WTF is the difference between gaming and esports?

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This article is a WTF explainer, in which we break down media and marketing’s most confusing terms. More from the series →

As both gaming and esports become fixtures in the cultural landscape, the distinctions between them are growing increasingly hazy.

Esports is a subset of the broader gaming community; it’s very rare for an esports fan to identify as a non-gamer. Over time, the reverse is also becoming true: both casual players and non-gamers alike have become increasingly familiar with the events and personalities that define the esports scene. Still, “gaming” and “esports” refer to distinct concepts that still imply different demographics and audience preferences.

In past years, brands have invested heavily in partnerships with esports organizations to reach gamers. These collaborations have been mutually beneficial, generating promising engagement for the brands and multi-million-dollar bonanzas for the organizations. But as brands bring their gaming departments in-house and become more sophisticated in operating in the space, they’ve upped their demands for general gaming content, and organizations have adapted in kind.

What is the difference between gaming and esports?

In the plainest possible language, esports is just another way to refer to competitive gaming with prize money on the line. Experienced industry operators largely associate the term with the franchised esports leagues run by game developers such as Activision Blizzard and Riot Games, but smaller or growing esports such as fighting games are a notable element of the ecosystem as well.

“When we talk about esports and gaming, we try to delineate between esports being competitive titles run by one of the large game developers, with a set schedule, system and potentially franchising mode,” said Jordan Sherman, CEO of the esports organization Immortals. “But you don’t necessarily need the franchising; for example, Valorant doesn’t have franchising, but we consider that an esport, because it’s made by Riot, it’s highly competitive, it has a full circuit. Same with Wild Rift.”

A significant difference between esports and traditional sports is that the term “esports” has historically referred only to the professional side of competitive gaming, not the recreational side. Sports is sports; the word equally describes both NFL players in stadiums and 10-year-olds playing backyard baseball. Esports is a subset of the broader gaming community, but it is very much its own thing. 

In spite of this key distinction, many brands will use the word “esports” to describe more casual gaming content. Instead of trying to educate their brand partners about the difference, prominent esports organizations are instead responding by broadening their offerings to include more casual, non-competitive content. “When we talk to brands, they’re not really differentiating — they would consider a streamer to be esports,” Sherman said. “And is it really our position to tell them? No, it’s not like we get into theoretical debates about it. What we do is embrace it, and say whether you’re focused on competitive or on streamers, we will try to build you a mixture of both, so you can get exposure to the full market.”

Note: You’ll see the word “esports” formatted in all kinds of different ways: e-sports and eSports are the most common alternatives. But plain old “esports” is the correct one — even the Associated Press agrees. It’s become a bit of a shibboleth for industry veterans, with uses of “e-sports” or “eSports” immediately outing those who don’t fully understand the space.

If esports is a niche, why is it valuable to brands and marketers?

Only a sliver of the gaming community actively participates in esports competitions. Roughly 30 million people watch esports in the United States every month, according to a March report by Insider Intelligence; there are over 226 million gamers in the United States, per research by the Entertainment Software Association last year.

Still, esports is a driver of gaming activity. Casual Overwatch players will tune into Overwatch League matches to learn about the latest advanced techniques or changes in the metagame. If a high-level Super Smash Bros. player wins a major tournament with a character that is available as downloadable in-game content, casual players are more likely to purchase the character so they can try it out themselves.

As casual gaming becomes more widespread, esports organizations are increasingly pivoting to creator-first strategies, dedicating more resources to the non-competitive gamers on their rosters. But esports is what gives the organizations their legitimacy and reach in the first place, and competitive gaming is likely to be a facet of their esports organizations’ strategies for many years to come. “Having that competitive backbone in esports will always be important to establish credibility, and also to participate in the high-value upside opportunities,” Sherman said. “But you don’t want to limit yourself to saying ‘we’re only esports.’ I think the key in all of this is to remain flexible and malleable to general trends in the industry, and have credibility in each one.”

Are esports fans and casual players the only types of gamers?

As much as brand marketers like to pair the terms, gaming and esports are not a binary. Esports is a subset of the gaming community, and gamers tend to fall somewhere on a continuum between the competitive and the casual. As both gaming and esports grow in popularity, the pool is getting increasingly diluted.

“What we’re finding in the Great Lakes is that there’s a lot of gaming communities, particularly in colleges and high school, that participate across a multitude of games, and are also interested in gaming themselves,” Sherman said. “So that’s kind of a third subset. There’s actually more of a grassroots play, which is a hybrid of both — essentially gamers who play competitively, but are mostly looking to get together through shared experiences in gaming.”

Where do professional esports players fit into the mix?

Just as esports is a subset of the broader gaming community, most esports players are themselves casual gamers who have embraced the cultural shift from hardcore competition to more recreational gaming. Indeed, esports organizations are encouraging their players to expand their content offerings to reach the broader gaming community, particularly as players retire young due to issues of stress and burnout. All of today’s most popular esports competitors also double as streamers and influencers, sprinkling casual Among Us and Minecraft streams among more dedicated grind sessions. 

“I know a lot of people when it comes to content creation, they’re like, ‘this is the chore of it,’” said Zain Naghmi, a Super Smash Bros. player for the Golden Guardians, an esports org affiliated with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. “But when I do those sketches and stuff, I feel like I’m just hanging out with friends, and it’s rejuvenating to do something like that. And it’s also completely different from the intensity of competition, so I think they complement each other pretty well.”

Do brands need to get better at understanding the difference between gaming and esports?

Yes and no. Gaming is an immensely nuanced space, and so it never hurts for brands to bring gaming knowledge in-house and develop a better understanding of the industry. But the truth is that most of today’s gamers themselves do not care about the distinction. As the lines between gaming and esports become more blurred, both through casual gamers embracing competition and competitive gamers embracing more casual content, esports organizations will continue to be an effective vehicle for brands to reach gamers. The machine isn’t exactly broken, so it doesn’t need fixing — just some healthy upgrades.

“To a lot of younger people, there’s no such thing as esports; it’s all just video games. Here are our top professional players playing video games, and here’s my favorite content creator playing video games,” said Rob Moore, CEO of esports organization Sentinels Gaming. “And then, occasionally, you have the combination where the player is also the top entertainer. But I think, for the fans, the word ‘esport’ is probably less relevant to them than the way we’ve kind of shorthand talked about these organizations.”

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