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

We've been talking to Scott Gillingham, UK Gaming and eSports lead for Intel and James Dean, CEO of ESL UK to get the lowdown on eSports and what's changing. 

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. 

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. 

Things have changed a lot since then, as Scott Gillingham from Intel explained:

"At 2017's final in Katowice, Poland - we had 173,000 attendees over the four days. A 53 per cent growth year-on-year. This year saw the same amount of attendees, but it's also about the online aspect. This year we had two billion minutes of online viewership of the tournament and that was 232 per cent growth compared to 2017.

It is a massive growing industry that has a big community behind it. It's something we strongly support. Back to when we started focussing our product on gaming, we've grown with the community. Intel Extreme Masters is the pinnacle, a long-standing event. It's held in Poland but there are 1.8 million views that come from the UK."

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. By 2020, it's estimated that the industry will generate £1 billion and have an audience of around 600 million people from across the globe. 

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 2017, a YouGov report published data finding 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 who 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. 

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. Which 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.

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 its 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. 

Of course, it's not just the competitions where professional gamers can make money. The very best players are also making money on YouTube and Twitch. Famous professional gamer Tyler "Ninja" Blevins revealed he makes around $500,000 a month streaming to his fans on Twitch. 

Ninja himself is a professional gamer and has been competing since 2009 with various eSports teams including Cloud9, Renegades and Team Liquid. It's only recently that he's become a household name, but he's also a prime example of how well gamers can do with enough commitment. 

Other professional gamers have turned gaming into a day-to-day career choice. Sacriel, for example, plays and streams via Twitch eight hours a day, six days a week. Quite a day job. 

Other careers in eSports

There's more to eSports than just gaming though. There are other potential careers too, there's plenty of call for behind-the-scenes talent like people in production, league operations, marketing or event management.

Like other sports, it's unlikely that players will have a long-term career playing the games. Many professional players end up retiring or moving onto other things after a few years. 

Injuries are just as much of a problem in eSports as other professional sports activities. Repetitive strain can be a problem. Carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, repetitive strain injury and neck pain are just some of the issues reported. 

Things in the industry also change. Players might start out playing a specific game but find changes in the franchise mean they're not as good at future iterations as they were with the first outing. 

Retiring players can move into other roles within the industry though. There are plenty of career options, including coaching future players.

The British eSports Association has some guidance for those looking into a career in eSports. Including specification guidance and advice for all the different possible roles within eSports, the list of which includes:

  • Professional gamer
  • Shoutcaster/host/broadcaster
  • Player coach
  • Analyst
  • eSports journalist/content creator
  • PR/Marketing executive
  • Product manager
  • Sales/partnerships manager
  • Admin/referee
  • Organisation owner/manager
  • Community/social media manager
  • Broadcast/production crew
  • Event manager
  • Agent
  • Other roles (statistician, lawyer, finance, support etc)
  • Other gaming careers (developers, publishers, distribution etc)

There are plenty of opportunities, it's not just about the actual gamers. 

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How Universities and others are helping

Professional gaming is a young person's game. Competitive play requires lightning-fast reactions and plenty of time for practice. For those looking to get into eSports who are keen to prove to their parents that it's a serious career option there's good news as education establishments are recognising the increasing interest in the industry. 

A number of eSports courses and degrees have begun appearing at various universities including Staffordshire University, the University of York and the University of Leicester.

These include BA Honours degrees in eSports covering a range of subjects that might be useful to those looking to break into the industry. These courses include everything from event organisation to casting, marketing, PR, production and more. 

Qualifications are also available from various colleges via the AIM Awards programme. More and more educational establishments are offering bolt-on courses or intros into eSports to help people get a foot in the industry. 

Other organisations are getting involved too. UKie is a not-for-profit body representing the UK's games and interactive entertainment industry. This organisations research into eSports tournaments has shown the potential benefits for young people and their future.

Studies have shown that getting involved in eSports events can improve confidence as well as enhancing other life skills such as teamwork, communication and the ability to create strong friendships. 

Children are being encouraged from a young age too. The British eSports Association is offering competitive competitions in partnership with schools and colleges across the UK.  Students aged 12 to 19 years old can compete and this is being done in partnership with the Twitch Student Program and the AoC Sport (part of the Association of Colleges). Teams competing in this championship can eventually hope to make it to the finals at Insomnia

It's clear that eSports are making their way into schools, colleges and universities in a variety of different ways. Whether it's learning or actually playing. 

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The future of eSports

The future of eSports is going to be interesting. The number of people watching is growing, in part thanks to the rise of popular streamers on Twitch and more and more people are getting into competitive gaming too. 

The technology is changing too. The advent of virtual reality has seen some interesting changes in competitive gaming. 

Virtual reality in eSports

Oculus, Intel and ESL recently combined forces to create the VR Challenger League - the world's leading VR eSports league at Intel Extreme Masters 2018.

Players can be seen competing in a number of VR games where actions are a lot more physical and therefore more entertaining to watch. Players not only carry out movements in-game, but also communicate with their team via hand signals, voice commands and more. 

This makes for interesting watching and throws a new dynamic into broadcasts too. It's still early days, but it's easy to see the potential future for VR in competitive gaming. 

VR could also be used in future for watching broadcasts or competitions, as Scott Gillingham explained, this has already happened:

"At Intel Extreme Masters 2017, for the finals of CS:GO, they had some pods set up where you could put on a VR headset. The arena is always solidly busy, so if you get there and find you can't get a seat then you could come out, put a VR headset on and view the tournament that way. In some ways it was great. You could only really view from three different spots in the arena, so you couldn't really walk around and view it from another angle. But it opened up the idea that you could watch these tournaments from home with a VR headset on."

The quality of live 360-degree video isn't quite good enough yet though, but technology is quickly coming on in leaps and bounds. 

The potential for Augmented Reality

There's some exciting potential for the way eSports competition is presented.  Augment Reality devices could play a part too. Both Augment Reality and Mixed Reality technology could potentially add some interesting new dynamics to the presentation and broadcasts, whether at home or in the stadiums. 

James Dean sees an interesting future here:

"Anything developed for a VR environment could work in mixed reality or augmented reality environments. So we can reach a large amount of different people through different screen media. Microsoft  Hololens, for example, is a great example of how technology and how it's progressing. Imagine being in a stadium and seeing a big dragon fly around the stadium land on the stage."


"At the League of Legends finals, that's what happened. If the people in the crowd had mixed reality headsets they'd be able to see that.

The development of the technology needs to continue and everyone needs to continue to invest in that space. It is an exciting future and hopefully the barriers to entry to buy the headsets will fall and people will think it's worth investing in."

The future depends on the developers of the devices, but also the community showing an interest and that certainly seems to be happening.

The future of eSports is certainly going to be an interesting one.