The term “esports” came into popular use in the late 1990s, but competitions for money have been a thing since just after video games were invented. In fact, the best-documented first instance of an esports competition was a 1972 Spacewar tournament at MIT. The prize pool consisted of a one-year subscription to Rolling Stone.
The exact origin of the sport is very amorphous and subjective. Should we include any kind of competition for a prize in our history of esports, stretching all the way back to games only played on university mainframe computers in the early 1970s? Are the kids from The Wizard esports athletes? If that’s the standard, then that’s a whole lot of esports history to bite off and chew.
We’re going to try to simplify the sprawl of esports history by applying commonly accepted standards of what constitutes a “professional sport.” Simply put, a professional sport is something you can feasibly do as a profession, meaning it’s possible to make a living at it.
That eliminates a lot of these early one-off tournaments and competitions. Not that that diverse scene isn’t fascinating, but we’d have to write an encyclopedia volume to cover all of it. Instead, we’re going to flash forward to the mid-1990s, when the first professional gaming leagues started to appear, and the term “esports” was starting to enter the public consciousness.
The possibility of becoming a professional gamer really begins with the invention of three particular gaming genres: first-person shooters (FPS), real-time strategy games (RTS), and fighting games.
Rise of the FPS and RTS (1992-1998)
The formative title in the FPS genre was 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D. This Nazi-blasting classic set the table for genre conventions, but it was the release of DOOM in 1993 that really kicked things off for competitive play.
Aside from making a pretty big technological leap in a short period of time, DOOM did a couple of really important things that would be critical to the development of esports: it was a pop culture phenomenon that drew in a more “casual” audience and broadened the appeal of PC gaming, and it introduced multiplayer modes (deathmatch and co-op) to the genre.
Meanwhile, during this period, the RTS genre had been developing in parallel. You can trace the genre’s roots all the way back to a variety of 1980s computer games, but 1992’s Dune 2 is widely seen as the genre-defining template. However, Dune 2 was akin to Wolfenstein 3D in that it was an offline, single-player-only experience.
As happened with DOOM in the FPS genre, another title would come along and build on the original formula to catapult the RTS to mass popularity by adding online competitive play: 1994’s Warcraft. Command & Conquer was quick to follow in 1995, becoming the basic template for future military- and space-themed RTS games.
The First World Warriors (1991-1999)
While the FPS and RTS were dominating home computers, fighting games were taking over the arcades. The genre’s breakout title (and the beginning of a serious competitive scene) was 1991’s Street Fighter II.
First held in 1996, the Evolution Championship Series (EVO) started off as a relatively humble regional competition in California. Competitors from North America faced off at Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Street Fighter Alpha II. EVO would go dormant for the rest of the decade, but the seeds of something massive had been planted.
Broadband Begins (1998-2000)
Multiplayer FPS and RTS games were a colossal hit, slowly adding a larger online multiplayer headcount and more features as they developed throughout the 1990s. There was a significant bottleneck that was beyond developer control, however; most people still had slow dial-up internet.
Availability of high-speed broadband was just as important of a factor in the history of esports as game development was. Cable modems and DSL first became available in the mid-‘90s but didn’t start to see significant market penetration until near the end of the decade.
During the time that broadband started becoming available, Quake and Command and Conquer were the kings of the hill in their respective genres. Early leagues and tournaments formed around them, and this was the beginning of the path that led to today’s Dota 2, League of Legends, and Overwatch matches.
Meanwhile, In Korea (1998-2002)
Unbeknownst to gamers who lived outside of South Korea in the late 1990s, slow-simmering developments in that country would eventually build to create a massive explosion of interest in esports.
It all centers around Starcraft, the space-themed derivation of Warcraft that was originally released in 1998. Starcraft was a critically-lauded game and internationally popular, but for whatever reason, it was particularly hot in the South Korean competitive gaming scene.
Starcraft was part of a perfect storm in South Korea that also included that country’s early push to be a world leader in internet connectivity and broadband availability, paired with an economic boom and the social phenomenon of “internet cafes” all taking hold just around the time that Starcraft was released.
The result of all this was the very rapid development of a serious competitive Starcraft scene, with the first televised tournament in the history of esports happening in 1999. Within a year, the best players were able to make a living at it, and by 2002, there was a thriving professional scene complete with organized teams and tournaments backed by corporate sponsors (and fans packing out arenas to watch them play). This was also the dawn of the leading esports figures being recognized as professional athletes and cultivating a celebrity following.
Regional to Global (2000-2004)
The concept of a professional gamer league began to surface as early as 1997, with the aptly-named Professional Gamers League running periodic Quake and Command and Conquer tournaments in the United States.
However, like the first EVO and the Korean Starcraft tournaments of the late ’90s, these early efforts were entirely regional in nature and were far from providing enough financial support to sustain significant numbers of full-time competitors. The concept of an international esports scene and the ability to be a full-time pro doesn’t even begin to appear in esports history until after the turn of the millennium.
The explosion of Starcraft in South Korea provided proof that competitive gaming leagues were a viable business concept. The international attitude toward (and media coverage of) esports shifted rapidly from “LOL, they televise video games in Korea” in 1999 to “Hey, there’s potential for major money in this” in the early 2000s.
During this time period, it started becoming more common for the top esports athletes throughout the world to travel internationally for competitions and receive sponsorship. Early examples of successful leagues and tournaments of this nature include the Cyberathlete Professional League, Major League Gaming, and the World Cyber Games. EVO also made its return in 2000 in a big way, incorporating more games and an international roster of top fighting game players.
Many more games became popular in professional competition during this period as well, though the FPS, fighting, and RTS genres continued to be the main draw and center of the action. Some of the biggest and longest-lasting games in the history of esports include:
- Unreal Tournament (1999)
- Street Fighter III: Third Strike (1999)
- Tekken Tag Tournament (1999)
- Counter-Strike (2000)
- Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (2000)
- Halo (2001)
- Capcom vs. SNK (2001)
- Warcraft III (2002)
- Super Smash Bros. Melee (2002)
- Soulcalibur II (2002)
- Painkiller (2004)
Virtual representations of traditional sports also got their foot in the door during this period. The annual installment of EA’s FIFA series was featured in some leagues and tournaments, as was the company’s Madden series. Due to inherent play balance and AI issues, however, traditional sports games never became as prominent in esports as the other established genres.
Prize pools also started to get big enough during this period to attract mainstream attention. The CPL World Tour offered the first million-dollar prize pool in 2005. Though a mere one million dollars may seem like small potatoes now, it was a huge jump forward for esports at the time and got a lot more people interested in participating.
The Early Television Era (2005-2007)
Esports reached another important threshold around the middle of the decade when games started appearing on television.
This had been going on in South Korea since 2002, where Warcraft III had since joined Starcraft as a national phenomenon and true spectator sport. 2005-06 is the point at which televised esports started to become more common throughout the rest of the world.
Esports first made it on television in North America in 2005 with the grand finale of the CPL World Tour that aired on MTV and the debut of the Madden Nation television series (which aired for four years on ESPN). Other major broadcasts during this period included the Major League Gaming Halo 2 Pro Series on the USA network and the Championship Gaming Series on DirecTV.
Though esports were becoming more popular during this time, a major new barrier to growth had developed. Televising tournaments was proving to cost too much to be worthwhile from a business perspective. There was solid interest in esports, but it was not yet enough to compensate for the massive costs of buying regular time on television networks.
Esports had to find another way to its audience. Fortunately, the answer was right on the horizon.
Streaming Saves the Day (2007-2011)
Streaming had been going on since the early 2000s, but technology and broadband availability didn’t really catch up until around 2007. Prior to that, live streaming at high quality to lots of people was almost as prohibitively expensive as traditional television broadcasting was.
One of the most important technical elements in the history of esports was the launch of Justin.tv in 2007, which would gradually evolve into Twitch in 2011. Real-time video compression, combined with wider availability of broadband and rapidly-improving computer technology, allowed for live video to be streamed much more economically than ever before. The esports industry had found its content delivery platform. Not only did streaming provide an economical option, but it also allowed individual players and teams to earn money by hosting their own channels.
Twitch remains one of the primary streaming platforms for esports, but giants of traditional media have since moved into the space as well. Disney (through subsidiary ESPN), Google, Amazon, Turner Broadcasting, and even the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have since poured billions of dollars into esports streaming arrangements – and that’s just naming a few of the biggest companies!
Make Way for MOBAs (2009)
The multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre had been percolating since the early days of Starcraft modding in the late 1990s, but it was 2009’s League of Legends that really defined the genre and announced it to the general gaming public.
League of Legends very quickly became the most-followed game in esports. The game was basically an RTS, but each player controlled just one unit, and battles consisted of teams of a number of different players trying to destroy each other’s bases.
Owing to its roots as a Warcraft III mod, League of Legends was a 2D game played from a bird’s-eye view. Released in 2013, Valve’s Dota 2 looked very similar, but quickly met and then exceeded its predecessor’s impressive following. The differences between the two are mostly technical and hard for a casual observer to spot, but Dota 2 is a considerably more challenging game that added an extra layer to competitive play.
Another noteworthy release in the MOBA space is 2014’s Smite by Hi-Rez Studios, which added a mythological theme to the mix and moved the action to a more visually-impressive 3D world.
Formal Recognition as Professional Athletes (2013)
By 2013, the esports industry had largely taken care of the content delivery and revenue model problems. There was still one nagging issue, however: acceptance as a legitimate sport.
A landmark step toward this legitimacy occurred in 2013 when the United States government began approving P-1A work visas (the type used by international athletes) for high-level League of Legends players. This served as formal recognition of athlete status by one of the world’s largest countries.
The issue is hardly settled, as esports competitors still sometimes face issues when trying to enter the United States and other countries for tournaments. Even though the issuing of these P-1A visas remains spotty and can fairly be said to be driven by lobbying, it was nevertheless important as a precedent.
Guaranteed Salaries (2013)
In 2013, Riot Games became the first company to guarantee salaries to all participants in its league. Prior to this, esports athletes mostly made their money from a combination of tournament prizes, hoping to land sponsorships, and running monetized personal streams on sites like Twitch.
In the first year, the minimum salary was a modest $25,000 for each player. That quickly rose to a $75,000 minimum in 2017 and an estimated average salary of $320,000 in 2018.
Viewership Records Smashed (2013)
The League of Legends World Championship had been drawing millions of viewers since its inception in 2011, but 2013 was a banner year. 32 million viewers in total tuned in, with 8.5 million watching simultaneously at its peak. Compare that to the World Series, which has averaged about 13 million viewers in recent years, or the Stanley Cup Finals at about five million.
Street Fighter Begins Bridging the Gap (2014-2016)
Though fighting games had had a strong and consistent competitive scene since the 1990s, they lagged behind other esports games in terms of both the money involved and the overall public interest. Part of that was due to active resistance from inside the fighting game community, a significant portion of whom felt that their games and culture were something entirely different from esports.
Forces in the fighting game world certainly noticed the increasingly amazing amounts of money being thrown around in the esports world, however, not the least of which was Street Fighter publisher Capcom. They founded the Capcom Pro Tour in 2014 in large part to push their fighting game following toward the esports world.
2016 was a major leap forward in bridging this gap. Street Fighter V was released that year, and the EVO tournament moved to Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and was televised for the first time in its history (on ESPN 2, no less).
Play Your Cards Right (2014)
Collectible card battle games (like Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh!) grew up roughly in parallel with esports but had a difficult time making the jump from offline play to online. That finally changed in 2014 with the release of Blizzard’s Hearthstone, an online-only card battle game that drew on themes and lore from the Warcraft games.
Hearthstone was the first card game to manage to break through into mainstream esports, and it is now one of the most popular overall competitive games and has tournaments that run all throughout the year.
Celebrity Investments (2015-2017)
It’s true that celebrity investments aren’t as big a financial deal as a company like Disney or Turner throwing their weight behind esports. They create a unique type of exposure that does wonders to grow the sport, however.
The first big-name celebs to take an interest in esports (and put money on the table) were Shark Tank regulars Mark Cuban and Ashton Kutcher, buying a stake in the Unikrn betting company in 2015. Others quickly followed, with the greatest level of interest coming from the world of traditional professional sports.
The Philadelphia 76ers acquired the Team Dignitas and Apex LoL teams in 2016, and Magic Johnson and motivational speaker Tony Robbins teamed up to found the esports-focused venture capital firm aXiomatic later that same year. And in 2017, a lineup of big-name retired professional athletes (such as Shaquille O’Neal and Alex Rodriguez) teamed up with Jennifer Lopez and Tiesto to create the NRG esports brand.
Place Your Bets (2016)
Some manner of wagering action has existed since the beginning of esports, but 2016 was a high-water year for a couple of reasons. The amount bet on esports globally hit $5.5 billion that year, an incredible leap from about $320 million the previous year. In addition to the explosion of online esports wagering, 2016 also saw the Downtown Grand in Las Vegas become the first sportsbook in the city to take in-person wagers on matches.
Esports at the Asiad (2018)
Ever since League of Legends became popular, there has been a movement to have it included in the Olympics as the first esports representative. That once-crazy dream took a major step toward reality when the East Asian Qualifier of LoL was announced as a demonstration sport at the 2018 Asian Games, along with matches in five other popular games, such as Starcraft II and Hearthstone.
Why is this a big deal? The Asian Games is the second-largest international athletic competition in the world behind the Olympics, and it is recognized by the International Olympic Committee. The “demonstration sport” status means it was featured only as a one-off trial run of sorts, but it also provided a launchpad to petition the International Olympic Committee to consider featuring an esports demonstration at the Olympics.
Esports Marches On
Given the continual and impressive year-after-year growth of esports, it’s safe to say that the history of esports is still being written. We’re looking forward to everything that future years bring.
- October 1972 – The first video game tournament for a prize (Spacewar) is held
- November 1980 – Atari holds the National Space Invaders Championship
- November 1980 – Twin Galaxies is founded to document video game world records
- December 1982 – Starcade airs its first episode
- July 1983 – The U.S. National Video Game Team is established by Twin Galaxies
- August 1983 – The Video Game Masters Tournament is established by Twin Galaxies
- March 1990 – The Nintendo World Championships is founded
- February 1991 – Street Fighter II is released, founding the competitive fighting game genre
- January 1992 – GamesMaster airs its first episode in the United Kingdom
- January 1992 – Dune 2 is released, founding the RTS genre
- May 1992 – Wolfenstein 3D is released, founding the FPS genre
- December 1993 – DOOM is released, popularizing the online FPS
- November 1994 – Warcraft is released, popularizing the online RTS
- December 1994 – The first Dreamhack is held
- August 1994 – The Blockbuster World Video Game Championships is held
- July 1996 – The first Evolution Championship Series (EVO) is held
- August 1996 – The first QuakeCon is held
- June 1997 – The Cyberathlete Professional League is established
- January 1998 – The first Professional Gamers League Finals is held
- November 1998 – Starcraft: Brood War is released
- January 2000 – The Korean e-Sports Association is founded
- January 2000 – Korean all-gaming TV channel Ongamenet (OGN) goes on the air
- June 2000 – The Electronic Sports League is founded
- October 2000 – The first World Cyber Games is held
- November 2000 – Counter-Strike is officially released
- April 2002 – The G4 television channel goes on the air
- September 2002 – Major League Gaming Corp. is founded
- July 2003 – The first Electronic World Sports Cup is held
- January 2005 – The first World e-Sports Games is held
- November 2005 – The CPL World Tour is the first tournament with a million-dollar prize pool
- December 2005 – The Madden Nation TV series debuts on ESPN
- February 2006 – The Halo 2 Pro Series debuts on the USA network
- March 2007 – The first Intel Extreme Masters is held
- March 2007 – Justin.tv launches
- October 2007 – The Asian Indoor Games begins including esports
- January 2009 – Development of Dota 2 begins
- October 2009 – League of Legends is released, popularizing the MOBA genre
- August 2010 – The first Nintendo-sponsored esports competition (Wii Games Summer) takes place
- June 2011 – The first League of Legends World Championship is held
- June 2011 – Justin.tv rebrands the game streaming area as Twitch.tv
- August 2011 – The first Dota 2 International is held
- January 2013 – The first esports league guarantees salaries to all players
- August 2013 – The first work visa for an esports athlete is issued in the United States
- March 2014 – Hearthstone release date
- December 2014 – The first Halo Championship Series is held
- August 2015 – YouTube Gaming launches
- September 2015 – Mark Cuban and Ashton Kutcher invest in an esports betting platform
- February 2016 – Street Fighter V is released
- May 2016 – Overwatch is released
- June 2016 – In-person esports betting first becomes available in Las Vegas
- September 2016 – The Philadelphia 76ers become the first traditional sports team to own an esports team
- February 2017 – The NBA 2K League is founded
- January 2018 – The eMLS League is founded
- April 2018 – The Luxor in Las Vegas opens the first esports arena on the Strip
- May 2018 – A Supreme Court ruling opens the possibility of legalized esports wagering throughout the United States
- June 2018 – Esports debuts as a demonstration sport at the quadrennial Asian Games