Online streaming and the evolution of eSports

computers 1The eSports industry is far more mature than one might first think. The industry has only just started to rise to the mainstream, though, but it is something that has captured the attention of gamers for decades.

The first ever eSports event on record took place in 1972, with students at Stanford University competing against each other in the video game Spacewar. In 1980, there was a Space Invaders Championship held, and that attracted 10,000 participants, and widespread media attention since Space Invaders was a popular game at the time. In the 1990s, the big eSport of the moment was Quake. The rising availability of Internet connections domestically, and the growth of PC gaming meant that it was possible for people to play competitively, and gaming communities were springing up around the world. Those communities would often get together to play LAN parties, where participants would bring their computers, connect them together on a local network, and play with or against each other for fun. Some of those LAN parties and tournaments were sponsored by big companies such as Blockbuster.

From Niche to Mainstream

While there were some fairly big eSports tournaments in the late 1990s, the activity was still fairly niche. Back then, it still took some computer hardware and software knowledge to set up a machine capable of playing sophisticated video games, and while Internet access was getting more mainstream, finding internet access that was reliable enough for playing games, and paying for that access, was not something that everyone could do. Those who lived in rural areas may have found that their access was too slow to play online, and calling charges for some ISPs were quite hefty, so it would be fair to say that eSports were still a rich person’s pursuit.

By 1998, that had started to change, and another significant thing happened in 1998 – the release of StarCraft: Brood War. StarCraft became the leading real time strategy game, and spawned many sequels over the years. It built up a huge following, and eSports tournaments that focused on it became big business, particularly in Korea. Indeed, accomplished players became celebrities in their own right, revered for having the ability to perform absurdly high ‘actions per minute’ – pressing shortcut keys and using the mouse confidently to order units around the screen. Players in some countries, including Germany and Sweden, would head to Internet cafes to play, rather than investing in expensive hardware to acquire the advantages of fast monitor response, low input lag on their mice, and the responsive nature of mechanical keyboards.

From StarCraft to MMOs and MOBAs

Blizzard, the developers of StarCraft, then went on to release World of Warcraft. This was far from the first MMO to ever be released, but it combine polished graphics and production values with a clean user interface and good content, which made it a success because it had a strong PR machine around it, and it was released just as EverQuest, another game from a rival developer, was waning in popularity. EverQuest was good game but it was aimed at a narrower demographic of players that were more dedicated and willing to invest a lot of time into growing their characters, and who were willing to pay more harshly for mistakes that they made along the way. World of Warcraft managed to cater to that same demographic, through a challenging raid system and some competitive PVP options, while still appealing to more casual players through a more relaxed way of growing a character. They attracted a huge audience of players, and turned some casual players into hardcore players that devoted their time to Arena PVP.

Of course, there was still a gap in the market. Those who wanted the competitive aspects of arena PVP, but without the wait of leveling up a character first of all. Enter the MOBA – an online battle arena style game where players control characters that are similar to the ones they would have an a massively multiplayer RPG, but without the boring bit of having to take the character on quests to “kill 20 rats” before they can start fighting players. League of Legends was one such hugely popular MOBA, and from there other games have also evolved.

Faster Internet connections mean that first person shooters enjoyed a resurgence too, with more modern updates to Quake coming out alongside games such as Counter Strike, Battlefield, and Team Fortress. Today, if you can imagine it, you can play it, whether that’s warship simulators, first person shooters, online RPGs, spaceship games, MOBAS, or even text based games.

The Challenge of Discoverability

With so many games out there, we are faced with a new challenge. How do people know what is out to play? That’s where online streaming starts to be useful. With online streaming, people can watch professionals play the games that they are interested in, and decide whether they want to buy. There are entire industries set up around “Let’s Play”, where people can watch a new game being played and follow the story, learn tips or strategies, or just talk to the streamers. Speed runs of older games have become popular, and the most popular streamers can make money from ads, or even from ‘tips’ from their viewers.

eSports tournaments such as the EVE Alliance Tournament are streamed live, and players will stop playing the game themselves to watch the best at that game duke it out. Twitch is so popular that it has successfully allied with Amazon, and Prime subscribers can get premium access to Twitch. The Twitch streamers that they subscribe to get a portion of the revenue from the subscription. It is practices such as this which have made eSports mainstream, and turned some of the more prolific competitors into minor celebrities in their own right, within the niche that they play. Now anyone can create content, and the potential audience for consuming it has reached millions upon millions in the English speaking world alone.

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