E-sports’ time hasn’t come — it arrived a while ago, but few outside of gaming took notice. Why, for example, would a member of the target NFL viewership identify with the target e-sports viewership? After all, NFL fans celebrate football for its displays of athleticism, physical strength, and physical violence, while e-sports seems to have none of those characteristics. The short answer: tradition.
Humble Beginnings — 1972 to 1989
In October of 1972, around 24 gamers met at Stanford’s AI Laboratory for what could now be described as the antecedent to the e-sports phenomenon: the “First Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics.” Comprised of five players, the First Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics’ winning player received a one-year subscription to Rolling Stone. With prize pools as large as $24,687,919 as of 2017, the idiom, “How times have changed,” seems a radical understatement.
The first official, sizable gaming competition, the 1980 Space Invaders World Championship, brought together over 10,000 competitors, with the top player, William Salvador, now known as renowned game coder Burger Becky, scoring a before unheard of 110,125 points and winning a Space Invaders arcade game for his efforts.
In 1983, the progression of competitive gaming accelerated substantially with the formation of the U.S. National Video Game Team (USNVGT), founded by Walter Davies of Twin Galaxies fame and Jim Riley, co-founder, with Davies, of Electronic Circus, a troupe of top gamers with aims of touring the world in a circus-like fashion. They didn’t succeed; perhaps the market just wasn’t ready.
Although Electronic Circus set the standard of failure for “jumping the gun,” as it were, for trying to push e-sports into the mainstream a bit too early, Davies’ and Riley’s USNVGT helped make way for today’s e-sports teams, many of which enjoy rock star-like status in their domain.
Competitive gaming remained staid until the ’90s, when the genesis e-sports began having sanctioned, structured and regulated competitions.
Competition Rising — The ’90s
Advances in home computing power in the ’90s brought with it a torrent of PC games that ultimately birthed e-sports competitions. In 1997, AMD sponsored the Professional Gamers League (PGM) and held the first StarCraft tournament in September of that year. In November, the league raised $1.2 million in sponsorship money through business entities such as Levi Strauss & Co., Nvidia, and Microsoft.
Also in 1997, at the Red Annihilation Quake tournament in Atlanta, the top player, Dennis “Thresh” Fong, once called the Michael Jordan of gaming by Tim Willits, the creative director of Id Software who designed games such as Quake and Doom, won $5,000 — and a Ferrari 328 GTS. He also earned fame for, also according to Willits, helping push e-sports ahead when a boost was needed to get the gaming genre through the millennium and beyond.
A New Millennium
The aughts brought with it gaming federations and tournaments that would go on to serve as the foundation of the modern e-sports world: the World Cyber Games (WCG) and the Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC). Both ESWC and WCG once comprised the largest global platforms for e-sports, holding tournaments in locales across North Asia, North America, and Europe.
At its peak in 2008, WCG had as many as 800,000 players competing in 78 countries. By 2014 it had dissolved, allowing ESWC to serve along with Major League Gaming (MLG, widely held as the most recognized e-sports organization), as the vanguards of a new era in sponsored tournament play.
MLG, Mobile Gaming and the Future of E-Sports
MLG does far more than host tournaments. They work in conjunction with other competitive organizations, such as the Australian Cyber League, (ACL), to disseminate and promote e-sports on a global level. MLG’s live-streaming platform, MLG.TV, for example, allows users to engage in gaming content 24/7. MLG gamers, which exceed 10 million as of October 2017, compete in hundreds of online tournaments annually, as well as on-site tournament play of games such as Call of Duty, Halo, StarCraft 2 and League of Legends.
Although games like Dota 2 and League of Legends pay out the most money — $126,143,471.72 and $43,788,628.96, respectively, as of October 3rd, 2017 — mobile games like Clash Royale and Vainglory are encroaching on their market share, largely due to accessibility. Mobile gaming alleviates the need for the high-powered, super-cooled gaming machines required to play at the professional level.
In short, more accessibility brings in more players, which leads to the bigger fan bases needed to keep the game, and the pay-outs, alive. And since smartphones don’t have the processing power of gaming rigs, it takes less time to develop tournament-level skill sets —less computing power means fewer gameplay elements players need to master.
Like games of chance, gambling has a sizeable stake in the future of e-sports. AI, big data and machine learning have contributed to a burgeoning e-sports wagering market experts project to reach $29.8 billion and 15.4 million bettors by 2020.
IT and emerging tech have helped e-sports reach a global audience far more easily than that of conventional sport, and it can only grow from here.