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Opinion: The Top 6 Rising Esports of 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic threw the esports world out of its typical routines. Many of the most important annual tournaments never took place. We learned what happens to certain ecosystems without live events, and those struggles will be carried on into the new year until the pandemic is finally resolved.

Still, there were important bright spots throughout the year. The release of Valorant created major upheaval in the shooter space. Rainbow Six Siege was able to take center stage early in the year, showcasing the value in a developer collaborating with its community.

Looking ahead to next year, while much will remain the same (particularly as the pandemic remains most prominent in all our minds), by the end of 2021 parts of the esports landscape could look quite different. These are the esports titles that will rise up in 2021 to challenge the status quo, or perhaps return to their former glory.

Valorant

Probably the safest call anyone could make, but there’s no question that Valorant deserves to be on any list of up and coming esports in 2021. Riot Games’ new shooter has pulled professional players away from other popular titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch, and has already seen commitment from most of the major esports teams. 

Next year, Valorant will have an official global ecosystem supported by Riot Games which will open the door for greater investment from teams and brands alike. What’s more, Valorant will likely have its first-ever offline international tournament in the latter half of next year. The lack of live events for more than a year will no doubt create such a fervor that Valorant’s first world championship could be one of the biggest events of the year.

One thing that also makes Valorant particularly exciting is the continued impact it can have for women’s esports. With Cloud9 White expected to participate at the pro level and a robust women-only ecosystem already developing, the increased attention and infrastructure moving into Valorant can only serve to help grow the game’s position as a leader in women’s esports.

Wild Rift

League of Legends: Wild Rift was at the top of our list last year for mobile games, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the game’s global rollout, making it an important release for 2021. In Asia, mobile esports already lead many regions, so while Riot has some stiff competition building an esport in those areas, the League of Legends IP and the developer’s reputation for top-notch esports infrastructure will no doubt propel Wild Rift to the top of the heap.

Where Wild Rift becomes especially interesting is its potential for finally helping mobile esports breakthrough in North America. There have been numerous attempts, but we have yet to see the same level of team or brand investment in mobile titles in the U.S. that we’ve seen in China, India, or Southeast Asia. League of Legends is unquestionably the strongest esports IP in the region, and that brand power will no doubt draw a number of new players and potential esports competitors to the game.

What’s more, Riot has already shown a willingness to cross-pollinate its brand partners across its esports titles, so Wild Rift will have a much easier time than any other mobile title establishing a powerful foothold in North America where none have succeeded before.

Melee

It may seem strange to see a game which released more than  15 years ago appears on this list – particularly when Nintendo shut down one of Super Smash Bros. Melee’s most important tournaments just last month. While Nintendo holding back Melee is nothing new, this latest act of aggression may have done something the Smash community has needed to happen for years – erase all hope.

Melee has long been hamstrung by the hope that one day Nintendo might actually care about the game as an esport. Instead, what the last month of discussion, statements, and Twitter posts has revealed is that not only will Nintendo never come around, but they don’t have a clue just how committed Melee fans are to their game.

The last time Nintendo picked a fight with Melee, it led to the game’s revival and created new levels of awareness for the competitive scene it had never had before. The community is now bigger than it’s ever been, better organized, and supported by influencers, teams, and stakeholders with a vested interest in the game’s continued success.

Nintendo may want Melee to quietly fade away, but backing a beast into a corner just makes it fight harder. What’s more, the community now has far better tools with which to fight. A brand new six-hour documentary chronicling the game’s competitive history was just released. A fan created a program which allows for the ancient esport to be played seamlessly online. One of the fastest-growing stars on Twitch, Ludwig Ahgren, grew up in the Melee scene and is continuing to use his expanding influence to support the game.

Melee isn’t going anywhere, and Nintendo’s attempts to make it disappear will just continue to shine a greater spotlight on one of the greatest and most compelling esports on the planet.

Supercell Games

It’s possible there won’t ever be a year when Supercell’s major esports properties don’t make this list. It certainly hasn’t happened yet. Clash Royale and now Brawl Stars are two of the leading mobile esports, and Clash Royale, in particular, is one of the few mobile games that has been able to retain the interest of top U.S.-based esports organizations like TSM and Team Liquid.

Next year, both games are receiving updates to their structure and Clash Royale will receive a major infusion of prize money. Supercell seems committed to making each of its esports properties grow and finding the format that works for each game.

Also worth mentioning – Supercell’s esports have significant room for growth with regards to brand partnerships. Neither game has seen any substantial activity from non-endemic brands, and the lack of third-party events means little engagement there as well. With more prize money committed from Supercell, perhaps the company will finally look to recoup that cost through an increase in brand engagement.

Dota 2

If 2020 was your first year engaging with esports, you could be forgiven for not knowing how big Dota 2 is. The game’s publicity and attention is all built around the monumental prize pool it dishes out each year at The International. While that prize pool was once again slated to break records this year, the pandemic ultimately led to Valve canceling the event. This cancellation in turn revealed just how much the game’s entire ecosystem revolved around TI.

With the big tournament and its behemoth of a prize pool expected to return in 2021, Dota 2 will likely return to its former glory rather quickly. However, what makes the game interesting for this list is what has happened in the interim. Valve has always taken a rather hands off approach to its esports ecosystems outside of throwing some prize money around, but when the cancellation of TI left a gaping black hole in Dota 2’s competitive infrastructure, the publisher was forced to react. In recent months, Valve has committed prize money and support to smaller, regional tournaments it had never engaged with before, helping to bolster the global ecosystem going forward.

What’s more, some organizers stepped in to fill the void, leading to the formation of the EPIC League and other online regional competitions. If TI is able to return, and Dota 2 can retain some of the improvements made to its global infrastructure, the game will come out of the pandemic stronger than ever.

Fighting Games

While Dota 2 faced its struggles during the pandemic, no ecosystem was hit harder by the loss of live events than the Fighting Game Community. This entire ecosystem operated almost exclusively through in-person tournaments and global competitive circuits. The loss of those events not only crippled the entire fighting game esports infrastructure, but it revealed a far greater problem at the root of the scene.

Many of the most prominent fighting games, including Street Fighter, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and Dragon Ball FighterZ. are so far behind the times in terms of their online functionality that they are almost a completely different game online – a much worse game. Some of the best professional players in the world suddenly went on unprecedented losing streaks as a result of inferior online play. Some have stopped competing altogether, or are contemplating retirement if the online-only era lasts much longer.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. The struggles of some big games has brought attention to smaller titles, or other prominent games with a quality online experience. These frustrations have also finally pushed the greater Fighting Game Community to put pressure on developers to bring fighting games into the modern age of gaming.

When live events (hopefully) return in the latter half of 2021, the Fighting Game Community will surge back to life, but will also have learned lessons from its time stranded online that will hopefully lead to a far brighter future beyond next year.

And of course, if Riot Games surprises everyone and releases its fighting game next year, it will only serve to push the community forward that much faster.

Honorable Mention: Halo Infinite

Another title substantially impacted by the pandemic, Halo Infinite’s release was pushed back all the way to fall of 2021. As a result, it is unlikely to have a significant impact on esports next year, with most events likely spinning up in 2022, but Halo is an important game to monitor, and what happens early in its lifespan could inform its potential for the coming years. 

Halo was a prominent esport in the glory days of Major League Gaming, but has fallen out of the spotlight in recent years. Since then, shooting titles have had a renaissance and we have seen from some of the successes in Valorant that the skill sets from various titles in the genre can carry over. 

Halo Infinite is potentially one of the biggest boom or bust titles to appear in the esports industry in recent years. If the brand can return to its former place in the cultural zeitgeist, this new entry could bring a new wave of fans into esports. If Halo is in fact past its prime, it may suffer a similar fate to recent Gears of War titles – a small, loyal following but unable to break into the ecosystem at large.


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