Though esports may seem like a recent phenomenon, organized video game competitions actually date back to at least 1972, when players of a space combat game called Spacewar gathered on Stanford’s campus to face off at what organizers called the “International Olympics.”
Since then, the esports industry has shifted through several different iterations before hitting its current boom.
1982: TBS begins broadcasting the first television show about video games, called Starcade. The host of the earliest episodes was a young Canadian broadcaster named Alex Trebek, and the battlefield was the arcade games that were remapping the geography of every mall, movie theater, and laundromat in the country. The program was simple: two kids duked it out for superior high scores in games like Galaga and Burger Time, with the hopes of winning grand prizes.
Early 90s: The arcade games that those teenagers played on Starcade weren’t really designed for competition. Yes, you could muster the best Galaga score in your city, and you could use that to lord over the other plebes in your local arcade, but there was no way to best your friends in a more visceral, up-close-and-personal way. When two or more machines could be connected over a LAN cable or a broadband internet connection, it was a different story. Players started to get good and host their own local tournaments—all they needed was a sponsor to bankroll them.
1997: A group of Dallas-based investors founded the Cyberathlete Professional League (or CPL), a pioneering force in the legitimization of esports. The CPL was broadcasted on MTV throughout the early 2000s, and got America acquainted with the idea of video game competition being something more than a distraction or a deterioration of society.
1998: If you want to identify one moment that marked the fork in the road where esports started to hockey-stick into the juggernaut it is today, it’s probably the release of Blizzard’s 1998 real-time strategy game, StarCraft. As a piece of competitive software, StarCraft is perfect. Players go head-to-head by building bases, gathering resources, and ordering troops around a battlefield until one player emerges victorious. There is no luck, only skilled gameplay, which is why StarCraft pros refer to themselves as programmers, rather than gamers. The StarCraft franchise, which remains one of Blizzard’s most cherished properties, became a genuine mania in South Korea.
2000: South Korean television network OGN launches. The network focuses on esports, and initially broadcast nearly 24/7 coverage of StarCraft.
2011: The livestreaming network Justin.TV rebrands itself as Twitch, a website dedicated specifically to video game broadcasting. While the concept might sound pretty boring to an outsider (who wants to watch someone play games for hours?), Twitch was an immediate success, and today it stands as the primary way people in the West watch esports tournaments.
2018: Last year, during the League of Legends World Championship, around 100 million people tuned in. If that number is accurate, it means that about as many people watched the championship as did the Super Bowl.
Editors note: This article initially cited a different estimate for the number of League of Legends championship viewers last year. It has been updated to Riot Games’ estimate.