A brief history of esports and video games

A brief history of esports and video games

Dominic Sacco
6 min read | 6 Dec 2016

Competitive gaming is regarded by some as a relatively new phenomenon, but its roots can be traced back to the 1970s. 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 $1.6bn by 2023, increasing from just $776m in 2018, according to Newzoo data. Esports has around 495m viewers, according to Newzoo data, with this expected to reach 646 million viewers by 2023. 

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 arcade 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 not only revolutionised the first-person shooter, but 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, Optic Gaming, T1 and TSM – were all founded in the 2000s. Tournament providers such as ESL and Dreamhack have 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 more than 115m player accounts.

Looking at their prize pools, the Dota 2 International pool exceeded $34m in 2019, while League of Legends had around $6m.

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

Whilst esports began to take over the world, an influx of new titles came in the late 2010s, such as Rocket League (2015), Overwatch (2016), Fortnite (2017) and Valorant (2020). Each of these games made a big impact and have now become some of the most popular esport titles. The Fortnite World Cup had a $30m prize pool in 2019, with UK players including Wolfiez and Mongraal taking home hundreds of thousands of pounds.

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. 

Like traditional sports, there are challenges in esports, including regulation, funding, match-fixing/cheating, a lack of player diversity at the top level and more.

Esports has also jumped into the realm of education, with more colleges and universities making it part of the curriculum. 2020 saw the beginning of the very first esports BTEC (in partnership with Pearson), and the rollout of more esports-driven courses at the university level too. To find out more about esports in education, check out our esports and education hub.

Throughout the last few years, the esports industry has grown massively and is continuing to flourish. With more coverage across big publications, to being aired on huge networks like ESPN, esports has made its impact and is crossing over into the mainstream.

Keep up to date with British Esports

Why wait? Get the latest resources, articles and opinions direct to your inbox.
So you can say you heard it before your friends.