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How it all happened

How online gaming has become a spectator sport for millions




Two decades ago, if someone had said that someday you could make a living playing video games, many might have nodded and dismissed them. Today, it’s a rich industry with hordes of spectators, professional players, and big prize pools for those professionals.

It sounds like a dream job for a lot of people, but looking at the progression it makes sense to trace the line from sittings by the TV with an at-home console to taking part in enormous live events watched by millions. How did competitive gaming transform from a niche hobby into a mainstream spectator sport with these global audiences?

From humble beginnings to global phenomenon

In a sense, competitive gaming has its roots in the heyday of head-to-head arcade gaming in the 1970s and 80s when players lined up to compete on classic games such as Space Invaders and Dig Dug. Those who held the high scores for the games could make a big deal of it, but the only real tangible reward was made of good old-fashioned bragging rights.

Later in the 1980s, when the Nintendo Entertainment System became a household item that roped in millions of new players, the possibilities for local competitive video gaming seemed almost endless. Regional tournaments would attract avid followers competing in games such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, esports largely became an online phenomenon. Video games such as Quake and StarCraft could be played online and at higher speeds than ever before. Since events were now international, egos sprung up on a global scale, increasing competition and fostering online communities. Even games that used to be played in person like poker, roulette, or slots have now turned into online pursuits, and there is a crossover between those who like playing online slots or video poker, and those who are interested in watching other people battling it out in tournaments.

Now, players can live stream themselves, while audiences watch live streams of video game tournaments on platforms such as Twitch. This allowed esports to mimic the explosive atmosphere of traditional sports, with state-of-the-art graphics and sound, high-octane action, and both individual and team-based matches.

Beyond the thrill of watching skillful gameplay, there are many reasons why esports make for great spectator sports: 

1) The audience can follow along with the action either in person or online.

2) The rules allow for markets that can potentially be bet on.

3) The players are often visible on the screen, whether as live avatars or through the use of streaming technology.

4) The games offer an inclusive and accessible spectacle.

There are yet other reasons why esports have so penetrated the cultural fabric.

Accessible

You don’t need unreal strength or a massive budget to take up esports. Almost anyone with a computer and a stable internet connection can do it.

This means it has greater potential to build a communal feeling instead of the usual experience that pro sports tend to promote. With most esports, viewers can better see themselves in the players.

Action

Many esports titles are fast-paced and visually interesting. They provide an action-packed and engaging viewing experience, making it easy for new fans who are interested to latch onto the action. 

Intelligent play

In certain games, there is much strategic layering and subtlety, creating an intellectual challenge. Audiences can be so engaged to ensure that they understand the stakes of the match, and have a vested interest in its outcome.

Narrative and drama

Esports stories feature plenty of drama: up-and-coming pros, player rivalries, and dramatic upsets all help to keep esports viewers on the edge of their seats. These traditional storytelling elements, taken from traditional sports, are just as present in esports.

As professional leagues have risen to prominence and created persistent story lines, personalities, and drama around their teams, viewing has become even more appealing.

Celebrity culture

Like traditional competitive sports, esports has created its own class of celebrities. Star players have become household names, with lucrative sponsorships and endorsements on offer for them. Watching these superstars battle it out fuels further engagement with competitive gaming and adds a new human element to this predominantly cyber world.

The future of esports is in continued growth and evolution

It seems clear that the best days of esports are still yet to come. With increased investment in technology, it’s entirely possible that we’ll reach the point where a VR or AR overlay can be integrated into an esports viewing experience, pushing the medium even further beyond its traditional forebears.

Esports might also take root further on the education track. More and more schools are treating it as a legitimate extracurricular activity, and could eventually begin investing in collegiate esports programs. More investment from game developers, as well as broadcast and sports media industries, could also help to further fuel this growth.

Jaxon.gg is a leading hub for all things esports and competitive gaming. From Counter-Strike to Valorant, from League of Legends to Dota 2, it's all covered, along with the community news that matters most to gamers.