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ESports Evolved From a Niche to a Worldwide Popular

Esports began as a niche that captured only a small audience of gamers. But the word spread out and technological evolvement turned esports into a worldwide popular industry.

Madison Square Garden is known as “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” This stadium, which contains over 18,000 seats to fill, is home to the New York Knicks, Rangers, and other global-level performances to be spectated. Filling up every seat until no more tickets are available is not an easy task. This was the case with the fight of the century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Both put on a performance that went down in history.

Competitive gaming soon followed in taking made history not so long ago, between two League of Legends esports organizations, SK Telecom T1 and ROX Tigers. Both companies placed competitive gaming on the mainstream map. Esports has been around longer than you think, dating back to the 1970s. With each coming decade, new milestones were broken and awareness of the scene became too large to ignore. 

The 1970s – eSports takes its first steps

Stanford University is not only one of the most prestigious universities in the world, but it is also home to the very first-ever competitive gaming tournament, on the account. On October 19, 1972, two dozen players gathered at Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to compete in Spacewar!, a space combat game that was developed in 1962. Players swarmed around one PDP-10 computer, in a five-man free-for-all and team event, where players play as one of five different ships, avoiding hazards and other in-game gimmicks while trying to eliminate enemies. The first-place prize consisted of a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone, which was awarded to Bruce Baumgart and team winners Slim Tovar and Robert E. Maas. 
In 1977, a revolutionary video game console was released, the Atari 2600 console by the North American manufacturer Atari, Inc. Now, everyday people could entertain themselves at home while playing video games casually or competitively against each other since online gaming was not available yet. One year later in 1978, a Japanese video game company, Taito, released Space Invaders, which was a shooting arcade game where players pan across the screen as a battleship and shoot descending swarms of aliens, preventing them from reaching the bottom of the screen. Two years after this release, Space Invaders became available to play on Atari, and the first mass multiplayer video game competition commenced.

The 1980s – Public Attention

In 1980, a Space Invaders tournament was held, which attracted 10,000 players from all over the nation, separated by different regions. A total of four people were picked from four regional competitions to compete in the final in New York, where the regional winners netted $150 each. The grand prize winner, William Heineman, was awarded a $2,000 table video game; second place a $1,000 home computer; and third place a $500 check. Many believe that this competitive gaming competition brought competitive gaming into the light of the public’s eyes. 

1980 was significant for yet another event for competitive gaming. Walter Day, an arcade operator, founded the first referee service for video games called the “Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard.” The Twin Galaxies organization set a record and keeps a world record in video games played, incentivizing people to race for top scores around the world, building up the craze for competitive gaming even further. Arcade games of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong became extremely popular for attaining high scores, causing video gaming to slither their way into television as United States and UK TV shows would pit players against each other in competitive gaming battles for high scores. The 1980s truly snowballed video games into even further heights with arcade games and scorekeeping between players.

Towards the mid-1980s, more gaming systems were produced and introduced to the masses. Nintendo could not ignore the rising popularity and market of video games and revealed the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which was an upgrade to previous gaming systems in controls, graphics, gameplay, and accessibility – a true innovation. The Super NES (SNES) would be released in the early 1990s. While making video games easier to grab by arm’s reach to families, Nintendo took part in the competitive side of gaming as well.

Esports evolved from niche to worldwide popular
Esports evolved from a niche to a worldwide popular

The 1990s – Technological Advancement

The Nintendo World Championships was initiated in 1990 and toured the whole nation before holding its championship games at Universal Studios in California, where the players would play games of Super Mario Bros, Rad Racer, and Tetris. The winners of the competition, which was held in three age categories, received golden Nintendo gaming modules. 

Video games were not the only things that were in an innovating stage, the internet and all of its possibilities were the talks of the nation. While gaming on consoles was still prevalent and most popular, PC gaming was clear to be the future of competitive gaming as hardware became cheaper, more powerful, and accessible alongside the possibilities of the internet and online capabilities.

PC gaming was on the rise, and the internet made playing against people across the globe fathomable. Some of the first esports leagues were founded in the 1990s, such as the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), the Professional Gamers League, and QuakeCon; where games like Quake, Counter-Strike, and Warcraft were played on PC.

The Red Annihilation, a Quake competitive gaming event, took place in May of 1997 and is seen as one of the first true esports competitions. 2000 entrants battled each other in one-on-one competitions, whittling down to the last 16 finalists. These 16 players flew to Georgia to compete at the Electronic Entertainment Expo at the World Congress Center. This esports event drew attention online and in tangible form. Newspaper and television network journalists covered the event raising awareness and interest in esports. Dennis Fong, the winner of the tournament, was awarded the grand prize of a Ferrari 328 GTS, which was formerly owned by a Quake programmer, John D. Carmack. 

The 2000s – Worldwide Spread

Like a virus outbreak, people rapidly shared their love of video games. Online gaming soon grew in proportions that are mind-blowing. Germany held an event in 1999 called the “Gamers Gathering” where more than 1600 people from all over Europe gathered to compete against each other in video games. In South Korea, eSports became what football is to Americans, a professionalized sport with the founding of the Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA) in 2000.

Gaming was no joke in South Korea, in 2000, they held the first “World Cyber Games” (WCG). In 2003, France was host to the first Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC) and the grand final of this tournament was played in Paris during the summer. 

As a result, prize Pools were not just a couple hundred dollars anymore either. In 2005, the CPL World Tour was the first eSports event to have a prize pool of $1,000,000 where the players played the title Painkiller. This competition had a total of nine international stops and held the finals event in New York City, which was televised by MTV. In 2006, FUN Technologies held a Worldwide Webgames Championship where 71 players competed for a $1,000,000 prize pool as well. 

Also, internet cafes were emerging helping online businesses grow around the world. People who didn’t have the luxury of playing games on well-performing PCs were given the opportunity to do so until home computer prices became less expensive and more powerful.

2010 and Onwards – Gaming for Everyone

With large prize pools and a serious fan base, eSports became an industry gunning to be as big as traditional sports. The creation of TwitchTV aided this upward trajectory. While eSports has made its way to national television globally, people now had immediate access to the excitement of competitive gaming at their fingertips. Twitch made eSports reach heights that were unthinkable with the online broadcasting of tournaments and events live, giving anyone and everyone with a spec of esports interest the accessibility to watch. League of Legends, Dota 2, and Counter-Strike would be considered the first new Kings of online esports, bringing in a peak of millions of views on Twitch during their tournament broadcasting.

The first League of Legends World Championship was held in 2011 in Sweden, with a $100,00 prize pool. In 2012 the second LoLWC held in Galen Center in Los Angeles had a live crowd of 10,000 with a prize pool of $1,000,000. Just one year after that for the third LoLWC, they sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles with the same prize pool.

In 2014 for the 4th LoLWC, the tournament drew in a crowd of 40,000 fans and had Imagine Dragon perform during the event. In the 2016 and 2017 LoLWC, these tournaments drew in 43 million and 60 million people in order, outperforming viewership totals of the likes of Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Esports will not and won’t slow down. It continues to advance and innovate alongside technology, environment, and culture. New games like NBA 2K, Overwatch, Valorant, and Apex Legends are showing success while being new games in comparison to others. With Amazon’s purchase of TwitchTV, it has continued to support Twitch’s growth alongside esports.

In 2017, the International Olympic Committee acknowledged the popularity of esports and entertained the possibility that esports could be an Olympic sport. The possibilities are still open and will be endless.