The history of esports games

Esports, derived from the phrase “electronic sports,” has actually been around for longer than you might think. The first “esports” competition is widely judged to have been a Spacewar competition in 1972 at Stanford University. The prize was a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. 

Then, in 1980, Atari held the first large scale esports competition, its Space Invaders Championship saw more than 10,000 gamers compete from across the US. In the 1970s and 1980s video games, gamers and tournaments could be found in the press, on TV and in the Guinness Book of Records. A 1988 internet-based game, Netrek, was the first to use metaservers and to retain user information. Wired Magazine, in 1993, called it “the first online sports game.”

Street Fighter II, launched in 1991, is credited with introducing player versus player battles. Its popularity alongside Marvel vs Capcom that decade led to the launch of the international Evolution Championship Series (EVO) esports tournament in 1996. Nintendo also held its first World Championships in the 1990s, the 1994 tournament included the games NBA Jam and Virtua Racing. 

By 1998 a Starcraft 2 PC tournament achieved 50 million online viewers. Esports was well and truly born and the early 2000s witnessed the World Cyber Games, the Electronic Sports World Cup and the launch of tournament hosts Major League Gaming (MLG) in 2002. 

PC games were increasingly played utilising online connectivity in the late 1990s. QuakeCon, the Professional Gamers League and the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) emerged. The now hugely popular esports games Counter-Strike, Quake and Warcraft all featured in the CPL. During the 2000s televised esports really became popular, especially in South Korea where competitive esports took hold and even gained government support. 

By 2010 there were over 260 esports tournaments globally for the best esports games and in 2011 streaming platform Twitch launched, adding to YouTube’s already booming game streaming content. By 2013 Twitch viewers were watching 12 billion minutes of content with esports games League of Legends and Dota 2 amongst the most popular esports games. 

Over the next decade, from 2010 to today in 2020, esports boomed as a phenomenon amongst the young and as a valuable industry. Nintendo hosted its summer games then its Super Smash Bros tournaments. Halo was revived with the Halo Championship Series. League of Legends became unimaginably popular and then Fortnite arrived with its massive prize pools. Blizzard Entertainment and Riot Games launched collegiate outreach programs and US universities began to recognise esports players in the same way as varsity level athletes. Esports scholarships were born and esports, its competitors and their expertise became viewed comparably to traditional sports and its athletes. Esports could now even become an Olympic event.

The five most asked questions about esports


How does a game become a top esports game?

There’s no exact route to launching the best esports game. Some video games just naturally developed a competitive scene and fan base and then tournaments with prize pools, whilst other popular titles have never really arrived on the esports scene. As esports grew developers launched titles in the hope of having the next best esports game, many haven’t been successful, others like Fortnite from Epic Games became overnight global and esports sensations.  

It’s safe to say once professional level tournaments and prize pools emerge for a popular esports game, then it has achieved esports status.


How easy is it to become a professional esports player?

Becoming a professional gamer needs just as much commitment and training, or practice, as any other sport. Though it can be easier to gain proficiency and practice in a game at home, professional esports players need skill and determination too.
Professional gamers must also be physically fit to cope with the demands of lengthy and stressful tournaments, mixing gaming with non-gaming activities and a healthy lifestyle is just as important as game play.

Serious gamers may also need the right equipment to take them to the top of their game, as it were. And, as many gamers are young, they also need support from their families or friends and often assistance travelling to tournaments. 

Of course, once a professional esports career is established, players can earn thousands in prize money meaning they can support their own career and cover the cost of driving lessons, vehicles and travel to events. With skill, practice and determination it’s certainly possible to become a professional esports player. Many of the top esports players have proven esports is a sport that’s truly open to anyone with the right commitment.


Is esports really comparable to traditional sports?

Yes, the growth of the esports industry and the tournament scene has proven esports has just as much credibility as any other sport. Esports developers, tournament organizers, teams, esports companies, game developers and players are working together to ensure fair play and eliminate cheating, just like in traditional sports. Esports players must demonstrate the same commitment to training and practice, developing their prowess, as with any other sport. 

Today, the esports industry is worth almost a billion dollars annually and set to reach a value of over $3 billion in the next few years. More and more major brands, many of them previously associated with traditional sports such as Nike and Red Bull, are sponsoring esports events and teams. 

Even advertisers that have historically taken prime viewing spots in major traditional sports events have swapped to esports and streaming media coverage to reach the audience they need. The US Navy, for example, dropped its SuperBowl advertising plans in late 2019 moving their budget instead towards YouTube and esports advertising.


What are the top esports games?

That just depends on what metric you use to classify the “top” games. However, a number of game titles rank highly for both viewership and total tournament prize money. In 2019 Fortnite saw total tournament prize money of over $64 million, followed by Dota 2 which had over $46 million in tournament winnings up for grabs. There was also CS:GO with over $17 million and League of Legends with nearly $9 million in tournament prize money. 

By viewership the most popular esports games look only slightly different, League of Legends takes the audience record at nearly 4 million viewers for the League of Legends World Championships 2019, but the Fortnite World Cup 2019 still achieved 2.3 million viewers. Dota 2 and Free Fire tournaments hit 2 million viewers last year and the PUBG Korea League Phase 1 980,000 viewers. By viewership and prize money other popular esports games are Arena of Valor, Overwatch, Apex Legends, and PUBG Mobile. But there are more. 

Arguably, League of Legends comes out as the best esports game to date by viewership, but CS:GO has the most professional players and could be classed as the most popular esports title.


Is esports more popular than traditional sports?

The general consensus is not yet, but it’s getting there. Arguably esports is more popular than traditional sports amongst younger generations, Generation Z for instance and even Millennials. 

The figures show that even when esports achieves a $5 billion industry valuation that’s still only equivalent to the value of the top 15 teams in the UK’s Premier League football. But, the statistics show that increasingly younger generations are choosing to watch and play esports instead of traditional sports.

If we look at a little more closely at soccer it’s estimated that it, as the world’s most popular sport, has a following of around 4 billion globally. In comparison, esports viewership is expected to grow to 644 million by 2022. Again, it depends on the metrics.

Esports statistics - April 2020

The numbers tell all for esports, it’s a scene, sport and industry that’s growing rapidly and will continue to do so. Here are some of the most telling statistics to date.

Last updated April 2020

Size of esports

$ 0 Million
in 2019

The esports industry was worth $950 million in 2019 and will be worth an estimated $1.1 billion in 2020 and $1.8 billion by 2022. (Source: Newzoo)

Prize pool

$ 0 Million
in 2019

The top esports game by prize pool in 2019 was Fortnite at $64 million. (Source: TEO)

Most viewed tournament

0 Million
League of Legends

The most watched esports tournament in 2019 was the League of Legends Worlds with 3.9 million viewers. (Source: DOT Esports)

Most popular

CS:GO had the most professional esports players in 2019 at 3845, followed by Fortnite with 2305 professional players and League of Legends with 1748. (Source: Esports Earnings)


0 Million
in 2019
In 2019, esports had over 454 million viewers and this figure is expected to rise to 645 million viewers by the end of 2020. (Source: Newzoo)

Twitch Viewers

0 Million
hours watched

In the 30 days preceding April 9, 2020, Twitch viewers had watched over 116 million hours of League of Legends streaming, 106 million hours of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare streaming and 74 million hours of CS:GO. (Source: Twitch Metrics)