Before esports: Breaking down the origin of gaming

By William Davis

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Aug 2, 2023

Reading time: 3 min

Modern esports is easily the most discussed sector in entertainment—and for good reason. After a decade of rising popularity throughout the 2010s, esports is now on par with traditional sports in terms of its relative fandom, viewer numbers, and infrastructure. In other words, video games are now a true spectator sport.

However, while esports might seem like a modern phenomenon, it actually has roots that can be traced back down through centuries of incremental growth and evolution. Don’t believe us? Let’s dive into some of the earliest origins of modern esports.

Phase One: Casino Gaming (1700-Present)

Perhaps the chief antecedent to modern esports is classical casino gaming. Today, a fan of slots or roulette can head to a virtual platform to start playing, which closely mirrors other video games. This trend started as early as the 1990s when the first poker rooms launched online. The industry has evolved quite a bit since then; now, a top-tier online casino will offer dozens of games, variations, and gaming features.

These allow players to dive into their favorite aspects of each game. But in reality, casinos have been a key part of gaming culture for centuries—long before the birth of the internet. For example, three of the most popular games are all over 100 years old. Roulette was born in the mid-1700s in Paris, while blackjack circulated around Europe starting in the 1800s. Slot machines, meanwhile, were invented in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century.

Video games

Phase Two: Arcade Era (1960-1990)

Clearly, casino games helped set the stage for modern esports by generating a groundswell of interest in sit-down gaming. Additionally, these early titles helped popularize the development and pursuit of skills beyond the limits of rote academic subjects. What distinguishes the arcade era, however, was its emphasis on new advancements in technology.

Starting in the 1970s, titles like Pong (1972) and Space Invaders (1978) helped introduce many modern gameplay mechanics, from animated physics to leveling up. By the 1980s, titles like Pac-Man (1980) and Street Fighter (1987) paved the way for modern esports. The first in-person competitions were set up—and committed gamers soon began dedicating their lives to being the world’s best at their favorite title.

Phase Three: CCGs (1990s)

As demonstrated by the previous casino example, not all elements that contributed to the rise of esports were digital in origin. Likewise, collectible card games (CCGs) have also left their mark on the industry. CCGs like Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon were important because they helped set the stage for international competition.

For example, Magic: The Gathering players were some of the first to figure out how to shorten long-form games to make them entertaining in a spectator tournament format—without having to compromise the integrity of the game.

Phase Four: The Justin.tv Case Study

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The final step towards modern esports came in 2007 with Justin.tv, the precursor to Twitch. Originally, the project wasn’t tied to gaming—instead, the goal of the website was for one creator, Justin Kan, to be able to live-stream his entire life. It became a global phenomenon known as ‘life-casting’. Viewed in this way, the most direct contributor to modern esports is actually an obsession with live-streaming.

However, gaming was quickly added to the platform in 2008. In 2011, the gaming category moved permanently to Twitch—and three years later, that platform was bought by Amazon, then flipped into the vehicle for esports to take off globally. But what about those early years on Twitch? What were these early gaming streams focused on?

Many of the early successes were variety streamers, like LIRIK and Day[9]. Others, like Destiny and CohhCarnage, focused intensely on personality. The former was known for drama, the latter for positivity. In other words, the earliest focus wasn’t always on games but also on the entertainment value of streamers.

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