by Carlton Whitfield.
Tue 07 Jan 2020 16:19, last updated: 07/01/20
We have just witnessed the end of a decade that saw esports go from a virtually unknown pursuit to a cultural phenomenon. At the start of 2010 the concept of watching teams play a video game against one another was alien to most people. Twitch had not been launched and high-speed broadband was still a novelty.
That year there were just 972 esports tournaments the total prize money stood at $6 million and there were 3,337 active players. By 2019, the total prize money hit $225 million across 4,659 tournaments and there were 23,575 players. Global viewership has gone past the 450 million mark and many pro gamers and multimillionaires with huge social media followings and eye-watering sponsorship deals.
The scene would not have flourished unless there were some truly special games and these are the five biggest esports titles of the past decade:
1. League of Legends
LoL was undoubtedly the biggest esport of the past decade. University of Southern California graduates Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill launched it in 2009 as a free-to-play game that would benefit from ongoing updates to ensure it stayed fresh and relevant long into the future. The firm they set up, Riot Games, has made a fortune by charging for in-game microtransactions, making LoL one of the most successful video games in history.
The professional scene began in 2010 and it has grown into a behemoth. There are now four major leagues across the world – in Korea, China, North America and Europe – and each year the best in the business come together to vie for glory at the World Championship. In 2018 it drew in
more viewers than the Super Bowl. It has attracted huge sponsorship deals, from MasterCard to Nike, while it dominates esports news and wagers.
The decade saw the rise of Faker, as the SK Telecom T1 mid laner became the most famous esports star in the world. It witnessed an extended period of Korean dominance, which was snapped when the Worlds Grand Final was contested by a Chinese and a European team in 2018. FunPlus Phoenix secured a second consecutive victory for China in 2019, and the pro LoL scene is currently extremely competitive, so it enters a new decade in a very healthy position.
2. Dota 2
This highly popular MOBA title has established itself as by far and away the most lucrative esport over the past decade. It was launched in 2013 and Valve decided to incorporate a battle pass model known as the Compendium. That allows players to buy in-game content and a quarter of the proceeds is channelled into the prize pool of the year’s biggest tournament, The International.
In 2013, prize money at The International was $2.9 million and it shot up to $10.9 million the following year. It then continued an astonishing upward march: $18.4 million in 2015, $20.8 million in 2016, $24.7 million in 2017 and $25.5 million in 2018. In 2019, Fortnite publisher Epic Gamers launched the $30 million Fortnite World Cup in a bid to turn it into a major esport, so Dota 2 players reacted by spending big and pushing the prize money for The International 2019 up to $34.3 million.
It means that the top 11 earners of the decade all played Dota 2. It has dished out a total of $220 million at 1,295 tournaments, leaving it well ahead of second placed CS:GO, which has awarded total prize money of $90.3 million at 12,416 tournaments. LoL had first mover advantage over Dota 2, and it remains slightly more popular, but Dota 2 has had tremendous success within the field of esports. Watching a pro match take place is an astonishing spectacle, as highly skilled mathematical wizards and tacticians vie for supremacy when the stakes are extremely high.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is the most important first-person shooter in the esports sector and it has the broadest professional scene. It has more active pro players than any other game and it has hosted more tournaments than all of its peers. It has been another huge money-spinner for Valve and it should have a strong future ahead of it after building up a large and passionate community over the past decade.
The game was launched in August 2012, building on the success of the previous games in the Counter-Strike series. Like its predecessors, it is a multiplayer FPS that sees teams of five try to kill one another while completing a secondary objective. It was the first FPS title with a high enough skill ceiling to really flourish as an esport, and the game’s depth allows for really high levels of strategy and some insane moments of individual ability to shine through.
The past decade witnessed the rise and fall of FaZe Clan and it ended with two years of utter dominance from Danish team Astralis. That dominance has not dented the appeal of CS:GO, as several exciting teams are battling to seize top spot in the world rankings and anything could happen in future.
4. StarCraft II
Blizzard released this real-time strategy game in 2010 and it was met with universal acclaim. It sold more than 3 million copies in the first month and it has gone on to become one of the most popular esports of all time. The original StarCraft: Brood War already boasted a thriving pro scene, and that eventually shifted over StarCraft II after both ran concurrently for a number of years.
It has been popular all over the world, but StarCraft II has become a national pastime in Korea. Matches are broadcast on TV and the best players are massive celebrities. It has not been as lucrative as rival esports – the WCS Global Finals offered $700,000 in prize money in 2017, 2018 and 2019 and no other tournament has exceeded that figure – but it is enough for many players to make a living, and it is still going strong.
5. Super Smash Bros. Melee
Melee was launched all the way back in 2001 and its popularity still endures to this very day. It features characters from Nintendo franchises like Mario, Zelda, Star Fox and Pokemon and brings them into the fighting game genre. It has featured in many competitive tournaments over the past decade, with a bigger pro scene than even Street Fighter and Tekken.
Evo 2016 contained the largest ever Melee tournament, with 2,350 entrants, and in 2017 the Smash Summit 5 Singles tournament carried the game’s biggest ever prize pool. None of the tournaments have offered more than $100,000 in prize money, but there have been a total of 2,584 pro Melee events in total over the years. Only CS:GO and StarCraft II have had more.
Some esports started the decade in a blaze of glory and then faded. WarCraft III and Halo 3 spring to mind. Others burst onto the scene and enjoyed a period of popularity before fading out of sight, such as Heroes of the Storm and Smite. Some gained serious momentum towards the end of the decade, especially Overwatch, Hearthstone, Fortnite, PUBG and R6S, while the likes of Rocket League have done well, but Melee was one of the most popular esports throughout the entire decade and it thoroughly deserves a place in the competitive gaming hall of fame.