In the summer of ‘98, a weekend with my father spent emptying the garage was well rewarded with my very own copy of the original StarCraft. That weekend kickstarted almost two decades of passionate gaming, culminating in founding a college club that went undefeated in the North American StarCraft II collegiate circuit during the 2012 regular season. In the last five years, I’ve been involved in all aspects of competitive gaming, and have done my best to grow this funny little thing called esports.
If you don’t know what esports is by now, don’t worry—you will soon. With close to 20% of the global population playing videogames, gaming is one of the fastest-growing industries ever. Last year, the videogaming industry netted over $100 billion, edging out both the film industry and the television industry. The advent of free-to-play and freemium payment models, along with accessibility through mobile and browser-based platforms, have skyrocketed gaming from a niche hobby to a recreation that anyone can enjoy. The wide range of games currently on the market, from Call of Duty to Candy Crush to Game of Thrones, is a testament to the wider audience that gaming is growing into.
This wider audience means that a lot more people are playing games now more than ever before, and that’s where esports comes in. It’s natural when groups of people are sharing the same activity for competition to take place. This can be as large as a global competition like the Olympics, or as small as a battle between brothers to see who is the best at playing air hockey in their garage. Esports is simply that spirit of competition inviting itself into the ever-expanding gaming culture.
The history of esports is inherently tied into the technology available to the videogames. Beginning in the 1970’s, arcade machines stepped into the role previously held by pinball machines and fair games, allowing people to play against others, but now through video games. Consoles in the 80s, led by the Nintendo Entertainment System, popularized gaming at home, but the lack of an ability to connect with other gamers outside hometowns meant that often, the stiffest competition was somebody from your school.
All that changed with the advent of home Internet connections. PC gaming was the first to benefit, with StarCraft: Brood War being the prime example of online gaming, especially in South Korea, but consoles weren’t far behind. By the mid-2000s, every major console had a developer-run network to connect to that allowed them to play against others. Nowadays, the Internet has become so ingrained into gaming that Microsoft tried to introduce an “always connected” model, while Sony is currently introducing a product to the market that lets you play games completely over the Internet, without even owning a console.
Gamers have flocked to the Internet, then, to match wits and strategies against the best the world has to offer. Some games, like Titanfall and League of Legends, are almost exclusively built for online multiplayer. Eager to share their skill, gamers have embraced streaming websites like Twitch, whether it’s showing off their headshots or speedruns. And now, with increasing regularity, game titles have their own leagues and invitationals, where the best of the best compete against each other in studios and stadiums around the world.
These gamers are setting milestones left and right, with prize pools of over $10 million, with over 30 million viewers, and with 22,000 connected computers, just to name a few. Amazon’s purchase of Twitch last year for $970 million seemed inevitable, especially after it came out that Twitch produces more peak traffic than other major websites like Hulu and Facebook. Other big developments, such as universities are beginning to fund their own esports teams, tournaments being thrown in increasingly large venues, and massive charity efforts, have all helped establish the industry as much more than just gamers hanging out in their basements.
If anything, mainstream media is starting to get more and more involved in esports. ESPN is starting to air the biggest tournaments with regularity, while Conan has regular Twitch broadcasts. The marketing appeal is real, and esports is particularly well suited to a demographic that is very hard for traditional media to reach—cord cutters and cord nevers, traditionally millennial males. The mainstream media will only want to add esports to their offerings more as this demographic grows up, get higher-paying jobs, and starting families.
Most importantly, esports finally gives a massive tech industry relatable personalities. Instead of abstract “I’m a PC” campaigns, companies will be able to present well-known esports stars that actually use their products. Last century’s Air Jordans give way to this century’s controllers, motherboards, and head phones.
For these companies, now more than ever is the time to invest when it comes to esports. The last five years have seen incredible growth within esports, both on and off the “field.” Leagues have been established, like Riot Games’ League of Legends Championship Series, with set rules and reliable broadcasts, allowing for storylines and rivalries to develop between teams and players. This has also allowed rules and standards to exist, punishing cheaters and match-fixers, a long-time problem when competitions regularly happen exclusively online.
Similarly, technology within video games has both increased the ability to air and customize broadcasts of these competitions, while developers have worked hard to integrate streaming directly into the games and consoles, recognizing the impact of streaming as advertising. The esports community has also seen professionals develop similar roles as seen in traditional sports, including commentators, producers, translators, and journalists, mirroring the growth of sporting entertainment in North America in the 20th century.
It’s clear that the future of esports is a bright one. With gaming growing continually integrated to our lives, on our phones and through social media, more people will identify with videogames and respect those that dedicate themselves to playing well. Much like sports has shown us, the stories of passionate people can join together communities like no other. And while esports may not have the tradition that comes along with traditional sports, it’s growing richer each and every day.