2 May





 min read

What Makes a Game an Esport?

We know what you’re thinking. “Esports are competitive games!” Yes. But, you already know that if we are beginning an article with a big question, we’re about to have some in-depth answers.

Let’s crack open the soda-covered video game history books a little. The past 40 (or so) years have created what we know as esports today. Esports are video games that lead to opportunities in competitive play, streaming, and careers.

For this article, we’ll use skateboarding as our analogy for this journey through pixeled time. Both video games and skateboarding have transcended pure recreation and have become highly competitive and internationally branded sports businesses. Yet, they both maintain strong audiences and participation from laypersons.

But, just incase we take you down too nerdy of a path, we’ll give you a quick preview: What makes a game an esport? An ability to play the game for more than just yourself.

Competitive Play

It is true. The easiest way to think of esports is competitive play. According to Sky Kauweloa, Director of University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Esports Program Competitive play is at the heart of esports. But just calling that misses the full impact.

Oftentimes, that perception is derived from our present-day image of esports. And that is intentional. Competitive play is the most important facet of what makes a game an esport in our public consciousness, but it isn’t the only component. Competitive play is how new audiences are garnered. New audiences ultimately support and sustain the entire industry.

Media outlets show highlight reels of young men and women fixated on a computer, their video game displayed on massive screens above them. A stadium full of people is bursting at the seams watching the game’s competitive play unfold. If you closed your eyes, you’d think you were at an NBA basketball game (minus the basketball dribbling sounds).

All of this oozes the drama and adrenaline of competitive sports. Making esports similar to the NFL or NBA roots new audiences in something that is familiar, exciting, and natural. Humans are excited by competition, supporting teams, and feeling connected to talented individuals just by watching them.

Skateboarding has taken the same approach. The most famous skateboarder, Tony Hawk, was never just a skateboarder. He was a promoter of the sport to all people. Small competitions for skateboarding began early in the sport’s history. Video game competitions also began when Pac-man still ran on quarters.

It is when competing in a game becomes a scalable business that something new is forged.

When Tony Hawk grew his fame, he brought skateboarding as a whole with him. For many leading skateboarders of his generation, their participation and organization of massive tournaments, utilization of mass media (television and early online video services), and alignment with known brands across industries solidified a culture of sports and media. We now refer to this as Extreme Sports.

Esports is the growth of video games from recreation to business model. Esports growth is now being propelled by rapid developments in streaming and telecommunications. These developments massively improve access to viewership and play.

But, do all esports games and fans watch games that are competitive? Spoiler alert, Animal Crossing doesn’t keep score but people play and watch that in droves (especially during the height of the pandemic).

Streaming and Careers

Some people leave on re-runs of Friends when they fall asleep, some people leave on Twitch. Despite esports having “sports” in the title, esports as a whole is not just about playing to win.

As Kauweloa describes, “esports for many people starts as just playing for fun and finding out you’re good at it. Then it becomes something else with intended and unintended impacts. With the growing accessibility viewers have enjoyed, creators and streamers have equally entered a new generation of content creation. It is when playing a game joins an ecosystem of content creation and viewership that it becomes an esport.

For example, maybe you really like Pong. No judgement, it is a cornerstone of the industry. You play it at night on some random website you found. It calms you down after a long day. You eventually realize you can never lose. You think to yourself, “I’d really like people to see how good I am with the black and white lines.” You set up a streaming account and just go for it. Soon, with some marketing, consistency, and views from your mom, you are making money off of your stream. A brand has even created a lucrative partnership with you.

Are you playing in a stadium? No. But, you’re playing for an audience and it isn’t just recreation anymore. Many good skateboarders are not considered professional because they aren’t building a career from it. But, they could work towards that if they wanted to. The extreme sports industry and paths are paved for them.

In this way, every game can be an esport. It’s just if you want to make the transition from hobby to career.

Playing The Game

Kauweloa notes that, right now, some of the top games in esports for schools and leagues are titles like Valorant, League of Legends, Super Smash Brothers, and Rocket League. Some have early-adopter traditions in school settings or are easily accessible for diverse age groups to compete. They all boast impressive viewership at the collegiate and lower school levels, too.

In a school setting, competition and participation in leagues is the easiest and most effective way to grow a full-fledged esports department. Just like in mass media, it is the excitement of competitive games that build the school’s foundations in esports as a whole.

It is important to remember that any game can be seen as an esport, though. Allowing students the space to create gaming clubs allows them to practice the other transferable skills of content creation, for example. Even if a student doesn’t want to be a competitive player, we must still create avenues for them to participate in the full esports experience.

Find out more on the Vanta Leagues website.

With a degree in English from the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa (UHM), Tzana Saldania is passionate about science and communication. She is currently the Communications Coordinator for the Center for Advancing Education at Mid-Pacific Institute and has worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Hawaii’s Perception and Attention Psychology Laboratory, aiding in research related to Statistical Learning in video game players.

Spread the word.

Vanta BLOG