How esports grew up: An oral history
With its arena-filling events and six-figure salaries, the esports industry has come a long way since the early days of competitive gaming.
The first video game tournament took place in 1972 — a Spacewar! bracket hosted by Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory — but it took far longer for game developers to realize the potential value of competitive gaming as both a product and marketing channel. For decades, competitive gamers languished on the sidelines, dodging developers’ cease-and-desist letters and playing primarily for passion, not prizes. The word “esports” didn’t exist until 2000, when Korean minister of culture, sports and tourism Park Jie-won combined the words “electronic” and “sports” to coin the term.
Fast forward to the present, and advertisers are pumping millions of dollars into the esports industry in a bid to reach gaming consumers. Game developers have spent years developing structured competitive leagues such as the Overwatch League and League of Legends Championship Series, understanding that esports fandom is a driver of casual gaming activity. By and large, this rising tide has lifted most esports-company boats — but that doesn’t mean the expansion of esports hasn’t had its fair share of growing pains.
Here’s the story of esports’ evolution from the grassroots days to today’s corporate landscape, in the words of esports-industry experts and OGs.
Before game developers and non-endemic brands embraced esports, the pioneers of competitive gaming largely existed on the margins, relying on passion and volunteer work to keep tournaments running.
Mike Sepso, CEO of Vindex and co-founder of Major League Gaming: Some of the people I met for the first time in the corporate suite said, “I knew your name because I saw it on a cease-and-desist letter.” That’s how I’d characterize the difference. When esports really started, whether it was ESL [Electronic Sports League] or MLG [Major League Gaming], it was kind of people trying to do something that they wanted to participate in and institutionalize and commercialize, but none of us had ever worked in the video game industry before. So our expectations for how things should work were very different from the way that the studios and publishers thought of it. Keep in mind, early ESL and MLG events didn’t even have spectator passes, because nobody came to watch — it was just a tournament to play in.
Daniel Lee, tokenomics designer at Heroic Journey, former League of Legends general manager at Counter Logic Gaming, and a former top-100-ranked Super Smash Bros. Melee player: From a cultural standpoint, it was just about the love of the game. I think part of the nice thing of being really early into a space, where it’s not really high stakes, is that you can kind of just do whatever you want. We’d go to majors and have, like, 16 people in a hotel room. Sitting really packed behind a CRT [television] to see a player play, whereas there’s projectors now. We were all bootstrapping it; we didn’t really have much corporate interest.
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