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From “Tennis on TV” to the Global eSports Phenomenon of Today

When would you say that video games first emerged–the ’80s, maybe the ’70s at a push? In fact, you’d have to go back to the 1940s for the true origins of the video game, and need a computer that fills up half a room to play them.
It was pretty soon after these early experiments that the first recognisable video games started to appear in the form of the classic “Tennis for Two” format which emerged in the late 1950s. But it wasn’t until 1972 that the very first console, called the Magnavox Odyssey, appeared. It could be plugged into the TV and used at home. It was limited to the most basic of games, mainly variations on the video tennis theme but, all the same, it presented a new and exciting development in home entertainment.

Soon the focus switched to arcades where big stand-up machines running games like Donkey Kong ruled the roost in arcades and, in fact, it’s believed that this was the first game that held a nationwide competition. It relied on honest reporting to find the country’s highest score, but the amateurish nature of events didn’t seem to put people off at all.

When early games developer Atari held its 1980 Space Invaders tournament, 10,000 players took part. But while there were nationwide competitions taking place, what was lacking was a way for players to contact each other–that is until the internet happened.

Even in the old days of dial-up modem, gamers were finally able to compare high scores and share strategies remotely. It also meant that rudimentary communities started to form and so the first seeds of what would eventually grow into the eSports phenomenon were planted. At around the time of the late ’90s, games like Starcraft and Warcraft III were released to an eager world. As internet speeds gradually increased, Starcraft’s popularity took off particularly in South Korea and, soon, matches were being broadcast on the country’s television network. At the same time, video game consoles with internet connections were becoming widely available, led by the Sega Dreamcast

Given the new global interconnectivity, the number of players expanded but remained essentially disorganized as communities. To resolve this situation, in 2002 Major League Gaming formed to promote video games as sport and to organize and showcase competitions involving the best players in the world. The first eSports broadcasts in North America began in 2006 and mainly involved first-person shooters. It was the arrival of Twitch which launched in 2011 and which allowed anyone to launch their own broadcast network that marked a major step–especially as it included a chat window where fans could fully engage with each other.

So by now everything was in place for eSports to become the global phenomenon that it is today, with six-figure prizes the norm, annual revenues estimated to be approaching $700 million a year, and even the emergence of eSports bookies, sites like where fans can place a wager on their favourite players or teams, competing in titles such as Call of Duty, Starcraft II, and League of Legends.

Image credit – “esports” (CC BY 2.0) by sam_churchill

Yes, there are some who doubt how much of a sport eSports are, but that’s not likely to cut much ice with promoters, players, or fans. Nobody can doubt that this form of entertainment–sport or not–is incredibly popular and has come a long, long way from “Tennis for Two”. But there’s certainly much further to go.

Feature image credit –Dreamcast controller, take two” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by bochalla

Carl Williams

It is time gaming journalism takes its rightful place as proper sources and not fanboys giving free advertising. If you wish to support writers like Carl please use the links below.

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