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Esports events — how are they organized?

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Creating an esports event is much more than just gathering a few gamers and mashing them together — it’s the building of a unique experience that values the competition, the entertainment, and the esports industry itself.

Esports tournaments are the fuel for a whole industry

When people think about a tournament, be it in esports or traditional sports, the first thing that comes to mind is the general definition: “teams competing in a schedule to see who will be the greatest, taking home the prize pool.” While that is exactly what happens, the setup of an esports tournament isn’t that simple. The presence of competition is what distinguishes an esport from just any game, and esports only exists because of that competition. Also, tournaments revolve around the idea of attracting a crowd: the audience is the most important part of bigger tournaments: world championships, majors, and so on.

Each esports event is an amalgamation of companies and individuals joining forces to deliver a unique, impressive show. Game developers, sponsors, the organizing company, technical professionals, journalists, teams, analysts, coaches, and finally, the players: the esports world is the sum total of devoted people bringing competitive gaming to every corner of the world. Let’s find out a bit more about the differences between esports tournaments, but first, let’s dive into its history.

The beginning: how the bases for what we know as esports were founded

A photo from the first esports tournament called "Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics". Photo credit: Rolling Stone magazine.

Looking back, it’s hard to consider the early days of tournaments something similar to what we have now. I mean, in the eighties, there were a bunch of guys playing “Space Invaders,” and they decided they would compete to see who gets the highest score. Each player had to do it on their own, as technology at that time didn’t support features such as multiplayer gaming. Nothing too fancy, and the prize money wasn’t spectacular — however, it gathered a crowd (though small) of both players and spectators, which was considered a huge success. That was the first indication that gaming could be competitive — and while it wasn’t considered an “electronic sport” for a long time, the esports concept comes from exactly that feature.

In the late ‘90s, games such as “Quake” began shaping gaming tournaments closer to what we have today. For instance, the Red Annihilation tournament featured 16 players competing for a very interesting prize pool: a Ferrari. That’s correct. A very fancy car. To this day, exotic cars are still given as prizes, to have as a memory of a tournament. The whole point is that, even in such early ages and with the Internet not yet widespread, there were already people competing and earning such prizes.

Esports events were largely shaped by the popularization of the Internet. With South Korea’s technological advancement and the acceptance of esports as an official sport in the country, which happened in the mid-‘00s, the advent of esports betting, and more engaged stakeholders, esports games became established as an important part of the entertainment industry.

2020 League of Legends World Championship. Photo credit: David Lee/Riot Games

Games such as “StarCraft II,” “Dota 2,” “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” and “League of Legends” gained attention and became part of the modern-day mainstream esports scene. In more recent days, competitors such as “VALORANT,” “Rocket League,” “Overwatch,” “Magic: Arena,” among other disciplines, also gained a lot of attention and kept their share of the esports event culture. The industry’s rapid growth made the prize money scale quickly, and with more attention garnered by newer games, the esports events themselves needed to be made even better. That brings us to what we see today.

The differences between events

Not all esports events are created with the same audience in mind, nor in the same format. Esports, much like traditional sports, has separate leagues and systems for each discipline (or game). However, esports tournaments for the same game are also, more often than not, organized differently, depending on their status.

For instance, the “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” tournament structure includes minors and majors. While both involve the same discipline — CS:GO —, a minor event has a much lower prize pool (currently $50,000 sponsored by Valve) and is usually aimed at teams from predetermined regions (i.e., a minor happening in North America will most often feature teams from North America), while a major event offers an enormous amount of prize money (in CS:GO, $1,000,000 sponsored by Valve) and is targeted at teams from all corners of the world. 

That is just an example of how the importance of esports tournaments can vary. To make everything a bit more clear, esports specialists usually determine which event is which through tiers.

Tier 1 esports tournaments: high prize pool and huge audience

A Tier 1 esports tournament is a mega-production featuring top esports teams with a massive prize pool and usually record-breaking audiences. Some examples of cutting-edge Tier 1 esports events are the League of Legends World Championship that occurs every year and usually flies up the charts as the most-watched esports event during the period, the recent Dota 2 WePlay AniMajor that gathered over 800,000 concurrent viewers with a beautiful tailor-made production (PSG.LGD took the first place and a $200,000 share of the prize pool), and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive PGL Major Stockholm 2021, which will take place from Oct 23 to Nov 7 of this year. 

The goal of Tier 1 esports events is to deliver the best that esports has to offer in terms of production, gameplay, and organizations. Only the most qualified institutions, organizers, and players are a part of those shows.

As a result, these events usually offer other entertainment options besides the games themselves. Some Tier 1 esports events include music shows, dedicated content production to generate hype, unique merchandising, and top-notch partners and sponsors doing activations, among other entertainment activities.

Also, the first division of a professional league (such as the League of Legends North-American league, the LCS) also counts as a Tier 1 esports event. Such leagues usually last one season, and they are intended to fill the spots for international competitions (the League of Legends World Championship at the end of the year, or the Mid-Season Invitational in winter).

Tier 2 esports tournament: qualifiers and yet-to-be-known players

Tier 2 esports events are usually a stepping stone for players who already gained some attention, but haven’t yet established themselves as some of the best in the world. Those events usually also work as qualifiers for the majors (the biggest events), and, as previously mentioned, they tend to be regionalized, in contrast to the worldwide Tier 1 events. 

While normally they’re not as big as Tier 1 tournaments, this sort of events is still enormously important. They gather a significant audience, usually have strong sponsors, and are also very attractive for esports betting. The prize pool of a Tier 2 event is usually somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. 

Some examples of Tier 2 esports events are the “League of Legends” Academy Leagues (the second division of each regional league), “Dota 2” and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” minors, and regionalized tournaments in different disciplines. 

Tier 3 (and below) esports tournament: finding talents and building teams

Smaller esports tournaments are incredibly important. They might not have as many concurrent viewers, but they keep the grassroots element in esports, letting smaller teams compete for a place under the sun.

Basically, anyone can create an esports tournament. However, with lower investment and a significantly lower production cost, they’re usually labeled as Tier 3 (or below, depending on the discipline) events. 

Those esports tournaments are still crucial for the well-oiled machine that is the esports industry. They help up-and-coming teams to consolidate and gain attention, while also providing a space for new players to arrive and join the scene. Moreover, they are a way for tournament organizers to gain experience, which is important for the competition over who creates the best event. 

Overall, Tier 3 esports tournaments are mostly amateur leagues and events, much more focused on online play. But don’t fool yourself: they are generally closely watched by headhunters, and the next world champion might just be arriving!

Overcoming the crisis: how esports weathered the COVID-19 pandemic

Studio of the online event OMEGA League. Photo credit: WePlay Holding

Esports didn’t come out of the COVID-19 crisis unscathed. Many actions had to be taken to ensure the security and well-being of esports athletes, coaching staff, production teams, and everyone involved with esports events. That brings us to another feature of such events: unlike traditional sports, gaming tournaments allow players the luxury to participate from home (or Internet cafés). And when they do, they are called online events.

Even though these events could indeed take place, many players dislike the experience, which led to cancellations and other problems. Being in front of a crowd cheering for your team and playing on stage brings the adrenaline rush that some professionals crave. However, the fact that teams would have to play from home was mostly well accepted by the audience; add that to the fact that the crucial parts of a gaming event, such as the grand finals, are still played on stage but without the audience — and we understand why esports overcame the pandemic crisis (slowly but surely).

LAN events

Gaming tournaments held over a LAN are offline events played on stage, with the players physically present, and usually with a crowd of spectators. Those events can vary in importance. LAN events were the foundation of esports: it was very common in the early ‘00s to spend the night in a LAN house fragging some fools in “Counter-Strike 1.6.”

Also, LAN events have other advantages. While the occurrences are uncommon, the physical presence of the players makes it impossible to cheat, the time control is much more accurate, the organizer can deal with the technical support more easily, and it provides the already mentioned adrenaline rush for the players. Therefore, important stages of tournaments are usually played in this format. It’s very rare, even in these pandemic days, to see the grand finals of an event being held online. Riot Games, for instance, decided to hold some “League of Legends” matches online and others on stage, as a way to keep the players motivated and their audiences more engaged.

Online events

However, sometimes on-site events are simply impossible. They can be too expensive (for the organizers and the players as well), or too risky. The great advantage of esports is that you can play your favorite discipline from your team’s gaming house or from your place, and the results won’t suffer.

Online tournaments are much more common in mid-tier, regional events. While the biggest esports tournaments most often happen on stage, in many cases teams can play from their rigs, dealing with connection issues themselves, and, well, keep the show going. 

Who organizes those events?

Depending on the discipline, different institutions are responsible for creating the events. Some companies take the approach of organizing the professional circuits themselves (most notably, Riot Games), while Valve choose to handpick tournament organizers who excel in their business to create their events.

Tournament organizers

Most commonly, esports tournaments are created by tournament organizers, such as the Electronic Sports League (ESL), WePlay Esports from WePlay Holding, or Intel Extreme Masters (IEM). Those companies are major players in the esports scene since they have to cater to the needs of professional players, their teams, and the audience alike, developing one-of-a-kind experiences and tournaments. Smaller tournaments can be created by amateur companies or even individuals seeking to revive the grassroots foundations that we previously mentioned.

Game developers

Game developers also have a hand in the organization of their leagues. The most common example is Riot Games. While “League of Legends” is a very widely played game, the World Championship (as well as regional leagues) is held and organized by Riot Games themselves. That also happens with the Overwatch League, created in the same “franchise system” business model.

Next events to keep an eye on

The biggest esports events happening are a joy to watch, even if you’re not particularly interested in the discipline itself. They’re such a show, and their production is so well-made that they’re worth a shot watching.

League of Legends World Championship 2021

2021 League of Legends World Championship. Image credit: Riot Games

Traditionally, “League of Legends” has one of the biggest audiences, and it’s not very difficult to understand why. The production effort is massive, and the World Championship has 24 teams competing from everywhere in the world — from South Korea to South America. The prize pool is also impressive, with $2.25 million dollars on the line. 

The “World Cup” in League of Legends will happen in Iceland from Oct 5 to Nov 6, 2021 — it was supposed to happen in China, but we are still facing the consequences of the COVID-19 insecurity. It’s generating a lot of hype, especially after fans’ favorite teams (such as G2 Esports) failed to qualify, which indicates how high the bar was set.

Dota 2 The International 10 

Dota 2 The International 10. Image credit: Valve

The biggest prize pool in the history of esports to date: $40 million. That’s right. Forty million dollars. That should already be enough to convince you to watch this event. The International 10 will happen in Bucharest, Romania, from Oct 7 to 17, 2021. 

Dota 2 is still one of the most popular games in the scene, and its esports tournaments (majors, regional leagues, and this premier event) are always exciting and always bring the viewers new forms of esports tournament culture.

VALORANT Champions Tour 2021

VALORANT Champions Tour 2021. Image credit: Riot Games

Video games are constantly evolving. New disciplines spring up almost overnight, and VALORANT is one of the latest successes designed by Riot Games. In November, after many regional battles, the 16 top-rated teams will fight for the title of world champion.

Like many times in competitive gaming, the teams participating in this massive event will qualify through a ranking system, leaving spots only for the best of the best.

PGL Stockholm Major

PGL Stockholm Major. Image credit: PGL ESPORTS

All the above-mentioned esports tournaments are not only Tier 1 but premier events, which means they have immense prize pools and count as “world cups”. The exception made for the PGL Stockholm Major, running from Oct 23 until Nov 7, is because this championship is the first CS:GO offline event since the pandemic outbreak.

With $2 million on the line (doubling down the standard total prize money for regular CS:GO majors), the event is happening in the midst of hype generated by the absence of LAN CS:GO tournaments during the COVID-19 issue. Everyone expects this to be one of the greatest Counter-Strike tournaments ever, so be sure to check it out!

The future and more

Dire times. Events being canceled, postponed, or held without public. You would expect that the esports industry wouldn’t grow in such a difficult period.

Well, that’s absolutely not what happened. Esports audience is higher than ever, with a consistent growth rate in comparison to previous years. The total disputed prize pool is also bigger than ever before. The best teams in multiple disciplines are still evolving, and we’re ready to see new world records, more partner activation initiatives, and expand our reach. 

Today, there’s no such a thing as the “largest esports event”, because they’re all important and incredibly popular. The esports competition is getting tougher every day, which leads to new, more complex events with larger prize pools, more stakeholders, dynamic esports betting, and more.

Esports tournaments are definitely settled as one of the most important segments of the entertainment industry. And they won’t be stopped. 

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  • Last Update 27 October 2021
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