Similar to the way that traditional sports are set up, professional esports competitions come primarily in two different formats—leagues and circuits.
Some games such as Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch and Riot Games’ League of Legends follow a league model with franchised spots that mimic traditional American leagues like the NBA and NFL.
Two of the other largest competitive scenes in esports, Valve’s Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive , operate using a circuit-style system that includes Major and Minor events akin to the way that professional tennis or golf are organized.
With each system having unique benefits, the viewership for each esport is distinctive. While the Overwatch League, LoL Championship Series (LCS), and LoL European Championship (LEC) cultivate consistent exposure for their esports, the circuit-style systems of Dota 2 and CS:GO generate enormous viewership spikes for their game’s most important events.
For leagues, the centralized nature of the competition makes it very easy to identify where the esports’ audience is and understand viewership trends for the esports as a whole. OWL, LCS, and LEC broadcasts come from the same main channel every week, with the only significant peripheral coverage coming in the form of alternate language broadcasts.
This makes tracking year-over-year growth and in viewership trends seamless. All that is required to see OWL’s viewership growth or decline is a simple comparison of the audience from last season and this season.
While the format of the league has seen small adjustments that can be used to explain differences in viewership, a certain degree of uniformity and reliability is derived from a consistent style and formatting of Activision Blizzard’s broadcast.
The same sort of comparisons can be made for LCS and LEC as well. While the LEC has numerous alternate-language broadcasts that can change from year to year, recording and comparing viewership on the league’s main broadcast can help provide a glimpse into changes in the league’s growth.
One of a Kind
On the other side of the spectrum, circuit-based esports formats make year-over-year comparisons significantly more difficult to come by. While a select few events like The International for Dota 2 are the same year-in and year-out, even Majors can change drastically from year to year.
As opposed to the slow burn of viewership that a league provides, the Major system provides periodic jolts in viewership for esports that use a plethora of organizers in a circuit-based system.
Dota 2 and CS:GO hold every Major to certain standards in terms of formatting, but the actual broadcasting aspect of the events can vary drastically from event to event because every Major is hosted by a unique third-party esports event organizer.
A tournament that’s hosted by ESL may not have the exact same broadcasting format as one run by ELEAGUE, FACEIT , or StarLadder . To complicate things further, the same third-party organizer may or may not host a Major event at the same time every year. While ELEAGUE hosted the first Major of the calendar year in January of 2018, this year’s first CS:GO Major was hosted by ESL from February through the first weekend of March.
Additionally, organizers have deals with different broadcasting platforms that can even further complicate comparisons. Some events might be broadcast on numerous platforms, diluting their audience on Twitch .
When you combine the ever-changing nature of the host and dates of Majors in top circuit-based esports, it becomes difficult to make comparisons without also being forced to make a number of disclaimers.
Let’s Get Active
So how does a brand looking to activate in esports decide where to put its sponsorship dollars?
There are a few key aspects of a broadcast to look at when determining what events or leagues to sponsor. While Major events hold clout and have immediate reach that leagues typically don’t match, the extended exposure a brand can get from a league partnership can provide more long-term security as an activation.
Related Article: Overwatch League Broadcasts Account for More Than Half of the Game’s Twitch Viewership
Activation at an esports event that is a part of a circuit is more of a short-term play because of the way that events have rotating organizers. If a brand wanted to activate in Dota 2 or CS:GO, for instance, they would need to go to each individual third-party organizer every time that organizer had an event and set up a deal with them.
On the other hand, a certain degree of stability can come from activating with a league. Because the broadcast and the organizer doesn’t change from season to season, long-term sponsorships are more easily sustained. An example of this sort of deal would be insurance company State Farm’s recent multi-year sponsorship of the Overwatch League.
It should be said, however, that brands that activate with certain third-party organizers can typically spread their sponsorship activity across numerous events that a given organizer hosts. For instance, recently quick serve Mexican restaurant Chipotle signed a deal with ESL and Dreamhack to sponsor multiple upcoming events.
As more brands continue to dive into esports, understanding what kind of reach and audience different esports provide is important. The format that each game has for its professional scene plays a crucial role in that process.