There has been a newfound craze for competitive computer gaming in the last couple of years. Esports has cemented itself as an industry in its own right. Over the last few years, the Esports scene has moved to the forefront of mainstream culture, with professional offline sports kicked to the curb on health grounds.
Audience numbers soared in 2021. Looking at Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) alone, viewership for the ESL Pro League season finales grew from 568,000 in 2020 to 758,000 in 2021 and, in 2022, the season finales drew peak audiences of 413,000 and 509,000 respectively.
Although there has been a slight fall-off in viewers for 2022 – when professional sports returned across the board – Esports is definitely here to stay. The value of the global sports market is estimated to reach $5.74 billion by the turn of the next decade. This is due largely to increased Esports coverage from premier broadcasters, as well as enhanced coverage of Esports betting markets.
Esports now has a home on the navigation menu of established online sportsbooks like DraftKings, which offer odds on competitions such as the CS:GO ESL Pro League mentioned above. This particular brand has always specialized in gaming, with its online betting platform only recently added alongside its daily fantasy sports (DFS) services. The DraftKings portal has already become the number-one recommended operator with OddsChecker, based on the strength of its promotions and licenses.
Although the global Esports industry still depends largely on the strength of its sponsorship deals to maintain commercial viability, it’s increasingly reliant on the quality and longevity of the newest releases that are becoming Esports smash hits. Below, we explore the most popular Esports titles this year, based on playing and viewing figures, as well as commercial success.
1. League of Legends
League of Legends has assumed top spot as the world’s biggest Esports title, due largely to its popularity and the size of the global market. It’s now the most popular desktop PC game on the planet, with over eight million active players worldwide, many of whom reside in Asia. Since the game’s launch back in 2009, League of Legends has attracted the big bucks in terms of event sponsorship money, with no less than $80 million dished out in Esports prize pools since its launch.
Today, only one of the world’s top ten earners from League of Legends Esports gaming resides outside of Asia. The majority currently resides in South Korea. League of Legends is one of two games that has cemented the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre as a force in the Esports world.
2. Dota 2
Dota 2 is the second MOBA game to become an Esports hit. In fact, since Valve launched Dota 2 in 2013, it has helped establish MOBA as the dominant genre, at least for the time being. What started out as a free-to-play game with loot boxes and subscriptions has become a global behemoth, paying out some of the richest Esports prizes of all time.
Valve organized and unveiled the Dota Pro Circuit, which is a series of regionalized tournaments and leagues across Europe, North and South America, China and Southeast Asia. The top teams in each league secure entry into ‘The International’. The International carries the biggest prize pools, with the greatest reaching $40 million, the highest of any Esport event. This prize pool is 25% crowdfunded through in-game purchases by players.
CS:GO is the fourth installment of the Counter-Strike series and the most important in the context of the Esports industry. Developers Valve soon began to sponsor professional competitions for CS:GO called the ‘Major Championships’. The first Majors was hosted in Sweden back in 2013 and had a prize pool of $250,000 back in 2013. That has since expanded to $2 million in recent years. Third-party organizations have also begun to run regionalized CS:GO leagues and tournaments.
According to ActivePlayer, more than 2.4 million people play CS:GO online daily, underlining its enduring popularity in the competitive gaming scene. The tactical first-person shooter has many elements that make it a compelling watch for Esports viewers, fusing stealth, speed and skill in abundance.
4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II
Infinity Ward returned with its 2022 release of Modern Warfare II, further boosting Call of Duty (CoD)’s profile in the Esports scene. The game’s publisher, Activision, operates a professional Esports league that was inaugurated in 2020. The Call of Duty League features a dozen professional Esports franchises which represent cities from across the US, Canada and the UK.
The most intriguing development for CoD Esports was the launch of the Challengers division. This is aimed at talented amateurs and budding Esports professionals looking for their big break. Franchises in the Call of Duty League have also developed their own ‘academy’ teams after cherry-picking the top talent from the Challengers division.
Blizzard Entertainment has been dining out on the success of Overwatch, its most popular shooter game. The beauty of Overwatch’s game dynamics is that it fuses the technical elements of a shooter game with the high-octane drama of a MOBA game. It has captured the imagination of Esports fans worldwide.
The Overwatch League – launched in 2018 – adopted a franchise format that inspired the creation of the Call of Duty League. The league carries a prize pool of more than $5 million.
In October 2022, Overwatch 2 was released by Blizzard, providing an exciting revamp of the 2016 original hero shooter. It was nominated for Best Multiplayer Game at The Game Awards.
Valorant is one of the newest kids on the block. Designed to look and play similarly to Overwatch and CS:GO, players must use their agent abilities to influence the outcome of each match. Tactics and shooting ability remain part and parcel of this game, which was only launched in 2020. Last year, The Game Awards named Valorant Esport of the Year 2022, so it must be doing something right.
Developer Riot Games has been pleased with how well Valorant has been received. This year, it has opted to go one step further and launch a new Valorant Champions Tour (VCT). The VCT will adopt the same franchise model as the Call of Duty and Overwatch leagues, bringing financial stability and resources for each team.
Other notable mentions for popular Esports in 2023 include; FIFA 23, which has been a hit with football fans worldwide; the card deck-building game Hearthstone; and the unique ‘football with rocket-powered cars’ concept Rocket League, which has proven popular across Europe and North America.
There’s no doubt that with the variety of Esports action today, competitive gaming is very much here to stay.