Listen up, sports. This not-so-newfangled thing called ‘esports’ is much more than just creating a new word by smashing an abbreviated ‘electronic’ with ‘sports’. Here’s the skinny on what you need to know to make heads or tails of esports.

Easy to learn

Like IRL sports, there’s more than just one esport. The trick that a lot of publishers and developers miss is that esports tend to be born out of community demand. While it certainly helps for broadcast tools (like spectating) to be built into the game at launch, whether a game becomes a successful esport, or an esport at all, is ultimately determined by the community: both high-tier players and viewer interest.

That’s the bad news for fans of obscure games. The good news is there are a range of options to suit varying tastes. Shooters, most notably of the intimate first-person variety, are among the most popular. And they’re also one of the easiest to follow.

For games like Counter-Strike, Call of Duty and Rainbow Six Siege, competitive modes tend to fall into straightforward offensive and defensive objectives. These objectives can be played, but ultimately, wiping out the opposing team with ruthless efficiency works too.

esports - Rainbow Six Siege

Rainbow Six Siege

Brought back biff

Similar to shooters, popular esports fighting games like Street Fighter V, Tekken 7, Mortal Kombat 11 and the admittedly harder-to-track Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are all about one thing – two opponents knocking the digital snot out of each other. When that health bar hits zero, that’s round or game over.

Sports titles like the FIFAs, NBA 2Ks and WWE 2Ks of the esports world are easier to understand if you follow the real-world sports they’re based on. For a gamier alternative, Rocket League is soccer with sports cars, with 2v2 match-ups in a small arena for fast-paced, high-adrenaline matches.

Tekken 7

Tekken 7

A wrestling attention

You absolutely read correctly that a wrestling game is an esport. Debate over the categorisation of wrestling as a sport all you like, but there’s no denying the kind of payday 2K is willing to slap down to encourage competitive play. A WWE 2K19 tournament earlier this year offered a US$1 million prize pool. Despite the obvious American appeal of wrestling, Aussie competitor David Hoey battled through to the semis for his share of the winnings.

esports - LoL

League of Legends

Tough to master

The sign of an appealing game is one that’s easy to learn but tough to master. From a viewing perspective, those aforementioned games are easy to understand. When it gets to MOBAs, there’s a steep learning curve for players and viewers.

Short for the terrible mouthful ‘multiplayer online battle arena’ (no wonder it’s exclusively an acronym), the MOBA is actually born out of real-time strategy (RTS) games. The RTS esports genre was once dominated by StarCraft II, but it’s less popular in the West these days.

Despite increased complexity and a whole lot of onscreen confusion for viewers, MOBAs like League of Legends (LoL) and Dota 2 are incredibly popular. It’s easy to see why with a recent cool US$6.5 million prize pool for LoL and a whopping US$25.5 million for Dota 2. Aussie teenager Anathan “ana” Pham pocketed more than $3 million of that for his part in underdog team OG’s victory.

While true of any esport, you really want to play a MOBA to better understand the genre from a viewing perspective. You can also keep an eye out for newcomer-friendly spectating tools like Dota 2’s noob stream, which features explanatory commentary without assumed knowledge.

If you’re after a gateway between shooter and MOBA, Overwatch is the place to start. It’s a self-proclaimed “hero shooter”, which really means a hybrid MOBA/shooter. Like a MOBA, there are defined character roles that play to particular strengths. If you get lost in that, there’s still the easier-to-understand shooting bit.

esports - PUBG

PUBG

Royale sans cheese

The battle royale subgenre is a relatively new arrival on the esports scene. What started with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG to its friends), continues with the likes of Fortnite and, most recently, Apex Legends. These shooter subgenre games are a little more contentious as esports because, by design, they involve random elements. Core shooting skill still matters, but there’s no denying that survivability is enhanced via the RNGesus-inspired luck of what players find in the game world.

esports - Overwatch

Overwatch

The right esport

It’s natural to gravitate towards the esports of the genres or specific games you’re most interested in, whether that’s from a player or viewer perspective. To better understand the underlying mechanics of a game, play it. For a deeper understanding, seek out the most popular streamers and YouTubers who tend to play the game at a higher level and educate viewers on deeper strategies.

Once you follow an esport and pick a team/player that you like, a lot of pro players tend to stream or upload videos of their exploits, which are also worth watching for a deeper understanding of a particular game and dissecting particular strategies.

Outside of this, the best way to learn more about an esport is the same as watching a real-world sport. Absorb yourself in it. Pay attention to the onscreen indicators of what’s happening. Listen to the commentators and their analysis. Ultimately, you’ve got to understand the basics before you can get into the nitty-gritty of understanding the deeper strategies (and counter-strategies) at play.

esports - Counter-Strike

Counter-Strike

Too old for this…

Pick any sport and you’ll find that, fitness and form willing, most players retire in their mid-to-late 30s. In esports, knock about 10 years off that. This is particularly true of shooter players, where fast-paced games like Counter-Strike necessitate peak reflexes for impossible ‘flick shots’. Age 25 is considered to be the point at which gamer reflexes start to decline. Even outside of shooters, the closer a player gets to 30, the more they’re considered too old.

esports - Dota2

Dota 2

Free-to-view

Unlike real-life sports or most of the games themselves, the cost of viewership is usually zero. Twitch and YouTube are the most popular places to view live streams, and these tend to be hosted by the publisher and/or organiser behind an event. Facebook also streams particular live matches (follow the official pages of your favourite games for streams), as does Mixer. In our experience, Twitch and YouTube tend to host the most reliable and closest-to-live streams. Of these two, Twitch is easiest for finding live streams from the home page.