’re a shoo-in candidate for the Nobel Prize of Clearly Obvious Statements. However, if you tweak the statement, and instead say “certain video games are the foundation of esports,” you now have a real point. Because, put simply, not every video game can become an esport. Even if you got really good at that Word Search app you have on your phone, are the best Fruit Ninja you know, or are a real animal when it comes to growing plants on your virtual farm, such activities would likely never become an esport, simply because you were limited by the games you chose to play.
This limitation holds true for many of the video games people play today. We now have thousands, if not millions, of video games available to us due to the advent of the iPhone and other technological advances. However, only a small subsection of those games actually allow you to compete against someone else, and an even smaller subset make that in-game competition interesting enough for people to watch. Additionally, only a few of those games have enough players to support an esports scene if it were to develop, and even fewer games can stay relevant long enough to keep growing their player base. If only one thing in this list of requirements misses the mark, a video game will likely fail in becoming a successful esport. A prime example of this failure would be Blizzard, Inc.’s MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) Heroes of the Storm, a game that was popular, designed to be competitive, and tried to become a powerhouse esport, but wound up being defunded only 5 years after it started due to not having enough interest among the gaming population. This story unfortunately happens a lot throughout the industry, and while there are some outliers, the majority of these failures are a victim of esports’ greatest killer: a lack of interest brought about by decisions unable to overcome the reality of a marketplace. But this begs the question, is there anything that can be done to beat such market realities? The answer, of course, is yes.
Companies and Their Push for Esports
At the start of this article, I mentioned League of Legends. It is a game owned by Riot Games, and is one of the best examples of how to grow an esports scene and maintain interest over an extended period of time. League came out in 2009, a recent release of the MOBA genre which was starting to explode in popularity during the time. It came out 6 years ahead of Heroes of the Storm, but it still managed to address the problems that tanked Heroes for good. How did they do it? First, by creating a game that was designed to be complex. There are dozens of mechanics in League that are difficult to master, and a majority of them are core mechanics to the game. This difficulty as well as a large learning curve is rewarding for players, as players are likely slowly improving over time. These improvements are then reflected through their personal ranking, which represents where they stand among the rest of the players of the game. This one-two punch of rewarding and engaging mechanics alongside a clear ranking system that continuously incentivizes improvement geared League to not only be popular among video gamers in general, but also drew competitors to the game to show their skill. League’s addition of their “Worlds” international format, which started in 2011, further incentivized players to improve at the game, despite the prize pool being only $100,000 in total at the time. It was the fact that League was designed to be competitive, alongside its smaller design choices, that allowed it to draw in and keep swaths of video game fans, and hold strong for a decade now. Their efforts have clearly payed off, as Riot Games has managed to increase that Worlds prize pool to $1,000,000 – and it is likely that the prize pool and popularity of the game will only continue to grow.
In short, not all games are viable for esports, and even the ones that are can face an uphill battle in making it big in the esports scene. The humbling factor of the scene, however, is that esports is ultimately powered by fans of video games, incentivizing companies to improve their games in ways that will benefit fans and players alike. This gives everyday people a sizeable amount of influence over the shape of esports, while also allowing them to control its success. All in all, it’s true that esports wouldn’t exist without video games, but it’s also true that esports would be nothing without the people who follow them.