Competitions for almost everything have existed for a very long time. From athletic sports, artwork, and academics, to things such as dog racing, or who has the bigger vegetable—if it’s something you can do, you can probably have some sort of competition over it! Video games are no exception, throwing up yet more opportunities for people to show off their skills against one another. Over the years, we’ve seen eSports rapidly grow in popularity, garnering quite a large fanbase. However, there are still many people who doubt the validity of eSports or look down on its community. “They’re just a bunch of kids who play video games all day and make money, right?”, “Anyone can do that!” Well, maybe not. Whether you believe competitive gaming is a sport or not, being a “professional” competitive gamer requires a lot of skill and dedication—same as with sports.
While smaller competitions or tournaments may have taken place before, the first “known” video game competition was held at Stanford University on October 19, 1972. The game of choice was Spacewar, the prize was a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone (it may not seem like the greatest prize ever, but winning is always cool, right?) A bit later in 1980, Atari held the first large-scale championship for Space Invaders, which hosted over 10,000 participants. Over the next couple of decades, as competitive gaming started to gain popularity, the media took more of an interest and started to raise its public profile. Many newspapers and magazines covered gaming events and tournaments from all over, while more companies began to sponsor competitive events. The Nintendo World Championships, for example, toured across the United States.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, with the boom of PC gaming, that the world had its first professional gamer. The Red Annihilation tournament was held during 1997’s E3, with the seminal shooter Quake taking center stage. The grand prize was the Ferrari of Quake‘s lead developer, John Carmack. The winner of the tournament was Dennis “Thresh” Fong, who is officially considered by the Guinness World Records the first professional gamer in history. Fong won every tournament he attended during a five-year period, earning him the nickname “The Michael Jordan of Gaming.”
Shortly after the Red Annihilation tournament, the first professional eSports team is formed: The Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL). They soon hosted their very first event, with the prize money totalling $15,000. From this time through to 2001, CPL hosts The World Cyber Games Challenge featuring: Quake 3, Starcraft: Brood War, Age of Empires and FIFA 2000—with the prize pool totalling $200,000. The next year’s World Cyber Games Challenge involved 430 players from all over the world and featured Age of Empires, Starcraft Brood War, FIFA 2000, Counterstrike and Unreal Tournament—this time with an even higher prize pool of $300,000. Do you see a trend here? As gaming grew into the 2000s, eSports started to focus more around first person shooters such as Counterstrike, or real-time strategy games such as Starcraft – both types requiring specific skill sets such as fast reflexes and careful planning.
Dennis “Thresh” Fong won on every tournament he attended during a five-year period, earning him the nickname “The Michael Jordan of Gaming”.
In 2002, Major League Gaming (MLG) was founded by Sundance DiGiovanni and Mike Sepso, and is headquartered in New York City. MLG formed a pro-circuit roster and hosts official video game tournaments across North America. Their game roster currently includes titles such as Call of Duty, Counterstrike: Global Offensive, Halo, League of Legends, Super Smash Bros and Starcraft ll. While MLG has broadcasted a few times on ESPN, they have goals of acquiring their own television network, essentially becoming the “ESPN of eSports.” While this would be a great step for competitive gaming, MLG already has their own online network (MLG.TV), where they have regularly scheduled news highlights and broadcasts just like other sports networks. There are other organizations, similar to MLG, who have their own rosters, teams, tournaments, rules and prizes such as; Electronic Sports League (ESL), Pro Gaming League (PGL), and UMG gaming. The elephant in the room is Twitch.tv, which remains the largest host for all eSports tournaments, and thousands of daily streamers—drawing in over 100 million viewers every month. So, if you would ever like to watch a live pro-tournament you can easily log on to Twitch with thousands of other viewers to get a taste of what competitive gaming is like.
For an example of how much eSports and its fanbase has grown, look no further than last year’s League of Legends World Championships. Held at the Los Angeles Staples Center, it was not only sold out, but accrued 32 million viewers—which is substantially more than most sporting events broadcast on TV networks. In 2014 alone, there were at least 205 million viewers, with eSport events gaining more and more concurrent viewers every year. Despite this the president of ESPN, John Skipper, still states that eSports aren’t a real sport. But it seems like the hundreds of millions of fans don’t care about such distinctions—they just love eSports. Skipper’s assertion is also somewhat hypocritical when considering his channel airs bass fishing, chess, and poker alongside “traditional sports.”. The distinction seems to be increasingly arbitrary. So let’s look at a few arguable points over why pro gaming is similar to sports.
In 2014 alone, there were at least 205 million eSports viewers, with events gaining more and more concurrent viewers every single year.
Sports like football or baseball are based on strategy and team-based competition—they require their athletes to be in peak physical condition, to have fast reflexes, rigorous training and to spend most of their time away from home. These aspects are also shared by pro-gamers and eSports teams. Pro teams even have coaches, starters, reserve players, and referees; just like other team-based sports. eSports pro teams are groups of people who more than likely live together, have sponsors, and practice with their teams for hours to develop precise movements, and extremely heightened reflexes. They study their opponents to develop strategies against them, and work around the clock to climb their way up the ranks, and to qualify for events.
While indeed anyone can play a video game, not every video game is made for eSports, and not every gamer is an “athlete.” This may be where many people get mixed up—you can play Super Mario Bros all day long but we both know you are not a gaming athlete. The only games that are registered on the eSports pro circuit roster are normally Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas, First Person Shooters, Fighting games, and Real-Time Strategy games. While ESPN may not think of eSports players as being “real” athletes, the United States – as of 2013 – officially recognized eSports players as professional, international athletes—which grants them visas to easily attend U.S. Take that ESPN!
How tournaments and teams are managed in eSports are also very similar to other team-based sports. There are obviously the in-game rules, but more pertinently, rules over the tournaments, equipment, teams, and the players. While these regulations are subject to constant change and updates, they mostly remain the same to ensure player equality. Here are some examples from the 2015 League of Legends World Championships: –
- All players are required to have matching apparel including shirts/jerseys, jackets, and pants.
- They are “required to wear closed-toe shoes and wear visible team-branded apparel on their upper body during Worlds.
- Coaches will wear appropriate and professional attire. Appropriate attire does not include athletic wear, pajama pants, sneakers, sandals, team branded apparel (like jerseys.)”
- “Unapproved equipment or equipment that is suspected of providing an unfair competitive advantage will not be permitted for use, and players will be required to use the event provided equipment instead.”
- “2015 Worlds will be played on the 5.18 patch. In only extreme circumstances, changes to the competitive patch can be made at the discretion of Worlds officials.”
The organizations that host these tournaments implement these rules to allow all teams and players to play fairly, and to eliminate any cheating or unfair advantages over other teams. Rules like these exist all over the sporting world – in competitive sports, athletes are strictly forbidden from using any type of performance enhancing drugs, just like how gaming athletes are not allowed to use any equipment, or mods, that could unfairly enhance their performance.
eSports is growing fast. More and more companies are sponsoring teams and tournaments, and more teams are forming to compete every year. The competitive community will only continue to grow exponentially. With plenty of hard work, proper skills and motivation, even you could become a pro gamer! MLG even has a handy guide on how to do it. Whether eSports is your thing or not, at least everyone is enjoying some good old video games.