The coronavirus pandemic and global lockdown have seriously changed the esports ecosystem. Many tournaments were canceled or moved online, and in some disciplines (Dota 2 as an example) the cancellation of international championships led to the team disbands. At the same time, people now have more free time for their favorite games, so many esports titles have won out in terms of viewership statistics. Which esports disciplines became the most popular in 2020?
To determine the most popular esports disciplines among viewers, we calculated the amount of hours that the audience spent on tournaments’ broadcasts. Data from Chinese streaming services were excluded from the statistics.
2020 was marked not only by the coronavirus and its related problems. Mobile disciplines continued to grow; they slowly but surely keep outperforming certain PC games in the top. In particular, Overwatch dropped out of the top with a bang as its popularity declining sharply after the transition of OWL broadcasts to YouTube.
#5 — Garena Free Fire
The rating of the most popular esports disciplines is opened by Garena Free Fire, which has grown by 246% over the year: 132.2M hours watched. The success of the discipline on streaming services is due to the fact that the publisher is actively launching new regional leagues which attract new players and viewers.
Garena changed the Free Fire esports ecosystem in 2020. Previously, the publisher put more emphasis on the international championships of the World Series with teams from Southeast Asia to Latin America. Now the company is focused on developing scenes in certain regions with Continental Series format.
The Free Fire Continental Series is divided into three large regions (Asia, America and EMEA), which are divided into smaller regional leagues: and their number kept on growing in 2020. Asia turned out to be the most popular region of the game last year, and this despite the fact that earlier Latin America held the undisputed lead.
Continental Series 2020 Asia became the most popular tournament of the year in Garena Free Fire. The championship attracted more than 2.5M spectators at peak! In addition, the discipline was favored by the fact that its main competitor PUBG Mobile was banned in India: local esports athletes and viewers switched to the new game, and the Hindi-language broadcast of the tournament attracted more than a million viewers which is a record for India.
Brazilian streamers are also actively promoting the game on streaming services. In 2020, Twitch signed the members of LOUD organization, which is called the "Brazilian FaZe". And although this influences the growth of esports indicators to a lesser extent, the overall recognition of the game is growing.
Free Fire has shown an impressive growth as both the game and an esports discipline. And so far it seems like it will only continue to gain popularity. However, the Garena’s game still lost to its main competitor PUBG Mobile.
#4 — PUBG Mobile
It’s no secret that mobile PUBG is more popular than its PC counterpart. But it is unlikely that many realize the scale: PUBG Mobile scored four times more hours watched than PUBG in 2020: it’s the most popular mobile discipline in the world with 134.5M hours watched.
Just like its main competitor, PUBG Mobile puts a special emphasis on the development of regional leagues: and it pays off. One of the most popular tournaments of the discipline are PUBG Mobile Club Open series, which takes place in more than ten regions, and the PUBG Mobile Pro League.
Unlike other disciplines, PUBG Mobile is actively developing in the Middle East with tournaments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. However, Asia remains the main region of the game: the main tournament of the discipline last year was PUBG Mobile World League 2020 East with1.15 million viewers at peak.
It is not yet fully clear how the game’s ban in India will affect the discipline in the long term, as it has always been the main region of PUBG Mobile. On the one hand, publishers claim that doesn’t affect the total number of PMCO participants, but it’s still unknown how will the viewership statistics change at the end of 2021.
Note that the results of PUBG Mobile could have been even more impressive, but the decisive matches of the game’s world championship took place at the beginning of 2021, so they were not included in the statistics.
#3 — Dota 2
Dota 2 retained third place in the ranking, although it was hit harder by the coronavirus than any other discipline. It's all about the ecosystem of the game, which has always been built around international championships. Due to logistical problems, Valve cancelled all the majors and minors, and most importantly The International. As a result, the game’s hours watched fell by 11% and amounted to 253.3M.
Discipline was forced to switch to a regional format, which revealed many problems. For example, it has become difficult for teams from South America to develop as the local scene is of little interest to a wide range of viewers, and it was also impossible for them to compete with North American teams because of high ping. Some players also decided to take a break from competitions or even retired after they found out that there won’t be TI in 2020.
Europe held the most popular tournaments during the pandemic, and CIS teams also competed there. The most popular tournament by the number of peak viewers was ESL One Los Angeles 2020 - Online: Europe & CIS, the one that was supposed to be a major. Its final where Virtus.pro played with OG gathered only 508K concurrent viewers: and extremely modest result compared to The International.
Mainly Russian-speaking viewers, who actively follow not only the CIS, but also other regions, helped the game to maintain its 3rd position. In addition, tournament operators from the CIS organized EPIC League Season 2 Division 1 and OMEGA League: Europe Immortal Division: these are 2 out of 3 tier-1 tournaments of the discipline that were held in Dota 2 after lockdown.
Dota Pro Circuit system came back in 2021, but its format has drastically changed. The number of Majors was reduced to two; minors and regional qualifiers were replaced by regional leagues, which are not yet very popular among viewers. But The International will still take place in 2021, which means that we can expect higher viewership numbers from Dota 2 in the current year.
#2 — CS:GO
Just like in Dota 2, CS:GO esports scene is primarily built around various international events, so the game also started facing problems after the outbreak of the pandemic. In addition, Valorant is now imposing serious competition on the Valve’s game: many American and some European esports athletes are switching games.
However, CS:GO proved to be a more stable game than Dota 2. Despite the problems, the audience is still actively following CS:GO tournaments. Moreover, a new record was set in 2020 by the number of concurrent viewers in non-major tournaments: over a million people simultaneously watched G2 Esports vs Natus Vincere in the IEM Katowice 2020 finals.
The discipline grew by almost 25% in hours watched and amounted to 354.2M throughout 2020. This is due to the fact that CS:GO is less tied to the majors (which were also canceled). All the top championships of the discipline were still held, albeit in an online format.
In addition, the Counter-Strike scene has better adapted to the current state of esports as all the biggest American esports organizations moved their rosters to Europe, where all the biggest tournaments are being held right now. In fact, the events remained international, which explains the high numbers of viewership statistics for the discipline.
The impact of Brazilian fans on discipline’s numbers should also be noted. In 2020, the most popular Brazilian content creator Gaules regularly collaborated with tournament operators and organized Portuguese-language broadcasts, which attracted many new viewers.
In general, CS:GO coped well with the conditions of the pandemic and was able to continue to grow on streaming services as an esports discipline. But still, it can not compete with the game that took the first place in the rating.
#1 — League of Legends
League of Legends is still the most popular esports discipline in the world. The game also had hard times during the lockdown in 2020, but Riot Games handled the issues well. In total, League of Legends gained 580.8M hours watched in a year (an increase by 21%).
The system of regional leagues has been successfully functioning for a long time in League of Legends, and even when tournaments were forced to move online it did not greatly affect viewership statistics. In addition, the discipline barely was damaged by the cancellation of Mid-Season Invitational, where the world's leading clubs gather after spring splits.
In 2020, leagues in Europe, South America and the CIS set new records by viewership statistics. And the greatest contribution to the success of the discipline on streaming services is still made by LCS, LEC and LCK: no other region has yet come close to the indicators of Europe, North America and South Korea.
Riot Games also managed to hold the main tournament of the discipline on LAN (!) and with spectators (!!). More than 3.8 million people watched the Worlds 2020 finals at peak: an impressive result, which was just slightly behind the 2019 finals.
2020 was an extremely difficult year for esports, but the top three disciplines retained their positions. Mobile esports is actively catching up with the leaders: and if the regional expansion of Free Fire and PUBG Mobile continues, they will soon be capable to break into the top 3.