Despite its growing popularity and cultural relevance in 2024, esports is still surprisingly hard to define.
The relationship between gaming and esports — where one stops and the other begins — is often murky, and as a result there’s a myriad of interpretations for what counts as esports. To define what makes a video game an esport, one first must go back to the basics.
Esports (a portmanteau of ‘electronic sports’) is sometimes colloquially referred to as competitive gaming. However, not all competitive gaming is considered esports.
Even in video games that are considered esports (like League of Legends and Counter-Strike), online ranked matches played between ordinary gamers are typically not considered esports by many people. This stands in contrast to traditional sports, where even friendly matches between amateurs are widely considered to be sports activity.
While exact wording differs, ‘esports’ is most commonly defined as organised video game competitions played for spectators. These are usually online virtual tournaments, or in-person events, played for online spectators and/or a crowd.
However, complicating matters further, not all games that feature competitive modes or competitive gameplay are considered ‘esports titles’ in popular conception. Rather, the label of ‘esports title’ is typically reserved for games which have sustained, established esports scenes surrounding them. This usually takes the form of regular leagues, tournament circuits or other competitions that attract sizable audiences.
For example, Minecraft allows for player-vs-player (PvP) combat, which players in theory can compete in — but Minecraft is not generally considered an esports title because the competitive scene in the game is minor.
Meanwhile, League of Legends is indisputably a dominant esports title as the game’s esports ecosystem consists of various tournaments and leagues that scale from national to global events, with some of its tier-one competitions attracting millions of spectators.
Additionally, whether the video game has a core focus on competitive game modes is another common (though not an essential) criteria. Counter-Strike, Dota 2, VALORANT, Street Fighter and other leading esports titles all have competitive player-vs-player game modes as their core gameplay, for which there are numerous popular tournaments and leagues. Nonetheless, modest esports scenes have developed around some games without competitive PvP game modes at their core.
How big of a competitive scene does a game need to become an esports title?
Ultimately, the question of how big an esports scene has to be before it is considered an ‘esports title’ is subjective, and varies according to the whims of popular opinion. While the subjective elements above are informally agreed by many, the consensus of which games count as esports titles changes over time.
Indeed, as esports has grown as an industry and as a phenomenon, the concept has arguably broadened to become more inclusive. These days, many games not considered esports titles are developing esports communities of their own.
Unconventional forms of competition like speedrunning (where players compete to complete a game or piece of in-game content in the quickest time possible) are increasingly being seen as esports. An example of that is World of Warcraft’s Race to World First, where players race to beat computer-controlled characters rather than each other.
Niche, not-traditionally-competitive games are developing dedicated esports communities, including Farming Simulator and even GeoGuessr. As chess is more frequently played and broadcast online, the 1500-year old game is also increasingly being seen as an esport.
So what makes a video game an esport? Technically, competitive player-vs-player video games with significant esports infrastructure form the core of what are considered esports titles. But players have found ways to make almost any form of video game competitive, as evidenced by the breadth of examples above.
Ultimately, it is up to how the fanbases that surround each game, and the wider esports community, choose to frame it that determines when a video game becomes an esport.