British Esports Association

A brief history of esports and video games

News - 6 Dec 2016

Competitive gaming is regarded by some as a relatively new phenomenon, but its roots can be traced back to the 1980s. We take a look at esports' humble beginnings and how it's grown...

The video games industry has grown to become a multi-billion pound industry in the space of a few decades.

And esports is now carving out its own market within that. It's on track to reach revenues of almost $500m this year, with over 130m esports enthusiasts around the world (according to NewZoo data).

But how did we get here?

Well, if we rewind back a few decades, some of the well-known earliest video games were in fact competitive. Tennis For Two from the '50s and Pong from the early '70s both involved two players hitting a pixelated ball back and forth in order to record a higher score than the opposing player.

Atari's Space Invaders tournament in 1980 was one of the most popular first-recorded competitive gaming events, where players (some 10,000 entrants) attempted to record the highest score. Prior to that, Stanford University held a much smaller tournament for Spacewar back in 1972.

In 1981, gaming world record organisation Twin Galaxies formed and began keeping track of the top players' scores in titles like Donkey Kong and Space Invaders.

But it was during the '90s that gaming would take greater strides. More competitive console games emerged, such as Super Street Fighter II, a classic 2D one-on-one brawler, while PC games like Doom (aside from revolutionising the first-person shooter) allowed users to play together using a local area network (LAN).

Quake and StarCraft also launched, and both would go on to push esports forwards.

In terms of tournaments, the first major Street Fighter tournament took place in 1996 in California. Titled 'Battle by the Bay', this 40-person annual competition would later become EVO which is still going to this day.

Then, in 1997, Quake's Red Annihilation US tournament drew over 2,000 entrants. Dennis "Thresh" Fong won the competition and was awarded developer John Carmack's Ferrari.

Quake 3 Arena later launched, specifically designed for multiplayer combat.

The Cyberathlete Professional League was founded in 1997, and the first few esports professionals started to make a name for themselves, including Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel (pictured), who has reportedly won around half a million dollars in prizes during his esports career.

Fatal1ty went on to sign several sponsorship deals and even fronted his own brand of PC gaming accessories.

In 1999, new shooters Unreal Tournament and Counter-Strike arrived - and the latter would go on to become one of the world's most popular esports games.

In the 2000s, console multiplayer gaming would reach new heights. The introduction of online services such as Xbox Live allowed console gamers to play cooperatively or against one another in games like first-person shooter Halo 2, paving the way for other popular online titles including Call of Duty.

This meant it was much easier for gamers to play with their friends remotely over the internet.


The esports boom years

During the 2000s, games like StarCraft and Counter-Strike increased in popularity. The rise of broadband internet, video content and new online services allowed more gamers to play each other online and stay more connected than ever before.

Some of the biggest and most well-known esports teams of today - including Fnatic, Team Dignitas, Optic Gaming, SK Telecom T1 and TSM - were all founded in the 2000s. Tournament providers such as ESL and events like Dreamhack increased in prominence.

As more sponsors became attracted to esports, prize pools rose, as did the standard of play and the general infrastructure around competitive gaming.

From 2010 onwards, things got even bigger. Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games, which pit two teams of five players against each other, blended strategy and RPG elements together, and became a real hit. Each player controls a single character, who can level up, buy new items to get stronger and work with teammates to defeat the enemy team and destroy their base.

Two of the most popular MOBA games, League of Legends (launched in 2009) and Dota 2 (2011 - though its final finished version arrived in 2013), gained enormous followings. Today League of Legends has some 100m players. Looking at their prize pools, the Dota 2 International pool exceeded $20m this year, while League of Legends has more than $4m.

Other popular esports games, StarCraft II and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO), launched in 2010 and 2012 respectively.

Today, esports is bigger than ever. There are many esports teams, events and organisers, with impressive prize pools and strong online communities and streaming platforms such as Twitch (which allow users to view esports matches and watch their favourite gamers play live over the internet).

But like real sports, there are areas of concern going forwards, including regulation, funding, match-fixing/cheating and more. The next few years may be key to esports' long-term progress, stability and mainstream acceptance.