Picture the scene.
It’s approaching game time in a state-of-the-art arena kitted out with the latest camera and microphone equipment. A baying audience some 40,000 strong repeatedly calls the name of their champion as the lights dim and the entrance music begins. Pyrotechnics go off and smoke fills the auditorium as a slight, hoodie-clad figure descends onto the battlefield to cheers from their adoring public. Our gladiator raises a fist to the crowd and... takes their seat behind a computer monitor.
If it sounds like science fiction, we’ve got news for you – the above account could be a description of any number of major international tournaments in the increasingly popular field of eSports. For those unfamiliar with the term, eSports refers to a form of competitive gaming in which both amateur and – increasingly – professional players compete across a range of specifically-designed titles for prizes and respect, with their battles typically being broadcast to an audience of millions.
Now one of the fastest-growing commercial markets worldwide, in this article we’ll take a look at where the phenomenon of eSports first originated and its long and winding path from nerd subculture to mainstream prominence. We’ll consider who eSports are targeted at, what games are available and where players can compete and also how people actually make a living from them.
The Origins Of eSports
From the moment students at Stanford University decided to host a competition on alien combat simulator Spacewar in 1972, the appeal of competitive video game tournaments was there for all to see. Atari cashed in on this fact in 1980 when their Space Invaders Championship attracted 10,000 players across the US, with its huge success establishing competitive gaming as a mainstream hobby.
However, development in the industry was initially limited by the technology available at the time, with competitive gaming being largely limited to travelling console tournaments like the Nintendo World Championships and a spate of video game-related TV shows like GamesMaster and Bad Influence! in the 1990s. Indeed, it wasn’t until the internet became widely available towards the end of the decade that eSports really started to take shape, with many major competitions going online.
The establishment of tournaments like the Cyberathlete Professional League, QuakeCon and the Professional Gamers League certainly proved that the demand was there for a global eSports body, but it was perhaps down to South Korea and the popularity of Blizzard Gaming’s StarCraft and Warcraft series to really show the world just how much potential this emerging industry really had.
During the early 2000s, South Korea led the way for eSports development, with the country setting up the Korean e-Sports Association – a governing body designed to promote and regulate the industry in the country – and starting to televise StarCraft and Warcraft III tournaments on dedicated 24-hour cable TV channels. Though North America and Europe have recently caught up with South Korea in terms of their eSports coverage, the country really was where the boom began.
Calling All Gamers
So now we know the history of how eSports came to be, the question remains – who is it that plays them and where? Well, as we’ve touched on above, South Korea were the true pioneers of eSports, with the mass building of broadband internet networks and the high unemployment rate that followed the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis thought to have contributed to the industry’s popularity.
Given the internet cafe culture in the country and the fact that people now found themselves looking for something to do during the working day, a gaming movement began to emerge and quickly grew to the point where successful players were actually being recognised as “cyber-athletes”. Many of these early eSports adopters went on to become celebrities in the country, receiving annual salaries for their participation while also competing in events for huge prize purses.
As you can imagine, the field of eSports is largely a male-dominated arena, with most competitors falling between the ages of 18 and 34. This is predominantly down to the demographic that has traditionally been targeted by video game software developers and the fact that participants in most eSports leagues and competitions – with the exception of junior events – must be over the age of 18.
Though the rise of online streaming services like Twitch in recent years has certainly brought eSports to a wider global audience – resulting in rapid development in the industry across Europe, China and North America – the fact remains that only around 15% of eSports viewers are female. Nevertheless, a number of prominent female personalities have emerged in the industry in recent years and most are hopeful that their success will inspire more women to take up competitive gaming in the future.
The MOBA Awards
In terms of the games that are featured in eSports competitions, participants now compete across a wide range of titles in a variety of different genres. In the formative years of eSports, fighting games were the arena of choice for competitors due to the technical limitations of the internet at the time, but this has changed over the years to incorporate the rise in popularity of real-time strategy games and – more recently – the proliferation of multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games like DotA 2.
Originally developed as a mod for Warcraft III, Defense of the Ancients (DotA) proved so popular that a standalone game, DotA 2, was released in 2013. Played between two teams of five players online, the game sees competitors work together to destroy a large structure in the opposing team’s based known as an Ancient. With each player controlling a hero who has unique abilities, there are a variety of different play styles that can be adopted, making it a highly sophisticated strategy game.
Since its release, DotA 2 has remained one of the most actively played games on Steam with peaks of over a million concurrent players and has also been praised by critics for its gameplay and production quality. So popular has the game proved in the past three years that it is now the richest eSport in the world, with prize pools totalling millions of dollars competed for around the world – the largest of these being The International, which is hosted annually by the game’s creators, Valve.
Predating DotA 2, League of Legends (LoL) is another widely-played MOBA game that was first developed by Riot Games in 2009. Effectively pioneering the system that was later used in the DotA games, LoL has steadily grown in popularity over the years to the point that two years ago, 67 million people were logging on to play it every month. Riot Games also runs the League Championship Series around the globe each year, with successful LoL teams advancing to the World Championship.
Weapons Of Choice
Outside of MOBAs, first-person shooters like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the Call of Duty series have also proved popular on the eSports circuit, which is hardly surprising given the success of QuakeCon in the years that shaped the industry. Counter-Strike, in particular, has been the catalyst for several significant advances in eSports, with WME/IMG and Turner Broadcasting announcing last year that a televised “ELeague” would be broadcast on the TBS network in response to fan demand.
Perhaps even more importantly, 2015 also saw several professional eSports organisations with Counter-Strike teams band together to form a trade union to protect the rights of their players. Among the list of demands that were sent to promoters hosting major eSports events, the union stated that no team it represented would compete in a Counter-Strike tournament with a total prize pool of less than $75,000, while DotA 2 players would not attend any event worth under $100,000.
Interestingly, Counter-Strike, DotA 2 and several other eSports have proved popular not just as a form of virtual competition, but also as a market for third-party betting, with fantasy sports sites like DraftKings offering markets on LoL. Here, bettors are not participating in the games themselves, but rather betting on the outcome of eSports matches by drafting a team comprised of the players that they think will perform well in any given contest, thus extending eSports to a whole new audience.
Given this relatively recent new market for the promotion of eSports and the industry’s spiralling popularity in general, it looks as though what was once a niche sector contested by hardcore gamers may now be battling its way to mainstream prominence. With richer leagues, better-paid players and greater TV coverage all set to follow in 2016, it seems the geeks really shall inherit the earth.