Tonight, top collegiate and international standouts converge on the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the much-anticipated NBA draft. The draft is a window into the future for the franchises and players that participate, and the results can profoundly affect a team's competitiveness and even shape the sport itself. Look no further than LeBron James, who was the Cleveland Cavaliers' top pick in 2003 who just brought home the franchise's first championship while picking up his third NBA Finals MVP.
Like the NBA draft, esports is filled with prospects, but not just the players. Everyone -- from sponsors to franchises -- is eager to see which game will become the basketball of competitive gaming. Will League of Legends keep its perch as the most-watched (and most-played) esport in the world, or is there a game out there on the verge of coming out on top?
Keeping in the spirit of the NBA draft, it's time for the esports draft. Based on current viewership, sponsorship, player base and, most importantly, future growth potential, here is my draft board for the esports to look out for in 2016 and beyond.
1. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (Valve)
CS:GO has come a long way in the past year. What seemed to be a midtier competitive title only a year or two ago has begun to challenge League as the world's most-watched esport. With the game currently on weekly television with TBS and Eleague, the potential growth for the title is even greater. Outside of being huge in North America, Europe and South America, the game is starting to gain traction in China, and that can only mean more money, sponsorships and eyeballs directed toward the world's top first-person shooter.
Additionally, CS:GO's straightforward five-on-five format with clear-cut attack and defense objectives contributes to its growing popularity among spectators. This simplicity has the advantage against games with thousands of spells and different characters like League of Legends, and makes this Valve game my top pick on the board.
2. League of Legends (Riot Games)
League of Legends, for all its issues and complaints, is still the game that has the farthest reach when it comes to worldwide appeal. There are professional leagues for League of Legends across the globe, and it's huge in major markets like the United States, Europe and China. It has a wide array of famous players, like the Michael Jordan-esque Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, and Riot has done a good job marketing its leagues and talent while also investing in infrastructure behind-the-scenes.
The issue that League might run into, outside of how difficult it can be for a newcomer to understand what the hell is actually going on, is the regional parity of the competitive scene. Koreans dominate the game, and most of the top international teams in other regions have Korean imports on the roster. While nationalistic diversity isn't the be-all and end-all, the same teams from the same region winning the major tournaments every year can turn away fans from budding regions.
3. Dota 2 (Valve)
The second Valve game on the board, Dota 2, is a game that has staying power despite its smaller scale. Dota's greater complexity vs. League adds depth, but it also makes the game less approachable for new audiences. While Dota has significant international presence, its inability to crack key esports markets like South Korea also contributes to its ranking behind League.
Still, Dota 2 is a safe pick as the third-biggest esport. The crowd-funded prize pools for Dota events are huge and you'll be hard-pressed to find a more loyal group of fans; add in its history in China, and I think it'll keep its spot for at least the near future.
4. Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment)
For the fourth pick, I'm selecting the new game Overwatch, which doesn't even have a competitive mode implemented inside it yet. Overwatch has been a huge success sales-wise for Blizzard since its release in May. And it unthinkably unseated League of Legends as the top-played game in Korean internet cafes this past week, threatening to end a 203-week streak for the Riot title.
People love the game. People love the characters. People love the mixture between a first-person shooter and a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA). While there is some merit in the opinion that the game is much more fun to play than watch as an esport, there is enormous audience potential if Blizzard can handle its property correctly.
Blizzard has experience when it comes to turning competitive games into esports, and I think they're going to be going all-in with making Overwatch the biggest esport in the world. Only time will tell if it succeeds or if it's another Blizzard title that shows promise but can't crack Riot and Valve's leading pack.
5. Street Fighter V (Capcom)
Here comes our first fighting game on the list. Between Street Fighter V and its fellow fighting game Super Smash Bros., Street Fighter has the edge due to publisher Capcom's strong commitment to fostering a competitive scene. Capcom is throwing its financial weight behind Street Fighter, and the game, although not selling as well as the company might have hoped, is one of the best fighters ever created for esports.
The tournament Evolution 2016 in Las Vegas this July will be the first real test to see whether the investment into Street Fighter will pay off. So far, with more than 4,000 people entering the competition, the future looks mighty bright.
6. Super Smash Bros. Melee (Nintendo)
Super Smash Bros. Melee has been around for 15 years, and it may now finally be coming into its own. Its recognizable cast of characters and colorful graphics -- eye-pleasing despite being almost two decades old -- make Melee very approachable from a spectator perspective.
Beyond the game's history and accessibility, it's the players themselves and their interesting rivalries that drive this esport to even greater heights. Every year, the veterans of the game known as the "Five Gods" are challenged by would-be slayers of kings from all ends of the community. In an era when fans are constantly searching for the next big thing, Melee's rich history and quirky cast of characters inside and outside the game are why this 2001 title is so high up on the draft board.
Unfortunately, publisher Nintendo is still lagging behind its counterpart Capcom when it comes to supporting Melee and other Smash games as esports. If Nintendo ever decides to close the gap, watch out -- its money and international reach could catapult Smash esports to the front of the pack.
7. Call of Duty (Activision)
Anytime a game franchise has a competitive scene and more than 250 million copies sold, it's going to have to make the top 10 of any esports game rankings. While I rank Call of Duty firmly behind Counter-Strike, the current leader in first-person esports, I respect the game's potential for growth. Publisher Activision's CoD World League features some of the biggest online player brands when it comes to esports, and its continued support of the title can only benefit the esports scene. Although CoD lacks the viewership numbers of some other titles, there is no doubting the committed competitive fan base this esport enjoys.
8. Hearthstone (Blizzard Entertainment)
Hearthstone is a strange case. Based on the viewership numbers on game streaming site Twitch, Hearthstone could be argued to rank in the top four esports. It's an extremely popular game with larger-than-life personalities as its stars. However, a majority of the viewers on Twitch aren't interested in Hearthstone esports but in the personalities themselves. As a result, streamers interacting with fans and playing opponents online for fun may reach 30,000-plus viewers, while non-major tournaments may only reach a fraction of that number.
As with all card games, and especially Hearthstone, the element of randomness in gameplay can hinder the consistency of competitive play. While a few pro players regularly make it back to major tournaments, there are plenty of upsets, and it's hard to craft narratives and interesting storylines when even the best players miss tournament qualifications due to bad luck.
9. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (Nintendo)
Smash for Wii U or Smash 4 is the newest title in the Smash franchise -- ranked ninth currently, but with a lot of room to grow in the coming years. Its predecessor Melee will always have the edge when it comes to history, but Smash 4 could get the big bump over its brother if Nintendo ever decides to financially support and promote its esports scene over Melee's. Right now, however, I have to rank it behind Street Fighter V and Melee as an esports fighting game title. At EVO 2016, Street Fighter and Melee will be center stage at the 12,000-seat Mandalay Bay Events Center on Championship Sunday, while Smash 4 will have to watch from the sidelines.
10. StarCraft II (Blizzard Entertainment)
The final game on the board came down to two titles: Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm and Blizzard's StarCraft II. Although neither esport is as big as its fan base hoped it would be at this point, I went with the game I think will have the longer shelf life. SC2 is the grandfather of western esports. If it weren't for the game's boom period at the start of 2010 and 2011, games like League, CS:GO and Dota 2 would not have had the success they enjoy today. Obviously, the game has lost a lot of its luster since being the No. 1 choice five years ago, but I'm confident that StarCraft 2 will be around five years from now, even if it drops to the 20th-ranked esport globally.
On the other hand, Heroes of the Storm is already encountering StarCraft II's challenges without ever having been a wildly successful esport. Out of the four Blizzard esport titles currently being played in the West, Heroes is the only one that doesn't have a niche. SC2 is the top real-time strategy esport, Overwatch has a ton of hype behind it, and Hearthstone, for all its faults, is a hugely popular game that will always get viewers if big personalities are invited to events. Although HotS is a fun game to watch and play, it is lagging severely behind the MOBA powerhouses that are League and Dota 2.
StarCraft II is a timeless game. It's frustratingly hard to play, it isn't the easiest to get into as a casual viewer, and its glory days as the most-watched esport in the world are long past. All that said, it still gets consistent viewership numbers, tournaments are being played across the world, and the game has a long, rich history like Melee. The legs on SC2 might be old and tired, but there are years left before I'm ready to completely dismiss the former top esports draft selection.