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What are eSports? A beginner’s guide to pro gaming

Since the dawn of time, man has competed against fellow man for gold and glory. Cavemen clubbed each other to death, Spartans raced up and down Greece’s hills at heart-thumping pace, and skilled archers and riflemen altered the course of battles. Today, we call such competition ‘sport’, and we try to be quite civilised about it. So civilised, in fact, that you can now do it from your desk…

Enter, eSports: the professionalisation of video gaming. No longer a pastime of purported basement-dwellers and arcade-loitering youths, gaming is now a valid career choice for a skilled few. Teenagers are earning millions, signing lucrative sponsorship deals, and dating supermodels, all because they can play games really, really well.

But what makes eSports so popular? Gaming, just like any sport, is something people inherently enjoy doing. When you get lots of people doing one thing, talented individuals will emerge. If you like a particular game, it makes sense that you would want to see the very best players of that game compete. It’s entertaining and inspiring. And now it’s getting the recognition it deserves.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to know where to start with eSports. There are so many games, so many players, so many teams; it’s easy to miss out on the diamonds because you’re bogged down with the rough. Here’s our beginner’s guide to all things professional gaming…

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eSports – Games

There’s no definitive list of games that are good for eSports. The beauty of the industry is that in any game where there’s competition to be had, gamers will surely find a way to battle it out. That said, there are some titles that stand out above the rest in the professional circuit. We’ve rounded up a few to give you an idea of what sort of game is good for spectator viewing.

League of Legends

League of Legends is arguably the most popular title in the professional gaming circuit right now. The 2014 World Championships was the most viewed eSports event of the year. Its popularity largely stems from the game’s sprawling player base. Recent figures are hard to come by, however. The last official stats from Riot came in January 2014, with the studio revealing that 67 million gamers were playing the title each month. What’s more, 27 million users play at least one game daily, and peak daily figures total around 7.5 million. Social gaming site Raptr claims League of Legends holds a 19.97% share of PC games played in January this year, which puts it in top spot for the world’s most popular game. The hype clearly hasn’t died out, then.


The original Counter-Strike launched in 1999, and has been a staple of PC gaming ever since. This enduring popularity helped grow the game’s competitive scene, with the original title now having awarded over $10 million in prize funding over 540 tournaments. Its sequel, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, launched in 2012, has seen similar success, with competitions doling out over $4 million across 615 tournaments – that’s over just three years.

Dota 2

Dota 2 isn’t the most popular game on this list, nor are its tournaments the most viewed. Neither fact stops it from being the most lucrative eSports title in the world, however. If professional gamers want to earn serious cash, there’s no better keyboard-and-mouse outlet to pick than Dota 2. All of the top ten highest earners in eSports are Dota 2 players. The top five have all accrued north of $1 million each in prize money alone. And The International 2014 Dota 2 tournament offered up the biggest prize pool in eSports history – over $10 million.

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Call of Duty

Like CounterStrike, Call of Duty has seen moderate success in the eSports arena. It still hasn’t racked up the level of hype that rival shooter Halo sees, but there’s a dedicated following and plenty of money to be made. Total prize money for most of the series’ games have amounted to upwards of $1 million, and that’s thanks in part to the huge success of the games among casual players. The entire franchise has reportedly sold over 150,000,000 units since the first Call of Duty game launched back in 2003.

StarCraft 2

The StarCraft series is one held in high esteem in the professional gaming world. That’s because the skill level required to play at the top end of StarCraft is exceptionally difficult to achieve. It’s also important to note that South Korea has a huge stranglehold on StarCraft and StarCraft 2 in terms of eSports. Of the top 20 highest earning players for StarCraft 2, 19 are from South Korea. It’s long been seen as the most popular game in the country, and many see it as the national sport.


Football is big money, but playing FIFA can also be pretty lucrative. The cash-flow isn’t as heavy, granted, but kicking balls around on a screen can still bring in decent money. FIFA 14 has seen a total $80,500 awarded in prize money – that’s from 66 tournaments worldwide. The highest earner for the title is August ‘Agge’ Rosenmeier from Denmark, who’s racked up $21,250 in his time on the virtual pitch.

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World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is doubly invested in eSports. That’s because gamers compete both against each other and against the computer. The ‘Arena’ is WoW’s PvP (player versus player) mode, and sees teams of 2, 3 or 5 fight to the death on small battlefields. Then there’s PvE (player versus environment), which sees huge teams (guilds) take on the most challenging AI opponents in the game. These bosses can sometimes take months of work to defeat, and guilds often stream their attempts in hopes of getting a world-first kill.

Interestingly, at BlizzCon 2014, Blizzard decided to run a competitive PvE challenge. In the ‘Live Raid’, two top PvE guilds – Method and Midwinter – had to take on a ‘Heroic’ difficulty dungeon live on stage in a competition to get the first kill.


Halo is a mainstay of the eSports world, with gamers have competed on the title since its inception. The franchise’s heyday in professional gaming was probably Halo 3, but all of the series’ core entries have seen eSports action. We’re sure Halo 5: Guardians will be no different. Amusingly, two of the top earners in the Halo pro circuit have an interesting connection. Kyle Elam, aka ‘Elamite Warrior’, tops out the Halo 3 earnings board with $130,000 bagged from the title. His brother, Aaron (‘Ace’), meanwhile, takes top spot for Halo 4 with $202,000 accrued in prize money.

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eSports – Players & Prospects

So exactly how much money can you earn as a professional gamer? According to, the most spoil-hoarding player is a Dota 2 pro who goes by the handle ‘Hao’ – as in, Hao much cash does he have? The Chinese star, whose real name is Zhihao Chen, has raked in a staggering $1.2 million in prize money alone. That’s not bad pocket change for a 24-year-old.

The problem with is that it only deals in prize money. But that’s not the only revenue stream open to those who are handy with a joypad. Take US-born Tom Taylor, aka ‘Tsquared’, a 27-year-old who found eSports fame courtesy of the Halo games. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because his face appeared on 175 million Dr Pepper bottles throughout 2009. Neither Taylor nor Dr Pepper would reveal exactly how much the deal was worth, but we’re sure it didn’t come cheap. And if that wasn’t enough, he was charging upwards of $100 an hour for private videogame lessons at the same time.

Professional gaming is not without its risks, however. Just last month, professional League of Legends player Hai Lam decided to retire from the game after suffering a repetitive strain injury in his wrist. A moment of silence, please.

That brings us neatly on to job prospects. Just because you start out as a pro gamer doesn’t mean that’s all you’ll ever do. While professional gaming might not count for much on a CV for most jobs, it’s an assured boon for a host of industry-specific roles. Corollary jobs include coaching other pro gamers, tutoring amateurs, commentating (or ‘casting’) live games, managing teams, or working within an eSports organisation to put together tournaments.

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eSports – Tournaments

Of course, players wouldn’t be able to pad out their wallets if it weren’t for the tournaments that they compete in. Well-funded, officiated competitions are the backbone of the eSports industry, and they’re becoming increasingly big business. Aside from building a name for yourself through competitions as a pro gamer, you can often earn a decent living.

We’re not talking small change, either. The most lucrative tournament to date was last year’s The International 2014, an event organised by Valve that saw 16 of the world’s finest Dota 2 teams go head-to-head for a big cash prize.

It was held in Seattle, USA, in the KeyArena, which has a seating capacity of 17,000. The total prize pool was $10,931,000. Moreover, 46% of the spoils went to the winning team, ‘Newbee’, which cashed a cheque for just north of $5,000,000. To put the prize pool in perspective, the total capital on offer outweighed a host of sports tournaments’ payouts, including the Super Bowl 2014 ($9.9m), the Masters Golf Tournament ($9m), and the Tour de France ($2.73m).

The International tournaments have been going since 2011, and have contributed just over $17,000,000 in prize funds since its inception. That’s followed by the MLG Pro Circuit, the cumulative payouts of which total around $6,800,000. Riot’s League of Legends World Championship is third with around $6,465,000.

Tournaments need officiating, mind. That’s why South Korea has its own dedicated body created to manage eSports in the country. It’s called the Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA), and it falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. That’s no big shocker, mind.

You may be surprised, however, to learn that the UK also has its own official eSports body. The United Kingdom eSports Association (UKeSA) is a member of the International eSports Federation and is headquartered in London. The company eyes itself as the eSports equivalent of the Football Association, helping organise tournaments and support pro teams and players.

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eSports – Sponsorships

We’ve already talked about how much money flows into player hands, but we skimmed over one very important stream of gaming moolah – sponsorships. Like any other competitive arena, eSports has its fair share of sponsors, all keen to dole out top dollar for prime publicity.

Remember our friend Tom Taylor from earlier? He had a fairly lucrative contract with MLG worth $250,000. He then bagged a further $150,000 yearly from varying endorsement deals.

Samsung is these days best known for its Galaxy range of smartphones, but you may not have heard of the Samsung Galaxy eSports teams. Since 2000, Samsung has sponsored South Korean professional gaming teams. It currently manages players for StarCraft 2 and, more recently, League of Legends.

Samsung isn’t the only big-name brand to get involved with eSports sponsorship, however – there’s Coca-Cola, Nissan, Red Bull, Intel, Razer, American Express, Nvidia, HTC, SanDisk, and even Rupert Murdoch’s News UK.

So what makes eSports so attractive to sponsors? There are many reasons, but there are three key factors that help woo advertising capital.

The first is the sheer number of participants involved in the eSports industry. For example, take last year’s League of Legends World Championships. It was by far the most watched eSports event of 2014. Some 27 million viewers tuned in to watch the tournament, which ran from September 18 to October 19. What’s more, the peak viewership totalled 11.2 million fans during the match between Samsung Galaxy White and Star Horn Royal Club. This isn’t just a one-off either; the total audience for 2013’s World Championships was 32 million viewers.

That brings us neatly on to the next plus point for marketers; the global reach. A study by Super Data Research in April last year revealed that eSports now reach over 70 million people worldwide – it’s likely even more now. For international brands, being able to reach such a wide scope of people through a single medium is marketing gold. The market for eSports is truly global, so it’s no surprise companies are keen to make bank on the industry.

The final pulling factor for cash-dispensing sponsors is the user demographic eSports attracts. Research shows that the majority of eSports viewers and young and male. That’s the same group that is now watching TV less and less as other entertainment mediums take centre stage. By pushing branding through eSports, companies can tap into a market they may otherwise struggle to reach.

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Where to watch eSports

Right, we know what eSports looks like, sounds like, and how it fills the coffers of those involved. Now how do we actually watch it? The easiest way to get in on the action is through one of the ever-expanding roster of sites that stream eSports content.

The biggest of the bunch in terms of dedicated gaming content is Twitch. In January this year, the company announced it had reached a huge milestone of 100 million monthly viewers. The platform also boasts 1.5 million unique broadcasters, and 11 million broadcasts each month. It’s worth noting that not all of Twitch’s content is eSports. However, it does broadcast tournaments, and many pro players regularly stream on the service during downtime. There are plenty of other sites offering similar gameplay goodness though, with dedicated platform Azubu and video-sharing service YouTube both offering eSports content.

The internet needn’t be your only source of eSports content, however. Just last month, ESPN2 aired a Heroes of the Storm tournament final called ‘Heroes of the Dorm’. It raised a lot of questions about whether professional gaming constitutes as a real sport, but mostly it went by unnoticed – we’re talking 100,000 viewers total. The real question to ask is whether eSports actually needs broadcast television. Some say eSports being beamed direct to living rooms is a prime source of validation. We’d argue that eSports has already found its perfect medium on the internet. Twitch’s viewing figures speak volumes in that regard.

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If you want a more immersive experience, however, then why not check out an eSports stadium? Many big tournaments hire out huge venues, and South Korea has actual stadiums built for competitive gaming.

Closer to home, the UK’s first eSports arena opened its doors earlier this year, showcasing the Counter Strike: Global Offensive Spring Masters back in March.

It’s thanks to a partnership between eSports company Gfinity and cinema chain Vue, with the dedicated arena situated in Vue’s Fulham Broadway location.

But why stop at just watching? There’s now a new high-stakes way to get involved with eSports – gambling. A long-time corollary to real sports, betting is a beloved pastime throughout the world, and can amp up the atmosphere for any game.

That’s why a Seattle-based start-up called Unikrn has created a portal for betting on eSports tournaments. The company was set up by Rahul Sood, a former Microsoft GM.

eSports is one of the largest sports globally, attracting viewer numbers that are on par with traditional sports such as American football and basketball,” explained Sood. “We see this huge opportunity for people who spectate or watch to bet on games.”

Bets are placed against the house, and participants can only bet on the outcome of a single match. Unfortunately, if you’re in the US then you won’t be able to get in on the action. Online gambling is currently illegal in the states. Boo.

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How to become a professional gamer

By this point, you’re probably wondering why you’ve been following a sensible career path instead of getting paid to play video games. We should all be so lucky. For the committed few, however, there’s one question to be asked: how do you actually become a professional gamer? We’d say avoid peddling a montage of your best CoD kills to Intel in hopes of a lucrative sponsorship deal. The path to eSports stardom is a long and gruelling road, and only those with heaps of time to spare have any real chance of making it in the industry.

If you live in South Korea, you can actually join a gaming house. They’re a bit like student digs, except instead of residents building elaborate beer bongs and falling asleep on dissertation textbooks, they play videogames all day (and most of the night).

Perhaps the easiest way to start building a name for yourself is competing on a website like Gamebattles. It’s an easy platform to compete against other skilled players, although you’ll need to settle on a game first (and put in plenty of hours too).

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If that goes well, you can enter amateur tournaments. They’re not as well publicised as the big events, so you’ll need to search a bit harder to find something local to you. And if that fails, you can always set up a Twitch stream in hopes of getting noticed that way.

If you do find yourself becoming a bit of a gaming prodigy, it could also be an easy way into higher education. Two universities in the United States are actually offering scholarships for ‘eSports athletes’. Both RObert Morris University in Chicago and the University of Pikeville in Kentucky are keen to get high-skilled League of Legends players on board.

But what if you’re only really good at Crossy Road? You might not want to quit your day job just yet, pal…

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