How the Early Days of Esports Shaped Its Future (Part 2 of 2)
Taking off where we left last time we’ve discussed esports history, we continue to explore the development of gaming as a legit sport discipline and the meanders it had to go through to crystalize the rules it should follow to develop further.
All Quiet On The Western Front
With a light heart, we can call the early 2000s the dark age of the Western eSport. It took some time for the local LAN gaming circles to turn nationwide. While the Korean esport culture rolled with the boom, the social and infrastructural factors that allowed it to develop there were simply lacking in other parts of the world. It needed to wait for the widespread use of broadband internet in the US and Europe to allow both massive multiplayer to flourish and live streaming to develop.
The International Esports Federation has been found in 2008 by several Asian and European countries, yet it took five more years for the organization to hit several milestones — being included into an Olympic event as an electronic sports representative, receiving a signatory from World Anti-Doping Agency and hosting the first event beyond the borders of South Korea.
While the early esport was front-guarded by real-time strategies and FIFA games, and first-person shooters like Counter-Strike were still running up, the Warcraft 3’s modding community provided a cornerstone for a new type of gameplay. An arena battle map called Defence Of The Ancients (DotA for short) has brought the Starcraft’s Aeon Of Strife into the fantasy realm and sprung numerous standalone imitators, the most successful of which proved to be League Of Legends released in 2009.
Two years later the first worldwide LoL competition has been held, providing the winning team $50k price and garnering the overall audience of 1.7 million viewers. At that point, esports was a force to be reckoned with.
There’s no rose without thorns, and when big money is at stake, it comes as no surprise that a scandal erupts. If esports strived to become a “legitimate” form of sports, it had to encompass subsidiaries like betting and further tackle issues like betting’s influence on the competitiveness itself.
2014 saw what’s considered to be the biggest scandal in the growing industry, where CS:GO team iBUYPOWER bet against themselves (oh, the irony) in a match against NetCodeGuides during CEVO Professional League’ Season 5. A brief journalist investigation had surfaced the evidence for match-fixing, which resulted in rainfall of “indefinite” banhammers from sports organizations and the game’s developer itself.
The same journalist that has brought the matter to the light, Richard Lewis, has openly confronted Valve to provide closures to the penalised players by either admitting the ban is for life or restating the indefiniteness. The same day bans were rephrased to mean only a competition ban in the organization. In subsequent years, ESL and Dreamhack lifted the bans on ex-IBP players that hoisted new colors, however, teams are still reluctant to sign the players since they cannot compete on CS:GO’s grandest, Valve-sponsored stage.
The scandal has stimulated a discussion on the ethics and regulations that actually lasts till this very day.
It would be criminal not to mention the influence of the streaming giant on the widespread of esport watchability. Twitch, born as the little brother to the Justin.tv internet reality shows, has soon devoured its siblings' workforce as millions and millions of users discovered the joy of streaming.
The launch of Twitch has been greatly helped by the spread of broadband mentioned before, as when it dropped in 2011, every other person’s budget laptop had a webcam capable of streaming their face worldwide while simultaneously broadcasting the game they’re playing. It took the big-biz three years to catch wind and Amazon acquired the whole company in 2014 for the round sum of $1 billion.
Gaining both organic popularity and having the financial giant behind its back, it was a matter of time for Twitch to dominate the realm of game streaming with the Google/Youtube conglomerate being miserably late to the party.
Especially now, with the limitations of a widespread disease, esport tournaments like cs_summit have gone full Twitch and stream all matches, commentaries, discussions, and reruns using the said platform.
While treating esports as sports is a matter of cultural development, surely the organization structure behind it helps to cement that approach. Professional organizations with training centers have sprung since the early days (the aforementioned CEVO was founded as early as 2003) before the game competitions went global.
Alas, the fragmentation of esports field caused by the uniqueness of both the vibe and the playstyle of games requires each of them to await the conflux of developers, players, audience, and advertisers to formulate their own ecosystem.
What can be easily treated as grounding a player’s status in the continued example of CSGO is founding of Counter-Strike Professional Players’ Association (CSPPA) in 2018, having digital players assisted by people experienced in the field of traditional sport to ensure proper treatment of esport athletes.
Nevertheless, now in 2020 it still struggles with the disbalance of priorities brilliantly noted by Katherine E. Hollist in her 2015 analysis of the lack of suitable universal regulations of both the fair play and the esports athlete-related labor laws.
A Bright Future
The dawn of the pandemic has shown that esport, although being organized on the same canvas as the traditional sports, is not reliant on the big-time events and traditional logistics and might as well keep up its pace and entertainment value in the digital environment it grew from.
With the incapability of hosting expo-scale live competitions, it has smoothly moved into the streaming services, losing a part of its festive appeal, but surely not losing popularity, and even more so gaining a casual audience that otherwise wouldn’t care for an off-shore event.
While nearly one in fourteen people on this planet watching some kind of esport event and the industry itself is topping $1.1 billion in revenue this year, one can hope that the diversity of games and the need for common ground in understanding the ruleset behind each and every subscene will not impede the development of digital disciplines.