Today, esports is projected to become a multi-billion dollar market and commands the attention of half a billion fans worldwide, two-thirds of whom are spectators. The rapid growth of the industry in the past few years has transcended the digital realm and created demand for merchandise from fans, with advertising opportunities from brands. Its popularity and impact, even in the traditional sports world, is undeniable. But how did it all start? Who amplified the potential of esports? Who decided which games would be popular? For a better understanding, let’s dive into the 20th century history of esports

1940s – 1960s: Writing the script

There was a time when games were things we played outdoors. Then came the computer, paving the way for digital gaming. 1947 saw the first attempt at a video game and in 1958, we had a moderately recognizable game – Tennis for Two. Finally, 1962 saw the first game designed specifically for computers. The pioneers were a group of young MIT graduates, led by Steven Russell, while the computer was a new $120,000 machine that had just arrived at MIT. This machine was faster than the other gigantic machines on campus and naturally caught the fancy of the young programmers. They created the first non-commercial computer game – Spacewar!  This would later inspire an arcade game with the same name

1970s and 1980s: Setting the stage

Early arcade games started being developed in 1971. This was a massive turning point as it took digital gaming to a wider audience. The first commercial arcade video game, inspired by Spacewar!, was developed in 1971 by Bushnell and was a cosmic failure. The following year, Bushnell founded Atari and that in itself is a major milestone in the gaming industry.

Gaming, at that point, was about receiving the highest score – it didn’t matter whether you were playing alone or against someone.

Then, the PC brought gaming home. Games became a way to pass time or escape from reality. They took the place of books and outdoor games for many. What was then considered “obsessive” gaming would soon lead to a whole new brand of competition – esports.

The first competition that may be considered an esports event took place at Stanford University, in October 1972. Students competed to be the best at Spacewar!, in the hopes of getting a year-long subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. It was in the 1980s, however, that the first video game competition was held – The Space Invaders Championship. Considering that Space Invaders was a household name at this point, the competition attracted approximately 10,000 participants and widespread media coverage.

Video game competition had made its first indelible mark on mass consciousness

In 1981, Walter Aldo Day Jr. founded Twin Galaxies to promote video games and publish its records through publications like the Guinness Book of World Records. In 1983, Twin Galaxies created the U.S. National Video Game Team. He was the captain and the rest of the team was composed of Billy Mitchell (held record high scores for games like Pac-man and Donkey Kong at the time.), Steve Harris, Jay Kim, Ben Gold and Tim McVey. They would later become part of a celebrity culture that defines esports even today. The team was took part in competitions, ran the Video Game Masters Tournament for Guinness World Records, and sponsored the North American Video Game Challenge Tournament.

Since the internet wasn’t a thing yet, people learnt about competitions and scores through word-of-mouth and trade magazines.

With interest growing rapidly, TV became a means of spectating. Starcade (1981-84), a popular TV show, aired arcade game competitions. There was immense entertainment and spectator potential in esports and, as a result, it found its way into  mainstream media.

1990s: Tournaments and the internet

Tournaments continued to be moderately popular and sprang up in different locations and at varying times. These were primarily based on fighting games like the 90s’ Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. But games of a different genre were creeping up on these games. First-person shooter games were taking the stage. As per an article by FoxSports:

“…first-person shooters such as Goldeneye would take advantage of more powerful computers and pave the way for games like Halo and the new Overwatch. Yet for all the competition brewing, there was no actual way to link players with each other on a day-to-day basis.”

The internet changed everything. People were able keep scores, online on message boards, visible by people who didn’t even live in their town or state. Sharing strategies became easier and this growing community would eventually lead to the transition of video game competition into esports.

The 1988 game, Netrek, which was a ‘multiplayer team combat and real-time strategy’ gained ground only in the 90s, primarily due to the improvement in internet connectivity.

According to dotesports.com, the 1997’s Red Annihilation tournament for the First Person Shooter game” “Quake is considered to be the first real instance of esports”. It attracted over 2,000 participants and the prize was the lead developer, John Carmack’s Ferrari. Subsequent weeks saw the establishment of Cyberathelete Professional League, the leading major gaming league. It was founded by Angel by Angel Munoz and held its first tournament later in the year. The following year, it had increased its prize to $15000.

This was an era of FPS (first person shooter), sports, and arcade games. But then came StarCraft: Brood War. A Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game, it relied on the gamer’s long-term planning capabilities, much like chess. This genre was vastly different from FPS, which relied on reflexes. Sadly, it would only reach peak popularity at the turn of the millennium.

The Nintendo World Championships were another milestone of the 90s esports journey.  The tournament toured 29 American cities and the finals took place at Universal Studios Hollywood, California. Their second appearance as Nintendo PowerFest ’94 saw 132 finalists. Blockbuster Video’s  World Game Championships was co-hosted by GamePro magazine. People from the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia and Chile were all able to compete.

Esports were covered in some form or the other on television during this time.

Unsurprisingly, the 90s were witness to the establishment and growth of large-scale esports tournaments – Nintendo World Championships (US, 1990), Nintendo PowerFest ’94 (US, 1994), Cyberathlete Professional League (US, 1997), QuakeCon (US, 1996), and Professional Gamers League (Eastern Europe, 1997).

A phenomenon worth noting here is that the players, not the publishers, would decide which games would be given the status of sport.

2000s: Real-time strategy, the professionals, and viewing woes.

2000s saw the rapid rise of professional gamers. There was now a marked difference between amateurs and the ‘pros’. This was particularly noticeable in Starcraft. The gap in skills between players of the game made the title a formidable one and it boomed in South Korea, where it was covered on TV with much gusto.

Around this time, the world video- game consoles were being released with internet connections that allowed players to challenge their friends across the country — and the world. Video game titles got a rewarding system in place, offering in-game perks to winners. Ranking “ladders” were introduced to encourage players to compete for alpha status.

However, video games that focused on RTS needed to retain its appeal in order to attract new players. The genre’s steep learning curve did not help. Publishers needed to find a way to maintain the intrigue of the game, without alienating potential players.  The answer came from a player. As per FoxSports, “A player-created modification of Warcraft III, Defense of the Ancients, hit that sweet spot and gave rise to a genre of games, called MOBAs.”

These were free-to-play, which made them easier to adopt as a new gamer. Expectedly, the player base skyrocketed in the 2000s.

But gaming as a sport was still niche. To promote video gaming as a sport, Major League Gaming was born. Its initial focus was on Starcraft and first-person shooters, particularly Halo 2. Soon, it moved into the tournament space – hosting them on-ground and online. Their ranking system, the MLG Pro Points Ranking System, is now a benchmark “for determining the best competitive players around the globe.” (dotesports.com).

In 2006 and 2007, The USA Network partnered with MLG to broadcast Halo 2, an FPS game on television. It did not make for great viewing and their attempt to attract audiences failed. That is when the industry realised that new sports needed new broadcast media. Enter Twitch.

2010s: Twitch, streaming, and spectators

Twitch, born out of Justin.tv, and now a part of Amazon, came into prominence in 2011. Considered to be the ‘ESPN of esports’, the purpose of its existence was to promote viewership of esports tournaments. An online streaming service, it allows anyone to become their own broadcast network and provides a platform for engagement between the audience and the broadcaster. This is something that was not possible with TV.  Almost immediately after its launch, popular video game players commenced streaming, via Twitch, to the internet.

Within a year of its launch, Twitch.tv had achieved an incredible number of  over 20 million monthly visitors. Less than a year later, August 2013, the number more than doubled, reaching a mark of over 45 million. Interestingly, the most popular game streamed during this period was League of Legends.

Twitch’s success and the growing spectator market for esports led Amazon to acquire it in 2014. As Twitch went mainstream, so did video games, its ‘most popular broadcast category’.

The 2010s didn’t just see an exponential growth in Esports spectating, but also in third-party corporate sponsorships. Developers were already contributing to prize pools, but tournaments were now receiving sponsorships from ‘PC retailers, energy drinks companies, and computer software’. This made it possible for game titles to a award large sums of money.  League of Legends, for example, awarded around USD 30 million over 1749 registered tournaments.

Today, League of Legends has become so popular as an esport that the United States Government recognizes its Pro Players as professional athletes “and award(s) visas to essentially work in the United States under that title”. They are able to procure a non-immigrant P-14 visa to visit the States and compete. It is also of some note that these are the same visas used in NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL to bring players from foreign countries to America for an event/match.

To add further structure to the world of esports, ESL and competitive teams across the globe founded WESA (World Esports Association) in 2016. The objective was to “become the global benchmark for industry-wide standards”.

Today, the best esports athletes make millions and the industry is backed by big names in traditional sports. Teams like Manchester City have already signed esports players – Marcus ‘ExpectSporting’ Jorgensen and Kai ‘Deto’ Wollin for FIFA competitions on PlayStation. They have also signed their first esports sponsorship deal with Turtle Beach. While some are embracing this new and thriving culture, others are still skeptical of esports’ “sport” status. There are efforts to get esports included in the Olympics, but whether they will be remains to be seen.

Irrespective of the viability of the Olympic dreams, esports has made its mark and it is quite clear, with the ever-growing number of fans and the expanding business & employment opportunities,  that it is here to stay.

Bonus: The art, storyline, and technology.

As technology improved and became more affordable, investment in it grew. More people were able to buy computers, tablets, and mobile phones. The  improvement in technological capabilities brought with it an opportunity to create games that had stronger plots, better story lines, and appealing visuals. This created not just jobs, but also a desire to back games with something substantial. This opening for better art and stories appealed to the masses – games, even fantasy-centric ones, became relatable to people. It was, and still is, like living a storybook – and there is no way to look at the last page, especially when it comes to RTS games. Esports, like traditional sports, has become thrilling, competitive, and lucrative. And honestly, it might not have been possible had we neglected technology.

This article has been reprised from articles by FoxSports, WUWO Media, and dotesports.com.