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Screenside -- eSports: A History

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Posted July 7, 2011 - By Leah Jackson


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MLG Columbus Video Game Tournament Brings In Record Breaking 22.5 Million Views

Over the last year you may have noticed us focusing a bit more on electronic sports (eSports) than usual. Due to the continued and overwhelming growth of eSports, I've decided to channel my own passion for professional gaming into "Screenside", a column devoted entirely to pro gaming and all aspects surrounding it. But first let’s back up a minute so I can explain just what this eSports thing is all about.

To put it simply, eSports is competitive video gaming. You may pick up your controller every night and mess around with friends, get a few headshots, sure. That’s great. But the gamers in this world are actual professionals. These pro gamers get paid to play games. Almost any multiplayer game can turn into an eSports title but the games that generally have the largest, most devoted followings are first person shooters (FPS), real time strategies (RTS), and fighting games.

“The legacy of Competitive Gaming/eSports dates back to the late 90's, where three separate isolated incidents caused their communities to reach new heights and set the path to where we are today," said Rod "Slasher" Breslau, eSports analyst. "In 1997, Dennis "Thresh" Fong won id Software co-founder John Carmack's Ferrari in the Red Annihilation Quake 1 tournament. In 1998, Daigo Umehara made his first trip to America to play a then young Alex Valle in Street FIghter Alpha 3, marking the first ever U.S. vs Japan battle and the start of Japan's dominance. In 2000, French Canadian Guillaume "Grrrr" Patry went to Korea to participate and win the first ever OnGameNet StarLeague for StarCraft, making way for Lim “SlayerS_BoxeR” Yo-Hwan's dominance shortly after. It's more than a decade later, but we are only now seeing the FPS, RTS and Fighting scenes unify."

All over the world, eSports has steadily become incredibly popular since these events. Huge tournaments with sizable prize pools are popping up all over recently. Last year, the Halo team Final Boss won $100,000 in prize money in the Halo 3 Major League Gaming (MLG) National Championship. One StarCraft 2 pro gamer, Choi Sung Hoon (more commonly known as PoltPrime), earned 100,000,000 won (roughly $93,000) after a month long tournament in the extremely competitive Global StarCraft 2 League (GSL) in South Korea. Dreamhack, a Swedish tournament, pulled in over 900,000 unique viewers.

But that’s eSports now, and to understand why pro gaming is back with a vengeance, it’s important to understand why eSports died out in the past.

Screenside -- eSports: A History

eSports goes all the way back to the inception of multiplayer videogames, but in the interests of brevity, let’s start with the emergence of StarCraft in South Korea. In the 1990s, the South Korean government installed super fast broadband internet in many areas of the country, which led to internet cafés, called PC Bangs, popping up everywhere. With the internet accessible to millions and Blizzard’s StarCraft being a popular go-to for gaming, the South Korean government formed an organization called Kespa (Korean e-Sports Players Association) to regulate, promote, and organize professional gaming.

StarCraft blossomed in South Korea and became somewhat of a national hobby. eSports powerhouses emerged, pro gamers like Boxer and NaDa, who went on to become mega celebrities with sponsored teams competing for very large prize pools on national television stations devoted to the StarCraft competitions. Always ones to capitalize on success, the U.S. tried to follow suit in 2007 with the Championship Gaming Series, but things didn’t go so well.

The CGS tried to be an American eSports league televised on G4 and DirectTV but it quickly died out for a variety of reasons. Aside from being a passionate league filled with amazing talent and production value, they eventually spread themselves too thin. Instead of trying to create a national franchise, they tried to create a global one when they simply couldn’t afford it.  The league burned out almost as quickly as it was ignited and with it went many of the potential advertisers and sponsors of eSports.

Screenside -- eSports: A History

“The CGS turned out to be a great example of how you can't throw money at eSports and expect success. Although they suffered the curse of average game titles, the real downfall of the CGS was the massive amounts of money they dedicated to their global initiative with relatively zero return. Ultimately, CGS wasted money by expanding too quickly," said Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, eSports Commentator.

However, with more recent games focusing heavily on multiplayer aspects and specifically eSports, we’re seeing a strong reemergence of the competitive scene. Not only that, but the means of delivering the content to fans is now more improved. With websites dedicated to streaming eSports content like TwitchTV and instant Twitter updates, games like League of Legends, Halo, and especially StarCraft 2 have blown up in popularity over the last year. Leagues like Major League Gaming, the North American Star League, and EVO are offering huge prize pools for a variety of games and they all offer both a live and online spectating experience unlike many other in the business.

“Spectator passes are selling at a record rate, we have another group of incredible Pro Players coming from Korea through our exchange program with GSL and lots of compelling programming planned for our live video streams,” said MLG's CEO Sundance DiGiovanni. “In fact we think we'll easily shatter the 22.5 million streams record previously set with our Columbus event [at our MLG Anaheim event],” he said. Even games media sites are getting in on the craze, with IGN launching its own professional StarCraft 2 league, the IPL.

The key reason that eSports seems to finally be working this time around is because, gasp, the people producing the content understand the product. Pro gaming leagues focus on spectator friendly games like Super Street Fighter 4 or StarCraft 2 as well as the players and their personalities rather than flashy lights and pretty graphics. Now older and wiser, former pro players have traded in the joystick for the microphone, acting as eSports ambassadors, with casters like Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham and the Plott brothers Nick “Tasteless” Plott and Sean “Day9” Plott all garnering fan followings. And last but not least, the technology has evolved to allow fans to watch live streams anytime on their computers or phones.

Screenside -- eSports: A History

And that’s the goal for this column; to not only educate you regarding current eSports events, but to hopefully entertain and inspire you to play competitively as well. Pro gaming is not just the games but the teams, tournaments, players, casters, merchandising potential, sponsors, and of course, the fans and the various eSports communities around the world. Big things are happening around eSports and I couldn’t be more excited to play a part in the phenomenon. 

Photos: Major League Gaming

Have something to share? Sitting on a news tip? E-mail me. You can also follow me on Twitter!

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