Ten years ago, gaming was widely considered the common pastime of lazy teenagers. Today, it’s a means through which to earn millions of dollars and global fame. Whilst some may have predicted that competitive gaming would one day become a ‘spectators sport’, few could have predicted the incredible extent of its popularity. The game streaming website Twitch.tv receives over 100 million visitors per month, while 226 million people typically tune in to watch any one of the major esport tournaments. How did this happen – and how will esports impact the economy, the gaming industry and society as a whole? To get an answer to these questions, it is worth exploring the early history behind esports.
From local clubs to global arenas
The 1990s may have seen the emergence of some gaming tournaments in the form of well-organised competitions arranged by organisations and clubs, but it wasn’t until the 2010s that esports really took off. Both viewership and prize money grew astronomically in the years after 2010, at which point there were an average of 260 international tournaments annually (a big leap from just 10 tournaments in 2000). Not only were these tournaments growing in number – they were becoming more successful with each year. Tournaments like World Cyber Games and Major League Gaming were gaining considerable exposure and respect, helped by the fact that they were regulated by professional bodies.
In 2006, FUN Technologies hosted the Worldwide Web games Championship for the grand prize of one million dollars. The event featured 71 contestants and differed from most other gaming tournaments at the time as it did not focus on one particular game but rather featured a number of casual games. Tournaments specialized in specific games have proven more popular however, hence why the likes of CS:GO, Dota 2, World of Warcraft and League of Legends now all have their own major tournament.
By 2007, it was not uncommon to see televised esports. South Korea offered the most coverage, with whole channels dedicated to competitive gaming. In the UK, XLEAGUE.TV broadcast esports between 2007 and 2009. Though these broadcasts drew in some of the more passionate gamers and esport fans, it was certainly not television that helped catapult esports into the soon-to-be-billion dollar industry that it is today. That can instead be attributed to the advancement of online streaming services from 2010 onwards.
Twitch.tv is undoubtedly the most popular of these streaming services. The streaming platform started broadcasting the most popular esport tournaments in 2011 and quickly started attracting millions of unique views, with most visitors watching for at least two hours. The most viewed tournaments were that of League of Legends and Dota 2.
Since then, esports has only continued to grow in online viewership as well as live viewers present at actual tournaments. In 2014, 40,000 international viewers attended the League of Legends World Championship in Seoul. Further extending its clasp into mainstream culture, the event even saw the band Imagine Dragons perform at the opening and closing ceremonies.
Classification as an official sport
Following esports’ widespread popularity and sudden profitability, governments around the world started looking at the esports phenomena more seriously. South Korea has regarded esports as an official sport since its early days, but it was only in the last few years that Russia and the US officially declared competitive gaming a real ‘sport’. This has exciting implications for professional gamers as it grants them the right to seek scholarships and work-based VISAs related to their career.
Impact on the game industry
Game studios, designers and shops have also had to embrace esport culture to remain relevant. While game studios may have previously been unhappy with the prospect of entire gameplay being broadcast for the world to see, there’s now no doubt that esports brings with it a whole range of benefits to gaming businesses. In 2014 Nintendo hosted their own competitive tournament for Wii U that attracted as many as 400,000 participants. Halo, meanwhile, was revived in the form of an esport through the Halo Championship Series. Numerous other prominent gaming studios host their own tournaments, while the people behind major competitive games such as Dota 2 or League of Legends continue to optimize many aspects of gameplay specifically for big esport tournaments.
The popularity of esports has also had a significant effect on the online poker industry. In having become deemed an official sport because of its competitiveness, spectator appeal and necessity for skill – esports has opened the door for online poker to be regarded in a similar way. Professional online poker players have for years been campaigning for the same treatment as esport professionals currently enjoy. Furthermore, while platforms like Twitch.tv are primarily used to stream traditional video games – a rise in poker streaming channels has seen online poker once again enter the mainstream. ElkY is one such popular poker streamers, who plays primarily on PokerStars amongst other real money poker sites. The poker pro regularly offers viewers insight into his poker strategy with tips on how they can improve their own player style, but it is perhaps the high stake nature of his games which attracts the most viewers. In 2015, he broke the Twitch.tv record for highest ever prize won during a live stream – $300,000 during a PokerStars game.
Impact on culture
Arguably the biggest impact esports will have on people’s everyday lives is the way in which it is gradually changing the average person’s perception of gaming. Gamers can now be taken seriously as professionals, with fewer people raising their eyebrows at the thousands of hours that the top pros need to put into staying ahead of their competition. There’s a degree of respect that serious gamers can now experience, even on par with that of what a professional chess or tennis player would enjoy. This has only been made possibly with the growth of esports.
But the classification of competitive gaming as an official sport is also significant – simply by being highly symbolic of the way in which technology is transforming our society. We are now at a stage when even our favourite sports are digitized – a futuristic concept that has become reality. Whether this is an exciting step forwards or a worrying warning sign will depend on who you ask!