The pandemic created both challenges and opportunities for the esports industry in the United States. It received heightened media attention during the onset of the pandemic, as many in-person tournaments were able to transition to entirely online events and resume gameplay faster than traditional sports, which were postponed for several months.

The circumstances also enabled advertisers to capitalize on marketing opportunities beyond gaming events alone. Efforts such as connecting on mainstream social media, offering fans branded merchandise, and leveraging celebrity endorsements have helped to facilitate a substantial boost in investment and revenue. 

Interest from Gen Z , particularly, is helping drive marketing and media opportunities within the sport, as gaming and game livestreams are huge parts of the cohort’s media diet. More importantly, these activities are intrinsic to the identity of most people in this generation.

Insider Intelligence expects there will be 26.6 million monthly US esports viewers this year, up by 11.4% from 2020. This amounts to 47.3% of all gaming video content (GVC) viewers.

Here are five valuable esports teams to watch in 2021 and what their success reveals about the future of the industry.

1. TSM 

Formerly known as Team SoloMid, TSM is a Los Angeles-based esports organization valued at $410 million, with half of its $45 million estimated revenue coming from esports. Founded by Andy Dinh and his brother Dan Dinh in 2009, the company has grown from a single league esports team to a multi-vertical media company known as Swift Media Entertainment.

In addition to TSM’s long standing partnerships with companies like Logitech G and Geico, Swift offers value for many more brands through its streamers, influencers, and portfolio of educational gaming websites. TSM’s success suggests that esports teams will need to diversify their revenue stream to engage audiences in unique and productive ways.

TSM has tiered rosters for creators and players in more than ten games, including Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, Magic the Gathering, and Chess. In an effort to bring more raw talent into the spotlight, TSM holds an annual on-site Scouting Combine, in which the organization invites 20-25 GM+ players to try out for its LCS, Academy, and Amateur teams.

2. G2 Esports

Also known by its abbreviated name, G2, this Berlin-based European esports organization was founded by retired Spanish League of Legends pro gamer Carlos “Ocelote” Rodríguez Santiago and German investorJens Hilgers. The organization has squads competing in tournaments for more than ten different games, including League of Legends, Apex Legends, Halo, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. In October 2021, the club also welcomed its first-ever all-female team, G2 Gozen, which competes in Valorant.

G2 exemplifies how these types of organizations can extend their reach far beyond just gaming. In its own words, G2’s vision is to be a global entertainment brand built on esports. The team’s shop sells branded merchandise on par with some of the world’s top soccer clubs—including pro kits for fans, country-specific national jerseys, lifestyle clothing, gaming hardware, and a slew of accessories.

The organization boasts more than 100 first place finishes in tournament results, over $5 million in rewards, and more than 40 million fans worldwide—known affectionately as the G2ARMY.

3. Team Liquid

Team Liquid is a well-known  esports team and professional gaming organization owned by aXiomatic Gaming, Victor Goossens, and Steve Arhancet. Since being founded in 2000, their collective teams have won the most prize money in the history of esports and have earned trophies across different titles and countries. One of the largest teams in the industry, Team Liquid squads compete in tournaments for more than fifteen different games, including Dota 2, Call of Duty, Rocket League, and Fortnite. 

Team Liquid has expanded into other areas within the gaming space to become a full-fledged media enterprise. This includes the creation of their 1UP Studios (a video content production area), Liquipedia, and Liquid Media (an influencer management agency). Team Liquid’s success can be attributed to their openness to innovation and represents where future investments may be channeled.

Some of the team’s high profile partners include Verizon, Coinbase, Alienware, Monster Energy, SAP, Honda and Bud Light, among others. Its online store hosts a number of clothing collections, featuring crossovers with brands such as Marvel, Naruto Akatsuki, and tokidoki. 

4. FaZe Clan

Since being founded in 2010, FaZe Clan has become one of the most prominent and influential gaming organizations. The team stands out due to its disruptive original content and hyper-engaged global fanbase of 342 million viewers across social media platforms.  

The team consists of rosters for both content creators and pro gamers for 12 games including Halo Infinite, Rocket League, and Fifa. Members of FaZe rosters have somewhat of celebrity status on their own, with bios including the number of followers each has on platforms including Twitch, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Per the team’s website, FaZe, “started out as internet kids armed with cameras and a diehard love for video games. We’ve turned our passions and struggles into a global creative engine that has no boundaries and continues to define gaming culture.”

The pandemic has sped up the trend of celebrities and public figures endorsing esports, and FaZe Clan has jumped at the opportunity to further engage audiences via influencers such as NBA star Ben Simmons and NFL quarterback Kyler Murray. Other corporate partners include DraftKings, Nissan, and McDonald’s. The team also created an apparel line with its partners Champion and the NFL.

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5. 100 Thieves

Los Angeles-based 100 Thieves is founded by Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, former OpTic Call of Duty captain, X Games gold medalist, and 2014 Esports Athlete of the Year. Haag created 100 Thieves in 2017 as a creative outlet, but managed to guide the team through multiple major championships in Call of Duty. 

Seeing the marketing and media opportunity beyond gaming, Haag conceived of 100 Thieves as “the premier lifestyle brand and gaming organization.” He didn’t stop his pursuits at gaming events, but instead expanded the company’s reach to top gaming podcasts, sold out apparel, and partnerships with major companies such as Red Bull and Cash App. The team has raised over $60 million from investors, including Drake, Scooter Braun, and Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff.

100 Thieves boasts its own training facility, the Cash App Compound, a 15,000 square foot hub featuring four training rooms, a content studio, apparel shop, streaming pods, and multiple business operations areas. Each aspect of the facility features prominent sponsorships such as different rooms being named after brands, exclusive equipment partnerships, and on-site catering deals.


Looking Ahead

As the pandemic drags on and live venues remain off-limits, there’s been an uptick in 5G usage as well to deliver and enhance live and livestreamed gaming content with AR, VR, multiple feeds, and/or 360-degree views, as well as to create hybrid experiences that blend live and virtual experiences. Broadcasters leveraging these technologies will be able to give fans an in-stadium feel, taking them into the point of view of players and giving them a front-row seat at matches—even when they are virtual.

Faster networks, lower latency, and more reliable connections will improve game performance and level the playing field for professional esports athletes as they train for matches and tournaments. They’ll also enhance the viewing experience for fans, as top video game streamers upload high-resolution content that can be watched in real time, on the go, from a variety of devices.