2019 ESPN Esports awards
It’s the end of another exciting year in esports across League of Legends, Overwatch, Counter-Strike, Dota 2, Fortnite, Call of Duty, Hearthstone … the list goes on.
To recognize the best in esports and look back on some disappointments for 2019, we’ll be announcing our finalists and winners for five categories this week:
Check back here throughout the week beginning at 10:00 a.m. ET as we announce the finalists for that day’s category here and on Twitter. Then check back at 7:30 p.m. ET each day to find out the winners.
Additionally, we’ll be runing a fan vote on Twitter for who you think should win!
Without further ado, let’s kick this thing off.
FunPlus Phoenix (League of Legends) — One of the best teams throughout China’s League of Legends Pro League spring and summer seasons, FPX went on to win the Summoner’s Cup at the League of Legends World Championship after beating the heavily favored G2 Esports.
G2 Esports (League of Legends) — G2 won the League of Legends European Championship title for both the spring and summer seasons, won the Mid-Season Invitational and finished runner-up at the League of Legends World Championship.
OG (Dota 2) — OG won a $15.6 million share of esports’ biggest prize pool at The International 2019, becoming the first back-to-back winners of Dota 2’s most prestigious event.
San Francisco Shock (Overwatch League) — One of the best teams in the Overwatch League throughout Season 2, the San Francisco Shock won a Stage 2 title and the league championship after beating the Vancouver Titans in the season-ending grand final in Philadelphia.
Twitter fan poll winner: G2 Esports, 47% of fan vote
ESPN winner: San Francisco Shock
The San Francisco Shock were consistently excellent throughout Overwatch League Season 2. Photo: Ben Pursell for Blizzard Entertainment
It’s difficult to remember now, but the San Francisco Shock nearly didn’t qualify for the Stage 1 playoffs of the Overwatch League’s Season 2. By the end of the season, they had competed in all three stage finals, won Stage 2 and swept through the Vancouver Titans in the grand final to win the entire league. There were many fortuitous meta factors that aided the Shock in their success, but the consistency with which the Shock were able to withstand shifting meta changes was impressive.
San Francisco Shock are crowned ESPN Esport’s 2019 Team of the Year
More impressive was the team’s ability to rotate players in and out of the starting lineup with no resentment, a feat that no other esports team has been able to accomplish over a similarly lengthy time period. This is the true strength of the Shock and speaks volumes of the team’s culture. When speaking to current and former players of the Shock this year, they all praise the team atmosphere and environment first, before mentioning anything else.
Perhaps the scariest thing about the Shock is that, like G2 Esports in League of Legends, they’ve committed to retaining their championship roster for 2020.
— Emily Rand
Runner-up: FunPlus Phoenix
Entering 2019, FunPlus Phoenix were considered a fringe playoff team in China’s League of Legends Pro League, hoping that their acquisition of Kim “Doinb” Tae-sang could bring them good fortune. By the end of the year, they had accumulated an overall record of 85-22, capping off their incredible run by sweeping Europe’s G2 Esports in front of their hometown fans in Paris to win the 2019 League of Legends World Championship. Be it domestically or internationally, FPX overcame all doubters in 2019, putting themselves in the record books as one of the most statistically dominant teams in League of Legends history.
The anthem of this year’s world championship was titled “Phoenix,” and just like the signature lyrics in the song — “Fly, phoenix, fly” — FPX blossomed from the ashes of a disappointing previous campaign and sprouted into the icons we know them as today.
— Tyler Erzberger
Evil Geniuses — EG made their return to Counter-Strike with a first-place finish at ESL One: New York. In Dota 2, they finished third in both the Chongqing Major and MDL Disneyland Paris Major. They will also return to the North American League of Legends scene in 2020 after successfully bidding for the LCS slot that was vacated by Echo Fox.
G2 Esports — G2 was excellent throughout the 2019 League of Legends season, winning both LEC domestic titles, winning the Mid-Season Invitational and finishing runner-up at the League of Legends World Championship. The team also took first at the Rainbow Six: Siege 2019 Invitational in February, with several top finishes thereafter, and finished second at the Rocket League Season 7 World Championship Finals in June.
NRG Esports — In Overwatch, the NRG-owned San Francisco Shock won the Overwatch League Season 2 title, and in Counter-Strike, NRG finished third-fourth at the StarLadder Berlin Major. NRG also announced a Chicago-based Call of Duty franchise led by former head of OpTic Gaming Hector “H3CZ” Rodriguez.
Team Liquid — Team Liquid’s League of Legends Championship Series team won both LCS splits and finished runner-up at the Mid-Season Invitational. In Counter-Strike, TL won the Intel Grand Slam for Season 2, and, in Dota 2, they finished runner-up at The International 2019 as well as second in both the Epicenter Major and MDL Disneyland Paris Major. To close out the year, Team Liquid took first at the One Game Agency PIT Season 3 Finals in Rainbow Six: Siege and became the 2019 Clash Royale League world champions in December.
Twitter poll winner: Team Liquid, 46% of fan vote
Among the accomplishments for Team Liquid’s League of Legends team this year were winning both LCS splits and finishing second at the Mid-Season Invitational. Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games
ESPN Winner: Team Liquid
Team Liquid began the decade as a newborn esports organization stemming from a popular StarCraft: Brood War fansite, first entering the scene as StarCraft II was released worldwide in 2010. From there, they’ve evolved year by year, entering new competitive scenes; and as the 2010s are about to come to a close, they’ve become a powerhouse in almost every major game title in esports.
In the most watched and biggest esport in the world, League of Legends, Team Liquid’s squad is on a domestic four-peat, having emerged as champions in every North American season split over the past two years. While TL didn’t turn heads at the world championship, they did make it to the final of the Mid-Season Invitational.
Blizzard Entertainment’s haphazard 2019 earns them the biggest disappointment of the year.
In Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, TL were not only dominant domestically, but for a few months, they were the No. 1 team in the world, winning the IEM Grand Slam and its $1 million prize in record time.
Their Dota 2 team, which historically has been their most consistently successful on the international stage, had another successful year, making a spirited run in The International’s lower bracket, before ultimately finishing second to back-to-back world champions OG in the final.
The list goes on and on when we’re talking about Team Liquid. The team born from a fansite now has professional players in 15 different esports titles, and with a new decade upon us, that number should only grow.
Runner-up: G2 Esports
What a close race this was between the top two esports organizations in the world. What would have happened if G2 Esports won the League of Legends World Championship? Yeah, TL maybe still gets the nod, but it would have been a toss-up. G2 were a series away from the best year a team has ever had in League of Legends, but that all melted away following the team’s 3-0 loss to FunPlus Phoenix.
That still doesn’t take away from the massively successful year G2 had as an organization. They won almost everything you could win in League of Legends, G2’s Rainbow Six Siege team took home a world title in Montreal, and the organization has continued to invest more resources in its players. G2 are involved in seven different esport titles and are vying to be a top-10 team in all of them.
The scariest thing about G2? They’ve only been around since 2014. If this is what they can do in six years, I can’t wait to see what they do in the coming decade.
Blizzard Entertainment’s year — Blizzard had a rough year that started with layoffs of approximately 800 employees in February and the ripple effect of it shutting down the Heroes Global Championship. The low point in its year was the decision to ban Hearthstone player Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai after his on-broadcast expression of support for protesters in Hong Kong. The severity of the initial penalties received widespread criticism from those in the esports community to those in the halls of the U.S. Congress.
Demise of Echo Fox — The problems for Echo Fox this year began when minority owner Amit Raizada used racist language against former Echo Fox CEO Jace Hall. Despite being ordered by Riot Games to remove Raizada from their cap table, the partners could not come to an agreement to do so, and co-founder Rick Fox was eventually ousted and the team lost its LCS slot. In October, the company dissolved, marking the end of one of esports’ most popular franchises.
Griffin’s Kanavi contract situation — Griffin’s promising year ended with allegations that team director Cho Gyu-nam had forced jungler Seo “Kanavi” Jin-hyeok to sign an unfair contract as a minor with Chinese team JD Gaming and allegations that former coach Kim “cvMax” Dae-ho had abused Griffin’s players. Following an investigation by Riot Games, Cho resigned, Kanavi and several prominent members of a team were allowed to become free agents, and Griffin and Riot both received hefty criticism from South Korean lawmakers.
North America at the League of Legends World Championship — No North American team made it out of the group stage of worlds for the first time since 2015, which was especially disappointing considering the high expectations for Team Liquid following a runner-up performance at the Mid-Season Invitational. As Europe continued to show its improvement, its fellow Western region appeared to lag far behind.
Twitter poll winner: NA at worlds, 30% of fan vote
From massive layoffs to the banning of Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai, 2019 was a bad year for Blizzard Entertainment. MICHAEL NELSON/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
ESPN winner: Blizzard’s rough year
In December 2018, Blizzard announced it would be shuttering the Heroes Global Championship, the premier esports league for Heroes of the Storm, just weeks after it met with team owners at BlizzCon in Anaheim, California, the previous month to discuss league plans for 2019.
As a result, hundreds of players and staff lost their jobs across the game’s competitive scene, and it wasn’t long before Blizzard employees did too. In an earnings call in February, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick said the parent company would lay off 8% of its staff (roughly 800 people), despite “record” profits throughout Q4 in 2018. Needless to say, the public perception wasn’t very favorable toward the billionaire executive or the company he helms.
VK Liooon swept her opponent 3-0 in the Hearthstone Grand Finals at Blizzcon 2019, cementing her and that moment, as our moment of the year.
But the worst hadn’t come yet for Blizzard. In October, the company banned and revoked the prize earnings of Hearthstone competitor Chung “blitzchung” Ng Wai after he spoke out on a Blizzard tournament stream in favor of protests in Hong Kong against the Chinese government.
That decision sparked widespread outrage, with the public decrying Blizzard and cancelling their World of Warcraft subscriptions; commentators dropping out of BlizzCon obligations; sponsors removing themselves from BlizzCon; and a bipartisan delegation of Congress writing a letter to Kotick asking him to walk back the company’s decision. In the following weeks, Blizzard reduced the ban against blitzchung and returned his prize money. But the response at BlizzCon from Blizzard president J. Allen Brack was hollow; he didn’t even mention blitzchung, Hong Kong or China. The decision capped the most difficult year in Blizzard history.
— Jacob Wolf
Runner-up: The fall of Echo Fox
Echo Fox is no more. Once one of the most famous organizations in esports, the team — led by three-time NBA champion Rick Fox — dissolved in November after months of back-and-forth public vitriol and messy lawsuits. The fall of the organization started when co-founder Amit Raizada used racist language toward former Echo Fox CEO Jace Hall. When reports of that language surfaced, Fox said he would exit the organization if Raizada wasn’t removed as a shareholder.
Because of complicated stakeholder agreements and owners (including Raizada and Fox) failing to see eye to eye on who to sell the organization to, Echo Fox was removed from the League of Legends Championship Series by Riot Games in September. Fox continues to be active in esports — recently raising more than $39,000 for charity in a stream at the League of Legends All-Stars event and reportedly starting a new esports company with Hall — but Echo Fox’s demise was messy and, ultimately, one of the most disappointing episodes in esports in 2019.
Arslan “Arslan Ash” Siddique winning Evo Japan and Evo 2019 — The Pakistani-born Tekken player overcame numerous travel issues to win the Tekken 7 title at the Evolution Championship Series: Japan 2019 and then followed up that victory with another title at Evo Las Vegas.
Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf winning Fortnite World Cup solo competition — The 16-year-old Fortnite player took home $3 million and became an instant sensation after winning the inaugural Fortnite World Cup in the solo division at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City.
Xiaomeng “Liooon” Li winning Hearthstone Grandmasters Global Finals — Liooon won the Hearthstone Grandmasters Global Finals at BlizzCon, becoming the first woman to win both that event and any individual event at BlizzCon as well as any major Hearthstone tournament.
Team USA winning Overwatch World Cup — The U.S. Overwatch team became the first team other than South Korea to win the Overwatch World Cup after beating South Korea in the semifinals and China in the final of the event at BlizzCon.
Twitter poll winner: Aslan Ash, 43% of fan vote
ESPN Winner: Liooon winning the Hearthstone title at BlizzCon
Li “Liooon” Xiaomeng’s Hearthstone victory at BlizzCon was one of the most memorable esports moments of 2019. Provided by Blizzard Entertainment
Admittedly, I don’t follow competitive Hearthstone. I’ve only played the game itself a few times. And while I watched the Hearthstone Grandmasters Global Finals, I couldn’t tell you analytically how Victory Key’s Li “Liooon” Xiaomeng swept Brian “bloodyface” Eason at BlizzCon.
What I can tell you is that an outpouring of cheers and support from other women in esports flooded my Twitter timeline for the next day or so.
Arslan Ash won two major titles in Tekken in 2019 and has shed light on a community rarely seen in esports. For that he’s the ESPN Esports Player of the Year.
What I also can tell you is that I teared up when Liooon said this in her postmatch interview:
“I was waiting in line for backup signups, and there was a guy who told me you are a girl, you should not wait in line here. This is not for you. And now today, I’m here, with all the support from the fans. So I want to say to all the girls out there who have a dream for esports for competition, for glory. If you want to do it, and you believe in yourself, you should just forget your gender and go for it.”
I don’t think anything I write will be able to top that as a reason for why her victory — the first-ever major Blizzard championship to be won by a woman — should be considered our best moment in esports this year. In this response, she perfectly encapsulates systemic barriers toward women in esports, while also actively encouraging other young women to keep trying in spite of them.
Runner-up: Arslan Ash wins Evo 2019 Tekken 7 championship
Coming into Evo in August, Arslan “Arslan Ash” Siddique was the most talked about Tekken 7 player in the world. On Aug. 4, Arslan Ash repeated his Evo success, this time in Las Vegas, and became the first person to win both Evo and Evo Japan in the same year.
In the moments afterward, Arslan Ash breathed sighs of relief, shook his opponent’s hand and dropped to his knees to pray. Following his monumental win, Arslan Ash discussed in an interview with ESPN the difficulty of being able to compete in either Evo — due to tough visa processes surrounding Pakistanis — and said that his stomach had been upset throughout his entire multiweek trip to the United States, as he had held firm to Islamic dietary guidelines. Arslan Ash pointed to his religion — “Without faith, I am nothing,” he said — and thanked his family, supporters and the fighting game community for helping him achieve an unprecedented feat.
Arslan “Arslan Ash” Siddique — After barely competing internationally in 2018, Arslan Ash won Tekken 7 at the Evolution Championship Series: Japan 2019 in January and also won the Evolution Championship Series 2019 in August.
Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf — The 16-year-old beat 99 other players to win the inaugural Fortnite World Cup in the solo division.
Xiaomeng “Liooon” Li — Liooon became the first woman to not only win the Hearthstone Grandmasters Global Finals but any Blizzard global title at BlizzCon or major Hearthstone tournament.
Jay “sinatraa” Won — Sinatraa was named Overwatch League MVP for 2019 and led the San Francisco Shock to a championship and Team USA to an Overwatch World Cup gold medal.
Vote here for your winner.
Twitter poll winner: Arslan Ash, 60% of fan vote
Arslan “Arslan Ash” Siddique won both Evo and Evo Japan in 2019. Caitlin O’Hara for ESPN
ESPN Winner: Arslan Ash
If you’re not familiar with Arslan “Arslan Ash” Siddique at this point, here’s the gist. Prior to October 2018, the Pakistani Tekken 7 phenom had never competed in a major international tournament. Now, at the end of 2019, he is an international star and the only person to ever win the Evolution Championship Series Japan and its American counterpart in the same year.
All the while, he has encountered arguably the worst travel experience in esports history, including playing in international tournaments on upset stomachs as he has abided by Islamic dietary guidelines in other countries and experiencing visa restrictions because of his nation of origin, Pakistan, which Passport Index ranks 196th out of 199 countries in terms of how difficult it is for people from Pakistan to travel without a visa.
Arslan Ash’s dominance in Tekken didn’t just make him a superstar though. It put Pakistan on the map for esports. After he defeated Jae-Min “Knee” Bae in Japan in January, Arslan Ash told ESPN he might not even be the best player in Pakistan — a sentiment that proved true after other Pakistani players were able to compete internationally and found success as the year went on. His continued success led Red Bull to name him one of their Red Bull Athletes, the first for any sports competitor in Pakistan.
Arslan Ash’s story of overcoming the odds and becoming Tekken’s top dog for most of 2019 resonates beyond esports.
Runner-up: Jay “sinatraa” Won
To say that sinatraa had a lot to prove this year is a bit specious. Yet given the influx of talent to the league (including eight new expansion teams), sinatraa wasn’t frequently considered in discussions about the best DPS talent in the league (outside of an honorable mention) before mentioning the Shanghai Dragons’ Bae “Diem” Min-seong or the formidable lineups of the Hangzhou Spark and Vancouver Titans.
While it’s fair to say that the meta favored sinatraa, his exemplary Zarya and Doomfist performances were crucial in the Shock’s overwhelming success across the entire Overwatch League season, which culminated in a championship.