Updated: Sep 11, 2020
Gaming on PC. (Photo by Peter Vo)
This article is a business-oriented primer, and it will not be getting into “what are the actual games like?” For a more general primer on the industry, I highly recommend Hannah Dwan’s article on the topic. With that established, let’s define esports in terms of the business elements that make it work. Esports is best defined as – the games, players, teams and infrastructure involved in creating competitive entertainment from a video game. Let’s look at each of those elements as individual parts.
The games are not on nearly as stable a foundation as traditional sports. This is not saying the leagues hosting the games change, such as the AFL-NFL merger in the 60’s; this is more akin to if the entire concept of football as a sport suddenly ceased to exist and all its players just agreed to either retire or become baseball players. This happens in esports, because esports are not a public domain everyone has access to. The games are products of companies who can choose, on a moment’s notice, to announce they are no longer going to support or run their game. If the NFL announced bankruptcy tomorrow, football would still exist. If Riot Games, the owner of “League of Legends,” goes bankrupt, then all their games cease to exist. Therefore, in esports, it’s best to not get too attached to the games themselves, as anyone in the competitive Call of Duty scene would be able to tell you.
Speaking of the players, what is their role in the industry? Are they contractor workers? Freelancers? Properly salaried? Unionized? It depends on the game, the company that owns the game and how organized the leagues for that game are.
The spectrum of player protections varies because of this. Just looking at a single esport, League of Legends, what began with player-team agreements being a loose cobbling of handshake deals has since evolved into a robust central bureaucracy that manages all the same problems that the NFL or NBA handles for their players. In addition, player income changed from a 100% performance-based model to a much more stable salary system, more akin to traditional sports. A good rule of thumb is, the longer a game has a competitive scene, the more protections the players have.
Esports teams today are based out of a certain geographic location, but it is virtually never a part of their brand. While the Yankees are New York’s team, TeamSoloMid, one of the largest teams in esports, is not associated with any city. The only notable exception being the Overwatch League, which has explicitly required teams to brand to specific cities around the world. Most of the major teams have robust, professional facilities dedicated to training their players. TSM’s facility is the most expensive in the world at 50 million dollars. All competitive teams have dedicated coaching staffs, ownership structures, sports psychologists and business ventures outside of just playing and winning games.
The infrastructure for this industry comes in two forms, physical and digital. People can watch esports games in dedicated arenas and facilities, rented stadiums, outdoor pop-up arenas and now dedicated esports arenas. As for digital, Twitch is the platform of choice for this industry. While competitors have tried to dethrone Twitch as the most used platform in esports, the Amazon backed service is the only widely used platform for competitive leagues. Especially with their main competition, Microsoft’s Mixer, declaring its shut down on July 22.
This is part one of a four-part series on the esports industry. For more information about the current state of esports, and the impact of COVID-19, please read part two of this series.