This past year might be remembered as the year Great Britain voted to leave Europe, or the year a reality television star and businessman was elected the most powerful man on the planet – but 2016 was also the year that eSports finally made it mainstream.
You would be wrong if you thought eSports were a 21st century inception. The first video game was released in the late 1940’s and gamers have been competing against each other in tournament style events ever since. Even the earliest arcade-style games, like Tennis For Two and Pong were the focus of competitive competitions.
By the 1980s, gaming had gathered quite a following. Arcade enthusiasts all over the United States were challenged to go down to their nearest gaming centre and post the highest score they could on the first ever creation from the Donkey Kong franchise. 80s gaming giants Atari hosted a Space Invaders tournament, attracting over 10,000 of the quickest fingers in the western world.
Nintendo took the gaming market by storm during the 1990s, but it was still arcade games that reigned supreme when it came to early eSports competitions - with newly released games like Street Fighter and Mortal Combat proving the perfect battle ground for gaming combatants. It was during the late 90s that PC gaming started to rise in popularity, as PCs became more widely available to common gamers all over the world. Early first-person shooter games, such as Goldeneye and Quake made their mark on the tournament gaming circuit – creating a solid foundation of popularity for future games like Call of Duty, Battlefield and Overwatch to build from. PC was also the platform that launched Role Playing Games (RPGs) like Starcraft and Warcraft into the gaming market for the first time, forever altering the eSports stratosphere.
The Millennium coincided with a surge in eSports tournament activity. The inaugural Electronic Sports World Cup and World Cyber Games competitions were hosted in the year 2000. The Major League Gaming (MLG) was launched just two years later and today, they are the most powerful eSports organisers in the business.
Improvement in internet connection saw the majority of households around the world switch from dial-up to broadband. This brought about a new age in gaming, where home gamers could compete against players from all corners of the globe. Gamers would use message board forums to share high scores and eventually, gaming enthusiasts would begin to stream their video game experiences and opinions on YouTube – with some of these early video blogging pioneers making a profitable career from something that was once considered a mere past time.
USA Network covered a Halo 2 tournament back in 2006, but it took almost a decade for eSports to break down the television barrier and become a permanent fixture on free-to-view TV. The majority of eSports tournaments can be streamed online, but there are now television channels dedicated to providing 24 hour eSports coverage – with Ginx eSportsTV being the market leading channel on both sides of the Atlantic.
Whilst there are tournaments for games popular with casual gamers, Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games soon became the major platform for the biggest and best professional gamers to wage war on. Warcraft III: Defense of the Ancients was the first real-time strategy game to find the perfect middle ground between complexity, approachability and spectatorship. Many games since have followed that blue print, including League of Legends (LoL): the most played MOBA game on the planet.
LoL tournaments have also spawned a huge online betting market. Bookmakers BWIN released an investigatory article into European betting trends surrounding eSports events. They reported that there had been a 312% increase in wagers being placed on eSports tournaments over the last year alone, with League of Legends accounting for 69% of the market turnover.
Betting on these markets was shown to be popular all over Europe, but the German market were by far the most active, with 41% of all bets placed on eSports tournaments coming from Germany. As the interest around eSports betting continues to grow and more markets become available, it won’t be long before this European success is replicated in other areas of the world.
LoL may be the most played MOBA game, but it’s Death of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2) that provides the perfect platform for the pros to do battle. DOTA 2 players are amongst the richest in the world of eSports and the current prize pots involved with DOTA 2 tournaments are staggering. The 2016 renewal of The International DOTA 2 tournament offered a prize pot worth more than $18m, a world record amount for any eSports event and a whole lot more than many traditional sporting championships.
ESports have come a long way since those early days of Space Invader tournaments and Donkey Kong contests. Today, eSports are a major player on the world sporting landscape and being a professional gamer has become a realistic and lucrative career for gamers who have the passion, determination and talent to compete with the best. It’s been a long and difficult journey to get to where it is now, but for eSports, this just seems like the start of the adventure.