Competition: it unites us, frustrates us, entertains us. Since the first recorded Olympic Games almost three thousand years ago, people from around the world have enjoyed and supported sports in its many forms and varieties. Whether in search of a gold medal, glory, a premier league title or all three, athletes have been a core part of any society throughout history – in today’s world, however, they’re not just tested on their particular physical abilities. They’re tested on their ability to be a role model, on their moral values, and in the case of new and upcoming sports – on their brains.
Chess. Motorcar racing. Horse riding. Ping pong. Esports would simply appear to be the next in a long line of mental competition – a competition that places less or no emphasis on muscular strength or stamina, but rather on a player’s ability to master one specific skill or game to the point of perfection. With the internet, with the world wide web, with new genres of video games and unrivalled global connectivity, competition in video games is rife, interest is at an all-time high, and big money is, at last, being invested into this new ‘Esport’ industry with fresh pros, stories and possibilities. From basement LAN parties to North American League franchising, here’s a rundown of Esports from top to bottom: it’s origins, it’s growth, and it’s bright future.
What it is – The Big Games, The Money, The Platforms
Today, the Esports industry is worth an estimated $700 million dollars. In three years, that number is predicted to have doubled to an estimated $1.5 billion. Fan numbers are countless, it’s finances booming, and sponsorship for some of the best teams sees big names (Gillette, Razer, Intel) already getting involved. But what exactly is Esports? Well, it’s not one specific title, like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft. It’s many titles across many types of games, each with their own individual modes, skills and requirements. It is, simply, a cover-all for electronic sport. Video games, to be blunt. Whilst in stereotype this hobby has long been seen as an introverted or nerdy interest, the rise of a digital world sees men and women everywhere invested in championships, tournaments and finals every month of the year. There are professional teams. There are leagues. There are seasons and weekly broadcasts. The revenue is there, and so are the investors. It demands to be taken seriously.
As of the 2018 Spring Split, the North American LCS for the game League of Legends will be franchising. Of the ten teams competing there, many will have either notable backers or owners from across big industry – major league sports teams, ex-players such as Rick Fox and Joe Montana, and large mainstream organisations such as the Madison Square Garden Company and the Fortress Investment Group. Cashflow and player salaries have flourished since this announcement, and audience interest is expected to be massive. This is just one example of modern Esports in action – there’s also the global Overwatch League, Hearthstone tournaments, and other MOBAs such as Heroes of the Storm or Dota 2. With such big bucks involved, betting and gambling are an inventible side-line.
At companies and websites such as at sportsbet.io players and interested parties can put their knowledge of teams and the game to good use, making bets and wagers on certain outcomes and predicting particular winners. Just like traditional sports betting, the less likely a team is to win, the higher the odds. With apps and websites available on smartphones, fans can not only watch their favourite Esports titles on the go but bet at the same time. Having such a service available is only one symptom of many: Esports is big and getting bigger. But it hasn’t always been so profitable, nor had such high hopes for its future. In fact, go back a decade or two and today’s world of competitive gaming would seem like a crazy dream.
Esports: Origins – Super Smash Bros and Halo: Combat Evolved
The first ever gaming tournament was held by Atari in 1980: the Space Invaders tournament. It took the tradition of arcade high score lists and turned it into something more, into something that involved over ten thousand total participants all vying for fun and a chance of victory. This was the foundation of Esports. This was its seed. Using the first consoles and biggest titles, World Championships began to appear within only a few years, with separate brackets for adults, children and teenagers to compete in. The sponsors of these tournaments, however, unlike today, were the games companies themselves – like Atari, like Nintendo, and like distributors such as Blockbuster. Gaming was still introverted, and it was still an enclosed industry. As serious as these tournaments may have been to the players at the time, they were no more than fun to outside investors, and gaming was hardly taken seriously as any kind of profession.
Then came Quake, the personal computer and the internet. If one were to chart the rise of Esports, it would be a steady climb from 1980 to today, with its first peaks placed throughout the 1990s. Quake represented the first first-person shooter tournament, with a Ferrari as first prize and thousands of competitors. Soon after the Cyberathlete Professional League was founded, or CPL for short, by Angel Munoz. Running for almost two decades, the CPL hosted tournaments across the globe for various titles and was perhaps one of the first pioneers into professional Esports as a public concept.
The scene itself, at that time, consisted of three main categories: the first person shooters, like Quake, real-time strategy games such as the first Starcraft and Warcraft games, and fighting games, such as Super Smash Bros by Nintendo. These early games fit the technology of the time, and whilst they weren’t exactly beautiful, they were complex enough to get both players and audiences interested in taking them to a competitive level. Some of the games are even still played today, with Super Smash Brothers still up there as a primary Esport title. When Halo: Combat Evolved and the first Xbox console was released, along with online play as an additional hardware add-on (complete with voice communication) Esports went even further. MLG, or Major League Gaming, was set up in 2002, and the first few tournaments found their way onto the world wide web.
Since then, the internet has been both a consistent platform for online gaming and for the Esports broadcasts brought about by its competition. Youtube, twitch.tv and various other streaming services are and always have been the go-to location for tournaments, interviews and behind the scenes footage, and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon, even despite the larger monetary investment in recent months. Whilst regular television has occasionally forayed into Esports segments, especially in countries where it’s more culturally significant, it’s generally inconsistent, and the public seems yet to be convinced. Instead, dedicated channels and organisations focused on Esports gather up everything you need to know in specific places online.
League, DOTA and CS:GO – Mainstream Esports Today
So. Let’s talk big titles. Today’s most played game is the online, free to play MOBA ‘League of Legends,’ and it represents the keystone of mainstream eSports. A five vs. five turret defence and team-based battleground, it has daily players counts in the tens of millions, leagues around the globe and two main international tournaments every year: MSI, and its own home brand World Finals. With seven-figure prize pools and a huge potential for fanbases, viewership and sponsorship, this game has spent the past five years building a brand. League is a global phenomenon in terms of its numbers. It’s a complex, difficult, high skill cap game – perhaps that’s one of the reasons why fans enjoy watching the pros play so well on stage. It’s something to aspire to. There’s also an element of relatability. With playable ranked systems in the game itself, players of the game will know what’s it’s like to compete in a competitive environment – albeit not on a live stage in front of thousands.
There’s also Dota 2, a game from the same genre that, whilst not quite as popular, is still huge in certain regions of the world and distinguishes itself from League in several clear ways. Namely, it’s graphics and colour design, turn speed, champion design and general game ethos. Whilst a MOBA is a MOBA, there’s still variation and these two titles, while popular, are certainly distinct. The beauty of Esports is in its diversity. People had loyalty and vested interests in the games they personally enjoy, and, thanks to the growing scene, there’s usually a competitive scene to go alongside them.
Another current favourite is CS:GO, to some the spiritual successor to Quake, the first person shooter that started it all. A counter-terrorist vs terrorist gun-toting show of skill, teamwork and communication, CS:GO has risen to become the apex FPS in terms of popularity and depth. Whilst Call of Duty and Battlefield exist on some level, neither can truly compete when it comes to numbers.
These are the games people are betting on. These are the games people watch, love and are invested in today. Quite different than their predecessors in many ways, but similar too, and in them all, we see the same drive, competition and heart that traditional sports continue to maintain. But what comes next? What happens in two, three, five years, when the current favourites and big hitters fall out of favour?
A Bright Future – A Digital Sports Genre for a Digital World
Well, not much. Esports will evolve – it always has, it always will. The games that make it to the top aren’t necessarily the games that matter, and there will always be new ones in development. We’ve seen it happen time and time again. The lifeblood of the industry is good competition, and that can take place at any level, on any platform, in any game. Just look at Super Smash Bro’s – it’s still being playing competitively decades after it’s original release. If anything, it’s more popular now than it was back then. Maybe League will do the same, maybe CS:GO will follow in such footsteps, but it doesn’t really matter. Today’s Esports world proves that customers and consumers are hungry for content, and that will exist as long as gaming itself does.
If we want Esports to maintain its current fiscal situation, however, and indeed climb to that predicted $1.5 billion dollar industry estimation, it’s not so simple as to simply rest on the laurels of the present status quo. To maintain the current scale, and for it to continue to grow, Esports must be montenised. More so than it has previously been, more so that may make some people comfortable. It must become a business, in the same way, major league baseball is a business, in the same way, basketball is a business. Sponsorships, revenues and opening Esports up to a wider audience is key. Currently, whether or not the world sees games like CS:GO or League as true ‘sport’ isn’t really important, but it might be in five years. It might be in ten years. It takes convincing to get people investing, and the only way to do that is to be professional, to be a business, and to make shareholders happy. If Esports wants to be a ‘sport,’ it must act like it.
All that being said, the industry does appear to be on the up and up. Developers and owners seem to have the right idea, they have a blueprint to work off (traditional sport) and the evidence that we do have all predicts a bright and fruitful future. Fans shouldn’t worry – not yet, anyway.
It’s a funny thing, gaming. An introverted, focused media experience that takes players from one world to another, from their desktop chair to a battlefield or puzzle or platforming wonder. The stigma and bias that has surrounded it for so long have faded somewhat in recent years, but it’s certainly still there in the minds of many. Perhaps Esports, with big bucks, big names and million dollar tournaments will be the straw that breaks society’s back. Perhaps Esports will, in just a few years time, be up there with the best of them as our world forever continues to digitalise. Only time will tell.