Esports tournaments are major events attracting millions of fans

Up until a few years ago, video games were seen just as a recreational activity. During the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, only a few envisioned that playing video games could become a spectator sport, and that competitors would get paid well and receive sponsorships from major companies.

Yet, all of that is now the case. Esports leagues have grown exponentially in recent years as game developers and traditional sports leagues seek to get a foothold in this new realm.

The First Esports Leagues

Although it is only in recent years that esports have become an enormous commercial successes, the format has been around much longer. In fact, the first esports competition was held in 1972, although it wasn’t labeled as esports at the time.

That first tournament was held at Stanford University, with students competing to get the highest score in Spacewar. The winner received a year’s subscription to Rolling Stones magazine.

Eight years later, the Space Invaders Championship was the first competition to receive media attention. Ten thousand people competed, and it received a lot of media attention due to the popularity of the game at the time.

It still wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s that esports began to morph into what we know them as today. The World Cyber Games, Major League Gaming, and the Electronic Sports World Cup all launched around this time.


Tournaments often have participants sat in rows next to their team members

Viewership Figures

There is conflicting data about exact viewership figures, although even the lowest estimates are impressive. According to eMarketer, around 400 million people watched eSports in 2018, while Whitman Syracuse University has reported it as 250 million.

Meanwhile, the Newzoo – 2019 Global Esports Market Report reported that 454 million people watched esports in 2019, with almost half of them describing themselves as “esports enthusiasts.” The report also predicted the figure would reach 645 million by 2022, double what it was in 2017.

Some commentators believe the figure is likely to be bigger, as viewing figures from China (a market where esports is popular) are not always available. The Next Web reported in July 2019 that more than 1 billion people watched sports in the 12 months prior, including more than 300 million people from China.

For comparison, 100 million people tune in to watch the Super Bowl each year, and around 300-600 million watch the UEFA Champions League final.

What Esports Are People Watching?

There are several categories of esports that are enjoyed by the vast majority of fans. These include:


Poker is a sport that blurs the lines between esports and traditional sports. Just like with video games, there are many streams of poker games on sites like Twitch, although you will find a combination of online and live games.

The streams can attract thousands of viewers at a time, with nearly 1.5 million following poker channels on Twitch.

In addition to live streams of major tournaments like the World Poker Tour, there are live broadcasts like “The Great Game Training,” which help players learn how to play poker from the ground up, starting with basic poker terms, and ending with advanced semi-pro strategies.

Virtual Sports Games

Sports simulation games like the officially licensed titles for the NBA and Formula One are used for esports leagues. These two sports, in particular, have launched their official leagues that they use to engage younger viewers.

In both the NBA 2K League and the F1 Esports Series, the teams from the real world leagues are featured, although different athletes compete. They use the retail games that are available for consumers to buy and offer online qualifying competitions for fans to take part in.

In the case of the F1 Esports Series, the commentary is provided by Jack Nicholls, who is also the lead commentator for the real-life FIA Formula E Championship.

Other sports are exploring the possibilities of launching their own esports competitions, including Major League Baseball, that plans to focus on the Chinese market.

Others Games

Games that aren’t based on traditional sports, such as first-person shooters are some of the most popular esports competitions. These include Call of Duty, Dota 2, Halo, and League of Legends.

These games are often played for large amounts of prize money. For example, the Fornite World Cup Finals had a prize pool of $40 million, with the winner receiving $3 million. Similarly the Overwatch League has a prize pool of around $5 million but pays each player the same amount (around $16,000).

The publisher of the best selling Call of Duty franchise, Activision, set up its own league for the game with the hope of having more control over competitions. It uses PlayStation 4 versions of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, with the league taking on a team format. Each team has five players, and several different game modes are played to decide the winner.

As well as the game publishers, other big corporations have been injecting large sums of money into these leagues. For example, Intel, Dell, and Red Bull are all significant contributors.

A Bright Future Ahead

It appears that esports will enjoy a bright future, with viewership expected to continue growing. The wide variety of options, including real-life sports and other genres, means that there is going to be a broad appeal.

The majority of esports viewers are currently under 40, and it is expected that younger generations will continue to fuel the growth.