The next time you assume that someone is wasting hours of their life playing video games, hold that thought — it’s actually quite possible to make a good living if you’re an excellent player. Competitive gaming, also known as eSports, isn’t a new invention. It all began during the golden age of video gaming, which took place in the 1980s. At first, gamers recorded video tapes of their high scoring efforts and sent them to various magazines to win prizes. eSports has since taken on a new life and become an industry with full fledged conventions, worldwide competitions, and television programs documenting professional gamers. Video game tournaments are now more popular than ever and have provided avenues for gamers to make full-time incomes.
The Rise of Competitive Gaming
Gamers now have PCs and consoles to play to their hearts’ content from the comfort of their homes. However, back when video games first came along arcades were the “in” thing. It was most common for gamers to spend hours gathered around machines trying to best each other. Informal competitions developed out of these gatherings, with the aim being solely to beat each others high scores. In 1980, Atari held the Space Invaders Tournament, what is considered to be the first official video game competition. Other companies quickly followed in their footsteps, and the realm of eSports came to fruition.
Arcades were still popular during the 1990s, but gaming consoles for home use started to become more prevalent and gamers had more time to hone their skills during hours of the day when arcades weren’t open. Major players such as Blockbuster and Nintendo took the concept of national gaming tournaments one step further and sponsored world championship competitions. The prizes got larger and larger — including thousands of dollars, expensive gaming accessories, electronics, and consoles — and the stakes got higher. To win at these newer tournaments, you had to be the best of the best and truly understand the nuances of a game. From here out, gaming became serious business and professionals emerged onto the scene who were able to make their living from competing in tournaments.
Professional PC Gaming Emerges
The video game industry and technology have always been tightly intertwined, and so it was no surprise that video games grew as computer technology expanded and made the cost of owing a PC more affordable. The high tech gaming laptops that are around today developed in part due to the demands of those involved in competitive gaming and eSports.
In 1997, Red Annihilation held an eSports tournament for the game Quake. Over 2,000 people came to compete, and the winner received an incredible prize: a Ferrari that was formerly owned by Quake’s lead developer, John Carmack. Not even a month after this competition, the Cyberathlete Professional League was founded. CPL held its first tournament a year after it was organized and offered $15,000 in prizes — this pales in comparison to the millions at stake in some tournaments today, but it was a big deal at the time.
Playing for the Spectators
With so many different championships, competitions, and tournaments involving the gaming world, it was inevitable that organization would be come crucial to ensure the industry had sound ethics and order. Early professional gaming organizations are still around, and there are newer ones as well, such as Major League Gaming. MLG, which launched in 2002, is one of the biggest and most successful competitive gaming leagues and features some of the industry’s largest prize pools and most lavish awards.
Video game tournaments would not be so widespread today without the people who enjoy watching the players. Since gaming is enjoyed around the world, the industry wisely decided long ago that there needed to be a way for viewers to come together and easily support the competitions. In it’s early days, gaming tournaments were viewed in person, right around the very machines being played. During the 1990s, gamers and spectators traveled to tournaments around the world. MLG became the first tournament sponsor to have its competition broadcast in the US when its Halo 2 championship was aired in 2006.
As the internet became widespread around the globe, streaming became the go-to way for gaming fans to tune in and watch their favorite tournaments. The viewership of video game tournaments is enormous, and the world’s largest competitions routinely top over 4 million viewers per tournament. This means that more people watch professional gamers online that they do some live sports competitions, such as the NBA All-Star game. Fans of gaming are an integral part of the competitions, and most gaming festivals feature events that are made especially for the spectators. Professional gaming’s large viewership and the profit potential involved in video game tournaments is part of the reason why the last decade has seen so many spectator-friendly games being developed.
Today’s Major Tournaments
Whereas first-person shooter (FPS) and fighting games used to be most popular during the early days of eSports, real-time strategy (RTS) games established their place on the competitive scene over a decade ago. Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games are also hugely popular with eSports competitors and offer some of the biggest cash prize pools in the industry.
The game League of Legends — LoL for short — has one of the largest prize pools for its tournaments. Each year, the prize pool for this one game alone reaches several million dollars. Its 2012 prize pool was over $5 million and was watched live and via streaming by a combined total of over 900,000 viewers. Since then, the popularity and prizes given at LoL tournaments have topped $20 million.
StarCraft II is another top game at tournaments, and over $15 million has been awarded to players of its competitions in the last several years. In addition to StarCarft II and LoL, other highly popular gaming tournaments include The International, eSports World Championship, the Halo World Championship, and the Call of Duty Championship. For multiplayer games, teams are formed and the grand prize is split among the winners. With first place prizes for the top tournaments averaging about $1 million, one can easily earn a six-figure living as an eSports competitor playing on a team.
Video game tournaments have come so far that professional gamers who earn international recognition are now eligible to obtain US P-1 visas, which were traditionally reserved for professional athletes. As eSports reaches a wider demographic and technology advances, the prizes, media attention, and career potential of this industry are bound to get bigger and better.