Esports Tournaments and Leagues

People have been captivated by gaming for many decades now. Competitive gaming or esports as a form of mainstream entertainment, has only been around for the past couple of years. In esports tournaments, competitive gamers are pitted against each other and compete for the ever-increasing prize pools. Turn back the time to 1972 and the first prize in a tournament was a one-year magazine subscription. Rewind the time to 2020 and the prize pool for an esports tournament can be as much as $40,000,000 where the first place finishing team walks away with more than $15,000,000. Esports tournaments have come a long way since its humble beginnings.

History of competitive gaming

Before the $40,000,000 esports prize pools, before the 100,000,000 stream view counts, there used to be humbler times. In the world’s first competitive gaming tournament, the first prize was a one year’s subscription of Rolling Stones magazine. This was all the way back in 1972. Stanford University invited players to compete in the game Spacewar, a game which was developed in 1962. Apart from some local newspaper headlines, the tournament didn’t bring much awareness to the public eye.

It would take another eight years until competitive gaming blipped up on the mainstream radar. In 1980, the legendary gaming company Atari held the Space Invader Championship. The tournament featured over 10,000 participants from across North America and drew news headlines across the regions.

Another significant milestone in competitive gaming was achieved during the 80s, a company called Twin Galaxies was created. The founder, Walter Day, travelled across North America and visited hundreds of arcade halls. While visiting, he recorded high scores of each game. Walter then went onto open up his own arcade hall and released the compilation of high scores he had collected. The high scores came to be called Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard and functioned as an official scoreboard for arcade gaming. Twin Galaxies started arranging competitions for top players.

As gaming grew so did the interest for video gaming competitions. Competitions in best-seller titles like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong arcades even made it onto television during the early 80s and made its mark on popular culture. However, it would take another couple of years and new technology for competitive gaming to get widespread attention around the world.

History of esports

Towards the very end of the 80s and beginning of 90s, an arms race unfolded between video game producers, where video game technology made significant leaps during a few years. The arms race was between Sega and Nintendo, who both released two legendary gaming consoles at the time. Sega Genesis and the SNES – Super Nintendo Entertainment System. As parts of this First Console Wars, Nintendo helped competitive gaming to grow. In order to for Nintendo to gain an edge over Sega, they hosted the Nintendo World Championships in 1990 and 1994. Tournaments were held in classic fighting games like Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom and Nintendo Smash Bros. Events like these helped pave the way for the first esports tournaments towards the end of the 90s. Around the same time, the internet started becoming accessible to households, households that simultaneously had PCs available. Computer games like Quake, Counter-Strike, Starcraft and Warcraft became popular bestsellers.

Quake tournaments became popular, and one of these tournaments is widely regarded as the first real esports tournament, the Red Annihilation. As internet and home PCs were mainstream, over 2000 contestants competed against each other online in one-versus-one competitions in Quake. The playing field was reduced to 16 players who were subsequently invited to play offline at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. The 16 players were flown to Atlanta, Georgia where spectators could watch the tournament live while more spectators were following the first-ever esports tournament online. The first prize in the Red Annihilation was a second-hand Ferrari 328 GTS.

Towards the very end of the 90s classic esports tournaments and leagues were established; Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), the Professional Gamers League and Quakecon. Counter-Strike, Starcraft, Warcraft and Quake had professionals regularly competing for esports prize pools as large as $15,000 in esports leagues and tournaments.

At the turn of the millennium, major international esports tournaments were hosted; World Cyber Games (WCG), Electronic Sports World Cup and Major League Gaming (MLG). The two esports that attracted the largest prize pool at that time was Counter-Strike and Starcraft: Broodwar.

Modern esports tournaments

The successor of Starcraft: Broodwar helped push esports to new heights. The game publisher, Blizzard Entertainment spent many years developing Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty. After the game’s release, Blizzard hosted esports tournaments with large prize pools. It was in relation to these esports tournaments in Starcraft 2 that sportsbooks started offering odds on esports semi-regularly. Around the same time League of Legends was released and the game developer Riot Games made a push for esports. In 2011, they ran the first season of League of Legends World Championship which boasted a prize pool of $100,000. The amount of $100,000 was huge for the time.

The next year, 2012,  Valve released Counter-Strike: Global Offensive complete with competitive play and ranking system. CSGO became an instant hit with an already huge player base from previous CSGO versions. Already active Counter-Strike esports pros like Neo, GeT_RiGhT and f0rest transitioned to the new game version where they dominated the competitive scene. GeT_RiGhT and f0rest together with the rest of the CSGO team Ninjas in Pyjamas would go on to dominate CSGO for a long time, in 2012 they started a streak where they went undefeated for 87 maps in a row – winning many CSGO tournaments in the process. At the time the esports prize pools were small compared to today’s standards, where the first prize could be as low as $15,000. If NiP had gone 87-0 in 2020, they’d make more than a million dollars in the process.

The largest prize pool for an esports tournament ever recorded was last year’s Dota 2 The International. Dota revolutionized the gaming world with a new genre in the mid-2000s when MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) was born. Dota quickly gained a pro circuit throughout the 2000s. It wasn’t until Dota 2 that Valve made a real push into esports and organized esports tournaments. Dota 2 made a name for itself as an esports before it was even available to the public. The game was released in 2014 but made headlines even before that. As part of a publicity stunt, Valve organized the first-ever Dota 2 tournament with a $1,600,000 prize pool in 2011. The largest prize pool ever recorded at that time. No other esports tournament had ever come close it. Even today, ten years later, it’s not too common to see esports prize pools in the $1,600,000 territory. Last year’s edition of Dota 2 the International had a prize pool of $34,300,000.

No other esports comes even close to the sums that are up for grabs in Dota 2 tournaments. That doesn’t mean that esports tournaments for other game titles are not lucrative. The professional esports tournament and league circuit in most esports today are worth millions of dollars in prize money on a yearly basis.

Top esports tournaments and leagues according to prize pools

As we already mentioned, Dota 2 has massive prize pools for its esports tournaments. Next edition of the International is on course to exceed $40,000,000, edging it even further away from the other esports. To give some more perspective into the popularity and commercial success of different esports, we put together a list based on data from the site Esports Earnings. This list contains the ten most popular esports based on the aggregated value of all esports prize pools for different esports leagues and tournaments.

List of popular esports based on total prize money:

  1. Dota 2 – $227,914,706 across 1444 tournaments
  2. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – $103,010,832 across 5279 tournaments
  3. Fortnite – $97,763,025 across 664 tournaments
  4. League of Legends – $81,343,448 across 2478 tournaments
  5. Starcraft 2 – $33,914,062 across 2078 tournaments
  6. PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS – $24,175,428 across 299 tournaments
  7. Arena of Valor – $15,228,710 across 51 tournaments
  8. Rainbow Six Siege – $12,214,525 across 228 tournaments
  9. Rocket League – $9,171,818 across 1087 tournaments
  10. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – $6,692,284 across 44 tournaments

As a fun exercise, we checked what the ranking would be if we took the average prize pool for each esport. Dividing the total prize pool value with the number of tournaments. When doing this, the list looks like this:

  1. Arena of Valor – $298,602 average prize pool
  2. Dota 2 – $157,835 average prize pool
  3. Call of Duty – $152097 average prize pool
  4. Fortnite – $147,233 average prize pool
  5. PUBG – $80,853 average prize pool
  6. Rainbow Six Siege – $53572 average prize pool
  7. League of Legends – $32,826 average prize pool
  8. CSGO – $19,513 average prize pool
  9. Starcraft 2 – $16,320 average prize pool
  10. Rocket League – $8,437 average prize pool

There are many ways to measure the popularity of an esport. Another way could be to rank by the number of esports tournaments held. Looking at it that way, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive would win with a large margin. When looking at esports from a betting perspective, then factors like turnover in bets value or number of bets are used to measure what’s popular. When looking at those stats, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends and Dota 2 is most popular. Games like Fortnite doesn’t even qualify to the top 10 list. The reason why games like Fortnite and PUBG is not famous for esports betting is because of the game format. The style in which these games are played and competed in is challenging to produce betting markets for, as a result, online Canadian bookmakers don’t prioritize these esports over more lucrative but less popular esports like Rocket League or Call of Duty.

Esports leagues and tournaments FAQ


Esports tournaments have come a long way, a decade ago, a LAN event could have less than a hundred up to a few hundred spectators watching live. Today, major sports arenas are sold out while millions and millions of people are watching from the comfort of their home or on their phones while riding the subway to work. The growth will continue as long as people are interested in watching and following. Prize pools will continue to grow, new esports will be available, and more esports league will be hosted.