From Geeks to Gods: How eSports became what it is today

Not as ‘novel’ as you’d think

While most of us think of eSports as being a millenial invention, I think most people would be surprised to find out that its roots actually date back all the way to 1972. A small group of 24 gamers gathered in the Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University to battle it out in the ‘Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics’.


The grand prize: a one-year subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. As far as anyone knows, this humble little gathering was the first instance of an eSports event, making Bruce Baumgart the very first recorded eSports champion in the world.

For much of the rest of the 70s, eSports was in grassroots territory, and events were, by and large, being held at universities as they were the places with the eye-wateringly expensive computer equipment. The first eAthletes were mostly left-wing, hippy academics, generally using up computer time at odd hours to avoid disrupting people using them for their intended purposes.


It was in the late 70s that gaming as a competitive activity really began to exist outside of universities. ‘Asteroids’ and ‘Starfire’ hit the market in large, looming arcade units, and were the first games to ever let players record their high scores with an abbreviation of their name. All it took was the possibility of a badge of honour to help video games not only enter the zeitgeist, but to also cement themselves as tools of competition. Grocery stores and gaming arcades suddenly became arenas of digital valor.

The Atari era

In 1980 Atari changed the course of the world and held the ‘Space Invaders Championship’. By then, Space Invaders was already two years old and had become a household name. The Championship event managed to attract over 10,000 players, the largest eSports and gaming event the world had seen by that point.


The winner of Atari’s ‘Space Invaders Championship’, a woman called Rebecca Heineman (then called William Heineman). She took home a standup arcade game, a far cry from today’s multi-million dollar jackpots. Heineman went on to become an influential person in gaming history, helping shape the maxims of game design and coding in ways that can still be seen in current generation games consoles. The ‘Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics’ and ‘Space Invaders Championship’ were the progenitors of the concept of the eSports we know today.  

Winning doesn’t mean anything if no one knows you’ve won, though. In 1982 Walter Day, an arcade owner from Iowa, set up the ‘Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard’ the first free referee service for video games. His company later progressed to publish ‘Twin Galaxies’ Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records’. Suddenly, avid gamers, or proto-eAthletes, were able to be immortalised for their achievements.


By the early 80s we saw small eSports teams blossoming into fruition, with 1982 also seeing Walter Day starting the ‘U.S. National Video Team’ in the USA, and the ‘Atari VCS Bundesliga’ appearing across the pond in Germany.


Competitive gaming also managed to break onto the holy grail of 80’s pop culture media: television. TV-shows like ‘Starcade’ in the US and ‘First Class’ in the UK had gamers battling and competing for high scores. A twist on the concept of game shows, aimed at appealing to younger viewers who were intrigued by gaming.

The dawn of connectivity

By the time the 90s came rolling around, large gaming tournaments had become the norm, with huge multinationals like Nintendo and Blockbuster Video organising massive events with larger and larger prizes. Gaming focused magazines were as ubiquitous as comic books, and video games were seen as a common hobby for children and teenagers.


The real MVP of the 90s, though, was the introduction of home internet. The advent of the internet, combined with the added affordability of home PCs changed the face of eSports forever. Suddenly home PCs popped up in homes all over the Western World, along with horrifyingly musical shrieks of dial-up modems.


The Red Annihilation’, a Quake event, was the first major eSports event to include over 2,000 contestants compete in one-to-one matches from their own homes, via the internet. The top 16 of those players were then flown to the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta, Georgia. Here they competed for what we now consider to be one of eSports’ first true grand prizes: a Ferrari 328 GTS owned by Quake developer John D. Carmack.


The 90s saw games like Doom, Starcraft, Quake, and Unreal Tournament achieve legendary status, as people from all over the world competed in dozens of different championships. By the end of the decade, the first eSports leagues were founded, and eSports began to professionalize.

Y2K eSports Renaissance

The millenium brought with it the winds of change, and South Korea hosted the first ever ‘World Cyber Games’ in 2000; followed by France hosting the ‘Electronic Sports World Cup’ just three years later. It’s here that eSports began to return to its console roots, slowly reintroducing console titles after over a decade of focusing solely on PC gaming.


The original XBox, the Dreamcast, and the Playstation 2 were the first consoles to be able to access the internet, allowing cooperative and competitive gaming across distances. Thus the iconic Halo and Call of Duty IPs were born.

By 2005 the ‘Cyberathlete Professional League(CPL) World Tour’ broke all previous with a prize fund of $500 grand, a figure which just a few years prior would have been unthinkable. Johnathan Wendel, known as ‘Fatal1ty’, walked out of the finals match with a champion title, $150 grand in winnings, his fourth CPL championship title, and his victory broadcast live on MTV .


Prize money continued to rise throughout the decade, with some tournaments (e.g. FUN Technologies’ ‘Worldwide Webgames Championship’) having grand prizes exceeding the million dollar mark. While in the year 2000 there were only a dozen tournaments held across the word, that number increased to almost 250 tournaments held worldwide in 2010, bringing us to our current era of eSports.


In our next series piece, we’ll be taking a look at the most recent era of eSports, and looking at why everyone is predicting that eSports is about to go through another metamorphosis and “level up.”

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