What Makes a Game a Professional Esport?

Over the past decade the word “esport(s)” has become more and more popular as a descriptor of the competitive gaming craze that has circled the globe. The moniker was born around the time when it was trendy to tag an “e” onto about everything. E-Trade, E-Bay, E-commerce and E-Learning somehow lead to competitive video gaming being tagged “esports.” Despite social media battles over the proper spelling (eSports, Esports, esports, e-sports) and vibrant arguments about use of the word “sport(s)” the name has stuck and will live on for future generations.

After stumbling upon an article claiming a competitive Candy Crush game show is considered an esport I began to wonder exactly what qualifies a game to be a professional esport. Generally, the esports label is used to refer to professional gaming at the highest levels, but perhaps we need a delineation between the casual and the professional. This would be similar to what is seen in traditional, analog sports where we witness little league baseball all the way to the pro level. In the article, author Dan O’Halloran argues that in order to qualify as an esport activity, the following are needed:

  • It’s a game. (Duh.)
  • It’s electronic. (Again, duh.)
  • It takes skill.
  • There’s a competition.

All of these things seem reasonable enough to me. Esports, as its core, is about competitive video gaming. The natural flow of logic dictates the presence of a certain skill level (rather than pure luck) being exercised during a competition. I personally believe these factors are enough to validate a gaming activity as an “esport.” When my son and his friends team up and play each other in a Call of Duty game, I believe they are engaging in esports. Skill matters and there is a real sense of competition. There is no broadcast or money on the line, but that doesn’t minimize the effort expended or the pride invested. The delineation between a casual esport and a professional one begins to arise when we review the final two bullet points in O`Halloran’s article:

  • It’s a broadcast.
  • There’s a prize.

When the competition is broadcast to viewers who care to invest their attention, we’re moving to another level. When prizing (beyond pride) is involved, we can see the hobby of esports evolve into the business of esports.

In my view, professional esports is limited to the top of the competitive gaming food chain. Perhaps we’re debating semantics at this point, but I think it’s important to identify professional esports scenes from the more casual competitions. Having a better understanding of what divides professional esports from common esports enables our industry to advance the business side of our efforts. When marketers working on Madison Avenue are barraged with articles about Candy Crush esports, why would they see the value in what we traditionally consider to be professional esports? We need to promote clarity in the esports space so marketers and investors can understand the difference between pure professional esports and all the other activities that use the buzz word for their own purposes.

It’s certain the final definition will remain subjective for years to come, but in my opinion the following traits need to be present for a game and its competitive forms to be considered a professional esport:

This isn’t Angry Birds…

Professional players who are being paid to compete.

At the highest level of esports stands the professional gamer who is receiving some consistent payment for his or her participation as an “e-athlete.” You might be darn good at Angry Birds and perhaps you even win a buck here or there at weekend events. However, if someone hasn’t contracted you under some type of financial agreement you are not a professional gamer in my book. The heart and soul of a competitive gaming franchise is the pro gamer and an absence of this elite group is a surefire sign the game is not a professional esport.

A real fan base that is vibrant and tuning in.

It can be argued that fans are even more important than the gamers because if they’re not turning their eyeballs towards a game there usually isn’t any money available to provide gamer contracts. Top tier professional esports competitions capture tens of thousands of viewers. Viewership is the fuel that drives everything forward. Without passionate fans and communities a game might be fun and competitive, but it’s not a professional esport.

Consistent professional leagues and tournaments with real cash rewards.

Leagues and tournaments that feature professional play are the foundation and infrastructure of a professional esports ecosystem. Like the NBA and NFL of old school sports history, such leagues capture pre-existing interest and raise the bar when it comes to awareness, fan participation and ease of viewer access. If industry leading leagues are not supporting pro tier leagues and tournaments for a gaming title, it most likely isn’t a professional esport.

Support from professional gaming team organizations.

Many games come along and see some ‘minor league’ engagement from bootstrapped teams but the truly compelling professional esports titles are supported by the world’s leading teams. If a gaming scene is only floating along the periphery of the scene it’s unlikely to be played under the banner of these organizations. Top teams add legitimacy and bring millions of fans in their entourage. Some game developers try to trick observers into believing their title is a professional esport, but if you’d like to know whether it’s a cheap marketing ploy or a legit sport, just look to the teams.

Developer support.

Historically, developer support was not an indicator of a professional esport. Games like Counter-Strike thrived on the global scene despite a complete lack of such support. However, in today’s modern scene developers like Valve, Blizzard and Riot have thrown their corporate weight behind their games. This makes it more difficult for a title to become a professional esport the “old fashioned” way. Strong developer support of the pro scene has become a key indicator.

Esports, like baseball, football, soccer and basketball, can be enjoyed at many levels of competitive play. However, like the pro levels of these stick and ball classics, professional esports is on another level entirely. As the global phenomenon of esports continues to evolve, the categorizations are bound to change alongside it, but as fans we should continually seek to keep a clear delineation between what’s fun and what’s professional.

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