Type into Google, “When did eSports begin” and you’ll see the number 1971 appear at the top of the page in large, bold font. This date refers to the first time that students at the University of Stanford competed at Spacewar. There was no prize money – the only compensation for your demonstration of skill was a one-year subscription to Rolling Stone Magazine.
To me, a Spacewar competition played by a handful of geeks on a university campus offering no prize money doesn’t really count as the beginning of eSports.
The Start of Competitive Gaming (1982)
Likewise, legendary arcade game player (and renowned Donkey Kong cheat) Billy Mitchell claims that eSports began in 1982, when he attended the first genuine gathering of supposedly America’s“best” arcade game players at the Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa.
Nintendo World Championships (1990)
An argument could also be made for the 1990 Nintendo World Championships being the earliest realistic starting point for the eSports industry. The tournament spanned thirty of the largest American cities and featured an array of significant rewards for the best players such as a $10,000 US Savings Bond, a 1990 Geo Metro Convertible, a 40” Rear-projection television, and importantly – a golden Mario trophy.
In these early days of video games, most titles relied on a simple high score counter to determine who was the better player. We won’t get into the huge number of ways such a system can be abused, but needless to say, in the 1980s with little-to-no access to video recording technology, doctored polaroid’s were all it took to grab yourself an entry into the world-rankings of video gaming history.
There had been first-person shooter (FPS) games before Doom, such as Wolfenstein 3D, but Doom was a revolutionary upgrade in technology that did much more than simply provide fans of FPS games with a new title to play. Levels could now feature advanced geometry, providing far more interesting landscapes in which the action could take place.
More importantly for eSports, however, Doom added two features that had ramifications far exceeding what the games designers had expected. Firstly, the creation of “demo” files allowed players to share their best runs through each level easily via the slow dial-up internet connections that were prevalent in 1993. As an interesting side note, the development of demo files is also credited with creating the Speed running movement that is currently experiencing similar growth and popularity to that of eSports.
Perhaps most importantly was the second innovation – the deathmatch. Players could now connect to one another using their modems and battle it out inside a Doom arena in real-time. Such was the popularity of Deathmatch, entire new games began to be created based around this single feature.
When Did eSports Begin to Be Taken Seriously?
Doom had to be mentioned, but it still wasn’t quite an eSports title just yet. There were no big-money tournaments for Doom players, and Deathmatches were mostly restricted to two players due to the need to connect directly to each other.
Counter Strike (1999)
Technology had to catch up to enable truly multiplayer competitive gaming, and by 2001 the dream was realized when 150,000 USD of prize money was made available for the world’s first Counter Strike tournament. Unfortunately, gaming still wasn’t seen as a true sporting discipline – many people still saw the idea of gaming as a sport as nothing more than a joke. Because of this, the industry did not become accurately tracked for several more years.
The International (2011-Present)
The International is the world’s largest eSports world championship. First organized by Valve in 2011, the tournament is played on Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA2) and consists of eighteen teams that compete for the title of world champions, as well as a huge cash prize.
The first event was held in Cologne on August 17-21, 2011, with a prize pool of $1.6 million. By 2013, the prize pool had jumped to almost $3 million. The next year, this leapt to just shy of $11 million, and has continued to increase at a significant rate every year since. The 2021 tournament is planned for October 7-17 in Bucharest, with a prize pool of just over $40 million.
For gaming to truly grow, it needed a universal hub whereby players could communicate, compete, share knowledge, and perhaps even meet new team-mates. eSports had been growing during the past twelve years in several corners of the world, most notably South Korea, but it was still relatively small in the United States.
That all changed in 2011 when Twitch began broadcasting tournaments and events from across the world on games such as League of Legends, DOTA2, and StarCraft 2. One final piece of the puzzle was still missing, however.
Gambling on eSports (2017)
When the bookmakers begin to take an interest in your sport, there is little doubt that there is serious money to be made. The 2017 Intel Extreme Masters event in Katowice made eSports impossible to ignore. With over 45 million viewers, this new form of competition was quickly beginning to dwarf conventional sports such as Cricket and Tennis.
eSports had been built on the web, making it perfect for online betting. While several hundred million USD had been up for grabs as prize money in the eSports industry during 2019, more than seven billion USD had been wagered on those same tournaments.
This number doubled to fourteen billion in 2020, and the trend only looks set to continue in the years to come. Market analysts, Statista, predict that the global eSports betting market will reach $205 billion by 2027 – you might think these numbers are outlandish, but they are supported by several other metrics, too.
Live streaming of eSports tournaments has risen from 1.97 trillion hours in 2019 to 3.93 trillion in 2020, for example, the average prize pool of a world-class tournament has ballooned from $6.45 million to over $34 million in 2019.