What makes an esport?

What qualifies a game to be called an esport

Fortnite's Icon Stephen Chiu · 30 Jul 2019


Photo via Helena Kristiansson for ESL

‘Chiu on This’ is a short and regular opinion blast

Since the Fortnite World Championship ended, I’ve seen multiple discussions centered around what makes an esport. The term esport has always been a focal point of discussion as there has been no set definition for the term or even normalized spelling of the word until the past few years. 

I’ve watched multiple esports games including Brood War, SC2, Overwatch, League of Legends, Dota2, Street Fighter, Marvel, Smash, CS:GO, and a smattering of other games since late 2010. At the time, the word esports wasn’t common jargon and was spelled eSports (apologies to Paul “Redeye” Chaloner in advance). Since then, I’ve studied on it’s history and while I don’t consider myself the definitive expert, there is one commonality across all esports (even the communities like the FGC who vehemently rail against the term).

Esports in its essence is competitive gaming. It’s just a group of people gathering around at a local LAN to see which of them is the best at a particular game. From there, the scene scales depending on the it’s interest. Some players get to play in massive crowds and audiences for millions. Others play with a group of local friends. Outside of the competition aspect, there are no other inherent requirements whether that be: player pool, developer support, or money. 

For instance, if we were to assume that player pool was a requirement, then it’s likely that either Quake or Brood War would be disqualified from the term esports. However both games were critical in setting precedents and pioneered what esports could eventually become. Brood War is another example of developer support being irrelevant. Brood War was one of the biggest esports scenes for years without official Blizzard support and it was Blizzard’s eventual involvement that eventually forced the scene to transfer over to SC2. As for money, you need only look at games like Dota2, Street Fighter, and CS:GO to understand how nonsensical that argument is.

In games like Dota and Street Fighter, there wasn’t a lot of money to play for until recent times (within the last 8-10 years). Despite that, players like Clement “Puppey” Ivanov and Daigo Umehara are considered legends of esports and people date their careers back to their inceptions, Puppey in Dota and Daigo in Street Fighter 2 and Darkstalkers. If money was a requirement, then people would define their careers as starting when the money started to roll in. 

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In Counter-Strike, the scene had a good amount of money, but then imploded after CGS. The scene eventually came back and revived years later. Despite that, we consider that entire period to still be esports. 

So if competitive gaming is the only requirement, then the natural counter response I often see is, ‘Well if that’s the case then random X game you’ve never heard about is an esport.’  I sometimes get the feeling that the response is meant to be sardonic, but those are my exact thoughts. The random Age of Empire tournaments hosted in Vietnam I sometimes see on twitch is esports. The King of Kong and Ecstasy of Order aren’t just general gaming documentaries, but should be considered esports documentaries as well.

While most agree with this broad definition of esports, it is also fairly useless definition in the context of categorization or monetization. The essential problem with that particular definition is that it simplifies the space. CS:GO for instance is radically different from the Marvel vs Capcom scene, even though both are considered esports. 

For instance, James “Kennigit” Lampkin, the VP for product development at ESL tweeted:


His description of esports emphasizes the longevity and interest of a particular scene rather than the raw act of competitive gaming. In that sense, his definition of esports is more useful when evaluating and discussing the term in the broader market sense. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with his definition of esports, which brings me to my final thoughts about this topic.

While people can fundamentally agree on the broad definition of competitive gaming being esports, it’s not a useful term to have debates with. We have to see the context in which the words are being used and the spirit they are being used in to have any kind of good discussion.

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