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The History Of Esports

Lawrence Phillips  | 
Esports have come a long way from the early days of LAN parties and arcade cabinets. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Esports have come a long way from the early days of LAN parties and arcade cabinets. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

As esports continues to grow in popularity and make its way further and further into the mainstream with televised events on channels like TBS and ESPN, people new to competitive gaming may feel like the sport has “come out of nowhere”. This couldn’t be further from the truth; esports has origins dating all the way back to the 1970’s.

Each passing decade has seen esports reach new milestones and the future continues to look brighter. Here is a look at the path esports has taken from its modest beginnings to the billion dollar industry that it is today.

The First Signs of Esports

By most accounts, the first official video game competition on record happened at Stanford University on October 19, 1972. That event invited players to compete in a game called Spacewar, a space combat game that was first developed in 1962. Students gathered to compete against each other in this revolutionary game, with the top prize of a one year’s subscription of Rolling Stone magazine going to winner Bruce Baumgart.

In 1980, video game competitions hit the mainstream when Atari held the Space Invaders Championship. The event attracted over 10,000 players and helped bring video games out of the shadows as a niche product and firmly into the public’s eye.

Building on the Momentum of the Space Invaders Championships

Another significant event in competitive video gaming took place in 1980 when Walter Day created Twin Galaxies, an organization that would record and keeps world records in video gaming. With an organization dedicated to keeping these records and the Guinness Book of World Records honoring them, the race for top scores developed around the world.

Billy Mitchell became well known in the 1980’s for his mastery of various arcade games and world records in them including the popular Pac-Man and Donkey Kong arcade cabinet games. This craze caused video games to make their way onto television as shows like Starcade in the United States and First Class in the United Kingdom pitted players against each other in competitive gaming to battle for high scores.

Unfortunately, with a plethora of companies eager to get involved in the video games space, standards began to drop. The market became oversaturated with new titles due to over-projected demand. The lack of quality control and the waning interest in consoles compared to PC, caused a large-scale recession from 1983 to 1985, predominately in North America. As a result, global revenue for video games took a massive hit. Gaming began being labelled a fad in the public eye, while also being vilified for its potentially addictive nature.

“Though it once appeared that children would never stop zapping asteroids and blowing up tanks, industry people say that many youngsters seem to have become jaded by Donkey Kong and Chopper Command and have switched to home computers or returned to traditional, non-electronic fun,” wrote the New York Times in 1983.

However, the video game industry survived the recession, with the release of the NES console in Europe and NA playing a major role. Competitive gaming had already started to make its way into popular culture in the 1980s through arcades and home consoles, but the wider distribution of the internet in the early 1990s would change the face of it completely. Advancements in 3D graphics (640 x 480!), the arrival of CD-Rom technology and more affordable home computers, were also key factors in the huge leap competitive gaming took at the start of the 1990s.

Technology Ushers in New Era of Competitive Gaming

While the Atari had its share of popularity during the 1980’s, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) took the controls, graphics, gameplay and accessibility of video games to a new level. The original NES made its way to North America in 1985, and the Super NES (SNES) was released in 1991. The Sega Genesis came out in 1989, sparking an “arms race” that would lead to video games getting exponentially better in a short period of time.

In addition to making video gaming more accessible to families around the world, Nintendo also helped competitive gaming continue to grow. The Nintendo World Championships ran in 1990 and toured the United States before eventually holding its championship games at Universal Studios in California. Nintendo held another world championship in 1994 to promote the SNES. The world finals of this event were held in San Diego, California.

The potential for competitive gaming online was self-evident, but it wasn’t until ID Software’s first-person shooter, Quake, that it became a reality. ID Software had essentially created the FPS genre we know today with Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and later Doom 1 (1993) and 2 (1994), but Quake was designed for multiplayer action. Perfect for esports. Quake was a technical marvel, and ran on a brand new engine built from scratch by the developer. The FPS title shipped with six multiplayer maps – a revolutionary idea at the time – , which made use of advancements in 3D technology to create maps with multiple levels, resulting in far more compelling action. Players now had to memorize pathways, weapon spawns and movement patterns. To master Quake took hours, and with internet access growing every day, the number of potential enemies to frag became seemingly endless. Competition on this scale was unrivaled, and in 1997 ID Software organized what became known as one of the first true esports tournaments.

The Red Annihilation

One of those Quake events was the Red Annihilation in May of 1997. This is considered, by many, to be one of the first true esports competitions. The internet allowed for over 2000 entrants to face each other in one-on-one competitions in Quake before the field was eventually whittled down to just 16 players.

These 16 players were flown into Atlanta, Georgia to compete at the Electronic Entertainment Expo at the World Congress Center. This event was viewed by spectators in person and online and received news coverage from newspapers and television networks. Dennis “Thresh” Fong earned the win, etching his place into history and earning the tournament’s grand prize; a Ferarri 328 GTS previously owned by Quake programmer John D. Carmack.

Thresh became the first pro gamer, and was recognized as such in the Guinness World Records. He was also featured in Rolling Stone magazine and went on to be inducted into the ESL Hall of Fame. Thresh was a taste of things to come and he served as inspiration for gamers living in the stigma that video games, and especially esports, was a waste of time.

South Korea Enters the Game

Quake was undoubtedly a milestone title for esports, but it would be Blizzard’s real-time strategy game Starcraft: Brood War, released just a year after Red Annihilation in 1998, that would lead the charge. From 1997 to 1999 Asia was hit by a period of financial crisis, and South Korea was one of the countries most affected alongside Indonesia and Thailand. Money was tight, and families were forced to seek cheaper and more accessible entertainment. Fortunately for South Koreans, the arrival of high-speed internet led to the rise of net-cafes known as “PC Bangs”, which offered its patrons the opportunity to play video games at a very affordable rate.

During the financial crisis, PC Bangs became a place to hang out and socialize with friends, often by playing cooperative or competitive titles. This is still true today, with PC Bangs and esports part of South Korean culture as a result of this period. Starcraft: Brood War was released just at the right time, and appealed to the nation’s interest in activities that tested their ability to think and react rapidly. Starcraft went from a game in PC Bangs to a national obsession.

Due to this immense popularity, media companies ON-Media and MBC Plus Media decided to launch TV channels to broadcast Starcraft competitions. The leagues attracted massive sponsorships from the likes of Samsung and telecommunications giants SK Telecom. Other companies followed suit, sponsoring teams and players, hoping to get their brands in front of the eyes of the younger generations. Thresh had been a minor celebrity in North America, but the South Korean professional Starcraft players were superstars in their own right. South Korea had proven esports could be lucrative, while also pushing the envelope in terms of broadcasting esports to the masses. It had set the bar, now it was just up to the rest of the world to catch up.

Esports Explode into the 21st Century

All of the pieces were in place for esports to take another big step forward in the 2000’s. Video games and online gaming continued to grow in popularity. Internet cafes started popping up around the world, giving video game players the opportunity to play multiplayer games on high powered PCs they may not have been able to afford in their own homes at the time. This gradually changed too, as home computers kept becoming more powerful and less expensive.

In 2006, FUN Technologies held a Worldwide Webgames Championship where 71 players competed for a $1 million grand prize. This was just one example of esports tournaments and their prize pools growing in the early 2000’s. There were just about a dozen tournaments held worldwide in 2000; that number increased over 20-fold by 2010.

After sitting out for much of the esports boom it had helped to create back in the 1990’s, Nintendo returned to the scene with the Wii Games Summer 2010. This tournament lasted over a month and garnered over 400,000 participants. It also helped establish Super Smash Brothers for Wii as one of the most popular esports games of its time.

Twitch Brings Competitive Gaming to the Masses

Esports found their way onto television in the United States sporadically in previous decades. In countries like South Korea, it was much more popular on television. But never had the entire world had access to the excitement of competitive gaming as a spectator sport like it did when Twitch was founded.

Hitting the scene in 2011, from the remnants of Justin.tv, Twitch gave esports a platform to reach previously unthinkable heights. While competitive gaming was previously mostly just enjoyed by gamers and casual fans, Twitch’s online broadcasting of tournaments and events around the world gave anyone with an interest in the sport a chance to dive in. Games like League of Legends (LoL) and Defense of the Ancients 2 (Dota 2) became immensely popular as spectator sports, bringing in millions of unique views on Twitch. Both games began establishing their own World Championships which would go on to inspire great change for how esports would function.

2011 to 2020 – Esports takes flight

With broadcasting now more affordable and centralized through Twitch, tournaments were more viable. Attempts to televise esports through dedicated esports channels in Germany, UK, France and the United States in the 2000s had proved unsuccessful. The most historic of which was the Championship Gaming Series operated by DirecTV in the United States, which crashed and burned. The CGS had attempted to adapt esports to TV. The WWE style vibe paired with a poor choice of games and bizarre ruleset, left esports fans cringing and mainstream viewers baffled. From 2011 onwards, esports was fully equipped to take on the world on its own terms, and things were already expanding at a rate of knots.

161 esports tournaments were held in 2009, but by 2012 that number had shot up to 696, and continued to rise. Likewise, $2 million in annual prize money in 2009 became $10 million in 2012. The RTS era of Starcraft and Warcraft 3 was drawing to a close, and the rise of the MOBA genre (Heroes of Newerth, League of Legends and Dota 1 & 2) generated an unprecedented player base.

While in the nighties each event had hosted tournaments for multiple titles, this no longer became the norm, with many titles successful and popular enough to warrant their own competition. Previously, esports events such as ESWC and WCG had followed the format of the Olympics with single representatives from various countries, but that was phased out in order to improve the level of competition. Developers also began being more heavily involved in their own game’s esports scene, with grand scale annual events held such as Valve’s The International, Blizzard’s BlizzCon and Riot Games’ Worlds.

By 2015, it was practically mandatory that a developer was hands-on with their competitive scene, if they hoped for their title to thrive as an esport. The level of developer involvement varied but ultimately delivered structure, something competitive esports was in desperate need of. Third party tournament organizers such as ESL were also stepping up their game, creating premier offline tournament series such as ESL One and the Intel Extreme Masters, funded by prolific investment.

Developments in in-game monetization also offered developers and tournament organizers a way to see a lucrative return on assigning resources to esports, not previously possible. This led to games having a much longer lifespan, and a continuous stream of new content which retained players and enticed old ones to return. Initially one-off purchases, fresh content soon became part of BattlePasses – the esports equivalent of a season pass. Through this individual esports titles were able to create sustainable ecosystems, leading to enormous growth.

The Future of Esports

The future of esports looks to be even more structured, with many titles such as Overwatch (OWL), Call of Duty (CDL), League of Legends (LCS) now adopting a franchise league system. As more developers look to do the same, for esports, franchising is still new and somewhat alien, but is becoming the norm, and the days of the esports “wild west” look to be numbered.

Franchise leagues such as the Overwatch League and Call of Duty League offer more stability for team owners and sponsors, allow for revenue sharing between competing teams, and are more attractive to investors. They also have ensured a more consistent broadcast quality and sustainable ecosystem for players. With a far more polished presentation, franchise leagues could act as a gateway for an even bigger esports audience worldwide.

Traditional sports teams have also acknowledged esports as a method to attract new followers, investing into dual ownership of established esports organisations. This has opened up a whole host of new opportunities. For example Team Liquid’s ownership group securing a “strategic partnership” with Marvel Entertainment, and we can expect more of the same in the years to come.

The rise of Twitch streamers turned influencers, has led to esports reaching a much broader audience, and the stigma of being a gamer is fading. Esports players are becoming the faces of consumer brands, and that trend is likely to continue, as brands try to reach the millennial audience invested in esports. What was one niche is now mainstream, and the future is incredibly bright.

Lawrence is an esports dinosaur that started back in 2004 and has been a full-time freelancer ever since. He has worked for the likes of SK Gaming, PGL, ESL, Razer, Monster Energy, GINXTV, Dexerto and Starladder as an editor, scriptwriter and content creator. He currently spends his days trying to own in Apex Legends and Fortnite, in a bid to make up for his lack of skills in his main game, Dota 2.