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(Pocket-lint) - eSports and professional gaming is increasing in popularity, but what is it, why does it matter and how can you get into it?

What is eSports?

Put simply, eSports are electronic sports. Organised competitive gaming events in various leagues with teams and players battling it out for victory. Grand prizes are on offer, as is the prestige of being crowned champion(s). 

The very best players are essentially competing to become the best in the world at their favourite game.  

The winning teams or individual players can expect to potentially receive millions in prize money, as well as in more funding from sponsorship, endorsements and team salaries. 

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Intel started pushing eSports with the first Intel Extreme Masters gaming tournament back in 2007 at CEBIT. Competitive gaming had been around as an idea a while before that too, with players always wanting to show that they were better than their friends. It's been going a lot longer than that though:

The community wanted a move towards organised, stadium-based tournaments and that's where ESL and Intel stepped in. 

Worldwide viewership of eSports competitions has helped push popularity into the mainstream. To the point that Intel has even tried to get eSports officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee by bringing season 12 of the Intel Extreme Masters to Pyeongchang during the 2018 Winter Olympics. 

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How big is eSports?

eSports is a continually growing industry, both in popularity and money. In 2017, eSports had an estimated worldwide revenue of £565 million. In 2021, according to Statista the global market for eSports was valued at over a billion US dollars. Increasing by over half from the year before. 

Event attendance at the big stadium competitions is increasingly on the rise as fans make an effort to watch their favourite teams compete, but online viewing is increasing too

During the 2018 League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational, 60 million unique viewers tuned in to watch, consuming a combined 363,000,000 hours of footage. The Intel Extreme Masters World Championship 2017 saw 46 million unique online viewers. Both these events had significantly more viewers than the televised inauguration of President Trump which gives you an idea of how significant this industry is. 

In 2021 it's estimated that 474 million people watched eSports worldwide. 

In 2017, a YouGov report published data that found that around just seven per cent of British adults (around four million people) had watched eSports gaming. As a nation, we still lag behind other countries that take eSports much more seriously. 

In China, for example, around 45 per cent of adults have watched eSports online. 

Passion for eSports and competitive gaming is growing within UK though. Thanks, in part, to the rise in popularity of video game streamers, YouTuber content creators and the increasing popularity of Twitch. 

In 2018 Scott Gillingham from Intel told us:

"The UK is the fifth-largest gaming market in the world. That comes down to people buying games and the hardware to play games. The eSports industry side of it is still growing and it's underdeveloped compared with other parts of the world. The US is one of the top gaming countries in the world and their eSports industry is massive.

This year has been a real growth area for eSports in the UK. We've seen more tournaments with the likes of ESL One. It's the first time that ESL bought a major to the UK. It sold out in 24 hours and it was one of the quickest selling ESL tournaments globally. Over 24,000 people attended that event over three days. We are seeing that industry and the community growing in the UK and we're seeing more eSports events coming to the UK.

Newzoo looks at the size of gaming markets in the UK and around the world. A lot of it is measured by the sales of games and data they get back from companies like ESL. In the UK in 2017, according to Newzoo research, there were over 33 million gamers in the UK. Of that, 12 million of those gamers are gaming on PC. We do see that growing as well. The data also shows PC gaming growing between two and three per cent year-on-year.

People are watching eSports and following gamers and a lot of that is PC based. They're getting a lot of information about the best experience that way as well. This is probably why we're seeing the PC gaming side of the market growing a bit too.

To give you an idea, we're seeing double-digit growth from our side of the business in gaming. We're continually seeing that growth happening."

A simpler way of showing how popular eSports has become can be seen with a quick Google search for the phrase "lol". No longer does this search bring back a definition for the acronym (laughing out loud) but it instead returns a long list of results related to League of Legends. That game has been one of the most popular games in eSports for a while now.  

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Isn't eSports just for nerds?

Historically, there's been a stigma around eSports and that's changing too.

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Scott Gillingham put it best:

"There is a certain stigma that a gamer sits at home in their basement, playing games and isn't sociable, but that is lifting.

An event like EGX shows how gamers are very sociable. They're online, they're recording, they're talking to each other through headsets, they're streaming what they're doing via Twitch with their community and they're coming to big events like EGX.

As the gaming industry grows, that stigma is disappearing. eSports helps remove that stigma, with the Intel Extreme Masters, for example, there are 173,000 people sitting in a stadium watching eSports - it shows it's a big growing thing."

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What games are played by eSports teams?

Passion for eSports comes from all angles and there are many different games with communities formed around them that people love. There are a variety of games being played including racing games, first-person shooters, strategy card games and more. 

Historically the most popular games have been League of Legends, CS:GO, Hearthstone, DOTA 2, StarCraft and Rainbow Six Siege

Recently though, the staggering popularity of Battle Royale games like Player Unknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite have pushed those games into the eSports arena too. 

This has come with some challenges as traditionally eSports games have been small teams five vs five or six vs six, bigger games make it challenging to present an interesting broadcast. 

This was nicely summed up during our chat with Scott Gillingham:

"ESL got the ability to hold the EU qualifiers for the PUBG invitational here in the UK in Leicester. They had to have a three-tier stage to get all 20 teams on there and that was challenging for them, but the spectacle that it created was amazing.

This raises some challenges, as does viewing it online. You're looking over a map with all these teams converging and then zooming in on the action as it happens, that's probably a broadcaster's nightmare."

James Dean talked to us a bit about those challenges too:

"...the challenge was how do you find where the action is happening and broadcast that live. We had literally a whole wall of TVs and virtual camera directors looking and trying to spot what's happening and where. We had feeds of 80 players coming in and manually trying to find what's happening to make it interesting.

The spectator side of things is being retrofitted and developed for the game and is only just coming out. Fortnite also has the same challenge, but they're working on it and it's getting a lot better.

We find that a lot - the gaming industry is a lot different to the eSports community and they've not necessarily spoken to one another and when a game becomes super successful, in that eSports environment it becomes tricky.

There are a lot more game developers who have grown up with eSports in their lives and know about it and want to put features into the game to accommodate it."

Ubisoft's Rainbow Six Siege was built from the ground up with a focus on eSports to begin with. The developers knew the game would be a great fit for competitive gaming and implemented tools to allow for interesting live broadcasts during competitions. 

Differing viewpoints, in-game stats, birds-eye overviews as the game plays out make the game engaging and incredibly appealing to watch for live viewers. 

How can you get started in eSports?

For passionate gamers, getting into eSports might be easier than you think. James Dean, CEO of ESL UK explains:

"eSports has no barrier to entry. If you're a gamer, you're a gamer. If you want to step up your game and play in a competition you can do so. If you're really great and you practice a lot you might be on a big stage winning a million dollars. And that's open to everyone in the large part. It's about making opportunities for anyone to do anything."

Most competitive players get into professional gaming by starting out playing casually. They then join a team, then start taking it a bit more seriously - joining an organisation and aiming for higher levels. 

Players can register and start competing with relative ease too. Other players have managed to get into the industry in usual ways too. Previously, UK football teams Machester City and West Ham have signed eSports players - showing a move into the mainstream. 

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How much can eSports players earn?

We've written before about how much eSports players can earn if they win competitions. There's also money in sponsorships, endorsements and more if you're good enough. 

James Dean from the ESL warns that there isn't quite enough money to earn a wage for most people at the moment though:

"In the UK, you can't currently go full time at a national level, there's not enough money in it. But it is growing - in three or four years time there will be people playing at a good level, playing in a national team, earning a good wage, with an aspiration to go higher."

It's the international competitions where the money comes from. As an example, the DOTA 2 finals in 2016 had the largest prize pool of the time, totalling $20 million with $9 million of that being awarded to the winning team. 

Epic Games, the company being Fortnite announced its intention to provide a $100 million prize pool for Fortnite competitions during the first season of competitive play. This gives you an idea of earning potential of winning teams.