On August 25, the Overwatch League announced that it will no longer be holding its September playoffs and finals as live events due to concerns about the delta variant. “Since we originally announced plans for the postseason, the environment has changed significantly,” wrote Blizzard Entertainment vp of Overwatch esports Jon Spector. “After continued consultation with our teams, we are no longer confident that all of them would be able to travel to the United States with their full rosters.”
The announcement was met with widespread disappointment from Overwatch fans across the world, showing the continued importance of large in-person events to the esports scene despite the social distancing of the past year. Though many of the largest esports events of 2020 were able to continue digitally despite the pandemic, they lacked the roaring crowds and packed stadiums that helped bring a sense of legitimacy to esports events during the early days, before awareness of esports and its widespread popularity had fully entered the mainstream.
Nowadays, you’d need to live under a rock to not be at least tangentially aware of the cultural impact of esports — but the thunderous audiences at events such as the Dota 2 International and the League of Legends World Championship are a warm reminder that the market for competitive gaming is large and ever-increasing. When in-person events truly return post-pandemic, these prominent events are likely to sell out quickly.
The most prominent esports have flourished through financial support from their developers, and many of the largest esports events are owned and operated by corporate video game publishers such as Activision Blizzard, Riot Games and Epic Games. One exception to this rule is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, whose competitive scene involves a scattering of major tournaments administered by third-party companies and occasionally sponsored by CS:GO developer Valve Corporation.
Here’s a breakdown of the most prominent esports events for every major esport — and some of the smaller ones.
When it comes to prize money, the largest esport event is The International — the most prestigious championship event for the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) title Dota 2. Affectionately known as “TI” by Dota fans, The International consistently breaks prize pool records across esports because its prize pool is partially funded by sales of both the tournament’s tickets and in-game content bundles known as “Battle Passes.”
Due to the pandemic, The International didn’t happen in 2020, and its usual August date has been pushed to October for the 2021 edition. TI 2019 featured the highest prize pool in esports history at just over $34 million — a nearly $10 million jump from the $25 million offered in 2018. Past iterations of The International have been held in large arenas such as Vancouver’s Rogers Arena and Shanghai’s Mercedes-Benz Arena, and past champions include teams such as Evil Geniuses (2015), Team Liquid (2017) and OG (2018–2019).
The only true rival to The International, in terms of prize money, is the Fortnite World Cup. Held in July 2019 at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York, the event was the most prestigious competition ever held for the battle royale title Fortnite. The largest share of the event’s $30 million prize pool — then the largest in esports — was won by the then-16-year-old Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, who took home $3 million for topping the solo event finals. Similar prizes were also awarded to winners in other categories, such as duos and a “Pro-Am” celebrity event.
So far, the Fortnite World Cup has only happened once. Epic Games envisioned the event as an annual occurrence, but was unable to continue it in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, as the largest event for one of the most popular video games, the Fortnite World Cup cannot go unmentioned in this list. “It was a pretty big cultural thing in gaming — not just in esports, but in broader gaming,” said Vince Nairn, managing editor of gaming and esports publication DBLTAP.
League of Legends
Dota 2 might boast the highest prize money of any event in the MOBA genre — but the title for most-viewed MOBA goes to the League of Legends World Championship. “Worlds” is the culmination of the year-long League of Legends season, pitting players from across the world against each other to determine which team — and region — is the strongest. The 2019 and 2020 iterations of the League of Legends World Championships are two of the most-viewed esports events of all time, with the 2019 edition garnering just under 4 million viewers. (The most-viewed esports event of all time is technically the 2021 Free Fire World Series, a massive event for a relatively new mobile esport.)
The World Championship is usually held in the late fall or early winter, but specific dates vary. League of Legends also has a mid-year playoff event known as the Mid-Season Invitational, which follows a similar structure and also pits international teams against each other in heated competition. Though the stakes at the MSI are high, it is widely considered the second-most-prestigious League of Legends competition after the World Championship.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive lacks the clear playoff structure of Dota 2 and League of Legends. Instead, the competitive season for the first-person shooter title hinges on a series of “majors” organized by third-party companies and sponsored by CS:GO developer Valve Corporation.
While these major tournaments are often annual events, they are not always sponsored by Valve year-to-year, causing some ambiguity about exactly which tournaments are the most prestigious. “Counter-Strike is a little weird in that sense, because there are majors that are designated as the most important tournaments [by Valve], but there are also legacy tournaments that have been around for a long time,” Nairn said. These independent legacy events can command just as much prestige as their Valve-sponsored counterparts, particularly if Valve has sponsored them in the past.
In 2021, the only Valve-sponsored CS:GO major is esports company PGL’s Stockholm event in October, which boasts a prize pool of $2 million. In the past, however, events held across the world by companies such as ESL, Intel Extreme Masters and StarLadder have been granted major status by Valve. “It’s still a really big deal to win those events,” Nairn said.
Rounding out this list of top-tier esports championships is the Overwatch League playoffs. Though Overwatch viewership has declined in past years, the Activision-Blizzard-produced OWL playoffs remain one of the most talked-about esports events on the calendar. “The thing that I look at is: how do the people who cover esports look at Overwatch?” Nairn said. “It seems like all the people who cover it, they still look at the game at that level.”
Hosted in different countries over the years, the Overwatch World Cup occurs in early November and features qualifying teams from across the world. The 2021 playoffs offer a prize of $1.5 million to the winning team, with past champions including the San Francisco Shock and the London Spitfire.
If the outcry from fans following the aforementioned announcement is any indication, the Overwatch League playoffs remain in high demand among millions of potential viewers — but the declining viewership of Overwatch shows how the popularity of an esport and its marquee event can shift over time. Eventually, another esport may rise to take Overwatch’s spot in the pantheon of major esports.
One potential rival to Overwatch is Valorant, the hot new first-person shooter title published by League of Legends developer Riot Games. Valorant Champions 2021, the finale of the Valorant Champions Tour, is going down in December in Los Angeles, according to a report by esports news site Upcomer.
Past playoff-stage events in the VCT have reached an average viewership of 800,000 across feeds, and Riot has successfully stirred Valorant fans into a frenzy of hype going into the season-ending event. Though Valorant currently does not stand among the top tier of esports, a successful playoff event could be what the shooter title needs to spark a further rise.
“That is absolutely going to be one of the things that you should be watching, because it’s going to be huge,” said Upcomer staff writer Nick Ray. “I really think it’s like Worlds and TI, in terms of the biggest events.”
Another esport on the rise is Call of Duty. Also administered by Activision Blizzard, the Call of Duty League debuted in 2020 and follows a similar model to the Overwatch League. As Activision Blizzard works to bring the CDL to the heights of the OWL, it’s worth keeping an eye on large Call of Duty events such as the CDL Grand Finals.
Small, but strong
The list above includes the most prominent events for the largest esports, but it is not an exhaustive list of the many esports events that can reach thousands to millions of viewers and generate significant interest for potential sponsors or brand partners.
There are larger standalone events such as Evolution Championship Series, a massive fighting game tournament held annually in Las Vegas that draws hundreds of thousands of viewers; the Rocket League Championship Series has featured prize pools in excess of $1 million.
The media landscape of esports is constantly growing, and today’s top-level events could be old news in a few years — but for now, these are the ones that everyone should know.