Esports: From Humble Beginnings To Potential Olympic Sport

Humans love a good competition. The strive to win and be the best is something that defines what humans are. Sports like soccer, baseball, tennis, and so many more shows how competitive we are. Physical sports like these have billions of people watching tournaments, like with FIFA 2014 garnering around 3.4 billion viewers alone. Our competitive nature has also spread to video games, with Esports having hundreds of millions of people watching them. These games have grown so much in popularity that the Olympics have made the controversial decision to consider adding some esports to the Olympics. How has esports gotten to this point, and why?

Atari’s Space Invaders Tournament, 1980

The first ever video game competition recorded dates back to the very early days of video games. In 1972 Stanford University held a small tournament where some students played the game Spacewar for a chance of winning a year’s subscription to the Rolling Stone. Now this was only a fun little event held by Stanford for their students so it’s not super influential in esports history, but it does show how interest in video game competitions were there back then. 8 years later, Atari’s Space Invaders Tournament was the first public electronic sports tournament, having an audience of around 10,000 people. This was really what laid the groundwork for modern esports, as this tournament is when people accepted competitive gaming as a hobby.

In the 1970’s, people were starting to experiment with games being online, using the precursor to the internet called ARPAnet. The game Maze War came out in 1973, and this game is extremely important for future games. It was the first game to use the first-person shooter style walking around a 3d area (yes, before DOOM), while also being one of the earlier examples of online games, allowing play between two peer-to-peer computers, using ARPAnet in later versions (1977). However, this game also was the first to have a form of a spectator mode, which is now an extremely important part of all esports. In the later versions (1974–1977) their “Observer mode” allowed people to watch a game in progress while not directly affecting it in any way.

While some games were starting to gain internet access during the late 70’s and early 80’s, the majority of video games still had no connection with each other. So, nobody knew who really had the highest score in these games, because the leaderboards only tracked the high scores from the people using that specific cabinet. This is what Walter Day decided to find out when he founded Twin Galaxies in 1981. He went to more than 100 arcades to make his own leaderboard, one that truly saw who had the high score. One year later, he publicly released this information in what he called the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard. That’s not all he did, however. He also arranged competitions between top players, while also being the first to form video game “teams” to face off against each other. He also helped promote video games by working with Guinness World Records, while also forming the U.S. Video Game Team, which helped run the Video Game Masters Tournament.

Once the 90’s came around, video game tournaments slowly started to ramp up. The Nintendo World Championships began in 1990, touring around the United States, with the winners getting $10,000 in savings bonds, a car, a TV, and even a gold-painted trophy of Mario. However, the tournament still wasn’t exactly like how tournaments are today, as the finals had each player play 3 different games and get the cumulative high score, so still not completely a versus tournament, but getting there.

However, the 90’s is when some of the series we know of today as esports got started. As a sequel to the not widely popular game Street Fighter (made in 1987), Capcom released Super Street Fighter II: World Warrior in 1991 to monumental success and is widely seen as the game that popularized fighting games. Due to an oversight in its design, some attacks were able to be consecutively inputted to create an unblockable chain of attacks (if the first one hit). This oversight, however, is the reason this game is considered one of the best games of all time and has influenced pretty much every other fighting game past it. The classic games don’t stop there, though, as Blizzard Entertainment’s very own Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, was released in 1994 on MS-DOS (with a Mac version 2 years later) and was one of the earlier RTS’s that allowed for competitive play (locally). While it wasn’t the earliest, it was the definitive game that made most other RTS games have multiplayer in the future. This wasn’t the Blizzard game that most people know of to this day as an esport, however. That title is given to their game released 4 years later named StarCraft. This is the game that many players as one of the most important games for future RTS’s. Next up was one of the most popular FPS’s that many of us still remember, Id software’s Quake. While the game featured a story mode similar to Doom, it also had a multiplayer arena option. Also similar to Doom, sure, but after the Quake World update, online play was implemented into the game. One of the later “releases” in the 90’s is the popular mod to Half-Life named Counter-Strike. This was another early example in online first-person shooter games, and was wildly popular, so much so that Valve (the creator of Half-Life) bought them out to make their own games in the series, which continued on to this day as a popular esport.

During this time these games are the standard ones being played at these tournaments except for Street Fighter, although the Chinatown Fair arcade was the hub of Street Fighter tournaments around this time, but the events just weren’t very publicized. The first tournament for Street Fighter 2 Turbo and Street fighter Alpha 2 took place in 1996 known as Battle by the Bay however but didn’t have that much popularity at the time. Tournaments like the Cyberathlete Professional League, QuakeCon and the Professional Gamers League focused mainly on StarCraft and Quake, with the others becoming more popular in the next few years.

From 2000 to now, Esports experienced an almost exponential growth, so much so that if I tried to summarize it all, it would take hours upon hours to be able to write down all of it. Popular games like Dota, a mod of Warcraft turned full game with the sequel Dota 2, and the sequel to Counter Strike, Counter Strike: Source were all released during this time, including so much more. Esports also started to spread worldwide, with a huge boom in Esports in South Korea due to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, and the founding of the Korean Esports Association in 2000. Plus, South Korea had dedicated TV channels that aired competitions of StarCraft and Warcraft III. Street Fighter started gaining popularity during 2002, with the first tournament of the Evolution Championship Series. This was the renamed Battle by the Bay tournament and has now become one of the most popular tournaments for fighting games, from Street Fighter, to Guilty Gear, to Super Smash Bros. Best of all, 2000 is around the time when players started getting sponsored by companies like Evil Geniuses, Team Liquid, Fnatic, and so much more. Players could now get salaries, have their travel expenses paid, and so on, to the point where people could actually focus on competitive gaming as a full-time job. The 2010’s and onward is where a lot of important strives forward in esports were made, however. The founding of well-known tournaments like Major League Gaming, and The International, the most well-known tournament for Dota 2, and many other smaller tournaments were during this time. Most of all, 2011 was when the online streaming service known as Twitch was created. This platform is where well-known and popular tournaments go to broadcast even to this day. This is when the esports scene started to thrive, with Dota 2’s The International getting millions of views from Twitch alone every season.

And now we have reached the present day, where esports are being considered as a possible Olympic event. While I think the discussion on whether or not they deserve to be an Olympic sport is interesting, first we need to answer the question why it’s able to even be considered.

To get this question out of the way, are esports real sports? Well, yes, but in a different way than sports like soccer or baseball. Many definitions of a sport usually do talk about a physical aspect, but as an example, not a requirement. For example, defines a sport as, “an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature.” While esports don’t require physical prowess (although quick reaction times and fast muscle movements may qualify), they definitely require lots of skill, and is for sure competitive. Esports may not fall under the same category of sport as sports like tennis and football do, but they fall perfectly under the classification of a mind sport. A mind sport is a game of skill where the competition is based on some form of intellectual ability more than physical prowess. These in my opinion are still considered sports, as they are still a competitive game of skill and require the same amount of practice and training as physical sports, just a different kind of training.

Now that you understand how esports are classified, it makes more sense why esports resembles physical sports in many ways. Just like physical sports, most top players in almost every esport is sponsored by competitive teams such as Evil Geniuses, Panda Global, Team Liquid and so much more. These teams are sponsored by companies like Monster energy or Xfinity, just like many physical sports. Not only that, but the events themselves are also sponsored by Alienware or many other gaming accessories, similar to how sports tournaments are usually sponsored by big brands like Coca-Cola or other companies like that.

These are some of the popular esports teams in the Dota 2 scene. However, many teams have players from many different games.

Esports players also have their own personalized equipment, just like physical sports players. The chairs they sit in are extremely important to an esports player, to help avoid injury due to bad back posture. Most importantly however, are their controllers. The keyboards or controllers they use in games is pretty much just like a tennis players racket. They’re used to how it feels, they know where all the buttons are exactly, and it feels wrong using any other remote. Their controllers are basically an extension of the body, similar to how a tennis player’s racket is an extension of theirs.

The training required for esports is just as strenuous as playing physical sports, but more mentally exhausting than physically. Esports teams make their players play hours and hours on end, making it just as strenuous and difficult as any physical sport. According to Greg Fields, a former StarCraft II champion, “When I played in Korea [from 2008 to 2011], the training schedule excluded any activity that wasn’t eating, sleeping and practicing.” And later, he said, “we played for 12 hours a day with one or two days off a month.(source)” Exercises like practicing quick button inputs.

Even though esports are more mental, injuries can and have happened a lot, most notably wrist injuries such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This part of esports is usually forgotten, sadly, leading many players to have problems even after they retire. According to Hai Lam, a popular StarCraft 2 veteran, said that “I can play Xbox games on a controller, or even a little of other games like League or Dota or whatever, but whenever I play even two to three games of SC2, my hands end up killing me that entire week.(source)” Many injuries like this can be devastating for people down the line, and cuts players off from the game they love because of a physical impossibility to play it. The main issue was that for a long time, medical professionals weren’t contracted at events or at headquarters to help esports players, which luckily is changing. Now that physical sports teams are investing in esports, many of them are also giving players access to things like nutritionals, psychologists, trainers, and medical staff that pro athletes receive. (source)

Now that you know of the similarities between esports and physical sports, you can see why esports are even considered as Olympic sports material. Personally, while I think esports are sports, and deserve the recognition and popularity they have now, they don’t qualify for the Olympics due to the fact that mind sports aren’t represented yet. Even though I would have loved the increase in popularity they no doubt would have gotten from this, esports have continued growing and will continue growing as long as that competitive spirit within us continues to define our humanity.