The Rise of Electronic Sports

By Joshua Bi

Katowice, Poland: March 16th 2014. The crowd erupts in cheers as the two finalist teams emerge on stage, ready to do battle for $250,000 in prize money. The two teams, one European and one Korean, are comprised of several of the most elite athletes of a sport enjoyed by more than 30 million people. However, rather than competing with balls or hoops or goals; these athletes used mice and keyboards to compete on a virtual field.

E-sports is a broad term used to define competitions between professional video game players. Critics of e-sports often argue that e-sports should not be considered a sport; that title of ‘sport’ should be reserved for events that require intensive player dedication and hard work to improve at rather than a title shamelessly tagged onto video games so couch potatoes can feel good about remaining comatose and playing video games all day. While it is hard to argue that playing video games will improve anyone’s physical health, the other aspects of e-sports have evolved to a point where they are almost identical to those of traditional sports. To understand that, it is imperative to first be familiar with the history of e-sports.

Most agree that the e-sports revolution began on October 19th, 1972 at Stanford University when students were drafted by the video-game developer Atari and pitted against each other in the game Spacewar, one of the first digital multiplayer games in existence. The grand prize? A year’s subscription of Rolling Stone magazine. While the contest was relatively limited in size (as it was only available to Stanford students at the time) and the prize was relatively small, it got the ball rolling and in 1983, Walter Day, a video game developer founded the U.S. National Video Game Team. Later on in 1985, the Guinness Book of World Records also aided the development of primitive e-sports when its popular records books began to hold records for higher scores in early arcade games such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. As more and more Americans began to connect to the internet in the 1990s, so did more and more video games, allowing more and more people to connect and play video games with others without having to physically be near their opponents. Nintendo also encouraged competitive e-sports tournaments by creating the 1990 Nintendo World Championships which toured America and showed many the more competitive side of an activity designed for fun.

By 2000, the games and organizations that would dominate e-sports as we know it today began to take shape. Games like Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft, Valve Corporation’s Counter-Strike first-person shooter series, and Activision’s Call of Duty series took off with the help of the internet revolution. Meanwhile a small team of dedicated gamers designed and programmed modification to the popular game to Blizzard Entertainment’s popular game Warcraft 3 planted the seeds to what would eventually become the “multiplayer online battle arena” genre, spawning games such as Dota 2 (Valve Corporation) and League of Legends (Riot Games Inc.) Major League Gaming was also founded in 2002 and gave many players a more organized way to participate in competitive gaming.

By the end of the decade, four games dominated the e-sports scene. Riot Games Inc.’s League of Legends became the most played online video game in the world while Valve Corporation’s sequel to the original Warcraft 3 “multiplayer online battle arena” modification, Dota 2 followed a close second. Valve Corporation’s popular first-person shooter series, Counter-Strike, was revitalized by the release of the series’ latest installment, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Blizzard Entertainment’s StarCraft II continued to be a popular choice to both competitive and casual gamers. By 2014, the landscape of professional video-gaming had completely changed. Sweaty, stuffy halls where bored university students played for magazine subscriptions had all but vanished. In its place, professional full-time players sponsored by giant corporations played in giant theaters and well-known venues such as the Staples center and competed for prize pools worth millions of dollars. Video streaming sites such as Twitch Interactive’s Twitch.tv also began to take off, allowing professional gamers to stream their games in real time to viewers across the world. In 2013, Danny ‘Shiphtur’ Le made headlines after becoming the first professional gamer to be granted a pro-athlete visa, furthering the movement to cement e-sports’ position as a professional sport.

The evolution of e-sports to its modern day incarnation has been an amazing one. A small event originally organized by one of the first gaming companies at a single university has become a behemoth worth millions of dollars. Large corporations now sponsor gaming teams as if they were any other traditional sports teams and like dedicated athletes of any other sport, pro-gamers have began to take training a lot more seriously, some practicing more than ten hours a day. 20 years ago, if you were to tell someone on the street that in 2014, millions would tune in to watch gamers play video games, they would have probably thought you were insane. Today, not only is that a reality but e-sports are only becoming more and more popular. Maybe one day popular pro-gamers will be household names, maybe the e-sports industry will become as popular as football or basketball in America—it might seem preposterous today but so did making millions off of playing video games to someone 20 years ago. Who knows? While it is still hard to make broad predictions about the future of e-sports, one thing seems clear: electronic sports are here to stay.