Esports History: The Origin of Competitive Gaming

Today, the esports industry is a multi-billion-dollar beast of innovation, energy, and diversity, but where did it all begin? As we look back through the history of esports, there are plenty of notable moments, but what’s the origin of the industry? In this guide, we’re going back to the first esports tournament and the very beginnings of the market that we all know and love, learning when esports ‘started’ and how it grew to be the titan that it is today.

If you’ve been wanting to learn more about esports history, then read on.

How Esports Began

esports history

Some of the earliest video games were competitive by nature, encouraging two or more players to game against one another fighting for points. For instance, in 1958, Tennis for Two was developed by William Higinbotham and Robert Dvorak, making use of an analogue computer to simulate a simple tennis match. It was replicated by the much more successful Pong in 1972, which was developed by Atari.

Despite not naming it as such, the first ‘esports tournament’ in history was held in 1972, and it was played on a game called Spacewar! As something of an experiment by Stanford University, the Spacewar! tournament invited people to play the game against one another – but there was no prize. In 1980, a Space Invaders tournament pulled in a whopping 10,000 competitors. It was won by Rebecca Heineman, who would go on to become a game designer and programmer.

This is considered the starting point for esports history, even if it wasn’t ‘known’.

Growing Up

In the 1980s, developers and publishers started leaning more into the idea of competitive gaming – and ‘esports’. In 1984, a monumental Track & Field tournament hosted by Konami drew the attention of more than one million competitors, easily becoming the most populated gaming competition of all time. With the growth of gaming and the popularisation of the industry running rampant, it was only a matter of time before history’s greatest innovation impacted the business: the internet.

As the 1990s unfolded, they brought with them the concept of online multiplayer gaming. This is where esports started to mature, with players enjoying competitive games like Quake without being encumbered by the need to be in the same location as their opponents. It wouldn’t be until 2000 that the term ‘esports’ was officially coined, but the industry had started shaping itself long before then. Some of the best esports documentaries highlight this period when discussing esports history.

In the 1990s, gaming was starting to become less stigmatised, aided by the popularity of some historic competitive tournaments. In 1996, the first EVO tournament took place – and that’s still running today. StarCraft, Counter-Strike, Quake, and Warcraft were all finding their feet in the nineties, and they’re almost all still relevant at the time of writing.


cod 4 esports history

At the turn of the millennium, the esports industry started blossoming, with more games filling the space than ever before. Soon, online multiplayer games would come to dominate the industry, and by the mid-2000s, franchises like Call of Duty would be blowing up, attracting millions of gamers worldwide. From MOBAs to first-person shooters and from racing games to fighting games, this is where the esports market was blooming and becoming increasingly diverse.

With the 2010s arriving, gamers started exploring an entirely new market: online streaming. This allowed players to broadcast their competitive gaming sessions over the internet, encouraging a more accessible way to check out a game or learn more about it. It would come to be the de facto standard for viewing esports tournaments, and it quickly turned everyday gamers into multi-million-dollar content creators as the market bloomed

It was here that everything started swelling at a dizzying pace:

  • Prize money
  • Investments
  • Sponsorship deals
  • Viewership
  • Density of games
  • Number of tournaments

Around the world, governments and regulatory bodies were coming around to the concept of esports and competitive gaming. More nations were supporting the global esports infrastructure, hosting tournaments, building esports-focused stadiums, and investing in organisations. With millions of competitive gamers strewn around the world, becoming an esports pro player was rapidly being identified as the career path of choice for many young people.

That’s the history of esports in a nutshell. It all started around seventy years ago, but it wasn’t until 2000 that the term ‘esports’ was coined. Despite that fact, millions of gamers were busy populating and building an industry that they had no idea would one day be worth billions of dollars.