Many sports fans might be brand new to esports due to the coronavirus crisis, but the previously niche genre of competitive sport is nowhere near as fresh as some people might assume.
In fact, competitive gaming has a surprisingly long history, even if it might only be relatively recently that esports have started to break through into the mainstream.
The pandemic – and its subsequent lockdown – has sports fans starved of their favourite weekend pastime and esports can absolutely help to fill the gap – at least until the current situation has blown over.
So how did esports first start and how have they grown into the modern powerhouse of today, with Valorant set to take gamers by storm in 2020?
Competition born with very first arcade games
It might seem strange to think back to now, sitting on your sofa waiting for sport to resume, but esports as a concept began with the first arcade games that were ever developed. Naturally, gamers quickly wanted to find out who the best players were on games such as Spacewar!
A Spacewar! event at Stanford University almost 50 years ago is widely regarded to have been the first time that a competitive esports tournament took place.
There were 24 competitors and the prize was a Rolling Stone subscription as the magazine was the event’s main sponsor. Atari was one of the big game developers in the 1970s and the company soon got in on the action.
The Atari classic Space Invaders was one of the biggest games of the era and some 10,000 competitors took part in an esports tournament in New York City in 1980. The tournament was won by Rebecca Heineman, who went on to become a games developer.
Many sports fans will be considering getting into esports now, in order to fill the gap in their lives with real action called off until further notice due to the coronavirus crisis. But how did the arrival of console gaming help to fuel a fresh spike in the popularity of esports during the 1990s?
Console era causes explosion in esports popularity
Sports fans nowadays might take their Xbox One or PlayStation 4 for granted, but it is hard to downplay exactly what impact the development of consoles had on the rise in esports.
Gaming was previously seen as quite a niche and nerdy pastime but the release of Nintendo’s NES helped to reposition the hobby as something that could be enjoyed by the whole family.
Handheld consoles like the Game Boy, also from Nintendo, helped to fuel the rise in gaming. Sony’s PlayStation, released in the middle of the 1990s, then made gaming cool. Suddenly, gaming was for the masses and the console became the first to sell over 100 million units.
It was on PC where the action was really happening in the world of esports, though. Quake followed in the footsteps of Doom as a first person shooter that seemed tailor-made for the growing esports community.
One of the first esports stars emerged at this time with Johnathan Wendel, who played under the name ‘Fatal1ty’, becoming one of the top global Quake players.
Wendel made a lot of money out of esports, securing sponsorships to build his fortune. That is the same formula a lot of professional esports players are still using to this day.
The release of StarCraft, a real time strategy title, then pushed esports on to the next level again. Its military science fiction theme was hugely popular with around 10 million global sales. Various sequels and spin-offs have also captured the attention of the esports community too.
One of the reasons StarCraft became such a popular esport was how tactical the game is to play. Unlike shooting games, players have to think about their strategy, with more skill involved than fast reflexes.
That said, button-smashing fighting games were also starting to become popular esports at the time. The Evolution Championship Series started in 1996 with Street Fighter fans taking part.
Events like the Cyberathlete Professional League, the World Cyber Games and Electronic Sports World Cup followed as the number of events grew quickly.
Television then started to get involved, bringing esports to a whole new audience. Televised esports took a while to take off, but as the internet gradually arrived in homes globally and speeds began to rise exponentially, streaming took over.
Playing online was also easier than ever thanks to the arrival of gaming services such as Xbox Live.
The launch of Twitch.tv at the start of the noughties is also considered to have been key to the rise of esports. Today, many people who might not even consider themselves gamers tune in to watch people play on Twitch and other platforms.
What are the biggest esports today?
StarCraft 2 is still one of the top esports, but sports fans considering getting into esports for the first time might be more tempted by League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2.
Football fans probably already play FIFA and the game’s popularity as an esport is growing quickly through the coronavirus crisis.
This year is also set to see the release of Valorant, a Riot Games title that will be free to play on PC. Many people believe the shooter has the potential to become the world’s biggest esport.
Future of esports looking very bright
Sports fans are likely to be tempted into taking a more active interest in the world of esports as lockdown conditions continue around the world. This means the coronavirus crisis could actually prove to be good news for the growth of esports.
Already estimated by Newzoo to be worth in excess of $1 billion, esports prize pools are expanding quickly, making them even more appealing to new players.
Over $200 million in prize money has been awarded to Dota 2 players, with Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Fortnite both closing in on the $100 million mark.
The very best esports players now have become millionaires in prize money alone, with cash from sponsorships made on top of those earnings.
Newzoo suggested there will be 495.0 million people in the total esports audience in 2020, but that number seems likely to be a conservative estimate given the rapidly growing estimate.
Some esports events have attracted almost 50 million viewers. However, the esports industry is also likely to face an increasing number of challenges, such as regulation, how to avoid cheating, and funding the games properly.
But sports fans are likely to keep turning to esports the longer the delay in sports resuming – which could be many more months – continues.