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PandaScore: How game literacy requirements impact barrier to entry in esports and betting

With interest in esports as a betting product continuing to rise, Oliver Niner, PandaScore’s Head of Sales, highlights the importance of simplicity when promoting the market to the general consumer.

Esports has seen consistent growth year-on-year, with more viewers, companies, consumer brands and traditional sports teams getting involved. Most importantly, the industry has seen sizable increases in tournament viewership, with the biggest events drawing in millions of viewers.

Arguably esports biggest event, the League of Legends World Championship is a great example of competitive gaming’s success. It saw another great year in 2021, averaging almost 1.3 million concurrent viewers over 135 hours of airtime. The same can be said for Counter-Strike, with its biggest 2021 event, the Stockholm Major, reaching a peak of more then double of the game’s previously most viewed event.

While things are generally looking good, there is a noticeable divide when looking at individual games. Titles like League of Legends and CSGO continue to skyrocket in popularity, while others grow steadily, or slowly lose popularity. There are a variety of reasons for this, from lack of developer support to games ageing poorly, updates phasing out old content and changing tastes.

However, one of the biggest factors of an esports title’s popularity is how easy it is to understand. This is especially important when attracting an audience outside of the gaming world, for whom even basic gaming conventions may be new to them.

Game complexity affects an esports’ popularity

One of the biggest hurdles that esports faces, especially when compared to traditional sports, is getting the average person to understand what’s going on. There are many different esports titles, and they’re all unique in their own way.

From League of Legends to Dota 2, Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, Starcraft 2, and beyond, there are thousands of different mechanics, art styles, animations, points of view, goals and more.

There are differences between each game and the next, and usually it takes some time to get an idea of what’s even happening on the screen, especially if you’re engaging with a title that’s new to you.

This is part of the reason why sports like football (or soccer) are so popular. Yes, there are a lot of nuances, but when it comes down to it, everyone knows what it means when the ball goes in the back of the net.

Meanwhile, in games like League of Legends and CSGO, there are multiple ways to measure success up until final victory. Players get tons of kills in each match, so while that’s important, a kill isn’t game-deciding, the same goes for Counter-Strike and winning or losing rounds.

With that in mind, we can take a closer look at the effect of game complexity on viewership and betting behaviour. A key comparison can be made between League of Legends and Dota 2. Both games are loosely defined as multiplayer online battle arena’s (MOBA’s), but there are vast differences.

LoL caters to a more casual audience, limiting the number and effectiveness of items, size of the map, and overall having fewer ‘hidden’ mechanics that you only really learn about after hours of gameplay. Meanwhile, Dota 2 is packed with a ton of advanced mechanics, game-altering items, and has a large map filled with small objectives, as well as one major one.

While both games are popular, League of Legends has a clear lead when it comes to viewing popularity globally, with exceptions such as Eastern Europe and the CIS region. It’s a lot easier for a casual fan of both to sit down and watch a League of Legends match and still know exactly what is going on.

The game’s mechanics and pathways to victory are more linear, while with Dota there is more nuance and depth to the point where having a solid amount of playing time yourself changes the viewing experience.

The differences are apparent when comparing the peak tournament viewership for some of the biggest LoL and Dota 2 events over the last couple of years:

  • League of Legends World Championship 2021 – 4 Million viewer peak

  • League of Legends World Championship 2020 – 3.8 Million viewer peak

  • League of Legends World Championship 2019 – 3.9 Million viewer peak

  • League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational 2021 – 1.8 Million viewer peak

  • Dota 2 The International 10 – 2.7 Million viewer peak

  • Dota 2 The International 9 – 1.8 Million viewer peak

  • Dota 2 WePlay AniMajor – 645,000 viewer peak

Both games have high and active player bases, so viewership isn’t just down to the number of players. Instead, it comes down the minimum level of literacy needed to understand the game, how easy it is to watch from the broadcast perspective, the culture surrounding the game and more.

When a huge event like LoL Worlds or The International is taking place, it’s plastered all over the internet and it’s very easy to hear about it even as someone who doesn’t play games. Event viewers don’t necessarily play the game they are watching, but simply tune in as fans of games, or even people wanting to explore something new.

With that being said, MOBAs aren’t the simplest game to understand and that’s where Counter-Strike comes in.

CSGO’s simplicity makes It highly accessible and popular

Counter-Strike Global Offensive is definitely one of the easiest esports to understand. There are five players on each team, they shoot each other, and try to attack and defend bombsites over a bunch of rounds.

Once again, there are nuances to it, but you know if one team has one more player alive, they’re generally ahead in that round.

It’s a much more straightforward experience for the viewer to watch two teams duke it out in this format. Even compared to League of Legends, there are no unique champions with spells, NPC units running around, or other objectives. It’s just a group of players running around shooting their guns, maybe with a kevlar vest or a flashbang in tow.

The game also makes it a bit easier to know who’s winning, as there is a clear display of rounds won, while other games generally feature long maps where things like kills or gold earned are good indicators, but not definite ways to know who’s ahead. Someone wouldn’t necessarily even need prior game knowledge to have an idea of what’s happening in CSGO.

This alone helps boost the popularity of Counter-Strike, which is experiencing year-on-year growth. The PGL Stockholm Major is a great example of this, as it saw a massive viewership spike in 2021, aided by the hype of being the first Major since 2019.This has been followed up with really strong viewership numbers in following tournaments, including the conclusion of BLAST’s 2021 season and kick off the 2022 season, IEM Katowice and the ESL Pro League among others.

Simplicity and game literacy impact betting behaviour

Punters, are generally more likely to bet on things they understand and enjoy – very few bet on outcomes with no knowledge or understanding of probability. For those new to a specific game, there’s an element of education that’s needed so a punter can make an informed choice.

A key difference for esports is the types of props offered. In League of Legends there are markets for Dragon and Baron kills, destroying towers, and first blood. “What are they?” and “What do they mean” would be common questions for a newcomer to LoL or esports. But there isn’t an easily translatable equivalent of what a Baron means to a football or basketball match.

With that being said, esports does still feature your more familiar markets like moneylines, spreads, and totals. There’s a slight difference as esports deals in kills, maps, and rounds, but these are much easier to understand.

This is also where the simplicity of a game like Counter-Strike comes in. Games are always played first to 16 rounds (or overtime) on a map, there are only a limited number of kills per round, and there is the caveat of needing to win by 2. There’s no need to know extra details like which heroes are picked and banned.

All this makes a simpler game like CS:GO more appealing to a casual esports bettor, or even a player who hasn’t heard of esports before. The low barrier to entry, immense popularity of the title and strong betting culture through skin betting in the 2010s make CS:GO the biggest revenue generator for operators offering esports.

The importance of simplicity in esports titles

What can be seen in esports is the complexity of a game impacts the popularity of said game’s professional esports scene. Counter-Strike and League of Legends come in as two of the best examples, being the two most popular esports titles out there. The former is definitely one of the easiest games to understand, behind maybe only sports simulations like FIFA or Rocket League which is just football with cars, while the latter is a less-complex version of its direct rival Dota 2.

It makes sense that being easy to understand contributes to larger audiences, as it lowers the barrier for entry for people with less esports experience to enjoy it. This becomes more important by the day, as esports continues to grow and its presence is felt across all parts of popular culture, be it sports, music, art, fashion and more.

Going forward we’ll no doubt see new games aim to become the next big esports title, of which Valorant appears to be the strongest. While there are many moving parts to finding success as an esports, if any game hopes to reach the popularity of the biggest games now, they’ll need to strike a balance between being entertaining enough to play and watch, as well as simple enough that just about anyone can enjoy it.


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