The History of eSports
Although competitive gaming has been around for just about as long as video games, there is no way that the pioneering video game competitors could have predicted what has become eSports today. Gaming has come a long way from being practised by niche hobbyists to a multi-million dollar industry which has gained mainstream attention around the world. The 2022 Asian Games will see eSports appear as a medal event, opening the door to a possible appearance in future Olympic Games. Let’s take a look at the history of the world’s fastest growing sport.
The very first organised video gaming competition took place in October of 1972 at Stanford University. Stanford students competed on the game Spacewar – a very rudimentary space shooter – with a grand prize on offer of a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. A far cry from the multi-million dollar prize pools on offer to today’s eSports champions. In 1980 Atari organised a Space Invaders tournament which was the largest of its type to that point, with over 10,000 players taking part. Although records of video game high scores started to be recorded throughout the 1980s, it was not until internet connectivity allowed online gameplay that competitive gaming really took off.
The 1990s saw a growth in the popularity of PC games which benefitted from internet connectivity. This decade marked the beginning of eSports as we know them today. Companies like Nintendo and Blockbuster-sponsored video gaming world championships, featuring a mix of sports, racing and combat games. 1997 saw the Red Annihilation ‘Quake’ tournament, widely considered to be the first true example of eSports. ‘Quake’ was a first-person shooter game, and 2,000 entered to try to win the prize of a (second-hand) Ferrari. The majority of eSports in the nineties focused on shooter or sports games, but at the end of the decade StarCraft: Blood War was launched to become a literal game changer. This was the first major real-time strategy game and would herald the beginning of the modern age of eSports.
The dawn of the millennium coincided with the rise of eSports. The World Cyber Games and the Electronic Sports World Cup both launched in 2000. Major League Gaming (MLG) appeared in 2002 and is still the largest of the eSport leagues as well as being the most generous when it comes to prizes. South Korea is the unofficial birthplace of eSports, fuelled by its ultra-fast broadband connections as well as flourishing internet cafes and gaming centres. The first televised tournaments appeared in South Korea as well, with RTS games the most popular in competitions into the 2000s, and other nations around the world followed suit. To give an example of the growing popularity of eSports, the online streaming of the 2012 MLG Spring tournament reached 4 million worldwide, beating the same year’s NBA All-Star game in key demographics.
One of the most popular eSports today is League of Legends, a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena which attracts huge volumes of spectators. League of Legends events now sells out huge arenas, with the 2013 LoL World Championships selling out the Staples Centre, and 40,000 attending the following year’s event in Seoul. The title of the best eSport player is hotly contended, with names such as UNiVeRsE and Suma1L in the mix, but the consensus opinion is that 21-year-old Faker is the top LoL player at the moment.
eSports have truly made their way into the mainstream at this stage, as can be seen by the fact that more and more online bookmakers now offer odds on the outcome of matches. PaddyPower, bet365, William Hill and pretty much every major online betting site will offer match and championship betting on major tournaments. Expect to be able to place wagers on outright wins as well as in-game achievements and point spreads. Where money is involved, controversy often follows, and the world of eSports is not immune. PEDs such as the stimulant Adderall are rife in the sport as players try to get an advantage. There have been claims that many Korean players endure incredibly punishing schedules which have led to many leaving the country, and there have also been documented cases where professional games have been thrown.
Despite controversies such as these, the growth of eSports shows no signs of flagging, with the immense popularity of streaming services such as Twitch allowing millions across the globe to follow their favourite players. League of Legends remains the driving engine behind this growth, with an estimated 100 million players around the world. However, when compared with established ‘traditional’ sports there is no doubt that eSport is still very much in its infancy. The rights of players are still being established, and unlike physical sports, there is always the possibility of a new game coming on the scene to completely shake up the existing player stratum.
What is certain is that eSports are here to stay, and with improved broadband connections spreading across the world, these video gaming contests are only going to get bigger. The challenge will be for the sport to protect itself from the temptations that increased financial investment will bring, and protect their players at the same time. As new technologies evolve it is exciting to consider just where the world of eSports will be in ten years from now. At its current rate of growth, it seems certain to join the Olympic family at some stage, and may one day overtake traditional favourite sports like basketball and soccer. We can only wait to see what the future will bring.
Dave has over 20 years experience in the digital industry, and is founder and editor of Geektown. Obviously a huge geek himself, he can often be found in front of the latest tv show or movie, on various video games, or with his head in a comic book.