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Media Notes / Professional Gaming

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Fnatic vs. Cloud9 in the 2015 League of Legends World Championship. And you thought your games got hype!

Professional gaming, or simply shortened esports (or "e-sports", "eSports", "pro gaming", "competitive gaming", etc.) are all blanket terms used to describe the competitive, organized, and often financially sponsored playing of Video Games at a high level. A relatively recent development, esports have become increasingly popular among the landscape of gaming over the last decade or so, with countless titles adopting officially-sanctioned competition to become an intense and exciting form of sport.

This will not be a rundown of each individual esport based on title, as each professional scene of any given game is going to be vary heavily due to a multitude of factors. Instead, this page will be a brief history and overview on how esports have grown, how esports generally function, and their influence on shaping how modern multiplayer games are created.

See also Fighting Game Community, a related, but considerably separate scene from the modern mainstream ideal of "esports".

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A History of Esports

    Humble Beginnings (1970s - 90s) 

Due to the nature of how the first video games were designed, gaming has always had competition in its blood, with the earliest documented instance of a sanctioned video game tournament occurring in 1972, where Stanford University ran a student tournament around Space War. With the gradual proliferation of video arcades, gaming companies were quick to cater towards developing new games with local competition in mind, Sega in particular being on the forefront of hosting hundreds of local arcade tournaments across Japan during the 70s, with countless other major companies from Atari to Twin Galaxies launching and legitimizing competitions around the hottest new games during the 80s.

One of the biggest early landmarks in competitive gaming — primarily in terms of enduring cultural impact — came in the form of 1991's Street Fighter II. A commercial and critical smash hit that is effectively the codifier and Genre Popularizer of Fighting Games, its popularity also marked a major boom in direct, tournament-level competition between two players. Prior competition-driven games were still heavily rooted in quantifying skill through simplistic means (i.e. Scoring Points), and their respective competitions were based around these paradigms — Street Fighter II marked a large shift towards a new type of "face-to-face" competition, driven between individual players attempting to best each other in combat, where determining who was the best was decided by agreed-upon House Rules, whether they be held by locals at a single arcade machine or by a massive tourney pool governed by tournament organizers. The popularity of this format snowballed concurrently with the rise of further fighting games in the 90s, culminating in the creation of the Evolution Championship Series (better known as EVO), in turn codifying what is now recognized as the Fighting Game Community.

Competitive gaming was on the rise, in part thanks to increasingly high-profile Tournament Play with just-as-increasingly large prize pools, as well as an advent of a brand new paradigm to make competition even more accessible: The Internet! However, despite further attempts from companies to capitalize on this ever-increasing market, tournaments during this era were almost always treated as entertaining one-offs rather than sustainable enterprises, with the momentum and shelf life of any given scene being heavily predicated on the hype of a particular new release. While there existed cult titles within the FGC that developed massive staying power — namely Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom 2 — most games were left on unsteady ground, and tournament play was generally accepted as being merely a niche, short-term amateur hobby in the west and most parts of Asia, remaining that way throughout the 90s and into the 2000s.

Little did most of the world know that even during this period, there was already a major shift within the market that was building to something much more ambitious, and it would be originating from an unexpected source: South Korea.

    The Rise of the Professional Enterprise (Late 1990s to 2000s) 

During the late 90s, South Korea was undergoing a major sociopolitical shift, marked by great upheaval towards democracy, a rapidly developing interest in cultural exchange, as well as economic turmoil, mainly attributed to the 1997 Asian financial crisis. As the internet and relevant media began rapidly developing and defining the landscape of the country, infrastructure was also being set for adventurous new enterprises to revitalize their economy, one of the most relevant to gaming being the "PC bang", a cultural fusion of an internet cafe and general Local Hangout.

In large part thanks to their relatively affordable structure (pay an hourly fee and you get access to high-end gaming computers, broadband internet, access to the hottest new games, and a generally cool, safe environment to hang out with your friends), PC bangs exploded in popularity by the end of the 90s, forming a major cultural movement of gamers defined by their heavy pursuit of competitive online games, one of the most popular being 1998's StarCraft. The Korean government recognized this and in 2000 formed the Korea e-Sports Association (shortened to KeSPA) — an arm of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and a bona fide government branch dedicated towards regulating and developing the burgeoning scene of what they were now dubbing "e-sports".

Following KeSPA's formation, they quickly got to work in developing esports as a genuine commercial enterprise, managing the formation of game-specific leagues, the broadcasting of esports, the working conditions of its players — treating pro gamers as true "athletes", with the prestige and bankroll that comes with — and even promoting video games as a major cultural cornerstone among the general Korean population. Unlike in the west, where tournaments were held and broadcast on TV very sporadically, Korea had a handful of dedicated esports channels, playing StarCraft and Warcraft III competitions 24/7.

South Korea's cultural embrace of esports was a massive step towards legitimizing the industry, though it took the rest of the world quite a while to notice. During the Aughts, the west continued to generally see "professional gaming" as a cultural-specific novelty more than an industry, with the most popular practices outside of Korea still being relegated to locally-run competitions or one-off promotional championships.

This wasn't for a lack of trying, though — across the world, it started to become more common for teams to form in search of tournaments of their specific games to compete in, some of whom began developing a serious brand presence around the scene. Several of the most successful parties formed around the early 2000s ended up becoming early pioneers as esports organizations, gaining sponsorships and opening new roster divisions to cover additional games, subtly developing more of the international presence of esports. Some still-active teams-turned-organizations include fnatic from the UK, compLexity and Evil Geniuses of the US, Ninjas in Pyjamas of Sweden, and SK Gaming of Germany. Perhaps in response to the ever-increasing demand, more leagues started to develop, forming new opportunities for rewarding competition, while also trying to position themselves as the defining governing body of their given game(s), leading to popular leagues like Major League Gaming and the Electronic Sports League.

One short-lived, but notable stab towards advancing the global rise of esports was the formation of the "G7 Teams" in 2006, a coalition of several of the most popular international Counter-Strike-playing teams, joining with the goal of promoting interest towards esports among tournament organizers, sponsors, and other gaming institutions. While the direct effects of the coalition were negligible and they quietly dissolved in 2009, their attempt signified a committed mark to ensure esports' relevance in the future, both as a legitimate form of sport and as a blooming industry. As it would turn out, said dominance would come to be very soon.

    The Esports Renaissance (2010s to present) 

The New '10s proved to be a watershed moment for esports as a whole, and while there isn't a singular tangible catalyst for it, a vast bulk of it was predicated on something not widely observed in the decades past: developer involvement.

While creators of popular esports titles were largely aware of the activity that the derivative competitive scenes surrounding their games were generating, it took some time for them to grasp the sizeable potential of catering directly to them. During the buildup to long-awaited release of StarCraft II in 2010, Blizzard Entertainment recognized the issues of making a sequel to ostensibly supplant what had become South Korea's national pastime, running into a legal deadlock with KeSPA that ended in the government branch unwilling to fully transition into the sequel until years after release. This prompted Blizzard to develop and host their own professional StarCraft II tournaments on their own volition for the first few years (including the "Global StarCraft II League" within Korea), a move that was validated by the immense success of the game as a release and as a new esport, which remained just as monolithic in Korea, and became a true competitive phenomenon elsewhere.

Developers of other multiplayer online games took notice of this, and soon enough, many were starting to develop with esports in mind, whether they be mechanically geared towards a competitive audience, supporting professional play with their own long-term, officially-endorsed leagues, and/or directly promoting the scene using their platform. In combination to this was the growing popularity of online streaming services, primarily Twitch, allowing ever-expanding leagues to reach wider audiences beyond the confines of television broadcasts.

Titles such as League of Legends, Dota 2, Call of Duty, and Counter-Strike found massive success in this pursuit early on in the decade, quickly becoming mainstays of the field for the years to come, with increasingly large prize pools and audience viewership. League of Legends — famously touted as "the most played game in the world" — held its first "Worlds" in 2011 with a grand prize of $50,000 to 1.6 million viewers, and by its third Worlds in 2013, the prize had gone up to $1 million, and viewership shot up to 32 million. Dota 2's competing global tournament event, known as "The International", has a prize pool partially crowdfunded by players via an annual battle pass, resulting in increasingly record-breaking amounts each year — 2011 raised up to $1.6 million, 2021 raised $40 million.

Unsurprisingly, these endeavors have motivated even more to studios and developers to venture into the industry, with almost too many to list. From shooters like Overwatch, Valorant, and Rainbow Six Siege, to turn-based strategy games like Hearthstone and Pokémon, to games simulating real-life sports like FIFA Soccer and NBA 2K, to odder games like Catherine and even Farming Simulator (yes, really), if a game supports online competitive multiplayer, there's a very good chance there's an officially-endorsed league pushing the game as a genuine sport.

Today, esports are a major business, at least in regions that allow it to be. While professional gaming is still a fairly young enterprise, players, teams, and entire regions continue to invest heavily in defining their (inter)national presence, games are being developed with a sharper eye towards long-term competitive viability, and audience numbers are growing nicely alongside increasingly elaborate public pushes, meaning the field still has an eventful future ahead of itself.

As one last side note, despite having fairly shared roots, members of the Fighting Game Community don't exactly get along with the idea of being considered an "esport". Individual reasons vary, but the divide is most commonly attributed to how even as fighting games tend to have larger and larger first-party competitive scenes, players in the FGC often more driven on an individual, social basis rather than by modern, increasingly corporate leagues calling the shots. History between the two colliding have had an extremely confrontational track record, and nowadays, the FGC is generally treated as its own separate island.

How Esports Are Played

Esports come in all shapes and sizes, largely dependent on the game in question being played, its reach in terms of audience and playerbase, and the nature of the relationship a given esport has to the game's developers. As such, the structure of esports leagues, how they operate, and how personnel like the professional players themselves interact with the game varies wildly.

The most historically common choice for esports leagues, especially for team-based games, is the "open league" structure built on promotion and relegation. Similar to how leagues for physical sports in Europe and Asia operate, teams are formed and individually sponsored, with the most well-performing teams across their seasons ascend to high-level play, while those who fare poorly are at risk of being relegated to a lower division. This is something that ranked ladder systems tend to integrate naturally into, as it's easier (at least in theory) for players to become more visibly relevant as they mark their spot among adjacent players during any given season, though the nature of matchmaking varies heavily between any given league.

Another option is the "franchised league" structure, similar to those found in North American sports. With this system, a stipulated number of teams, each also backed by a major sponsor following a buy-in period, play their seasons for top standing and post-season games. This has been seen as somewhat more "secure" choice for big businesses as it avoids the risk from players and investors alike of relegation (although minor leagues can and frequently do coexist with the big league, usually to promote upcoming talent), and in addition to those who shot for this format to begin with such as the Overwatch League and the Call of Duty League, some have transitioned from the open league format to franchising, including League of Legends' North American League Championship Series in 2018, and the League of Legends European Championshipnote  in 2019. This is also naturally the preferred option of esports of games that simulate the real deal that already follow this format, such as the NBA 2K League that feature teams with direct counterparts to those in the actual National Basketball Association (though as of 2022, it's also added 2 additional teams owned by international companies without NBA presence). However, this approach has drawn increasing controversy due to the inherent struggles caused by if a franchise pulls out of a league, whether it be due to the inability to keep up with growth of the rest of the league, or the lack of growth itself — the post-pandemic years have seen a handful of big esports franchises crumble for various reasons, often putting their leagues in jeopardy and leaving many questioning the long-term economic sustainability of such a model.

Nearly all esports are built on some type of tournament structure, which all vary wildly in design. Some like League of Legends and Overwatch feature seasons denoted by splits, with regular play seen via round robins/play-in tournaments before transitioning to playoffs. Others, like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2 are more built on granular circuits consisting of various first-party and third-party tournaments. Despite nearly all esport titles featuring an online component, it's extremely common for games to be played in person anyway, not just for functional benefits (LAN connection eliminates potential server problems, and it also allows for referees and officials to more easily diminish cheating and enforce other standards), but also to gather live audiences and set up corporate sponsorships.

Once again, due to the varying minutiae of how individual esports operate, players, coaches, and other associated talent are all handled differently, though nearly all operate on a similar level of contracting, exchanges, and shifts to and from free agency. Training regimens are also highly variable, but it's been well-known for active professional gamers to go up to playing and practicing their game for around 50 hours a week at minimum, some playing for far more. In regions like South Korea and North America, it's somewhat common for teams to live and practice out of "gaming houses" as co-op living arrangements, allowing them to more effectively train and socialize with one another, some decked out with extremely lavish amenities. Due to physical and mental health concerns of practicing long hours in a shared environment, it's become more common for teams to also provide physical fitness coaches, psychologists, nutritionists, and others among these arrangements. Despite this, it's also fairly known for pro gamers to retire early, usually as a result of burnout from the intense lifestyle, and even nowadays, it's quite rare to see any players over their mid-20s still professionally active.

One last cultural quirk of note: players, casters, and other relevant talent alike tend to be almost always referred to by their online gamer handles and usernames. While given names are generally public knowledge, the vernacular heavily prefers screen names whenever referring to individuals in the scene, and almost never just their given names. The reason is very simply to do with modern esports' roots in online gaming and how players are primarily referred to by their handles, and despite the increasingly professional contexts of esports, this remains a time-honored tradition, with it being extremely rare to see even with non-player talent — expect exceptions to be the subject of much lighthearted ribbing (see former League of Legends and Counter-Strike commenter Joe Miller, aka "Joe 'Please Don't Call Me 'Joe 'Joe Miller' Miller' Miller").

The Impact of Esports

As of The New '20s, esports have become an increasingly important part of gaming culture, with their explosion of popularity marking a direct effect on how newer online multiplayer games are created and designed. Ranked ladders have become more of a mainstay of competitive games as a means of encouraging competition and highlighting talent, as well as functioning as a progression system to keep players attached. Meanwhile, an increased eye for maintaining longevity in titles has also resulted in developers cooking up new ways to monetize their playerbases, hence a concurrent spread of mechanics like Loot Boxes and Rewards Passes. The increased focus on competitive integrity has also put further attention on post-release balance changes, with many games that regularly adjust or add content needing to take into account the effects they may leave on a professional scene, for better and for worse, depending on what kind of player you are.

The ever-growing legitimacy of esports has also influenced broader opportunities beyond gaming itself. From as early as 2013, it's become more common for pro players to get visas and long-term citizenship due to their status as "internationally recognized athletes", with some places like France, Spain, and the Philippines introducing federal law to make the travel and competition alike much easier. Esports have also caught on within school environments, with over a hundred collegiate and school-level leagues being formed with scholarship opportunities in America alone.

However, it seems esports are still a long ways to go before being considered a full-blown mainstream phenomenon. Despite many individual countries taking major steps in recognizing the field, others have been quite slow on recognizing, regulating, and promoting esports, usually due to disagreements on whether or not gaming constitutes a "real" sport. This isn't even taking into account other minor regions where there technically is an esports scene, but faces its own logistical problems that makes the venture vastly more niche — Brazil, for example, has an astonishingly large international presence in Counter-Strike, but the region is still marred by an infamously struggling economy and limited infrastructure to further support and develop the scene.

Despite esports' broad reach, its piecemeal international growth and the lack of a true global governance is frequently cited as the reason why the likes of the International Olympics Committee — while recognizing gaming as a valid, respectable form of competition — is also hesitant in inducting the field as a sanctioned form of competition (although as of 2022, there has been increased interest by the IOC in "virtual sports" that simulate real-world Olympic-recognized events, such as virtual baseball, rowing, and e-sailing). There have been attempts to unify esports under globally-held agreements, such as the International Esports Federation (founded by South Korea in 2008 to attract fellow nations into adopting esports) and the Esports Integrity Commission (a self-appointed governing body to investigate and uphold sports regulation law), although the actual power and leverage they hold over the field is frequently contested.

Like any other form of entertainment, there's also no shortage of scandals and controversies throughout various esports. Matchfixing has been a recurring problem with the biggest leagues, with even South Korea undergoing several reckonings with its StarCraft scenes after various players were caught working professional tournaments for illicit paydays (most infamously with acclaimed multi-title champion Lee "Life" Seung Hyun, who after being caught in 2015 was stripped of his titles, banned from the scene, and even sentenced to 18 months in prison). Other concerns include the treatment and welfare of professional players, issues ranging from abuse brought on by their employing organizations, to widespread proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs affecting their health. One frequent talking point is that despite the theoretically high accessibility and demographic-blind nature of gaming relative to physical sports, female pro gamers are conspicuously rare, even as female demographics in gaming are steadily on the rise. Whether this be due to systemic flaws or broader cultural issues remains hotly debated, and likely isn't ending any time soon.

And just like the rest of the world, esports were majorly shaken up thanks to the COVID-19 Pandemic. On one hand, the fact most games were already heavily rooted in online play in tandem with the high accessibility of internet allowed for most esports scenes to transition into remote operations. However, this still presented a series of challenges and complications that tested what major infrastructure had been set up, from the uncertainty of server-based play over secure local area networks, to the scaling down of production due to from-home workflows, the logistical concerns of connecting players and teams for international events, to the occasional health scare in major talent. As the world slowly recovers, esports have ever-so-gradually returned to their prior form, with talent being able to work in studios and audiences able to return to arenas, though only time will tell of the long-term effects the pandemic will leave on esports' future.

Works featuring professional gaming/esports:


  • The King's Avatar heavily revolves around the fictional MMO "Glory", which has an extensive professional gaming scene, with the story exploring its various intricacies, from the training of in-game mechanics to behind-the-scenes politics and corporate dealings. The series protagonist, Ye Xiu, is a tenured Living Legend in the professional scene who finds himself forced into retirement and re-dedicating himself to casual play, rebuilding his reputation as "the Battle God" of "Glory" from scratch.

Live-Action TV

  • The protagonist of Gamer's Guide to Pretty Much Everything Conor Griffin is a famous 15-year-old pro gamer known by his handle "Kid Fury", who at the start of the series is forced into retirement because of a thumb injury. The rest of the series follows him trying to get back in the scene with the help of his friends.
  • The titular protagonist of Kamen Rider Ex-Aid, Emu Hojo, spent his adolescence as the popular "Genius Gamer M", finding success in the professional circuit across several games before abandoning it to become a doctor. Both his background and medicine and his love of gaming end up being extremely valuable once he ends up fighting video game villains that start possessing his patients.
  • Players (2022) is a mockumentary series following Fugitive Gaming, a fictional esports team playing in the League of Legends Championship Series (League's North American major league), with the show being made in direct collaboration with Riot Games. The series primarily follows the career of the player "Creamcheese", a longtime esports athlete struggling between interpersonal team conflicts and his own nerves in his path to winning the championship that's eluded him for so long.

Video Games

Visual Novels

  • SC2VN follows the career of a fictional aspiring pro StarCraft II player in the game's early days. The game also received a prequel called Don't Forget Our eSports Dream, following the careers of two characters and their career in Brood War.

Western Animation

  • American Dad! episode "Brave N00b World" follows Stan being assigned to infiltrate an Overwatch League tournament in Hong Kong in order to assassinate a North Korean general in attendance. Thanks to several inter-family shenanigans, his son Steve ends up coaching him and several other CIA agents in the game to help with the act.