A number of years ago, a select number of gamers would gather in darkened rooms to prove their gaming prowess in tournaments. Now, with professional gamers competing for fame and fortune in packed venues across the world, the early days of competitive gaming seem like the distant past.
How did this happen? Here, European Games League’s Chris Marsh charts the rise of eSports through its most important games.
Released in 1999, Counter-Strike was a mod of Valve’s super shooter Half-Life which placed the emphasis on multiplayer blasting. With online gaming becoming increasingly popular, Counter-Strike’s simplistic maps and stable mechanics ensured that it would become one of the first big hits on the eSports scene as elite players joined teams in the burgeoning first-person shooter community.
Counter-Strike had real staying power. Patches improved the game and fixed minor problems that were causing issues for players, resulting in this mod becoming an internationally recognised competition title, featuring at almost every major tournament.
Even the release of Counter-Strike: Source couldn’t drag the best players away. Released in 2004, Source introduced updated visuals and slightly modified gameplay and while these subtle changes spawned a new community, many of the original players and stars chose to stick with the game's predecessor.
Counter-Strike remained the flagship PC shooter as international tournaments continued to take place for a great number of years. It was the original global shooter with teams from almost every continent competing in events like the World Cyber Games. No game has come close to its popularity on the eSports scene since.
Eventually, Counter-Strike, known affectionately at this point by the latest version of the patch 1.6, succumbed to the pressures of the games industry. Sponsors want to see hardware exhibiting the latest and greatest games. 1.6 simply didn't have that in its locker any more. The cracks began to show and eventually many of the game's greats moved on to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a game that has slowly gained a large following.
Counter-Strike will go down in history as the first major competitive FPS. Etched in the history books of eSports forever.
StarCraft blazed a trail for eSports, especially in South Korea where kids, rather than going out to play at breaktime, would stay inside to hone their skills on Blizzard’s real-time strategy smash hit. StarCraft was perfectly balanced, requiring the highest levels of micro and macro management in order to be the best. The best became celebrities.
Major players in the technology industry were soon jumping on the bandwagon and StarCraft quickly became an organised eSport. Multiple TV channels were dedicated to competitive StarCraft and the gamers who were showing off finely tuned talent. A whole industry was created around LAN centres as gamers flocked to their local café to play the RTS phenomenon with friends or online. The limited graphics meant that you didn’t need top-end PC hardware to run StarCraft. It was the perfect formula for eSports success. In South Korea at least.
For while StarCraft was a major game at South Korea’s World Cyber Games, stars around the world were playing Warcraft 3, Blizzard’s other big RTS.
Still, StarCraft set new standards for eSports with the competitive nature of tournaments leading to strict rules and regulations being enforced. In 2010, a number of high profile players were punished as part of a match fixing scandal. The players faced jail and community service. This was serious sport being played by pro players.
Of course, the success of StarCraft resulted in a sequel, a game that was embraced by players outside of South Korea. Popular YouTube and broadcast personalities helped introduce the game to a wider audience and although South Koreans resisted the sequel at first, they too moved onto StarCraft 2. Like Counter-Strike, StarCraft maintains a modest interest from fans.
Halo: Combat Evolved was the defining title of the original Xbox. Master Chief's exploits offered players one of the greatest ever single-player campaign modes and while the multiplayer was no slouch, it was the release of Halo 2 that revolutionised console eSports.
With players competing online via Xbox Live, the tournament scene exploded internationally. Europe had a number of reasonably sized leagues, with well drilled, talented outfits travelling across the continent to prove their worth. The United States lead the way as Major League Gaming launched console players into the limelight for the first time. Overnight, players like the Ogre twins, Walshy, Strongside and Tsquared become superstars. It wasn't long before the money followed either. MLG's tournaments were increasingly glamorous, coupling the best gameplay with stellar broadcasting.
By today's standards, Major League Gaming's Halo viewing figures were fairly meagre but, at the time, it was revolutionary. Console eSports had arrived in a big way and that was largely down to the success of Halo 2. The multiplayer offered variety, was fast and frantic, and most importantly, was perfectly built for console players. With the emphasis on team play and high-level communications, many of the biggest cynics could look past the shortcomings of a controller to appreciate the talent being showcased. Halo 2 paved the way to bring eSports to an even wider audience beyond its PC roots.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The original Call of Duty was relatively successful on PC. While Counter-Strike found an underground following, Activision’s FPS benefited from a larger marketing budget, making it a more mainstream title. Call of Duty 2 was released on both PC and console, giving the game a wider appeal, but it took the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for the FPS to infiltrate eSports tournaments as a major player. A combination of a fresh modern setting, a killer storyline, a straightforward learning curve and a player reward system saw the sales explode. Both PC and console versions of the game flourished.
Of course, it was the varied multiplayer mode which ensured its continuing success and competitive leagues and tournaments sprang up all over the world.
While the Halo series remained the darling of North America and Europe, Call of Duty was becoming increasingly hard to ignore. As yearly sequels were released, the series grew in popularity and interest in tournaments began to build. The release of Modern Warfare 3 resulted in the first event which featured over 100 teams. In the same year, the first million dollar tournament brought together the best teams from around the world. Two years later and the second million dollar tournament was announced, again looking to pit the best of the best against each other in a gladiatorial showdown.
Broadcast views started hitting six figures. If Halo was the pioneer of console eSports, Call of Duty took it to the next level. With more international events planned throughout 2014, Call of Duty shows no sign of slowing down for the competitive gamer. Who knows what the future holds?
League of Legends
League of Legends is increasingly becoming a household name. While it may not have the international notoriety of a Call of Duty, few can ignore its huge and dedicated fanbase.
League of Legends has its roots in Defense of the Ancients (DotA). DotA was a simple offshoot of the popular RTS Warcraft 3. Warcraft 3 was a conventional RTS but, in a game based on a StarCraft map known as Aeon of Strife, DotA players controlled a single unit. The Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre was born. DotA enjoyed relative success and even featured at the World Cyber Games for a number of years.
The success of the genre attracted attention from new publishers and developers such as Riot which launched League of Legends in 2009. Combining MOBA style gameplay with a clever system of micro-transactions, League of Legends immediately garnered a considerable following. The game started to appear at international tournaments, with Riot also taking an interest in the game's growth as an eSports entity.
LoL exponentially grew in popularity, attracting a huge international audience. The World Championships were witnessed by millions of viewers, leading to Riot introducing bigger and better prize pools and incentives for players and organisers. Players began competing for sizeable chunks of money with $1M becoming the norm for first place.
League of Legends has since become the most played PC game in the world and continues to pave the way for other eSports titles.
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