Last year in Cologne, Germany, millions gathered, and millions more watched live as 16 teams battled it out for the world championship. At stake was a one million dollar prize. It wasn’t a football (aka soccer) match or a football game but a gathering of eSports fans. Competitive video games are growing rapidly in popularity with estimates in the millions of fans. Competitive video games have been around for as long as the industry itself. The history of eSports, however, is shrouded in mystery and by goofy 80s TV shows.
Let’s look back at the history of competitive video games …
In the 1960s, a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created Spacewar. The game featured two players in a battle among the stars and is considered one of the most influential games ever. Back in the early 70s, Stanford University put together a competition between students called the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics (ISO). The winner of ISO would get bragging rights as well as a year subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.
Four years after ISO, video games were still a wildly unstable, niche market few people understood. Local arcades held small competitions, keeping the spirit of competitive gaming alive. In 1976, Atari brought gaming home like never before and made video games A LOT more popular. By 1980, the Space Invaders Championships, an official competition by Atari, drew 10,000 competitors from around the United States.
By 1982, Atari was at its peak. Arcades were centers where the cool kids hung out. Okay, fine, we thought we were cool. Every day, arcades filled with newer, more advanced game machines. Each one was drastically more impressive than the last.
In 1982, Atari made an ill-advised deal to create a video game based on the Steven Spielberg blockbuster film E.T. The Extraterrestrial. The deal, worth millions, brought video games fully into the mainstream. Video games were wildly popular. So much so, Starcade was born.
Starcade was a short-lived television game show that centered around video games. Competitors would stand at arcade machines and use their time to get the highest possible score. Three rounds, plus a bonus round, would eliminate players until one was named the champion. Starcade proved that competitive gaming was feasible and entertaining. Although to be fair, the show also aged quickly, featured hosts who were clueless about video games, and only lasted two seasons.
The abrupt end of the show was, in part, due to the implosion of Atari and the E.T. deal. However, the implosion of Atari was mostly due to more powerful arcade machines of the time. Gamers wanted bigger and better graphics which Atari’s hardware could not provide, even after upgrades. And of course, there was also Nintendo.
For the rest of the 80s, competitive gaming popped up here and there. After Nintendo had debuted (in the U.S.) in 1985, competitions for Mario, Tetris, and other games became more frequent.
The 1990s – The Internet
As the 80s were closing out, a new thing called the “Internet” was gaining widespread use. New video game consoles like the Super Famicom (Japan’s name for the Super Nintendo) and Sega Genesis promised to use this Internet to connect players like never before. Efforts from both systems were gimmicky at best. However, PC gaming made use of the web. Early games like Netrek (the great grandaddy of the MOBA genre) allowed players to compete from miles apart.
By the mid-90s, this Internet thing seemed to be taking hold. So did competitive gaming. Nintendo and Blockbuster Video (Netflix of the 90s) held yearly competitions. In the UK, GamesMaster and Australia’s A*mazing carried the torch of Starcade featuring video games on a game show.
In 1997, a possibly unrelated event occurred in Asia. A financial crisis swept the region. To boost employment and revamp the ailing country, South Korea upgraded the country’s entire network. As things turned around, many unemployed Koreans turned to gaming to pass the time. The faster internet allowed these people to play a lot. More players meant a fast-growing market that was served by new businesses, namely, Internet Cafes. By the end of the 20th century, competitive gaming was a robust industry in South Korea with games like Diablo and Starcraft leading the way.
21st Century & Beyond
Gaming’s skyrocketing popularity paved the way for not only more game shows but an entire network, G4, that was devoted to the industry. Entering the 21st century, gaming companies looked at the oncoming wave of competitive gaming and continued to feed into it. In 2016, a live competitive event in the game Counterstrike: Global Offensive, drew more than 30 million viewers.
Talk of eSports, particularly to “real” sports fans still receives scoffs. It’s similar to the early treatment of wrestling. Today, though everyone knows wrestling is “fake,” the sport is admired for the extraordinary athleticism of its athletes. Competitive gamers sit, and to onlookers, it doesn’t look like much is going on. But the same sense of focus that makes a hockey player or high-flying wrestler great also applies to an eSport “athlete.” It’s not large muscles taking a pounding; it’s precise muscles firing off in bursts a fraction of a second long in a brilliant dance of hand-eye coordination. Whether you’re on the side of mocking it or watching it, eSports are here to stay. At 80 million fans and growing, it’s also clearly the sport of the future.