If we had to pick one word to describe the rise of esports, it would be ‘meteoric’. From complete obscurity a decade ago, esports has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Gone are the days when groups of friends would gather at someone’s home to play a multiplayer video game. Today, all the best video games let you compete against other gamers around the world – often for money.
Just how big has esports become? From 2012 to 2019 the global viewership for esports tournaments more than tripled to 443 million, ahead of American football and golf, according to a Green Man Gaming report. Around 25,000 professionals competed on the esports circuit last year for $173 million in prize money. Additionally, hundreds of millions of gamers around the world play multiplayer video games just for fun.
The most popular esports games tend to be massive online battle arena (MOBA) games. In this genre, two esports teams compete against each other, with each individual player controlling a single character in their team. These games are a fusion of several video game genres, including real-time strategy, role play, and action. Esports games based on real sports like basketball, soccer, and American football have also surged in popularity as live sports have shut down due to the coronavirus.
On this page we rank the top 10 esports games based on factors like popularity, accessibility, quality, and potential prize money for those who go pro:
League of Legends has consistently been one of the most popular esports games since its launch in 2009. LoL is a game where two teams of five powerful champions face off to destroy the other’s base. One big reason for its appeal is that it’s free to play. Another is its combination of real-time strategy, role playing, and tower/attack defense, which helps it stand out from the mass of MOBA games on the market.
In 2019 Lol generated $1.5 billion in revenue from sales of in-game items, the second-most among free-to-play PC games, according to SuperData. League esports dished out $9 million in prize money last year, putting it sixth among all esports games, according to The Esports Observer.
Rocket League has – pardon the pun – rocketed up the esports popularity rankings in recent years. Its appeal is in its simplicity. Described as ‘soccer with rocket-powered cars’, Rocket League pits two teams controlling up to four cars against one another. The aim is to use the cars to hit a soccer ball into the opponent’s goal.
Launched in 2015, Rocket League now boasts more than 40 million amateur gamers around the world. It became an esport in 2016 when Psyonix launched the twice-yearly Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS). The RLCS now offers more than $1 million in prize money per year, and additional prize money is on offer through other Rocket League tournaments.
Overwatch is a first-person shooter game that divides players into two teams of six characters. The secret to Overwatch’s success is its accessibility. It includes customizable controls, several different game modes, and a selection of 30 characters with varying skill sets. Overwatch made headlines in 2016 when a gamer with cerebral palsy made his first kill in a video game.
Overwatch is big in esports. It paid out $9.1 million in 2019, putting it fifth among all esports games. It is set to become even bigger once Overwatch 2 launches. The standalone sequel was announced at BlizzCon in November 2019, although an exact release date is still to be confirmed.
Call of Duty makes it onto this list purely because of its longevity. Following the launch of the original World War II-themed game in 2003, Call of Duty has had dozens of spinoffs, the most recent being Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2019. This game remains a favorite among fans of pure first-person shooter games with historic or futuristic themes.
Call of Duty’s existence predates the rise of esports, but that hasn’t stopped it being a focus of esports tournaments. Activision Blizzard’s new Call of Duty League – featuring Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 – dished out $6 million in prize money in 2019.
PUBG is a Korean-made multiplayer battle royale game inspired by the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale. In this game, up to 100 players parachute onto a desert island and scavenge for weapons and equipment to kill competing players. Like Overwatch, it accommodates players of varying skill levels.
The PC and console versions of Battlegrounds have sold more than 60 million units. In addition, PUBG Mobile has been downloaded more than 600 million times. Despite being a relatively new game, PUBG esports tournaments paid out $12.71 million in 2019, making it the fourth-most valuable esports game.
Fortnite is available in three distinct modes although it is best-known for one of these: Fortnite Battle Royale. This shooter-survival game pits up to 100 players against each other in a fight to be the last player standing. The reasons for Fortnite’s dramatic success are that it is free to play and is highly addictive. There is something about the cartoonish graphics and the characters’ signature dance moves that gets players hooked.
Since its launch in 2017, Fortnite has broken every record imaginable. It boasts around 250 million players worldwide, clearly number one among all multiplayer video games. It generated $1.8 billion in revenue from sales of in-game items last year, again number one. And it paid out $64.4 million at esports competitions in 2019, 18% more than its nearest competitor.
Dota 2 is popular with the expert gamers, due to its complexity. Launched as a sequel to Defense of the Ancients, Dota 2 features two teams of five players, in which each player controls a ‘hero’ with unique abilities and unique style of play. The aim of this game is to destroy the other team's ‘ancient’, a large structure located within their base.
Dota 2’s complexity is also the main reason for its popularity in esports. Valve, the company behind Dota 2, manages the Data Pro Circuit, a series of events that lead to The International, the biggest esports tournament in terms of prize money for five years running.
Also from Valve, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is the fourth and most popular game in the Counter-Strike series. The game pits two teams against each other: terrorists and counter-terrorists. Both teams must eliminate the other while also completing separate objectives such as planting/preventing bombs from being planted or taking/rescuing hostages.
Luckily for fans, CS:GO transitioned to a free-to-play model in 2018, collecting revenue exclusively from sales of cosmetic items. Despite being around since 2012, CS:GO remains third for overall prize money after paying out $21.1 million in 2019.
NBA 2K earns its place on the list as the best overall sports simulation game. It has been released annually since 1999, and recently transitioned into an esports game. The game has become more and more realistic every year, so much so that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell whether you’re watching a video game or a real NBA broadcast. This is one of the best games to play with friends who like sports.
With the postponement of real NBA games due to COVID-19, live NBA 2K has become a flagship of ESPN esports broadcasts. The NBA 2K League launched in 2018 and the first two titles were won by Knicks Gaming and Wolves Gaming.
Few esports games can claim to be an all-time classic like Mortal Kombat. Part of the Mortal Kombat series that began in 1992 and even spawned a blockbuster movie, Mortal Kombat 11 sends characters back in time to face their old rivals and try to alter the present. This is great for gamers aged 35+ who want to feel nostalgia.
Developer NetherRealm Studios began running a series of Mortal Kombat esports events in 2019, consisting of regional qualification and global grand finals.