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The History of Esports: How it Started, and Where We Are Now

 |  5 Min Read

The History of Esports: How it Started, and Where We Are Now

Competitive, organized video gaming has evolved from a five-man event for a Rolling Stone subscription to tournaments with tens of millions of dollars in prizes (and as many viewers).

For instance, Dota 2’s The International 2019 invited the top players in the world to a tournament with a crowdfunded prize pool of $34.3 million, according to The Verge. Less than a year before that tournament, CNBC reported that the “League of Legends” World Championship finals in South Korea hit nearly 100 million unique viewers. As a reference point, the previous year’s Super Bowl had just more than 98 million viewers.

How did the industry get so popular in such a relatively short amount of time? Here’s a quick look at the major events and trends in the history of esports.

When Did Esports Start? (1972 to 1989)

The first-ever video game competition took place at Stanford University in 1972. Five students competed in an “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics,” and the winner received a year’s subscription for Rolling Stone.

Spacewar was the first commercially available arcade game, and over the years, others followed in its footsteps until Space Invaders dominated the market. It’s important to note that for these early arcade games, players were trying to get the highest score possible; later on, head-to-head gaming arrived. At any rate, the trend of getting high scores led to the earliest large-scale game competition in 1980, when more than 10,000 entrants attempted to set a high score for Space Invaders.

At the same time, Walter Day was traveling around the country to record high scores on different arcade games. In 1982, he founded Twin Cities, an organization that tracks those scores and publishes results to Guinness World Records.

In this early period of esports history, mainstream audiences were also introduced to arcade game competitions on TV shows like “Starcade” in 1983-84. Others would follow, including events aired on shows like ABC’s “That’s Incredible” and BBC’s “First Class.”

The Impact of Fighting and First-Person Shooter Games (1990 to 1999)

The history of esports took on another dimension in the ‘90s. One highlight was the first edition of the Nintendo World Championships held in 1990, which spanned 29 cities across the United States. It’s a critical point in esports history — in fact, according to Polygon, one of the original NES cartridges used in the tournament’s world championship sold on eBay in 2014 for more than $100,000.

During this timeframe, a significant part of the growth of esports over the years came from fighting and first-person shooter games. In 1991, Street Fighter II revolutionized competitive gaming by relying on face-to-face action instead of high scores. The first-person shooter genre made a similar impact with Doom’s four-player deathmatch mode in 1993. It paved the way for online multiplayer games like Halo, Call of Duty, and Overwatch.

In 1997, about 2,000 entrants competed in Quake’s Red Annihilation online tournament. It was one of the world’s first “true” esports events, complete with teams across the United States and spectators that watched the final competitions online.

Massive Growth in Esports (2000 to 2010)

Televised esports took the industry by storm in the 2000s. Spearheaded by the growth of events in South Korea, several other countries followed suit in the history of esports with their own programming.

  • South Korea: Ongamenet and MBCGame, two former 24-hour cable channels, featured competitions for games like StarCraft and Warcraft III.
  • Germany: GIGA Television featured esports events until it ceased operations in 2009.
  • France: Game One showed — and still focuses on — video gaming events and related programming.
  • United Kingdom: XLEAGUE.TV covered competitive video gaming from 2007 to 2009 with games like Counter-Strike: Source and Halo 3.
  • United States: ESPN ran a show called Madden Nation (for Madden NFL) from 2005 to 2008 while CBS aired coverage of the 2007 World Series of Video Games tournament. The former G4 television channel was dedicated to video game coverage before expanding its scope to technology and general entertainment.

Several other trends contributed to the overall drastic growth of esports. From real-time strategy games to increases in viewership, prize money (and partnerships), dedicated tournaments, and professional leagues, the industry advanced significantly during this period in the history of esports.

One iconic moment happened at the Evolution Championship Series 2004. The “Evo Moment 37” was a jaw-dropping comeback involving the parry of 15 consecutive hits with one pixel of vitality (health) in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. It’s heralded as arguably the most important moment in video gaming history.

The Emergence of Twitch (2011 to Present)

The online streaming service Twitch launched in 2011. Right away, it had 3.2 million unique visitors per month, according to CNBC, and a year later, that number grew to 20 million.

In its early days, Twitch focused exclusively on esports and gaming. Games like League of Legends took center stage for fans wanting to watch major competitions online. In 2014, Amazon acquired Twitch, and the platform has remained a juggernaut for streaming esports events.

From these viewership patterns and community-generated prize pools, some of the largest payouts in esports history have happened in the last few years. From 2015 through 2019, Dota 2’s hallmark event, The International, consecutively topped itself in having the largest prize pools in esports history, from $18.4 million in 2015 to $34.3 million in 2019. According to ESPN, “Fans have been able to contribute to the pot through purchases of the Dota 2 battle pass, where 25% of the cost is sent directly to the TI prize pool.” This interactive model has helped the event gain significant momentum.

Esports growth has been dramatic. In a relatively short amount of time, competitive gaming has transformed from small and minor events to worldwide tournaments with organizations, prizes, viewers, and structures that rival more traditional sports. Want to take part in this growing industry? You can with the University of New Haven’s online M.S. in Esports Business — the first esports business master’s program in North America, and the first online program of its kind worldwide.

Through academic partnerships with top esports companies like HyperX and Twitch, you’ll gain interdisciplinary skills for the dynamic esports sector. The University of New Haven’s Pompea College of Business is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), a distinction that places us among the top five percent of business programs across the globe.

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