It's official -- eSports, or competitive video gaming, is soaring in prominence as a spectator sport.

Last month, more than 32 million people tuned into the Twitch livestream of the Season 3 world championship broadcast of Riot Games' League of Legends, currently the most popular eSports game in the world -- 8.5 million people simultaneously streamed the online broadcast.

League of Legends. Source:

That crushes League of Legends' previous record of 8.2 million viewers with 1.1 simultaneous streaming viewers, and also tops other huge streaming events in recent history -- including the championship broadcast of Valve's DOTA (Defense of the Ancients) 2, League of Legends' primary competitor.


Simultaneous streaming users

British Royal Wedding


2012 Olympic Games


DOTA 2 The International 3 Tournament


Super Bowl XLVII Live Stream


Felix Baumgartner's jump from space


League of Legends Season 3 Championship



The reason behind the huge number of streaming viewers for League of Legends is obvious -- its players spend plenty of time in front of their computers, and computer users often spend more time streaming media from the Internet than watching it on their TVs. Streaming numbers pale when compared to mainstream sporting events on TV -- the broadcast of Super Bowl XLVII attracted 108.7 million viewers, for example. But 32 million viewers and 8.5 million simultaneous streamers makes a pretty clear statement to game companies and advertisers -- competitive gaming should no longer be associated with geeky LAN parties, but taken seriously as a new form of entertainment.

The wild world of eSports

eSports have been around since the earliest days of video games. Gaming tournaments in the early 1980s usually focused on getting higher scores than other competitors. In the 1990s, Internet connectivity and multiplayer games shifted the focus to definitively winning, rather than simply getting a higher score.

First person shooters (FPS) like Quake (1996) and Blizzard's (now Activision Blizzard's (NASDAQ: ATVI)) real-time strategy (RTS) game StarCraft (1998) dramatically altered the landscape of eSports as Internet speeds improved.

StarCraft's rise to prominence, especially across Asia, gave birth to a new form of entertainment -- RTS game competitions aired on mainstream TV. In South Korea, those mainstream TV broadcasts turned StarCraft into the country's national sport, and as with any sport, legendary athletes were born.

A live StarCraft 2 tournament. Source:

Top Korean StarCraft players like MarineKing and Western players like IdrA -- whose volatile outbursts have been likened to John McEnroe smashing tennis rackets -- made the sport entertaining. Top athletes won huge contracts, sponsorships, and prizes. One of the top players, Jaedong, reportedly accumulated career earnings of nearly $500,000 by 2013.

Just as baseball players spend hours in batting practice, professional StarCraft players do endless hand exercises to improve their mouse and keyboard accuracy, in an effort to boost their APM (actions per minute) -- a commonly used measure of a player's reflexes in eSports.

In an RTS game like StarCraft, a high APM is critical, especially when a player has to simultaneously create new units, defend their base, and attack the enemy on multiple fronts. That intensity, combined with the fact that it's endlessly entertaining to watch insect-like Zerglings swarm a Terran (human) base Starship Troopers style, made StarCraft a spectator sport that both gamers and non-gamers could enjoy watching together.

For years, Blizzard dominated eSports with StarCraft, Brood War, and StarCraft 2. However, it had no idea that MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) like DOTA and League of Legends would suddenly surge in prominence and steal its throne.

The birth of the MOBA heroes

To understand where MOBAs came from, we need to take a look at StarCraft's medieval fantasy sibling, Warcraft. StarCraft was based on the same gameplay premise as Warcraft's -- the player sends workers to collect resources, builds buildings to produce attack units, and tries to take out the opponent while making sure his or her base is not ransacked.

Warcraft 3 (2002), however, encouraged faster, aggressive matches and discouraged "turtling," or building up massive defenses in hopes that the opponent would make the first move. Warcraft 3 added resource gathering penalties -- which meant that the larger a player's army was, the less resources he or she could collect. More importantly, it added "hero units" -- superpowered single units that could be leveled up to take out hordes of minions with a few attacks.

The original DOTA. Source: Wikimedia.

These "hero units" became so popular that a mod for Warcraft 3, known as DOTA, was created in 2005, in which hero units battled it out to destroy the character's fortified structures at the opposite ends of the map. This mod notably removed resource production, base management, and unit production from the game, instead focusing on the player's need to level up by killing computer-controlled units to get strong enough to dominate opposing players. Thus the modern day MOBA was born.

Riot Games, which would eventually be purchased by Chinese Internet giant Tencent, noticed DOTA's rising popularity and released the free-to-play League of Legends in October 2009, a similar MOBA game that became the most played online game in the world by the summer of 2012, with 12 million daily active users and 1.3 billion hours of total logged game time per year.

Blizzard gets caught off guard

That sudden shift in gamer preferences completely caught Blizzard off guard, knocking StarCraft 2 off the top spot as the most played eSports game in South Korea. Then last month, as a sign of the times, top StarCraft 2 player MarineKing switched over to League of Legends.

This was doubly embarrassing for Blizzard, since DOTA, the game that started all the MOBA madness, was originally a Warcraft 3 mod, and it had expected to enjoy years of dominance in eSports with its incremental releases of the StarCraft 2 trilogy. To make matters worse, Valve acquired the intellectual property rights to DOTA when Blizzard wasn't looking, and released DOTA 2 in July.

Heroes of the Storm. Source:

Now, to make up for lost time, Blizzard is releasing its own MOBA game -- Heroes of the Storm, a Super Smash Bros.-type mash-up of all its favorite characters, such as Arthas from Warcraft and Kerrigan from StarCraft. Blizzard claims that Heroes is original enough to not have to worry about competing with League of Legends or DOTA 2, but I have doubts that Blizzard will be able to fully make up for lost time by the time it is finally released.

What's next for League of Legends and eSports?

League of Legends certainly has the momentum to remain a dominant force in eSports. However, we'll have to see if DOTA 2 and upcoming titles like Heroes of the Storm will eventually throttle its growth.

Meanwhile, we'll see more sponsorships of eSports events -- Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) already inked a major partnership with Riot Games, sponsoring a new minor league of League of Legends where players can compete before going pro. With an 800-pound gorilla like Coca-Cola giving eSports a vote of confidence, it's not hard to see other major sponsors, like McDonald's or Yum! Brands being that far behind.

What's your take on the future of eSports? Let us know in the comments section below!

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