Being an esports fan, sometimes we can take for granted how far we have come since the first video games hit the market. Before there were stadiums filled with fans, most popular multiplayer games were played either through the internet, a local network, or even split screen. While old games might not really be considered esports, it is important to see how certain games shaped the industry so far.
Before we had real tournament circuits or leagues such as the League of Legends Championship Series, tournaments were usually one-time deals, or some sort of recurring series. Tournaments for arcade games such as Pacman and Donkey Kong were held in the late 1980s early 1990s with other tournaments such as the Nintendo World Championships, but there was no real influence for the future of esports. Most of these tournaments were to promote the games or companies themselves.
The first important release was Quake of the Quake series. Quake was not the first successful first person shooter, but it was the first popular multiplayer game that used a local network to connect players. This was an important innovation for not only the future of esports, but the future of video games themselves. The first Quake tournament was the Red Annihilationtournament held in in May 1997. The winner was Dennis “Thresh” Fong, considered the world’s first professional gamer. His prize John Carmack’s (co-founder of id software, creator of Quake) 1987 Ferrari 328 GTS.
Quake is the real grandfather of esports. QuakeCon, an annual tournament for the Quake series and other first person shooters, was created to celebrate Quake. In 1997, the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) was the pioneer in professional video game tournaments, being the first professional gaming tournament league.
It paved the way for professional gamers, such as Thresh, to be able to make more than $100,000 annually from tournament winnings.
A Glimpse into the future: Warcraft, Counter-Strike, and StarCraft
Along with the CPL, the Professional Gamers League (PGL) was created to run tournaments of the new and growing tournament scene. While Warcraft and Warcraft II were popular and successful games, the spiritual sequel, Starcraft, was important for the competitive tournaments scene.
The idea of modding games started to form at this time, as developers made it easy for the consumer to make modifications to the original games, either by releasing bits or full source code, or by creating a development kit specifically designed to create mods or different maps. The most popular of these mods were from the new first-person shooters (FPS) Half-Life and Counter Strike. Soon, the three most popular titles for the CPL and PGL were Quake II, Starcraft, and Counter-Strike.
Counter-Strike and Starcraft are considered highly skilled games, not only demanding high physical dexterity, but also a deep understanding of the game. These titles would set the bar high for future esports, even by today’s standards.
At this time, people would begin to create mods to Starcraft and later Warcraft III, and a very important mod would be created: Aeon Of Strife, though it would not have a real impact until much later.
The Console Wars
One the other side of the equation was the video game consoles. Most headway in the multiplayer department was made with the much more versatile PC market. During the 1990s, video game consoles did not feature any network multiplayer. However, the console market was big business, and that’s where all the money was for the mainstream audience.
Fun Fact: video game consoles were specifically made due to the fact that the technology was not advanced enough to support gaming. The way in which the games handled the graphical portion of the game, a hardware system like a PC that was not solely dedicated to run the game would not be able to load the specific frame of the game fast enough, which would result in what looks like the game blinking.
Carmack, who was an aspiring computer programmer, discovered a programming methodology to recreate games only able to be played on the console, such as Super Mario 3. John Karmak would send his re-creation of the first level of the game to Nintendo, which graciously thanked Carmack with a cease and desist letter as well. That day, Carmack, alongside friend John Romero, would go on to create their own company, Doom and Quake.
While the PC market was years ahead of the console market in regards to technological advancements, consoles were still much more successful commercially. Video game tournaments were occasionally held for console games, such as Nintendo’s Pokemon World Championships, but it was mistakenly taken for granted that the majority of console players were not hardcore gamers and that the competitive scene simply did not have a market on the console.
A Diamond in the Rough
Successful PC games simply didn’t transfer over to the console well. The Real Time Strategy genre was thought to be impossible to map on the controller with so many different commands. The FPS genre was never successful on the console. It wasn’t until the unpredicted success of a Nintendo 64 game that paved the way for the future of console FPS games.
GoldenEye 007 was created differently than most games. Thankfully. It was made after the film of the same name, and each of the maps was designed before the gameplay was actually developed. This added a sense of exploration for its single player mode, something quite different from the norm. Most FPS games at the time played pretty similar, all with influence from the Doom and Quake series. But GoldenEye was different.
The controls were also different than the console FPS games that came before it. Instead of trying to copy and paste the similar control scheme of the mouse and keyboard to different parts of the controller, GoldenEye had an easy and intuitive control scheme. All those factors combined into a successful game that showed the gaming world that not only can FPS games work on the console, but there was a huge market for them. After GoldenEye, many companies tried to recreate its success, but they all failed. It wasn’t until the next generation of console we would see the real next step in the evolution of the console FPS and the first true penetration into the mainstream market for competitive gaming.
The Major Leagues
The Xbox would prove instrumental for the future of the industry. Halo: Combat Evolved was leagues ahead of its competition. With a revolutionary artificial intelligence for its single player campaign mode, and the return to local network multiplayer support, the game was poised to change the industry. While online support wouldn’t come until Halo 2, the next generation FPS had finally come. Halo is much different than the PC shooters. PC shooters were usually very fast paced and reliant on quick twitch-based reactions and unrealistic abilities the player had at its disposal. Halo was slower paced and had much more realistic qualities.
Not only was the game successful commercially, but it had a place in the competitive scene. Beginning with the APG and Halo50k tournaments, eventually a league dedicated to competitive console gaming was created: Major League Gaming. This was a guest leap forward for esports as at the time, consoles still dominated the market. This would bring not only the FPS genre but also the competitive scene to a much bigger market than seen before. Due to the difficulty in having a venue for consoles on top of the cost, however, MLG would be directly tied to the success of the games themselves. At the end of the 2000s, the gaming industry would go through a drastic change, which was bad for the competitive console scene.
StarCraft and the Modern World
If we jump back a little to where the PC market was heading, StarCraft would become a key player in the evolution of esports and possibly the single most important game ever released. During the late 1990s, South Korea would see a rise in popularity of PC bangs, which were places people would go and hang out to play video games on a network of PCs. The rise of PC bangs and video games in general in Korea has multiple factors, but it would result in the eventual takeover of StarCraft as the most popular title.
StarCraft, specifically its expansion, StarCraft: Brood War, became the game of choice in Korea. The game was relatively easy to run on any computer and because at the time Korea had a ban on Japanese products, the fact that StarCraft was made by an American publisher made it very accessible.
StarCraft created what we know of esports now. With televised events and structured leagues, the Korean professional StarCraft scene would set the stage for the future of esports.
The Fall of the Console and the Rise of the PC
It is important that the console side of esports was greatly tied to the success of the actual game itself because this fact would lead to the eventual decline of console games in esports as a whole, and the rise of PC games.
The video game market was slowly changing in the 2000s and we saw a rise in popularity in PC gaming. The popularity of PC gaming increased more than 5,000 percent from 2005 to 2012. Gaming in general increased dramatically in the past decade, and console gaming is still extremely popular, but PC gaming has increased six times as much as consoles have.
Esports wise, MLG abandoned its original plan to include only console games to the pro circuit and would add PC games such as World of Warcraft and StarCraft II. World of Warcraft was a key player in the eventual shift of gamers to the PC, as it was the most played game at the times, but there were many factors that led to the eventual shift to the PC. They included the over-saturation of poor quality AAA titles and FPS games, the price rise of consoles, price reduction in PCs, and the general shift of game design. As the overall popularity of the successful console esports franchises such as Halo subsided, it was time for esports console gamers to move on.
The MOBA takeover
I mentioned before how StarCraft and Warcraft III was being modded, and one of the mods that came out of the StarCraft mods was called Aeon of Strife. Aeon of Strife wouldn’t go on to be that popular, however it would inspire a mod made in the Warcraft III engine that would change the video game world. That mod was called Defense of the Ancients, also known as Dota.
Dota was similar to real time strategy games, but the major difference was that the player only controlled one unit. Games consisted of five players on each team, with computer controlled AI that would spawn in intervals. Players would kill the AI to gain gold and experience, a mechanic taken from RPGs, and would eventually get strong enough to destroy the enemy base. As the player is trying to kill the enemy AI, the players on the other team tries to do the same, pitting them against each other in a highly tactical and strategic game. The game would become extremely popular in the Warcraft III custom map community, and would garner attention to bigger game development companies.
Dota would inspire League of Legends, and League of Legends would not only take over the esports world, but the entire gaming world. League’s success can be attributed to many factors such as the free-to-play business model, but no other game in the genre would be successful as League. League of Legends’ creator, Riot Games, would push the notion of esports, and would create the league based system we all now know as the LCS. This was greatly influenced from the Korean StarCraft II leagues.
The LCS was created in 2013, and it was also the year that Korea gain a server for the game. This was very important for the future of the game because now it was in the hands of the experienced Koreans. OGN,one of the StarCraft broadcasters, would make a calculated risk and put a lot of resources to build a league around the new League of Legends. It would turn out to be a great call, and League would take over as the most popular game in the world. Because of the rise of the MOBA genre, StarCraft would lose a lot of popularity, especially in the West. It’s still relatively popular, and Blizzard, alongside Korean broadcasting companies, still continue to develop the game and its esports scene.
Now we are in a new era where esports are much bigger than they have ever been. There’s an obvious influence from the older games, Counter Strike has been revamped, players still play Starcraft, and the biggest game on the market has its roots in a mod from an older game. Its pretty amazing how far we have come.