The History of eSports

eSports Academy Course 102

We’ve already learned about the nature of eSports and seen how much some of its best players make, but we haven’t exactly covered the history of how it all came to be. Granted, the world of competitive gaming has had a very fast rise—just think about ten years ago and how much smaller it all was. The most I can think of were the Super Smash Bros. Melee competitions, but those were very niche.

So, let’s start from the beginning. Don’t worry, we won’t be wrestling with the electrical mechanics of all the different circuits and systems; the physics of video games can wait.

History of Video Games

Video games were once known simply as “interactive visual games” and before then just “electronic games.” Remember how computers used to be giant like this?

Pic 1 History of eSports


The ancestor of our video games was not very different. Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the creation of the first electronic game the public ever saw. Bertie the Brain it was called and it was an arcade game of tic-tac-toe, designed and built by Josef Kates for the 1950 Canadian National Exhibition.

Video games are, of course, a degree beyond that because, as the name states, they use video whereas the first game just used lights (and was four meters tall: 12ft). In spite of that, it’s important to respect the roots. I mean, if that tic-tac-toe machine was ignored, I might not be here writing this and you reading it.

First Games and Consoles

Through the 50s and 60s, more interactive visual games were developed alongside computers for the specific purposes of testing their capabilities with various functions. These, ‘games’ weren’t for commercial or entertainment use, they were the special toys of the engineers and computer programmers.

That changed in 1971 when Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney and manufacturer Nutting Associates (yes, that was the real name) released Computer Space, the first coin-operated video game to be commercially sold and the very first broadly available video game. Period.

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I’d play Nutting Associates’ game, too. From there, Bushnell and Dabney went on to found Atari, Inc. and the next year, Pong was released. Pong was a smashing success. Here is where we can actually thank the scams and pirates for their work in producing off-brand versions of Pong and popularizing the medium.

Initial Reaction

Ever felt a little envious that scientists and manufacturers get to play with all the coolest toys? That might have been how many felt about the earlier ‘games’ that were passed around by technicians as computer engineering evolved.

Some of the early games were basically training tools, such as the Socratic System, designed to train medical students to diagnose patients. Games were educational technology. Then, arcades began buying the newer ones. Interactive visual games, if you really think about it, appeal to us on a very deep level—our brains are geared around our eyesight and our brains love visual stimulation.

If you’ve ever walked into an arcade or a Dave & Buster’s, then you know the feeling of your brain gorging on all the bright and flashing lights and unique sounds. It felt great just to interact with such a device, just as it does today. And from this early stage of the History of video games, the industry started to grow.

Early Multiplayer Games

Many early games were programmed to be capable of co-operative (co-op) play. These included Pong (1972) and Astro Race (1973). However, in most cases, it was a turn-based multiplayer; one person would play, then the other person would try to beat the score of the first.

Turn-based games such as those would make eSports unbearably boring to watch and throw the marketing (commercial) value down the drain. But, the multiplayer branch of video games was prolific from early on in the race.

First Games and Consoles

In 1973, the PLATO system was created. It featured the first real-time multi-user games like Empire and Spasim. More than ten years later, Gauntlet (1985) and Quartet (1986) changed the game by making larger consoles that allowed for four sets of controls. Here we see the birth of four-player co-op games.

Once again, the institutions got to play with the latest goodies. The University of New Hampshire constructed a super-computer that had “hundreds” of terminals that students, professors, and staff could access. It featured games like STAR, OCEAN, and CAVE.

Then came the magic of networking. One of the prominent games capable of networking was released in 1986 for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga consoles, Flight Simulator II. It allowed two players to connect via modem or serial cable and fly together in a shared environment.

The next important step in the progression of multiplayer games came with the release of MIDI Maze (1987) also for the Atari ST. It made networking through Ethernet and Internet common among the industry. It also was later ported in 1991 to a number of platforms including Game Boy and Super NES, making it one of the original handheld, multi-platform first-person shooters.

Initial Reaction

Things were catching more attention in the video game industry. There was a 1980 BYTE article that noted the three factors that make networked video games appealing. First, it’s multiple humans competing with each other instead of a programmed AI. Second, incomplete information (the fact that you don’t know the thoughts of your opponent) results in suspense and risk-taking. Finally, real-time play requires quick reaction and thus attention is held.

And while it was exciting to be able to play against your friends over the internet, not rubbing shoulders with them in a sweaty arcade, the very nature of the connection has problems. Latency, for one, was an issue involving the delay of communication across the network.

Local Area Network (LAN) games were able to dodge this issue, but some of the more advanced multiplayer games could not. But if there was any whining about the lag or “ping,” then those complaints are lost in the past.

Early Competitive Multiplayer Video Games

What if I told you that the very first actual video game competition happened back at Stanford in 1972? The event, “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics” had 24 students compete to win a year subscription to the “Rolling Stone” magazine, who reported the event.

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Credit: Wikipedia

The next event of that kind happened in 1980—it was the Space Invaders Championship, held by Atari. The event attracted thousands of participants, thousands! Bill Heineman walked away as the sole victor and congratulations to him.

But we all share that victory with him because that event told the world that competitive gaming was something of interest. Check out our other articles to see just how big it is today.

First Games and Consoles

Okay, so we’ve heard about the Space Invaders championship and the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics, but what else was there between the 80s and now?

For the first three years of the 90s, we saw the release of the Super NES, Neo Geo, and Game Boy consoles. The Game Boy became the most popular series of handheld gaming systems throughout the entire decade. We also saw a war break out between Nintendo and Sega, which was as beneficial for the industry as real war was for the economy.

Then, the groundbreaking ‘third dimension’ was unlocked. Pixels became polygons. The ultra-nostalgic Nintendo 64 (1996), PlayStation (1994), and Sega Saturn (1994) were the pioneers of 3D in video games. The world of visual entertainment suddenly became so much more immersive. Not to mention that there was a steady transition from cartridges to compact discs (CDs), with the Nintendo 64 being one of the last cartridge-based systems to be mass-produced.

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Credit: Wikipedia

Controllers became a thing. Real handheld controllers with buttons and analog sticks that became vital to the growing genre of fighting games. Back in 1991, Street Fighter II was released with its innovational tracking of buttons and joysticks. That game became so outstandingly popular that arcade owners scrambled to keep up with the demand.

In fighting games, we also got Sega’s Virtua Fighter, the first of its kind to have 3D polygon graphics and a mobile viewpoint. Other notable games in this genre were Dead or Alive, Mortal Kombat, and Soul Edge.

And, of course, I have to mention that the 1997 release of Goldeneye 007 made the idea of first-person shooters playable on home consoles a reality. It was released in what many nostalgically call ‘the Golden Age’ of video games—the late 90s were graced with Quake, Quake II, Unreal, and Half-Life.

We also saw the sprouting of other genres of gaming: 3D platformers, survival horror, stealth. There were also advancements in role-playing games such as the popular and enduring Final Fantasy franchise which began all the way back in 1987. But these were not competitive.

Event Types

In 1997, a tournament, Red Annihilation, was held for the game Quake that also hosted over one thousand participants. The prize? The lead developer, John Carmack’s Ferrari 328 GTS. It was held in a particular way that might seem strange in comparison to today’s competitions. Red Annihilation was held on the company Mpath’s MPlayer network with players across the United States competing online in one-on-one matches.

Then, the top finalists were flown to the World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia. NBC’s Today and The Wall Street Journal both covered the final morning of the tournament from the show floor—the stage where they played. This type of coverage was very instrumental in the exposure of competitive gaming, as at the time E3 was barely anything.

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Credit: Wikipedia

A larger event paved the way for touring competitions. The Nintendo World Championships visited 29 cities across the United States, with the finals at Universal Studios Hollywood (where Shrek 4-D is now). This event had three distinct age groups: 11 and below, 12-17, and 18 and above. The participants would play for three days and then compete for the title of City Champion.

At the finals in Los Angeles, the competitors played a special cartridge for the NES that had three customized mini-games inspired by Super Mario Bros., Rad Racer, and Tetris. The goal was to achieve a high score according to a custom cumulative formula across all games within a time limit of 6 minutes and 21 seconds. Don’t ask me how they came up with that number.

The Sprouting Business of Video Games

By the end of what some call ‘the Golden Age’ of video games, it was clear that there was a market for electronic games. We might not all agree that the late 90s were the prime years of the industry, but we can’t deny that some of the most successful franchises had their start then. Sonic Adventure sold 2.5 million units, it was the best selling Dreamcast game. Sonic has since become an icon across the globe, and if the business potential was not truly there for that hedgehog, then they wouldn’t have funded a movie about him.

With other intellectual properties (IPs) like Pokémon joining the fray, we saw the business of video games expand from just electronic games to trading cards and even television shows.

And with rivalries like Nintendo and Sega still in effect, this period was fantastic for the consumers. They were regularly getting the newest technology through a slew of high-quality games, many of which still have a deep place in the hearts of millennials.

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Credit: Wikipedia

Sponsorships were small and events were gradually becoming more popular. The business of video games was holding on to the coat-tails of the computer industry; as computer programming became more advanced, so too did video games.

The 1990s came to an end with the world-crowd murmuring about brands and IPs, but it was an overstep to believe that competitive gaming would inflate to what it is now.

Modern eSports

The arrival of the Internet was all it took to accelerate the growth of video games and, more importantly, the business of video games. Organizations like the World Cyber Games (WCG), Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC), Major League Gaming (MLG), and many more began to establish themselves internationally.
Even Australia has been able to effortlessly join in thanks to the internet. Australia Cyber League (ACL) would affiliate with MLG to host some major tournaments for games like Call of Duty, Halo, StarCraft 2, and League of Legends.

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Credit: Wikipedia

MLG was the first to hold a major tournament on television in North America in 2006—the game was Halo 2—but failed to secure a huge audience. So many leagues have appeared and countless games have been developed that people thirty years ago would not have ever expected. We’ve come far.

Games and Consoles

These consoles are what I grew up on: the Nintendo Gamecube, the Nintendo DS/DSi, and the Xbox 360. Those were pivotal points in both Microsoft and Nintendo’s career in the industry and not only because they were proof that video games were evolving much more quickly. The PlayStation 2 released at the dawn of the millennium, and later we saw the groundbreaking release of the Nintendo Wii.

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Credit: Wikipedia

The global response to this: Wii would like to play it all. The younger generations stuck to the progressing video game consoles like glue, almost completely unaware of the journey it took to the level of technology that we have today.

And it all started out well—we were blessed with the beginning of franchises such as Halo, Call of Duty, Need for Speed, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, and so many more.

We got great games from existing franchises such as Mortal Kombat, Pokémon, Super Smash Bros., Super Mario Bros., Kirby, Sonic, Tekken, Dead or Alive, and so many more.

Then the PlayStation 3 came out, then the Xbox One came out, then the PlayStation 4 came out. All the while, Nintendo had been pumping out new consoles like mad. The early years of the 21st century were excellent for us, and although a good deal of our beloved franchises have crashed and burned and more seem to be on the same path, in exchange we have received among many other things virtual reality.

From programming to playing, video games have really fleshed out.

Event Types

Competitions and tournaments at the less professional levels continued to happen online, but the eSports events were now collecting arenas and venues for live competitions. We’ve also seen a substantial increase in popularity with the addition of streaming. Live streaming defines this era of video games; the most recent step forward in the potentially endless evolution of video games has been the ability and demand to stream play live.

So, if a person can’t make it to the LoL World Championship one year, they can log in to or some other streaming site and watch from anywhere. Streaming eliminates the need for leagues to pay for their events to be televised because streaming guarantees that the events will be put on more screens than on television.

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Credit: Wikipedia

Although there is a myriad of genres, eSports tends to conduct itself in the same way across the board. Put together the best LAN configuration possible, then hook up all of the players of both teams. Angle a few cameras, hire a few commentators, and there you go.

Moreover, on January 7, 2015, eSports was declared to be in the category of 2nd degree Olympic Sports. It’s in the same category as chess, polo, and automobile racing to name a few.

It’s not hard to see that eSports has matured a ton in less than twenty years. Each year, it accrues more passionate players. There’s no telling how big this will become.

Business and Betting

We’ve seen how much some of the best players make, and that payout is only possible due to how solid eSports is as a business. There are so many IPs that pull in revenue just on their own, so many stable foundations for video game manufacturers to work off of.

It’s incredible! Today, sponsorships are usual. As I said before, the content of events and competitions is so accessible that marketers have a great soapbox to stand on and advertise their brands. Fortnite was the zeitgeist for a time, it was a huge part of gaining the spotlight for the industry. On top of the ridiculous amount of money it made, Fortnite introduced millions of younger kids into the world of video games.

Now that the industry of video games has matured, new elements will be brought in. The biggest example is betting. Electronic sports has proved its power to earn revenue, why not expand the pool of people who can earn from it?

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Credit: Wikipedia

These games that are the heads of the eSports leagues have been around for long enough that passionate fans, skilled spectators, and perceptive observers can watch for certain plays or statistics to predict a player or team’s success.

Many games have found that they can score insane amounts of money through micro-transactions and randomized-loot. People don’t seem to be shying away from the games that do have this feature, some even going so far as to bet on what they’ll win. There was a scandal some time ago where a website rigged a weapon-skin lottery for CS:GO that milked many naive young players dry. That’s not what we’re about.

It’s important to confirm that betting is legal in your area. If it isn’t, no worries; you don’t have long to wait. The monetary value of eSports is so readily apparent, I don’t think it’ll be a while before organized betting is legalized and established. And not just the United States. Betting might become the next craze over video games, and when it does, you’ll find all you need to know and more here on Lineups.

1950: First electronic game, Bertie the Brain, presented at Canadian National Exhibition
1971: Computer Space, first real video game, released
1972: Pong released; Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics, first actual video game competition, held at Stanford
1973: PLATO system created
1980: Space Invaders Championship
1986: Flight Simulator II released
1987: MIDI Maze released; Final Fantasy I released
1990-93: Super NES, Neo Geo, and Game Boy released; rivalry pits Nintendo and Sega against each other; Street Fighter II released; Nintendo World Championships
1994: Playstation and Sega Saturn released
1995: Mortal Kombat released (a movie, too)
1996: Nintendo 64 released
1997-99: Goldeneye 007 released; Red Annihilation tournament; Sonic Adventure, Quake, Unreal, Half-Life, and Quake II released
2000: PlayStation 2 released
2006: Nintendo Wii released; MLG hosts first major televised tournament in North America
2015: eSports declared 2nd-degree Olympic sport

I'm a Creative Writing-Psychology double major at Butler University, Class of 2021. My closest friends are the leaders of Butler's eSports Team, so I've become very interested in the subject and I'm excited to get involved in it myself. A lover of video games and writing, working with Lineups is the perfect opportunity for me to coalesce these two passions of mine and gain experience writing professionally.

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