From small academic halls and simple, casual fun to the biggest arenas of the world and billion dollar business. Esports has come a long way since its beginning. But how did it happen to be so big? Where are the gaming roots? Here is a look at esports history: a path from its humble past to enormous present.

Some may say that esports came out of nowhere and all of a sudden established its own, powerful but still highly prosperous industry. With millions of viewers globally, great impact and influence, sponsorship possibilities or rapidly increasing esports betting market, competitive computer gaming is now one of the kingpins. Nevertheless, the kingpin didn’t appear out of the blue. He’s been here for a good long while, growing up, evolving, waiting for suitable circumstances. And since they happen, now he’s at the top. Let’s zoom into the stops and the key moments leading to this esports pinnacle.

When did esports start?

The first signs of the interaction between programmed, written-in-code machine and human beings were the foundations of the electronic world. The growth of the computer era went hand in hand with the growth of computer games. But when did it start, exactly?

In 1952, the University of Cambridge student Alexander Sandy Douglas created OXO, sometimes framed as the first-ever video game. The concept was kind of easy, Douglas tried to find the interactions between humans and computers, by implementing the game of "Tic-Tac-Toe" into a computer game. He was supposed to write the code for a simple game where a player can compete against the computer. Did he succeed? Although OXO is one of the earliest examples of games displaying visuals on an electronic screen, some point out that the game lacked moving or real-time updating graphics. It’s a propositus of video gaming, not the form itself.

Tennis for Two, the game created in 1958, comes a lot closer to being the first game that allowed two people to interact with the computer and compete with themselves. In other words - the first-ever real multiplayer game. Tennis for Two was invented by Dr. William 'Willy' Higinbotham from Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. what’s the most interesting, the game was a science experiment. Higinbotham just wanted to liven up his workplace with the invention and accidentally he lived up the entire industry. Tennis for Two has been played with something that we could have called today’s joystick. Players used it to hit the ball over the net and alter the course of the ball. The main goal and concept of the game were as simple as possible but the possibilities opened by the invention were probably beyond the imagination of the project's biggest enthusiasts. The game is framed as the first-ever multiplayer video game and so by that, it can be framed as the founding father of esports as well. So let us get it straight. Projected multi billion-dollar industry was created… by the accident. Oh, the irony.

First esports tournament

Each passing decade of the second half of the XX century gave something to the development of esports. With each game released, each innovation process and each player making a name for himself, the gaming industry evolved. But when did the first esports tournament take place? It’s still up to discussion.

Rolling Stone magazine recalls that the first-ever gaming competition went back in October 1972, at the Stanford University campus. Participants of the competition competed in Spacewar!, a multiplayer deathmatch video game developed in 1962. The competition was named simply: “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics” and the main prize of the show was a year-long subscription of the Rolling Stone magazine. The event was held by Stewart Brand, a 33-years-old magazine’s writer and editor who was writing stuff about the potential of computers and upcoming haze that this invention may cause. He was right, of course. Brand reminiscent those days in 2016’s interview with Rolling Stone:

It may seem extraordinary that you can now fill arenas with people who want to watch videogames. But it’s a perfectly reasonable outcome of what you could already see in 1972.

The Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics was eventually won by Bruce Baumgart, then a grad student at Stanford who spent most of his waking hours in the A.I. lab. Baumgart became the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics winner. But was he the first esports champion as well? On his own, small scale, yes. But the bigger things were just meant to come.

Rolling Stone article about Spacewar. Source: Rolling Stone

Competitive video gaming hit the mainstream in the ’80s. In 1980, gaming tycoon Atari held the earliest esports competition on a bigger scale. The Space Invaders Championship attracted wide media coverage and more than 10,000 participants across the United States. This was the moment when the gaming industry was finally in the spotlight, electronic sports left its niche and got into the public’s eye for the first time. It helped video games not only to be something that was talked about. It helped video games to become an ordinary leisure activity. Space Invaders became the game of the year 1980, a gaming phenomenon, sometimes framed as The Beatles of the gaming industry.

The esports haze went hand in hand and took credit for the electronic vibes of the 80’s. The decade marks the momentum in which gaming became the real deal.

The 1980 Space Invaders Championship. Source: Reddit

Esports online. Start of the new era

Another milestone for the esports business was the rise of the internet and an online era. Since players didn’t have to gather around in one place at the same moment, their possibilities became practically limitless. What’s obvious, the number of players drastically grew.

High-speed connections allowed millions of players to compete in various events and tournaments. The time and the place stopped being a real problem.

The internet has opened up our world. The statistics from that time surely open up eyes. According to Nielsen Media, in 1998 more than 58 million users in the United States and Canada were online. The esports finally reached powerful group of people and the gamers themselves started to rise as a full-fledged professionals. The community and social growth are some of the major aspects as well. Due to the internet, players were able to check the games of others, send messages to each other, to create a socially propitious environment for esports growth.

Electronic sports were becoming something larger in its own matter: going the biggest possible and small, private way at the same time. Gamers started to organize LAN parties, competing with your friends in an online multiplayer video game tournaments became even bigger and more often than in the ‘80s.

Hence, big tournaments sprung up like mushrooms. The second one was bigger and bigger than the last one. The decade has been started in some style. 1990 Nintendo World Championship got understandable and expectable hype, with finals being held at Universal Studios Hollywood. No wonder, the tournament contained rivalry in the company’s three all-timers: Super Mario Bros., Rad Racer, and Tetris. The natural continuity of that hype was Nintendo PowerFest '94 with the finals in San Diego. Blockbuster Video, a video rental shop company, organized a competitive tournament called World Game Championships in the early ‘90s. The competition was real, not only between the players themselves but between organizers as well.

Hundreds of video classic games from different genres, like Doom, Quake, Starcraft, Warcraft, Counter-Strike, Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat popped up and cranked up the esports haze in some style. The tournament organized in one of those games became an instant classic, an iconic event of the gaming industry.

Quake’s Red Annihilation tournament in 1997 gathered around 2000 participants online, with 16 finalists that flew to finals in Atlanta. The prize of $15K was mesmerizing at those times, as was the interest of the event and the phenomenon that esports turned into. Dennis “Thresh” Fong, the winner of Red Annihilation, was called “the Michael Jordan of gaming” and the Original Pro Gamer. Fong's example showed the expanding potential of electronic sports in both fame and financial manner. He received five thousand dollars for conquering and defeating all competitors in Red Annihilation but it wasn’t the money that got into the spotlight. Id Software’s founder and Quake’s lead programmer John Carmack gave away one of his two Ferrari Testarossas for the winner of the tournament. Fong later reminiscent that:

A lot of people say that me winning that Ferrari in 1997 put esports on the map.

Famous photo of Carmack together with “Thresh” probably made a lot of people asked themselseves is esports a sport. The glory, the esteem and the glamour associated thus fur with upper-crust, Hollywood celebrities or sports stars were suddenly at gamer’s fingerprints. The only three things they needed was a talent, determination and enormous load of hard work. So near and yet so far.

Biggest esports tournaments

Although the creation of bigger leagues, events and gaming communities in the form of clans dates back in the 1990s, electronic sports went global at the beginning of the XXI century. And we mean global in every sense of this word.

First World Cyber Games (WCG) were held in South Korea’s Seoul in 2000 with a $20K prize pool. Electronic Sports World Cup took place three years later and made another landmark in esports history. A total of 358 players from 37 different countries attended organized in France Grand Finals with €156K total prize.

Esports tournament with one million dollars in the prize pool was next in line. In 2005, CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League) World Tour Finals in New York City hit the historical point. One million dollars prize pool was partly sponsored by Intel, the winner of the tour was Dutchman Sander "Vo0" Kaasjager, who earned prize money of $250K. The story of esports as market’s supremo went in a smooth and pretty spectacular way. With each year, the money was greater, so was the viewership and global awareness of this activity.

The esports market changed throughout the years. Each year saw the introduction of the titles and events that influenced the esports world. The rise that we still see up to this day was constant and practically the XXI century is marked by the esports haze.

Fortnite World Cup, League of Legends World Championship also known as Worlds, Dota 2 The International, The Overwatch League - the biggest tournaments of the year 2019, with its counted-in-dozens-of-million-dollars prize pools, only show that esports came a long way. With growing popularity of esports tournaments we observe a huge interest in esports betting. That's only the tip of the iceberg. If you're interested, read our another addition to the biggest tournaments in esports.

Conclusion

For about seven decades of its existence, esports happened to be something unreal, especially for its creators. From niche of niches to the purest mainstream and entertainment. From projects at the Universities to quickest expanding businesses and tremendous gaming future. From Rolling Stone magazine subscription to $30M prize pool at The International 2019.

It’s pretty amazing how long way the esports has come. The world phenomenon looks way different now than in its starting days. It’s also amazing how the growth of gaming symbolizes the electronic revolution and digitalization of our civilization. And what's the most amazing is that this phenomenon couldn't have existed. What could have happened if not for some New York doctor and his small science project? All the best things in life happen by accident. Esports is surely one of them.

If you're interested in esports but somehow don't know how to make your first steps in this matter, we're here to help with esports beginners guide. If you want to go one step further and try to bet on esports, get to know our esports betting tips.