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What Is eSports And When Did It Start?

Photograph of the blog post author, Tom Steel

Tom Steel


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Esports have become a popular and lucrative part of the gaming industry. This has occurred over the past few years and it doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon. But, what is eSports and when did it start? 

what is esports with crowd

In this article, we will have a look at all of that and more, including what the most popular games within eSports are and what makes them so great.

Stay tuned for everything you need to know!

What Is eSports?

gamer playing pc at esports event

Electronic Sports (eSports for short) is the collective term given to competitive video gaming. It’s an appropriate term, as in most cases, eSports tournaments have a certain spectacle surrounding them. There are many cheering supporters either at live events or watching online.

Also, like with any sports event, there’s usually a grand cash prize and trophy. 

When Did eSports Start? 

esports space invaders tournament with gamers

Specific dates for when eSports truly started could be argued over all day long.

However, there was a game that emerged in the ‘60s that was certainly one of the first to generate competition and tournaments. This game was known as Spacewar. 

As gaming technology gradually progressed and improved, so did the competitive gaming community grow with it. Let’s dive in a bit deeper.

Esports In The 1970s

atari football 1978 graphics

In 1972, more than 24 players were invited to compete in a tournament, or ‘Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics’ as they called it, at Stanford University. The main prize was a subscription to Rolling Stones magazine. There were free-for-all and team aspects within this with winners being declared for both.

While Arcade consoles also emerged around this time, most competition with games around this time was focused mainly on achieving high scores. There were no real multiplayer options for competitive gaming. 

As the years rolled on and neared the 80s, Atari’s football game became huge following this surge. They hosted arguably the first international eSports tournament in 1978. In fact, Atari’s Football would go on to be the second-highest-earning arcade game in 1979 in the United States. This fell just behind Space Invaders.

Esports In The 1980s

space invaders competition esports with gamers

Further proof of Space Invaders’ popularity at the time, the Space Invaders Championships in 1980 ended up attracting over 10,000 contestants.

1982 Germany saw Armin Stürmer found the Atari VCS Bundesliga, essentially a tournament pitting clubs against each other in a variety of games with limited rounds and set rules.

However, it was somewhat short-lived and only lasted for 3 years. Nevertheless, it certainly played a part in installing competitive brackets and leagues within the gaming community.

Esports In The 1990s

CPL esports league logo

The 90s brought in a new era of gaming, primarily through Nintendo and all their new ideas and games. They organized the Nintendo World Championships in the US in 1990, with different locations and age groups. Finalists would win a trophy, a cash prize, and a trip for two to the World Finals with runners-up receiving consoles. 

The 90s also brought with it the emergence of the internet. This would gradually see online competitive gaming become possible and then evolve further. Soon enough there were so many different types of gaming genres that were properly formed. These ranged from racing games to FPS games (First-Person Shooters).

1997 saw the Red Annihilation tournament being held for ‘Quake’, which drew around 2000 entrants. It is widely considered as another vital pin in the evolution of the eSports timeline. Some regard it as the first true eSports event.

The winner won a Ferrari as the grand prize, furthering the gravitas and value of playing and winning these tournaments. Who wouldn’t want to try and play games competitively for a chance at winning prizes like this?

Shortly after this, the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) was introduced. With it, higher-valued monetary prizes began to be introduced. One of CPL’s tournaments the following year offered a $15,000 prize pool for the winner.

In The 2000s

esports gamer playing on computer 2000s

Moving into the new millennium, we saw more major international tournaments emerge. The World Cyber Games, Electronic Sports World Cup, and Major League Gaming (MLG) were among the most prominent. MLG most notably is still the largest and most lucrative of eSports leagues to this day.

Everything from then just continued to progress, with new games emerging and new leagues being formed. This is until we finally get to 2011 and the time of the streaming services. This is arguably the start of the current generation of eSports and competitive gaming.

Twitch launched in 2011 but in 2013, viewers accumulated 12 billion minutes of video-watching. League of Legends and Dota 2 were the most popular games on the platform at this point.

What Makes A Game An eSport? 

rocket league what a save

Essentially, any video game that can be played competitively in a tournament format for some kind of cash prize is technically considered an eSport. Obviously, getting and maintaining popularity and success is a completely different challenge in itself for these games.

There are various types of games that have eSports tournaments running today. For example, events for first-person shooters (FPS) like Apex Legends and Call Of Duty. There are also multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games like League Of Legends and Dota 2. Fighter games like Super Smash Bros exist in the eSports realm. Additionally, sports games like NBA and Rocket League are very popular eSports.

league of legends championship series logo esports

What exactly is it that makes an eSports game popular? You can start off that answer by thinking about what makes a game popular in general. This includes the core aspects, graphics, and playability.

In most cases nowadays, its social and multiplayer capabilities are detrimental to the success of a game. These all have to be high quality, or at least have one aspect overachieve and compensate for another that is lacking. This is essential before a game can truly take off globally. 

Now that the stage is set, we can look at what makes a game popular within eSports. As proven by all the popular eSports games over the years, the industry has grown immensely. There needs to be a clear goal and a way to distinguish the level of quality within a competitive environment in order for a game to be considered a top eSports game.

The most notable examples include Fortnite – where it is as simple as eliminating all other players or teams depending on game mode. Also, games like Dota 2 and League Of Legends (LoL) are where teams must complete objectives before being able to defeat the opposing team.

Finally, games like Counter-Strike Global Offensive (CS:GO) with the 5-vs-5 modes and attempting to eliminate all of your enemies.


Counter strike csgo logo at esports

Counter-Strike has existed since 2000, making it the oldest game within eSports to still be performing at a high level and maintaining its popularity. It is the second-most played game on PC, behind League of Legends.

There is no doubt it was a significant point of inspiration for Valorant, which has burst onto the scene in the past year or so. 

Its yearly prize pool seems to be around $20 million and with viewership up over 200% in 2020. It has certainly been revitalized and reignited as a favorite among gamers.


optic gaming 2011 cod xp winners

Total cumulative prize pool and average to peak viewership are numbers to look at when considering which games are the most successful and popular. However, in terms of popularity, a game’s peak viewership is the best gauge of this.

An annual prize pool could just suggest that more money was put into the game and subsequent eSports events surrounding it. This doesn’t necessarily correlate with how successful and popular the game is within eSports. 

From figures taken during 2020, Dota 2 had a cumulative prize pool of over $35 million, more than any other game at the time, but its average viewership left it the 4th most viewed eSports game for the year.

What Is The Most Watched eSport? 

fortnite gaming at esports event

According to these statistics, League of Legends and Fortnite were the frontrunners in terms of viewership. With LoL getting an average viewership of 250,000 and 3.9 million at peak and Fortnite averaging 200,000 and 2.3 million at peak. Fortnite is arguably this high due to the Fortnite World Cup in 2019, which no doubt attracted and kept new people interested in the game’s eSports community and competitions. 

Fortnite and LoL are more accessible games to the masses with their free-to-play nature and fairly simple premise, albeit with LoL having paid premium content within its online.

This suggests that people may be more likely to have tried playing these games themselves. This generates more interest in watching the professionals at work, as an alternative. Incidentally, LoL is the most played game on PC, registering over 100 million active players back in 2020. 

League Of Legends World Championship 2020

league of legends winners 2020 with trophy

The League of Legends World Championship 2020 was the most-watched eSports tournament of all time, according to viewership statistics from eSports Charts. This record-breaking tournament beat the Fortnite World Cup from 2019.

The most-viewed match of the tournament between Suning and DAMWON Gaming. This game saw nearly 4 million viewers tune in at its peak, and that wasn’t even the most viewers that a LoL match had ever drawn. 

It is truly staggering how many people watch eSports now, with numbers rivaling and even sometimes surpassing big sporting events like the Superbowl.

Who Watches eSports?

esports crowd at event

Looking at who makes up this audience overall, over 50% of the global eSports audience comes from the Asia-Pacific region. With a lot of competitors also coming from this region, this isn’t too much of a surprise.

Esports has also grown to now have more than 30 percent of today’s audience being women. With more and more people from different genders and backgrounds becoming involved in the industry, this allows for more role models to inspire the next generation.

What Is The Future Of eSports? 

man vr gaming at esports event

The fact that the eSports industry has been continuing its unprecedented climb and growth throughout the current pandemic era speaks volumes to how bright the future looks for eSports. According to Newzoo, eSports had a global audience of almost 500 million in 2020. This denotes an annual growth rate of around 10% suggesting that viewership could reach and even eclipse 650 million by 2023. 

The past year or so has reaffirmed people’s love for online content, with streamers and broadcasted competitions keeping the world entertained throughout trying times. Naturally, online viewership has drastically shot up during this time. This perhaps might lead some to doubt that this level of growth could be maintained going forward. 

The re-opening of live eSports events, and allowing fans to attend once again, would only help to counter this uncertainty, however. The sky could well be the limit for eSports. 

The future isn’t always certain in terms of what games will dominate and succeed within eSports in the years to come. There is always the possibility of new games rising up and becoming elites within eSports. 5 years ago, we didn’t have Fortnite or the newly emerging Valorant, so there is nothing to say new games will take up the mantle.

That Was Our Guide To eSports

celebrating at esports event with crowd

With everything covered in this article, you should now know everything you need to know about eSports! We’ve covered everything from its history, rise to popularity, and where it could be heading in the future. 

Be sure to keep an eye on eSports, as it will undoubtedly continue to grow and take over the gaming industry. So what are you waiting for? Jump online with your pals and get training for that next competition! The top prize could be well within your grasp. 

If you liked this article, why not check out another on our blog? We recommend, Game Designer Guide: How To Become A Video Game Designer, Esports Team: Our Guide On How To Make An eSports Team, and What Musicians Can Learn From The Video Game Industry to get you started!


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