Game Changer: Fascinating Facts About Esports

Sports | 3/30/20

Traditionally, sports enthusiasts tend to be into a variety of different sports such as basketball, baseball, football, tennis, soccer or anything in between. For many people under 35, though, esports is tops.

The idea of being able to play video games for a living, and also make a huge amount of money doing so, is a dream for many. It hasn’t always been that way. At one point, the games were played for magazine subscriptions. Today, they are played for millions. Read on for a history of and facts about esports.

The First Video Game Tournament Was Held In 1972

First video game tournament
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images
Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images

If you ask several people what the first video game ever was, you will probably get a number of different answers. Some will likely say “Pong,” which was popularized on the Atari system. Others might say “Pac-Man,” which was so popular that a song called “Pac-Man Fever” was released in 1981.

But video games and game tournaments go all the way back to the early 1970s. In 1972, Stanford University students competed against each other in the game “Spacewar.” The prize was a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.

‘Pong’ Ignites The Video Game Industry

Pong arcade
cre8consulting/Twitter
cre8consulting/Twitter

If you showed today’s kids the game “Pong” and told them that people used to play it for hours, they would be shocked. But when it came out, first in arcades, and then at home, the game was downright revolutionary.

The success of “Pong” also showed game makers that the business could be quite lucrative. After “Pong,” a lot more money was put into the research and development of games, helping pave the path to what we see today.

‘Pac-Man’ Has A Long History Of Competition

Visitor Alina Ullrich plays a vintage Pac-Man video game
Adam Berry/Getty Images
Adam Berry/Getty Images

“Pong” may have been a really popular game and helped to launch Atari. But “Pac-Man” was a worldwide phenomenon, especially when it came to the burgeoning arcade business.

Gamers fought to hold to top scores in their local arcades. And the best of the best hoped to achieve a perfect score on the game. There have also been plenty of tournaments associated with the game. One of the largest came in 2007 when the first Pac-Man World Championship was held in New York City.

There Was A Video Game Competition TV Show

Video Game Competition TV Show
Julian Kevin Zakaras/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Julian Kevin Zakaras/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Video games were all the rage in the early 1980s. Whether players liked to consume their games at a local arcade or via a home system, there were millions partaking in the hobby across the United States.

TBS had a televised competition show called Starcade that ran from 1982 to 1984. Contestants would answer trivia questions for the opportunity to rack up a high score in 40-second bursts. The show featured a variety of different games.

There Was An ’80s Movie About Video Game Tournaments

wizard movie
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

During the 1980s, the Sega and Nintendo video game systems fought for supremacy of the market. Nintendo largely came out on top thanks to its better selection of games and endorsements from well-known figures.

In 1989, Nintendo got into the product placement game thanks to the movie, The Wizard. The film featured a trio of characters trying to make their way to Universal Studios Hollywood to compete in Video Armageddon. The film was a bit of a bomb at the time, but has now become a cult classic.

The Blockbuster Games Are A Hit

GettyImages-72577619
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

As video games became more and more popular, they also became very expensive. Players didn’t feel like spending $50 or $60 on a game only to solve it a week or two later. So, they turned to their local video rental stores to get their game fix.

Blockbuster, the 1990s rental giant, helped to promote games and their stores by holding nationwide tournaments in their branches. Players competed in either a 13-year-old and under or 14-and-older age group and had the chance to choose if they wanted to play on a Sega Genesis or an NES system.

Games Like ‘Street Fighter’ Helps Esports Grow

esports competition
Ollie Millington/Getty Images
Ollie Millington/Getty Images

While there have been video game competitions since the early ’70s, they are very different today then they were back then. Games like “Street Fighter” account for many of the differences.

Prior to the fighting game, players in tournaments would attempt to top each other’s high scores. Fighting games allowed the competitors to play directly against one another. The first high profile competition featuring “Street Fighter” was the Evolution Championship Series held in 1996.

There Were Major Events Based Around PC Games

PC Games
ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images
ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

When the non-gamer thinks about esports, they typically consider games that one would play on a Nintendo or PlayStation. But games played on personal computers also figured in large scale competitions, especially in the 1990s and 2000s.

These tournaments were held thanks in part to rapid increases in internet connectivity. Players played games like “Quake” and “World of Warcraft.” Some of the major PC leagues are the Cyberathlete Professional League and the Professional Gamers League.

Esports Boom In South Korea

Esports Boom In South Korea
Timo Verdeil/ESPAT Media via Getty Images
Timo Verdeil/ESPAT Media via Getty Images

One of the earliest hubs for esports was South Korea. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism formed the Korean e-Sports Association in the year 2000. The league was one of the first of its kind.

The country’s interest in gaming formed in an interesting way. A 1997 financial collapse resulted in South Korea rapidly improving their broadband internet networks. Many workers who had become unemployed thanks to the crisis spent their days on consoles becoming better players and soon qualifying for global tournaments.

Major League Gaming Forms In 2002

Major League Gaming Forms In 2002
Marvin Joseph /The Washington Post via Getty Images
Marvin Joseph /The Washington Post via Getty Images

South Korea wasn’t the only country having a boom in esports during the early 2000s. It was becoming quite popular in the United States as well. Many new gaming leagues formed including Major League Gaming, which was created in 2002.

The company has grown quickly, hosting its first national championship in 2004. By 2012, it was hosting two different championships each year. The organization was purchased by gaming giant Activision Blizzard in December of 2015.

Madden Football Tournaments Pop Up On ESPN

GettyImages-56736659
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

A number of esports tournaments have been based around games like “Quake” or “Goldeneye.” But sports games, with their head-to-head play, have also made good fits for some gaming competitions.

ESPN even felt a game like “Madden NFL” could work on television.”Madden” has been produced by Electronic Arts since 1988 and has a particularly rabid fanbase. The show Madden Nation made its NFL debut in 2005 and ran until the end of 2008.

CBS Also Got In On The Action

World Series of Video Games
David J. Becker/Getty Images
David J. Becker/Getty Images

The ESPN network began to air clips of people playing “Madden NFL” football games starting in 2005. While the program only aired for three years, it showed that there was a viable audience for people who wanted to see games played live on air.

CBS got in on the action in 2007 when the network aired the World Series of Video Games. This represented the first time that a major network had aired a video game competition.

The Sport Exploded From 2000 To 2010

The Sport Exploded From 2000 To 2010
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

There have been video game-based tournaments for as long as there have been video games. Whether it was “Pac-Man” contests, Nintendo-sponsored bouts or the “Quake” competitions of the early 2000s, gamers have been facing off.

But once the 21st century began, an improvement in technology made it possible for people to face off while not being together in person. And the number of tournaments began to explode. In 2000 there were 10 competitions. By 2010, that number was 260.

Fatal1ty Becomes The Best U.S. Player

GettyImages-451460253
Denise Truscello/WireImage
Denise Truscello/WireImage

With competitions booming during the 2000s, some gamers started to become household names. A popular American player named Jonathan Wendel, also known as Fatal1ty, burst onto the scene by winning the 2000 CPL Finals at only 19 years of age.

Fatal1ty would go on to win the title again in 2001, 2002 and 2005. He also won the WCG Championship in 2000. Prior to 2013, Wendel had won more money in esports competition than any other gamer.

The Largest Prize Pool Ever Was Given in 2018

The Largest Prize Pool Ever Was Given in 2018
Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic
Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic

Esports had some pretty humble beginnings. The first competition on record was in 1972, when college students tried to get the highest score on “SpaceWars”. As mentioned, the grand prize was a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.

The prizes have gotten significantly bigger since then. In 2018, a tournament was held where gamers competed in DOTA (“Defense of the Ancients”) 2. The winner of that competition, which was held in Vancouver, was awarded a prize purse of $25 million.

Many People Think Faker Is The Best Player Ever

Faker Is The Best Player Ever
Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images
Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images

South Korea was one of the first countries to really embrace esports and thanks to that fact, the area has produced a number of the sport’s best players. Lee Sang-hyeok, known as Faker, is considered not only the best Korean player, but the best overall player of all time.

Beginning his career at only 17 years of age, Faker is a three-time world champion. With his team SKT T1, he took home titles in 2013, 2015 and 2016.

Ninja Is The Sports Biggest Star

Ninja Is The Sports Biggest Star
Eric_Ananmalay / ESPAT Media / Getty Images
Eric_Ananmalay / ESPAT Media / Getty Images

Ninja is not considered the best player in the world of esports. If you asked fans who the best American player was, they may say Fatal1ty or Fear. But Ninja is both the most widely known and the highest-paid player in the sport.

Born Richard Tyler Blevins, Ninja became a professional gamer in 2009 at the age of 18. His real success came from his Twitch feed, which boasts over 14 million followers. Blevins makes an estimated $500,000 a month just from streaming.

There’s Lots Of Money To Be Made

Lots Of Money To Be Made
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

Boxing is the sport right now where players can make the most possible money for one night’s work. The biggest purses, approaching close to $100 million, can set fighters and their families up for life.

The purses for your average esports tournament might not quite go to those extremes, but that doesn’t mean that the competitions aren’t lucrative. The top-earning current pro is Danish player Johan Sundstein, known as N0tail. He earned over $6 million in the last year.

All The Money’s In ‘DOTA’

All The Money's In DOTA
JC Olivera/Getty Images
JC Olivera/Getty Images

There is a lot of money to be made in esports, but that money is spread across a number of different games. Throughout the last decade, the majority of the money to be made has been in the game “Defense of the Arts.”

When you look at the top esports earners over the last year, nearly all of the top gamers have done so by playing “DOTA.” The one exception is U.S. player Kyle ‘Bugha’ Giersdorf, who earns his keep playing “Fortnite.”

Team Liquid Is Tops

Team Liquid Is Tops
Norbert Barczyk/PressFocus/MB Media/Getty Images
Norbert Barczyk/PressFocus/MB Media/Getty Images

Team Liquid, which originated in the Netherlands, is not only the best team in esports, it is also one of the oldest. The squad was formed in 2000 to play the game “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.”

Liquid has diversified since then, branching out all over the game spectrum. The team currently competes in a total of 15 different games. The rosters of each individual team are international and players hail from countries like the Netherlands, the United States, and Brazil.