Esports is considered by many to be the fastest growing sport in the world. Its estimated audience has grown in the last several years from below 300 million (2019) to above 470 million (2021), and that number is projected to grow to just under 600 million in the next 3 years. While these numbers are still below the estimated number of fans of more traditional sports, its rapid growth makes it unique and has drawn many investors looking to get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning sports market. A career in the business sector of esports or as an athlete is entirely possible and even lucrative now. Clearly esports is here to stay, but which one dominates fans' hearts? Which one is the most developed and covered sport? Without further small talk, here is the breakdown of some of the top esports that people are watching, playing, and getting paid for.
Several things were taken into account to create the rankings, but the primary stat was the number of live hours viewed (a stat covering the coverage of the sport and the number of viewers). The statistics are taken from several articles, statistics websites, and league pages.
Garena Free Fire
This mobile battle royale game was released in 2017. This game seems to be setting records and breaking barriers left and right. It has grossed more than $4 billion worldwide, and for its first world series in Singapore 2021, Garena Free Fire broke the esports global viewership record with more than 5.4 million peak concurrent viewers.
Daily Players: 650,000 to 800,000 (approx. 6-7 million monthly avg.)
Live hours viewed: 26 million
Cumulative prize pools: 4.66 million dollars
Big Events: OWL mid-season final and grand final
Overwatch is a hybrid, a multiplayer FPS with a MOBA structure. Two teams of six players use unique champion abilities in objective-based gameplay. This game joined the Esports scene in 2018 with the inaugural season of OWL (overwatch league). After three years, OWL has 20 total teams playing in 2 regions for regular season play and 4 total tournaments. Though the fast pace of the game and early design issues with its spectator mode diminished viewership initially, Overwatch League has grown both in design and popularity in the last several years and is one to watch.
Mobile Legends: Bang Bang
Monthly active players: 78 million
Live hours viewed: 387.29 million
Biggest Tournament prize pool: 805,000
Big Events: ML World Championship
Certainly a contender for most popular MOBA, Mobile Legends is done in the style of a classic MOBA with 2 teams of 5 players controlling champions on their phones. Victory depends solely on skill, ability, and strategy. As the game achieved success, Moonton created several regional tournaments that serve as a qualifier for the Mobile Legends World Championship. 15 countries have participated so far with more to follow. Though it can’t claim the most popular esport title, Mobile Legends is dominating the mobile esports scene with only Pubg Mobile on its tail.
Active Monthly Players: 268-272 million players
Live hours viewed: 94 million
Cumulative prize pools: 7.88 million dollars
Big Events: FNCS and Fortnite World Cup
Oh yeah! It's Fortnite baby! The battle royale game thought by many to be in decline after a falling out with Apple in 2020 has come back stronger than ever. Fortnite is the game with the highest player base with an estimated 350 million registered players. With such a large player base, it makes sense that the esports scene for Fortnite has an incredibly high number of potential viewers as well. So why isn’t it number one on everyone’s list for the most popular esport? That largely has to do with the structure of Fortnite competitions, investment, and of course COVID. Fortnite as an esport consists of a plethora of LAN-based tournaments/cups set up and facilitated by Epic Games. This structure of roaming tournaments/cups in different places was impossible to maintain during the COVID shutdown and, in general, provides less coverage of the sport than does a league with regular weekly games. Additionally, investors were not as quick to pour into Fortnite as they were with other esports with more consistent content and sponsorship. Thus, the economy for Fortnite’s esports scene is only developed enough for approximately 1000 or so professional players to make a living playing it. This number is far lower than other esports such as LOL & CS: GO. Despite that, Fortnite’s cups and tournaments have started to happen again, and their player base remains strong. And they just signed a $2 billion investment deal this year. This game is on the rise.
The Old Guard
It’s likely that if you clicked this link you knew you’d see three particular esports listed near the top. The title of most popular esport has bounced around between these three for several years and has been hotly debated by many a gamer. If Quake and Starcraft are the grandfathers of competitive esports then these three games are the champions of it.
Defense of the Ancients 2 (Dota 2)
Active monthly players: 7 million
Live hours viewed: 346.64 million
Biggest Tournament prize pool: 47.73 million
Big Events: The International
Dota 2 is a MOBA developed and published by Valve. Though the official release of Dota 2 was in 2013, the game has been in the competitive esports scene much longer. Dota 2 started as a community-created mod of Warcraft 3 called Defense of the Ancients (Dota). The mod soon exploded in popularity and right onto the esports scene. A few years later, they made it into an official game that boasts the highest cumulative prize pool for a tournament in esports. This game has an extremely loyal fan base. In fact, the giant prize pool of Dota 2’s International has no sponsorship and is all due to a very lucrative crowdfunding campaign that the fans take part in. From many perspectives, Dota 2 is the MOBA that has the most versatile gameplay. It is known to be “hard to get into”. The lack of roles for champions, a complex itemization system, and patches that change the game entirely can make it hard to succeed as a newcomer to the game, which is likely why it has a smaller player base than others on this list. But that being said, those who master the game get to experience a reward like no other. In a game of chaos filled with players that have masterful reactivity and prioritization, they emerged victorious as only true masters of the game can. This game is said to be the most popular among professional players with several thousand pros participating in the professional scene.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO)
Active monthly players: 20 million
Live Hours Viewed: 410.81 million
Cumulative prize pools: 21.17 million
Big Events: ESL Pro League Finals and CS:GO Majors
The Counter-Strike series has a history of over 20 years of competition. As the newest iteration of the series, CS:GO is not letting it down. The game stays true to its previous versions. It is an objective-based multiplayer FPS. Two teams, terrorist and counter-terrorist, compete to either rescue/defend hostages or plant/defuse bombs. At The Game Awards 2017, 2019, and 2020, CS:GO won the award for “Best Esports Game”. And there is good reason. As one of the few non-battle royale FPSs in esports, CS:GO is unique and extremely well designed for viewership. As the premier professional CS:GO league in the world, the ESL Pro League takes full advantage of this. The League is based on four regions covering the world and includes 24 teams each season. The finals and each Major tournament are huge events with big prize pools giving CS:GO the economy to support multiple thousands of pro players. CS:GO has held the title of “most popular esport” many times since its induction. So though it is less popular than the number one game on our list right now, there will always be a possibility that CS:GO will claim the title once more.
League of Legends (LOL)
Active Monthly Players: 180 million
Live Hours Viewed: 664.16 million
Cumulative prize pools: 7.68 million
Big Events: MSI, League of Legends Worlds
Ok, I mean, you knew it was coming. Coming on the scene in 2009, League of Legends quickly became one of the most popular esports ever. The game is a MOBA, and much like Dota 2, features a 5v5 team battle with players able to pick different champions with various abilities. LOL’s professional scene consists of 12 professional sports international leagues (Tier 1) each with several teams representing 40 countries around the world. That does not include the plethora of Tier 2 leagues and Collegiate leagues that exist for each of the regions. One reason for the game's low prize pool numbers is due to franchised teams and sponsorships. Players sign contracts and get paid salaries rather than rely solely on prize money. LOL’s international events have seen a staggering amount of viewership for an esport with last years’ Worlds being seen by an estimated 75 million people. Amongst all MOBAs, LOL is notoriously easy to pick up for new players with its clearly defined champion roles, simplified item builds, and game engine that can run off almost any PC. Combine that with a metric ton of media coverage for its competitions and what you have is an extremely popular esport that is only drawing more and more people to it every year. This is how League of Legends obtained the most enviable attribute of any budding enterprise... long-term stability. Despite LOL being one of the oldest games on the list, it still reigns supreme in the world of esports. And as its history has shown us, it isn’t giving up the crown anytime soon.
Learn more about Vanta youth esports leagues by exploring our website www.vanta.gg.
Garrett White lives in Houston Texas with the most amazing woman in the world, his wife. Any time he isn’t running D&D, playing video games, or reading a book, he is writing short stories and articles about one of those things.