The history of esports broadcasting, Part I: Genesis

Editor’s note: Perhaps nobody is more qualified to speak of esports history than Paul “Redeye” Chaloner, who has been a host, panelist and caster for almost two decades. This is the first of a multiple-part series in which Redeye explores the history of esports broadcasting and how it got to the point where it is today.

Mainstream press recently reported on esports broadcasting as something of a new phenomenon. Perhaps to them it is. Perhaps to their readers it is, too. But ignoring the past 16 years of esports broadcasting doesn’t make it OK. It’s not really their fault, though. There is just so little written about those early years, especially the start of it. So few of the original trailblazers are still present in esports today and even fewer have ever decided to document those formative years. Even if a journalist tried to do their homework, there is no obvious evidence to garner anyway.

Time to put that right. I’ll attempt, to the best of my personal knowledge and that of those who were there at the very start, to put together a definitive version of events of our formative esports broadcasting years. Hopefully I’ll help to preserve esports history. If nothing else, I’m sure many of us who earn a living from esports broadcasting today would like to learn about the people who made it possible for us.

For me, esports commentating didn’t begin until 2002, but even then at that early stage, there were others already doing it. Perhaps not on a professional basis, but as close as you could get with little to no money and the Internet in a poor state when it came to bandwidth. When we talk about esports broadcasting, before 2004, we were always talking about audio, or Internet radio as it was sometimes called. In particular, two pieces of software were prevalent at the time; Winamp and the Shoutcast plugin — hence those who used this were called shoutcasters!

No one — I repeat, no one — was paid to do any kind of commentating, and hosting on stage or on a desk was unthinkable. In fact, most of those who did the early events in esports had to spend considerable time persuading the event managers that they should even have commentary of the finals, let alone the entire tournament. Events were simply not ready for commentary, let alone full broadcasting, and would often give us a small piece of a stand with a sponsor (often Intel back in those days) where we could set up a laptop and pray we had enough bandwidth from the sketchy Internet to broadcast audio in 96kb, 22,100hz, 8-bit quality.

We’d also have to pay our own flights and hotels, usually sharing with multiple people to save money and taking budget airlines (and therefore terrible connections and long flights economy flights) to events. If we were lucky and the stars aligned, we would get three commentators (one of whom would also work the production while not casting) and a producer to an event. We’d literally get away with having four people at the event to cover everything, including building and checking all of the equipment.

Before we even get to events, the very first shoutcasters covered only online matches. Most broadcasting was limited to online tournaments, F9 Ladders, Barrysworld, Jolt League, CAL, ESL, Clanbase, the odd qualifier for LAN tournaments and lots of website-run tournaments, usually with no prize money. The big events were limited to four or five per year and would ultimately become a battleground for the first big esports broadcasters: TSN and iTG, and later GotfragTV and QuadV.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Much like the argument over the first esports tournament (was it Space Invaders 1981 world championships or Deathmatch 1995?) it’s hard to pinpoint the very first broadcast of esports. It could be those guys and girls who would often call the shots at local arcades during those epic Street Fighter 1-v-1 battles in the late 1980s to an audience of 10 or fewer. Likely, however, we’d credit Tribes Shoutcast Network (Later to be known as Team Sportscast Network or TSN) as the first true professional esports broadcasters.

Researching this subject over the last few months also led me to a group of people who could have equal or even better claim to say “we were first.” Specific dates are sketchy, but somewhere in late 1999 a set of people known to the Tribes community as WSBN began. This was a small but passionate set of people intent on delivering commentary for Tribes.

The first person to have the idea, however, is also debatable, though the best I could find was an old forum post claiming that a chap called Megaboris was the first to come up with the idea and started a station called “Megaboris Radio,” later to merge with three others who also had the same idea which became “TribesTalk Radio.” In turn, these guys put out what is likely to be one of the first shoutcasts of a competitive esports match. One of the teams in question was called Fallen, though little is known about the match itself or their opponent, other than they got “spanked.”

It was TSN that used these ideas (or formed their own independently depending on who you believe) and took the idea of an esports broadcasting station to a whole new level. They were the first to provide multiple game coverage, Tribes, Quake, Counter Strike and others and the first to do so on an organized level from multiple events on site.

What is undisputed, however, is the video game Tribes gave us esports broadcasting. We may not have seen the rise of popular commentary in the early days without it. I’ve no doubt it would eventually have come through in some form, though. It’s hard to imagine it not doing so. But Tribes was there at the start. Ahead of Quake or Unreal Tournament, which would follow closely behind and certainly well ahead of Counter-Strike.

Three men are credited with the start of TSN, Jon “Ratorasniki” Naiman along with his brother, “Beatstick,” and Brian “Wonderdog” French. These three came up with the idea while they were helping run the website and Tribes portal TribalWar (TW). The TW site was a popular hub for all things Tribes in 1999 and that included tribes matches and demos. The Shoutcast part would eventually break away and form its own company, going on to become TSN. This was late 1999-early 2000, and as far as I can fathom, these guys have a legitimate claim to being the founding fathers of what we now see as esports broadcasting. That’s not to dismiss the early pioneering work of people like Megaboris or those at WSBN either. They are equally important in understanding where esports broadcasting began, but what we now consider professional esports broadcasting compares reasonably with how TSN did it to start.

While we can credit these groundbreakers with the fundamental ideas of esports broadcasting, it would take another five years before it was produced in video and another 10 before it became accepted as the norm. In 2000, what we are talking about in terms of esports broadcasting could generously be called Internet radio from bedrooms. That’s not to belittle or ignore the work put in by those who started it all, but it helps us understand the constraints and limitations of technology when this began. In real terms, it’s only 16 years ago. In any other sport, that length of climb from bedroom casting to world stage in sports stadiums would be considered nothing short of miraculous.

Paul "Redeye" Chaloner is a veteran host, commentator, presenter and voice over artist predominantly featuring video games and technology.

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