Which Game Will be the Next Great eSport? Assessing the Contenders

COVER STORY: From Call of Duty to Smite, Kat takes stock of the games vying to become the next great eSport.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

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The competition to become the next big eSport is intense. Every major publisher has their own prospective eSports game, and the money is pouring in from every direction. With so many major players making a move into the space, it's worth asking which of them actually have a chance to make a splash.

Call of Duty

Call of Duty doesn't have a substantial streaming presence, so it's kind of flown under the radar to this point. Nevertheless, its massive audience affords it a certain degree of credibility. Like Microsoft, Activision Blizzard has announced their intention to make Call of Duty a top-tier eSport, with their first move being to purchase Major League Gaming to give themselves a built-in streaming and tournament platform.

What are the odds: Cloud9 owner Jack Etienne is pretty sold on Call of Duty's potential: "For me, if I were to bet, of all the games that are out there, what's the biggest next esport, I think it's Call of Duty. I feel like it's a simple game, so it has that Counter-Strike feel. It's a little more complex, sometimes, like, a little harder to understand than Counter-Strike, but it's a very simple game, it's a simple shooter. It's a really young audience, but the audience is really well-connected. If you look at the top teams, OpTic and FaZe, of Call of Duty, they have massive followings on Twitter, which is really interesting to see. As far as the Twitter count, Call of Duty has hands down the biggest following."

"Where they're really stunted right now is their stream following. It's not bad, I mean, they show up on, they show up decently on Twitch, but it should be a lot higher than it is. And I think the reason that is is they were pretty much locked to one streaming platform for a while, and so, because they were locked, I think they didn't get as much exposure to streaming like the other games did. So, I think Call of Duty could be bigger than it is, and I'm kind of hoping that it starts competing with League and Counter-Strike and Hearthstone and Dota 2 for those top spots. I would call them the number five top game."

Seems like its odds are pretty good.

Rocket League

I've already said my piece on Rocket League. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that it's a fantastic sports game with an energetic fanbase and a clear commitment to being a top-tier eSport. The next year will tell us a lot about its prospects.

What are the odds: Pretty good. If it's hurt by anything, it's by the intense competition in the eSports space. So many big players are committing now that it's tough for a resolutely independent studio like Psyonix to compete on a large scale. The game is so good, though, that it might not matter. After all, Riot was once a small studio too...



Smite may be further along than anyone might realize. Since launching last year - around the same time as Heroes of the Storm, as it happens - Smite's eSports footprint has steadily grown. Fnatic and Cloud9 both have teams, and last month's Smite World Championship 2016 paid out $500,000 to the winner. Being third-person - as opposed to top-down - helps to differentiate it from League of Legends and DotA 2. It doesn't get the press that those two games do, but there's no denying its appeal as an eSport.

What are the odds: Hi-Rez Studios has made all the right moves, the game itself is strong and fun to watch, and it's been picked up by both the ESL and MLG. By and large, Smite is in a position to succeed. The only question is whether the market can support one more big-time MOBA. Given the seemingly bottomless appetite for the genre, I'd say, "Yes." Even if it doesn't "make it," though, it should go right on being successful.


Overwatch is like Battleborn in that it's an attractive, heavily-stylized class-based shooter - a natural successor to Team Fortress 2. Unlike Battleborn, though, Overwatch has no pretensions about being a full-blooded retail release. It's a multiplayer through and through, and it benefits heavily from Blizzard's resources and sense of style. Like everything Blizzard is planning, Overwatch is definitely geared toward being an eSport.

What are the odds: It all depends on how the game itself pans out. Initial impressions such that it's an extremely fun, intuitive, and fast-paced shooter, but that it might be a little too shallow for its own good. What's more, competitive players have reportedly complained that it's too easy for attacking teams to win the game's limited number of objectives. It won't be free, either - a base version will run you $40 - which may limit its ultimate appeal. Still, it's Blizzard, and even if it doesn't catch on elsewhere, the fact that it's a Blizzard game will mean that it has some kind of competitive community. Whether it can hit the heights of Hearthstone is another question entirely. It has the immediate appeal, but Blizzard seems to be putting themselves at a bit of a disadvantage with some of their decisions with this game.

Heroes of the Storm

As long as we're on the subject of Blizzard, it's worth talking about another one of their newer eSports games - Heroes of the Storm. Blizzard's mascot-driven MOBA launched to great fanfare last year; but as hard as Blizzard has pushed, it hasn't gotten a ton of traction in the eSports realm. A cursory glance at Twitch shows that about 4,211 people are watching Heroes of the Storm right now - fewer than StarCraft II. Streaming numbers aren't the be all and end all of eSports; but when you consider that a "core" eSports like Counter-Strike has about 60,000 viewers at the moment, it's reason for pause.

What are the odds: Eh, give it some time. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive wasn't a big-time eSport right out of the gate either. Heroes of the Storm has a lot going for it - it's free-to-play, it has a terrific pedigree, and Blizzard is really throwing their weight behind it with initiatives like Heroes of the Dorm. That said, there may only be room for a couple MOBAs in the eSports space, and League of Legends and DotA 2 have a big lead on HotS. It has also faced criticism that it might be a little too streamlined, making it a less exciting prospect for advanced players. None of this is to say that HotS doesn't have a shot - just that there's a lot of work still to be done. There's still plenty of optimism around HotS, and Blizzard has shown their commitment to eSports by investing in tournament infrastructure and pumping money into the game's prize pools. It may yet become a top-tier eSport through sheer force of will.

Heroes of the Storm.

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Comments 7

  • Avatar for ChairmanYang #1 ChairmanYang 2 years ago
    Personally, I'm not willing to invest any time or money into a pay-to-win e-sport. That's why I'm super-interested in Overwatch. I'm fine with paying up-front (or for cosmetic stuff) but I hate the pay-to-win aspects of other games like Hearthstone or League of Legends.

    Maybe charging up front is less accessible for most people. For me? It's a selling point.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #2 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    @ChairmanYang That's what got me out of Hearthstone actually. I know the best players can have good runs with basic decks, but for most people you absolutely have to have some good cards in there. There's a lot of talk around the cost of boxed games being an impediment to esports, but to really keep up with Hearthstone (again, as an average player) you'd have to pay a lot anyway.
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  • Avatar for Mooglepies #3 Mooglepies 2 years ago
    Pretty much the only esports I watch are Starcraft and fighting games because I simply have no interest in team games. I can't think of any on this list that I'd watch, except SF5.

    My personal observation would be that team games are far more popular than head to head titles, which limits the popularity of things like Street Fighter, as the article says. I don't think that will change, looking at the popularity of more traditional team sports.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #4 Kat.Bailey 2 years ago
    @ChairmanYang Fair point, but the teens and twenty somethings who make up the esports demographic also tend to have a lack of disposable income. Not surprisingly, they gravitate toward F2P over dropping $60 on a game up front. Hearthstone and LoL can theoretically be enjoyed without paying a cent, and they can be easily sampled, making it much more likely someone will download them on a whim (I did with Hearthstone).
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  • Avatar for Spectreman #5 Spectreman 2 years ago
    My bet is Street Fighter 5. More easy to non-players to watch. Every time they put a MOBA game on open TV is the worst choice possible.
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  • Avatar for gigantor21 #6 gigantor21 2 years ago
    Street Fighter V not having a free to play option with a few rotating characters is a huge mistake to me. Other fighters, like Killer Instinct or Dead or Alive, offered such an option alongside a full purchase for years with no problems. For all their talk about bringing in new players, I don't think Capcom's efforts go far enough. Especially when, as you said, fighting games are incredibly hard to play even semi-decently.

    How extensive is the tutorial mode? Does it go into advanced tactics like mixups? Are hitboxes/hurtboxes visible in training mode so people can see where and how their attacks hit? Is frame data available? Other fighters offered that stuff years ago, but Capcom continues to drag their feet on it. Even now, when Ono won't shut up about how SFV is supposed to be a "reset" that broadens the fanbase, or that they want the game to be less obtuse for new players, or how he wants it more of an eSports contender.

    Don't get me wrong--I'm super excited about the game and loved the beta. But I have serious doubts as to whether or not it's going to accelerate the franchise's eSports ambitions.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #7 CK20XX 2 years ago
    If only the Bomberman franchise had survived this long. It was an eSport long before eSports were a thing.
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