Esports has been exploding in the last couple of years, with hundreds of millions of viewers around the world, seven to eight-figure prize pools and multi-million-dollar sponsorships, all the glamor and glory, etc. That is a stark contrast from the 90s era of gaming, where Esports was in its infancy. And gaming was just a hobby with no future.


Humble beginnings

The first-ever Esports tournament conducted was seemingly as far back as in 1972 at Stanford University. Kicked off by just a bunch of students, they called it the ‘Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics’ where several students took part in a game called ‘Spacewars’, ran on a PDP-10 computer, and spectated by many people. They consider it to have been the first video game tournament ever, which laid the foundation of that idea. However, things didn’t kick into gear for the Esports scene and gaming until the 1990s.


The 1990s

The classic arcade machines popularized the earliest form of competitive Esports gaming in the West. Twin Galaxies, a high score record-keeping company, promoted video games and recorded scores publicly as a leaderboard, with the top scores being published in the Guinness Book of World Records. They held several competitions where players faced off against each other in trying to beat the high scores and best times set by each other for the title of the best.

These competitions evolved into more direct one-vs-one Esports when Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Marvel vs Capcom arrived on the scene. Which even inspired other media adaptations like feature movies and merchandise. The popularity of fighting games in the 90s led to the foundation of the EVO(Evolution Championship Series) tournament in 1996 wherein it continues till this date with prize pools of up to $200,000.

As the 90s rolled around, with the advent and expansion of the internet and PC accessibility becoming more common, online competitive gaming was more accessible, and it drove game developers for innovation and adaptation. Internet connectivity made PC gaming increasingly popular around the world. Corporations like Nintendo were amongst the first ones to organize video game world championships around this time. Large Esports tournaments in the 1990s include the 1990 Nintendo World Championships, which toured across the United States and held its finals at Universal Studios Hollywood in California. Nintendo held a 2nd World Championships in 1994 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System called the Nintendo PowerFest ‘94.132 finalists played in the finals in San Diego, California. Blockbuster Video also ran its World Game Championships in the early 1990s. Citizens from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Chile were eligible to compete.

Even though gaming was on a rise, it was difficult for competitive players to connect or see a future in gaming yet. There was a lack of well organized and funded tournaments or competitive scenes. No video platforms like Twitch to watch games on, etc. Even though Starcraft, Quake, Counter-Strike, and many more games were all the rage back in the late 90s, competitive gameplay remained limited mostly to cybercafes, local tournaments, with little to no scope for matching up with new, better players since the scenes were confined locally. Unlike today, where the best of every region can play with the bests of any other region around the world. Esports wasn’t a feasible outlet yet, where players would travel long distances to compete.


Korean scene and contribution

As time passed, players around the world who’d been playing these games for years were yearning to watch their favorite players and high-level competitive gameplay. Though the technology just wasn’t there yet. This is one of the key moments when South Korea showed a big boom in the competitive Starcraft scene. In the late 90s, the South Korean government was providing financial incentives for broadband growth across the nation, including cyber cafes. When Starcraft: I rolled around, this meant a ton of people already had access to play the game easily. Nearly half the population of the country was playing Starcraft regularly. This led to the development of a robust competitive scene. With state-sponsored TV channels streaming live gameplay to millions of viewers throughout the week, top talents being paid six-figure salaries and being hailed as celebrities, etc.

South Korea spearheaded this revolution and proved definitely to the world that Esports is something real and viable and not just a hobby for kids with no future.


Western Influence

As these things happened in the East, with South Korea leading the charge and Japan and China catching up, the 90s saw its surge in Esports culture in the West. Following the arcade scene in the late 80s and early 90s, titles like Quake, Counter-Strike became huge hits in the Western video game scene as PC gaming became the norm. Such as the 1997 Red Annihilation tournament for Quake, which some consider being the first real Esports event, and gave the Esports a face. The winner called himself Thresh. Thresh was one of the first players ever to get widespread fame and recognition for a video game tournament as a cyber athlete. A few weeks after this tournament, the CPL(Cyberathlete Professional Group) formed, who conducted tournaments for Counter-Strike, Quake, etc regularly. With a prize pool reaching $15,000+ subsequently.

While major tournaments had been around since before the 2000s, the competitive video game scene grew larger than ever before between 2000 and 2010. The frequency and scale of the events and prize pools gradually increased many-fold. Where there used to be just one tournament a year, there were several held nearly every month and so on. The World Cyber Games, Intel Extreme Masters joined the fray during this time and organized various Esports tournaments regularly. While the Esports scene in Korea had a push from the government, the one in the West had no such help and eventually grew into something special on its own.


Exposure and Streaming revolution

After all this time, however, Esports and Esports tournaments still weren’t as glamourous, professional or high quality as they are today. Most of them were made on a low production budget, were shabby and disorganized. Part of the reason was… there was neither much incentive nor money. They barely had enough eyeballs on the scene to make the money back on broadcasting, which itself was not cheap by any means. It made up most of the operating costs. Sponsors were scarce, and the idea of Esports still didn’t seem very lucrative for advertising. The cost of broadcasting was a hindrance to reaching millions of gamers around the world who were willing and eager to watch high-level competitive gameplay for a long time. The technology just wasn’t there or wasn’t good enough.

Things turned around drastically in 2010, however, with online streaming being available from any place and any time. For free. This enabled Esports tournaments to stream every weekend from around the world with little to no cost. When released as a live streaming platform for gaming, it served as a home to all the Esports tournaments around the world. It became a place where region and language were no longer barriers to watch and enjoy Esports. It brought all the games, talents, and tournaments around the world under one roof. As a one-stop source of entertainment for gamers. Different gaming communities, whether it was FPS, MOBAs, fighting games, etc, all came together on Twitch where you could catch up on all the tournaments on one website. Viewership numbers jumped from just a hundred thousand to tens of millions for games like League of Legends and Dota 2. CS: GO recorded 1 million concurrent viewers during ESL, it’s highest ever.

This consolidation of viewership on one platform meant a lot of eyeballs on Esports than ever before. Millions of viewers tuned into major tournaments. Which soon enough drew the eye of sponsors on the Esports scene.Especially those catering to the young generation and gamers. Graphics, software, hardware, Computer accessory companies, energy drinks, and every other sponsor jumped on the wagon and saw Esports as a goldmine for marketing. The struggling Esports scenes and communities got stabilized once the money started pouring in, which expanded the Esports scene bigger than ever. It influenced and inspired new talent to come in, looking to seek fame for themselves as well.

With Esports being a billion-dollar industry today and still growing, most top players are making more money than most of the people in traditional occupations today and travel around the world for tournaments. With the best players being a celebrity in the Esports world in no less sense than any movie star. The recorded total prize pool across all Esports in 2019 was at $227m, with DotA 2’s The International making up $34m of it alone partly funded by the viewers and community players themselves. Games even promote and allow people to purchase in-game items to fund these pools, support their favorite players and teams, and keep player interest.


Betting scene

With all avenues related to Esports growing, so did Esports betting. Esports betting was negligible and not very profitable for most of its pre-broadcast days. The volume just wasn’t there. But with the surge of Esports viewership and tens of millions of new audiences pouring in from around the world, betting finally found a way to be relevant. Esports had mostly been highly unregulated by any commission or organization for a long time. Meaning there weren’t many people who’d look out for rigging and other manipulations. And people would be hesitant in taking bets in that kind of industry. On top of the fact that most of the Esports audience would be underage and unable to place wagers legally on real money.

Things had changed after the popularization of Esports. The audience had grown up and was still interested in the scene. But everything wasn’t perfect. Most of the betting revolved around in-game items like skins and character customizations that were traded and cashed out through 3rd party websites for real money. This caused an issue because these websites had no way of identifying people who were betting or check how old they are. This ignored the issue that some of the people betting could be the players themselves, which was evident by the infamous 2014 CSGO iBuypower scandal. A team intentionally lost the match after they’d bet against themselves on a betting site for winning expensive CSGO items. They received a lifetime ban from all CSGO events. The ban was partially lifted in 2017. Following soon, Valve cracked down on skin betting sites to prevent similar instances from happening again.

Things like this were why skin betting was seen as dodgy for a long time, as a method of Esports betting because of how prone to manipulation it was, which also undermined the Esports Pro scene.

By this time, however, real money Esports betting was available. Apart from Bitcoin betting, which also depends on whether your country of origin recognizes the currency, the betting operators that offer real money are licensed and follow laws and restrictions from relevant institutions. That meant it was way more reliable and safer than skin betting. It’s predicted that Esports betting volume could outpace traditional Sports betting one day, which is not unbelievable considering the speed at which Esports and gaming are growing.


The World’s Sentiments

Esports has come a long way from where it was just a decade ago. From poorly managed, low-budget productions to tournaments hosted in the biggest arenas and stadiums around the world with top-notch production, lights, sound design and equipment with newscasters, coaches, sponsors, which would be unthinkable until just a decade or two ago. The old school opinion about Esports not even being classified as a sport and scoffed at by the mainstream media for the longest time has changed. Today, even ESPN has a  separate division to cover just Esports news. People have realized the potential and profitability of Esports in this era where gamers are arguably the most popular hobby in the world. The fans cheer for their favorite teams and players around the world and spend thousands of hours playing and watching Esports. Where any regular kid, good enough, can become an Esports star from his/her home and fulfill their dreams.