If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of eSports, read on for a brief summary of the phenomenon – its past, its present, and its future.
1980-1990: The First Tournaments
Competitive gaming has existed almost as long as video games themselves. Even the earliest arcade games inspired some fierce competition. Early on, a lot of that competition took the form of friends challenging each other to best their high scores, but it didn’t take long for organized tournaments to begin popping up.
Atari held the first video game competition, the Space Invaders Tournament, in 1980. It attracted more than ten thousand participants. This tournament, and others like it in following years, sowed the seeds of what would eventually become eSports.
By the time the 1990s came around, tournaments for arcade and console games had become increasingly common, with companies like Nintendo and Blockbuster sponsoring world championships. Competitive gaming was at this point so new that some tournaments offered brackets for children and teenagers to compete in, a concession no longer necessary today.
1990-2000: Rise of the PC
The 1990s saw the rise of PC gaming, and along with this came the first true eSports competitions.
1997’s Red Annihilation tournament for the first person shooter (FPS) “Quake” is widely considered to have been the first real instance of eSports, drawing over 2,000 participants. The winner received a Ferrari previously owned by John Carmack, lead developer for “Quake.”
Just a few weeks after Red Annihilation, the Cyberathlete Professional League, one of the first major gaming leagues was founded. Later that year, the CPL held its first tournament. By the next year, it was already offering $15,000 in prize money. The CPL was just one of the more prominent of many new tournaments and leagues founded during this period.
At this time, most eSports focused on first person shooters, sports games, and arcade-style games, but the late 90s also saw the release of the breakout real-time strategy (RTS) hit “StarCraft: Brood War.”
While shooters focus on twitch skills and fast reflexes, RTS games also require careful thought and long-term planning and have been compared to a modern version of chess. With its asymmetrically balanced races, each with their own unique troops and abilities, “StarCraft” offered nearly limitless strategic potential and became one of the driving forces of the eSports world, though it would not reach the height of its popularity until after the year 2000.
2000-now: The Flourishing of eSports
eSports truly started to come into its own after the turn of the millennium, with the rise of both popular tournaments and the games that now make up the backbone of the eSports world.
The year 2000 saw the launch of the World Cyber Games and the Electronic Sports World Cup, both major international tournaments that continue to be held every year. These helped set the tone for the kind of big name tournaments that have come to define the eSports world.
Major League Gaming (MLG) launched in 2002 and is now the largest and most successful of the eSports leagues, featuring numerous games in a variety of genres – from shooters to RTS games – and offering lavish prize pools. How lavish? The 2013 Winter Championships awarded gamers with over a hundred and seventy thousand dollars in prizes.
MLG was also the first tournament to be televised in North America, with a 2006 “Halo 2” series being shown on the USA Network, though it did not succeed in establishing a major television presence over the long haul.
These days MLG, like most eSports tournaments, is primarily viewed online, though it draws huge numbers. The 2012 spring championship brought in over four million viewers, even beating “real” sporting events, like the 2012 NBA All-Star Game, in certain key demographics.
Other major tournaments to arise in recent years include an eSports tournament at Dreamhack – a massive Swedish computer festival drawing attendees from all over the world – and the Global StarCraft II League (GSL), a South Korean league widely considered to be the most prestigious “StarCraft II” competition and thus arguably the pinnacle of the RTS gaming world. The GSL has been doubling its viewers every year since its launch in 2010 and currently boasts more than fifty million viewers around the world. If this trend continues, it will crack one hundred million by the end of the year.
eSports tournaments would be nothing without exciting, spectator-friendly games for competitors to play. The last decade has seen the release of most of these games.
Sci-fi FPS franchise “Halo” is a pillar of the FPS world, enticing players and spectators alike with its intense, fast-paced gameplay. As previously mentioned, “StarCraft II” – launched in 2010 – sits atop the RTS world, having taken everything that made the original “StarCraft” great and improved it with enhanced graphics and new strategic possibilities.
A relative newcomer to the eSports world is the MOBA, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, genre. Based on the fan-made “Defense of the Ancients” mod for “Warcraft III” – another game from Blizzard Entertainment, developers of the “StarCraft” franchise – MOBAs are similar to RTS games but allow players to control only a single hero on the battlefield. This forces them to rely on other players to defeat the enemy army.
MOBAs have exploded in popularity and now dominate much of the eSports world. Most popular among these is “League of Legends” or “LoL.” Released in 2009, some claim “LoL” to be the most played video game in the world, with over 30 million players and tournaments that attract thousands of viewers and offer millions in prizes.
The 2011 “LoL” tournament at Dreamhack is reported to have had over 1.6 million viewers worldwide. The following year, 2012’s “LoL” Season Two World Championship attracted eight thousand live viewers, 900,000 worldwide viewers, and a prize pool of over five million dollars.
As video games become ever more popular, so too do eSports. The more people play games, the more potential fans of eSports there are. And as games grow more advanced, they become more exciting for spectators.
eSports has yet to achieve popularity in mainstream culture, but the phenomenon is fast approaching a tipping point where it will. eSports tournaments continue to grow in size and viewership, and each year brings them closer to the level of popularity and acceptance enjoyed by physical sports. Take, for example, the activity known as BarCraft, where “StarCraft II” fans gather in bars to watch pro matches over a cold beer and some snacks.
Don’t be surprised if future MLG or GSL tournaments generate the same fevered excitement as the World Series of Poker.