Esports History: The First Few Years of Competitive Gaming

by Fabio

With all that has happened in esports over the time, we might forget how young the industry actually still is. Esports as we know it today only started existing two decades back. Before that, there was no internet and virtually no way for players to compete with each other, let alone create a global stage for others to watch. Esports history pales in comparison to traditional sports, but it has evolved drastically within this short time frame.

Esports World Cup 2006 - fnatic just lost to Made in Brazil
Esports World Cup 2006 – fnatic just lost to Made in Brazil (via HLTV.org)

Where Do Esports Come From?

For competitive gaming to flourish, two key events had to take place. The first was the invention of the internet, or rather the introduction of the world wide web to most households across the developed world. The second one was the creation of challenging multiplayer games. Soon, people wanted to play these titles against each other, which was initially made possible by patching individual computers together and forming a Local Area Network (LAN). The internet facilitated things, as players could now just join from the comfort of their home desk. 

The First Esports Games

Esports were initially driven by a few competitive games. It can be argued that there were quite a few competitive video game tournaments  in the 70s already. But those events and games don’t resemble the type that we see nowadays. The “real” esports movement began in the 90s. First person shooters were amongst the first to make it to a global stage, contributing to the real beginning of esports history.

Counter Strike

The original CS 1.6 was a modification of Half-Life done by Jess Cliffe and Minh Le. The mod became hugely popular among FPS gamers and Valve, the developers of Half-Life, quickly hired the two programmers. Taking Counter Strike under their wings, they released the official version in 1999. Featuring a multiplayer mode, the game soon became a massive international battleground and players were eager to compete with each other.

The competitive scene grew and soon, tournaments in Counter Strike were hosted all over the world. The game had its first Major event in 2001, the CPL Winter Championship, which featured a $150,000 prize pool. Back then, SK Gaming and the Ninjas in Pyjamas were already established organizations. Esports history was made when NiP won the event, making this their first CSGO Major victory.

To give you a feeling of how long ago this was, it would take an additional six years before Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” would take up the mouse and join NiP! It feels like the legend has been part of esports forever, but there was actually already a scene there before him. The Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) was the first installation to feature Counter Strike in its event circuit. Many of their tournaments were considered Major championships. When World Cyber Games (WCG) joined, these two big players basically upheld an entire tournament circuit just for CS and kept the scene alive. Eventually, ESL would take the reigns as they incorporated the game into their Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) events. 

StarCraft

Nowadays, StarCraft II has become somewhat of a niche esports title internationally. It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that the original StarCraft is a centerpiece of esports history. The real-time strategy game was amongst the first to be played competitively and certainly the most popular. In South Korea, the game has basically become a national sport. All StarCraft titles are still being played and broadcast to this day, making it perhaps the single most consistent esport of all time. 

The game’s players are heralded as some of the fastest clickers in the whole genre. StarCraft competitors register up to 300 mouse taps per minute, and every single one has a purpose. Players have to grow and manage thousands of individual units at the same time. Back then, this was an unprecedented level of skill for any competition. It is only natural that this game eventually became an esport. 

Unreal Tournament

Unreal Tournament was GT Interactive’s attempt to jump on the shooter bandwagon at the end of the 90s. As a spin-off to Unreal, it mostly focused on the multiplayer aspect to bring people together and pit them against each other. It packed a map editor, which gave fans of the game an unprecedented level of access to the game. Because it ran on comparatively weaker hardware, it was also a great option for the less affluent parts of the community. The game was featured in a few WCG stops, notably in 2001 and 2002. Unfortunately, it stood in the shadows of one major shooter game, which had been released three years before.

Quake

Developed by id Software in 1996, the game was among the first to offer real 3D graphics. Games like Doom had essentially used 2D imagery to ‘simulate’ a 3D environment, but Quake actually did it. This opened up possibilities beyond just linear and plane levels. Quake maps featured complicated layouts, which allowed for more intense gameplay.

Players would run around on the map with different weapons and abilities and in fast shootouts, they would kill each other, respawn, and kill each other again. This form of deathmatch required insane precision and reaction times, creating a competitive environment for all players. 

Quake has spawned a number of sequels as well as inspired countless FPS games that would follow in its footsteps. In 2018, Quake Champions was released and has built up a small but dedicated esports following since, honoring the esports history of the original title. 

German player "k1llsen" has recently won the Quake Pro League
German player “k1llsen” has recently won the Quake Pro League (via esports.com)

The multiplayer mode basically kickstarted esports. Players soon developed an improved multiplayer client and thousands of gamers around the world joined in virtual fights. The developers were also the first to hold a real esports tournament.

Thresh: The First Pro Gamer

We’re not just calling him that, he has actually earned that title. The Guinness World Records have objectively established that fact of esports history. For many younger viewers, this might come entirely out of the blue. Who exactly is this Thresh guy?

Dennis “Thresh” Fong was the winner of the first esports tournament of all time. In 1997, the developers of Quake, ID Software, staged a virtual competition with 2000 participants over the internet. The 16 leading Quake players were then invited to compete in front of the Electronic Entertainment Expo at the World Congress Center in the United States. There, Thresh won the trophy and a Ferrari. This makes him the first competitive video games player to ever earn a huge prize. Esports history was made that very day. 

Looking back at this event, we can observe that, fortunately, not much has changed about the competitive nature of esports. There are still countless players hungry to play and fight for virtual trophies. In 1997, this may have been a niche experience. Outsiders may have looked at this and gone “oh, what a funny little competition they have there!”. Now, esports span the entire globe and have created a network of competitions for gamers from all walks of life.

How Twitch Helped Shape Esports

Where would esports be without the help of Twitch? We don’t really know. The platform was introduced in 2007 as Justin.tv, where internet users could stream live into the world wide web. In 2011, the video game broadcast section of Justin.tv split and formed into Twitch. 

Read this: Nightbot: How to Set Up a Twitch Chatbot

Virtually every esports tournament organizer broadcasts via Twitch. A few select tournaments have signed exclusive deals with other services, but they all made their first strides on this very platform. The easy-to-use website lowered the entry barrier for upcoming streamers and organizers. It also provided a readily accessible way for fans to tune into tournament broadcasts. Nowadays, Twitch has become inseparable of esports – so much so that switching the platform can result in gigantic losses in viewership. 

The Influence of ESL on the Rise of Esports

When ESL took over as the leading organizers for Counter Strike events, they quickly became industry leaders. With Intel Extreme Masters (IEM), they had created an event series that would continue to this very day. IEM debuted at the Cebit in Hannover and continued to be featured at tech and gaming conventions, such as Gamescom. The series soon added more games into the mix, but ESL also created various new formats. In Germany, the ESL Pro Series (EPS) created a competitive circuit for the best national gamers, which helped the domestic scene gain a foothold in international esports. 

At first, ESL broadcast via a German network called “GIGA”, but soon they established their own service, ESL TV. When Twitch took off, they moved all of their streams over to the platform. In the first years of competitive gaming, ESL set records left and right. In 2006, their Intel Friday Night Games recorded 750 visitors in Oberhausen, Germany. The IEM World Finals in 2011 recorded over 85.000 online spectators, which was unprecedented in esports history at that time. While developers like RIOT Games, who chose to take the tournament responsibilities into their own hands, have slowly crept up to ESL and become direct competitors, the company still holds its own as the major organizer for Counter Strike events. They also provide tournaments for Dota 2, Fortnite, StarCraft II and countless more.

The First Notable Esports Teams

If you take a look at the esports landscape of today, there are a few club names that stick out. Teams like FaZe CSGO or Cloud 9 CSGO are relatively young, but some teams have stuck around for two decades now. Schroet Kommando, later known as SK Gaming, were one of the first clans in esports. The team formed around Tim and Ralf Reichert in 1997. Those names might strike a cord as two of the founders of ESL!

But before establishing one of the leading esports companies, they first tried their luck as esports athletes. Their website featured a guest book and they regularly uploaded match results and replays, which led thousands of enthusiasts to their site. Ever since then, SK Gaming have established themselves as multi-game club, featuring teams in CSGO, League of Legends, FIFA and Hearthstone. 

The Ninjas in 2005
The Ninjas in 2005 (via liquipedia.net)

As previously mentioned, the Ninjas in Pyjamas were also early starters in the industry. Their clan formed in 2000, led by Swedish players Tommy “Potti“ Ingemarsson and Emil “HeatoN“ Christensen. Fnatic, who are arguably one of the biggest organisations in the industry today, also had their start in the early 2000s. Back then, these teams won numerous trophies and became a firm part of esports history.

Evil Geniuses, the North American powerhouse, were founded in 1999. Nowadays, they field numerous teams and in Counter Strike, they are perhaps most widely known for their 2008-2010 team featuring Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert. Recently, they re-entered the scene with a successful CSGO squad. But back in the 2000s, they were actually a Quake and World of Warcraft clan, amongst the first and amongst the most prestigious. 

20 Years On: What Has Changed?

We have long since moved on from the early esports scene. The baby-steps of the industry were led by voluntary workers and unpaid, amateur players. Esports have become more professional, so much is obvious. Nowadays, many players competing in their esports games get a full-time salary and commit their lives to playing these titles. Casters, journalists, server admins, camera operators, directors and referees now make a living off of their work in competitive gaming. The history of esports bends away from people asking “what is esport?” and instead leads towards a mainstream understanding of this gaming phenomenom. More people than ever know about competitive gaming and more people than ever support it.

Read this: Improving the Opportunities for Amateur Esport Players

Esports history includes some dark spots, but is largely marked by the efforts of amazing and dedicated individuals, who put in so much work to get these tournaments on the air. Back then, they couldn’t except to receive a single dime in compensation. They also couldn’t possibly have anticipated the heights to which esports would rise within just two decades. The rise of esports continues and there is no real end in sight. We can only wonder – what will esports look like in 20 years?

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