"League of Legends Season 3 Finals" (CC BY 2.0) by artubr

“League of Legends Season 3 Finals” (CC BY 2.0) by artubr

About as modern a pastime as you can get, eSports tournaments feature teams of computer gamers competing against each other for huge prize funds and the prestige of being the best tank, healer, or bomb disarmer in their respective field. It’s an industry with its own teams, contests, commentators, and terminology.

With global revenue tipped to exceed $1bn by 2019, eSports is both an incredible story of success and a bit of a mystery – competitive gaming with aspirations on an NFL- or NBA-style spectacle seems to have appeared from nowhere.

There’s a lot of evidence that eSports is at the thin end of the wedge as far as its potential is concerned, especially now that the bookies have got themselves involved. Three of the five brands featured on this site here offer eSports betting, for example. However, this Canadian guide suggests that the inclusion of eSports is still far from standard in the online betting industry at the beginning of 2017.

With that in mind, here’s a (very) brief look at how eSports transformed from an industry hamstrung by technology to one of the most exciting branches of entertainment in the world today.

StarCraft

While some outlets have tried to trace eSports’ ascendancy back to the end of the Second World War, competitive video gaming owes much to South Korean gamers’ love for StarCraft, a real-time strategy (RTS) title released back in 1998. Quite different from RTS games like Dune II and Command and Conquer, StarCraft places a heavy emphasis on rapid decision-making in addition to long-term planning.

Owing to heavy investment in internet services, South Korea had a sophisticated competitive community long before today’s most popular eSports games, the likes of Overwatch, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends and Dota 2, were even a gleam in a programmer’s eye.

Back in the West, the release of Quake III: Arena in 1999 and Warcraft III, a fantasy RTS by StarCraft developer Blizzard three years later, established competitive multiplayer as a distinct genre. However, eSports was still a distant dream for the US back in the early noughties, simply because affordable, high-speed internet was quite a late development in the world of online networking. Playing was easy; staying connected to opponents was a different story.

Audience

"League of Legends at Igromir 2013" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Sergey Galyonkin

“League of Legends at Igromir 2013” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Sergey Galyonkin

eSports’ history between 2000 and 2010 was therefore one of granular change and technological frustration but there’s nothing subtle about the industry’s recent growth. Viewership of events like the DreamHack series grew from 1.3bn hours to 3.7bn hours in the two years between 2012 and 2014, while eSports’ hardcore audience (the equivalent of soccer fans who never miss a live game) climbed to 89m from 58m over the same period, an increase of 53%.

To put all those numbers into perspective, the 2014 League of Legends Championship outsold both the NBA Finals and golf’s prestigious Masters Tournament.

It might sound a little lax to attribute much of that growth to a single thing but the appearance of video game streaming site Twitch was arguably the most significant development in eSports’ recent surge in popularity – there’s a reason Amazon forked over $970m for the platform in 2014. Twitch championed live streaming of video games; in comparison, YouTube was founded as a base for pre-recorded content.

Potential

So, what about the future? According to research company Newzoo, eSports fans bring in almost $3 a head at present. Compare that figure to the $15 per person of conventional sports like the NBA. The obvious difference is in audience size, ticket prices, and merchandising – the long-established NBA simply has much more power to draw people in.

Whether eSports proves to be a passing fad or something that will continue to fill stadia is still one for the soothsayers.

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