In the early days of esports, nothing more than your pride was on the line. But today? One misclick could potentially cost you millions of dollars.

I have been an esports tournament organizer for over three years, and have been gaming my whole life. During that time, I’ve learned much about the history of esports, its current position in the global market, and its future potential. Read on for my findings.

Origin of Esports

Esports, a term denoting competitive video gaming at a professional level, has roots that trace back to the early days of video games. In gaming’s infancy, competitions were mostly limited to universities and research facilities, where scientists and students engaged in friendly matches. These digital competitions were more akin to experiments or demonstrations, and were a far cry from the esports we know today.

As video games gained popularity and sophistication in the 1970s and 1980s, gaming tournaments evolved alongside them. The idea of using video games as a medium to showcase legitimate competition still never really reached the mainstream until arguably the ‘90s with the Nintendo World Championships. But even then, if you tried to use the word “esports” as a legitimate term, you wouldn’t have been taken seriously.

Since the pioneering days of the Nintendo World Championships, esports has seen a dramatic evolution, marking numerous major events that have defined the landscape. The 1990s witnessed the birth of the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), one of the earliest organized esports leagues, setting the stage for competitive gaming on a larger scale. Fast forward to the 2000s, and South Korea has risen as an esports powerhouse with the inception of the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA) and the launch of the annual World Cyber Games (WCG), bringing together players from around the globe. The mid-2000s also saw the formation of Major League Gaming (MLG) in the United States, contributing significantly to esports’ growing popularity in the West.

However, it was the release of games like League of Legends and Dota 2 in the late 2000s and early 2010s that truly propelled esports into the mainstream. The International, an annual Dota 2 championship, emerged as a defining event, boasting unprecedented prize pools of tens of millions of dollars funded by the gaming community itself. The evolution of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) also played a pivotal role, with its major tournaments like ESL One and the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) becoming staple events in the esports calendar. In recent years, battle royale games like Fortnite and Apex Legends have risen to prominence, hosting their own major tournaments with substantial prize money.

Esports’ Popularity Today

The global esports market is currently worth around $1.72 billion, according to Fortune Business Insights. It is expected to grow at a rate of 21.5 percent during the forecast period of 2023-2030, reaching a value of $6.75 billion by 2030. Esports have been at a high level of global popularity for a while now, with tournaments and leagues being held all over the world, but this is some seriously rapid growth. In terms of viewership, esports is even getting close to rivaling traditional sports in some cases. In 2022, the League of Legends World Championship witnessed an astonishing milestone with over 5.15 million peak concurrent viewers, solidifying its position as one of the most watched sport events ever, “e” or otherwise.

Sponsorship and Brand Involvement

Major corporations like Coca-Cola, Intel, and Red Bull recognize the enormous potential of esports and have eagerly stepped into the arena, becoming prominent sponsors of both major and minor esports events worldwide. This influx of sponsorship deals mirrors the support seen in traditional sports, showcasing the commercial viability and reach of esports. These sponsorships not only inject substantial funds into the industry but also lend legitimacy and further propel esports into the mainstream.

Esports are no longer just a niche interest but a global phenomenon with the capacity to generate significant returns on investment. Brands view esports as a fertile ground for reaching a diverse and engaged audience, leading to an increase in long-term partnerships and collaborations.

Evolving Perception of Sports

Esports’ surge in popularity prompts a reevaluation of what constitutes a ‘sport.’ While traditional sports are deeply ingrained in physical prowess, endurance, and athleticism, esports showcases a different kind of skill – one rooted in strategy, hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and teamwork. The competitive nature of esports draws obvious parallels to traditional sports, creating a new form of athletic competition that is demanding and enthralling in many similar ways.

Moreover, esports tournaments are often organized in grand arenas, with fans filling the stands, creating an electric atmosphere not unlike traditional sporting events. The sense of camaraderie and passion exhibited by esports fans mirrors that of traditional sports fans, reinforcing the idea that esports is a legitimate form of sports entertainment.

The Global Landscape

Esports competitions have a truly international audience, transcending geographical boundaries and cultural differences. Players from diverse backgrounds compete at the highest level, fostering a sense of unity and diversity within the esports community which is somewhat lacking in traditional sports. You don’t need to be over 6 feet tall and naturally athletic to be good at video games, but you do if you want to be NBA.

The Driving Forces Behind the Esports Phenomenon

So what’s driving the popularity of esports? Here are a few factors:

The increasing popularity of video games

Video games are now one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world. According to Grand View Research, the global video game market was valued at $217.06 billion in 2022. Esports also obviously have a synergistic relationship with video games, as people watch their favorite players compete at the highest level, they become interested in the game, branch out to other games, etc.

The rise of streaming platforms

Streaming platforms, such as Twitch and YouTube Gaming, have made it easier than ever for people to watch esports tournaments. In 2022, Twitch had over 7.5 million active streamers and over 140 million monthly active users. More people are active on Twitch than people live in Mexico. YouTube Gaming had over 2 million active streamers and over 80 million monthly active users. These platforms do more than just provide access to esports content; they offer features like chat, that create a more social and interactive experience for esports viewers, further increasing engagement.

The growing investment from traditional sports leagues and sponsors

Traditional sports leagues see the writing on the wall. They are increasingly investing in esports, legitimizing them and making them even more mainstream. The NBA, for example, has established its own esports league, the NBA 2K League. This involvement from established sports entities underscores the shift happening in the entertainment landscape, where esports is increasingly seen as a peer to traditional sports.

Final Thoughts

Esports have come a long way. From their humble science lab beginnings to becoming one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world, attracting millions of viewers and generating billions of dollars in revenue. As technology continues to advance and the esports ecosystem becomes increasingly sophisticated, there’s no telling just how far it will go. Esports are poised to become an integral part of our cultural fabric, captivating audiences and inspiring generations to come, and I can’t wait to see how it grows and evolves.