September 10, 2021

8 min

A History of Esports

In honor of National Video Game Day, read on to learn the humble origins of esports and the major milestones that bring us to the billion dollar industry today.

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What's Inside
  • 1970s

    No LAN parties here, just good old fashioned arcade games.

  • 1980s

    The start of high-score tournaments for classic arcade games like Donkey Kong.

  • 1990s

    The advent of the internet. Anyone up for a round of Doom?

  • 2000s

    Televised esports starts taking off.

  • 2010s

    With enough time spent playing Fortnite, kids can put themselves through college.

Esports may seem like a modern phenomenon from the outsider’s perspective, but the history of esports goes back all the way to the 1970s. And I’m not talking putting in your initials for the high score at the local arcade and checking back daily to make sure no one’s usurped your title.

Esports, an industry that is expected to exceed $1 billion dollars in market revenue worldwide in 2021 according to, an increase of 50% year-over-year. Read on to learn the humble origins of esports and the major milestones that bring us to esports today.

A History of Esports, 1972-2021

Although the term “esports” wasn’t coined until 2000, there were many events that built the groundwork for modern esports to exist. 



Flashback to the first official video game competition at Stanford University, dubbed the “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics”. The game? Spacewar, a multiplayer space combat game from 1962 for the PDP-1 minicomputer platform. The prize? A one-year subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.


Sea Wolf becomes the first game to introduce a permanent high score list, but it could be reset at any time with a button on the machine.


The late 70s heralded in the “Golden Age” of arcade games, including Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Pac-Man. The high score data, along with the holder’s initials, was stored on the arcade machine’s RAM and would be deleted if the machine was unplugged.



Atari held their Space Invaders Championship in Los Angeles, after several regional qualifiers. Over 10,000 gamers gathered around Atari 2600 consoles and rear-projection TVs in what is now often cited as the first esports event. This was a clear indicator that competitive gaming had arrived in the culture.


The public attention on video game tournaments was further cemented with the release of the original Tron movie, a cult classic which raked in $50 million at the box office on a $17 million dollar budget.

Around this time in 1982, a man named Walter Day founded Twin Galaxies, Inc, created a database of arcade records he gathered after visiting over 100 video game arcades. He called this database the “Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard”, officializing the scores of various games and arranging competitions between top players all around the US.

Additionally, 1982 brought us STARCADE!, a TV game show which featured contestants facing off in arcade games to get the highest cumulative score and included video game-related trivia. It ran for four seasons (133 episodes), with winners competing for arcade game cabinets and other prizes. The UK had a similarly popular show called First Class that ran around the same time, indicating the interest in esports wasn’t only limited to the US.


Day tours the US with Billy Mitchell, who set the highest overall score for Donkey Kong in 1982, and a host of other skilled arcade players in the “Electronic Circus”. Later that summer, Day founded the first US National Video Game Team, taking the helm as team captain.


The Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System are released, 8-bit home consoles that bring an end to the era of arcade dominance


A milestone year for online gaming, 1988 brought us Netrek, one of the first online games and the first online team game/multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), an ancestor to games like League of Legends and DOTA. Netrek was a real-time strategy mixed with a shooter that allowed up to 16 players to capture the opposing team’s planets within the Star Trek universe. 


The 90s ushered in large national gaming competitions as well as more widespread internet access to the general public.


The new console powerhouse Nintendo, with the wildly successful NES, started the “Nintendo World Championships”, which featured a six-minute, 21 second triathlon of Super Mario Bros, Rad Racer and Tetris, all bundled together on a special grey or gold cartridge. The 26 gold cartridges are some of the most valuable collectibles in gaming history, with one having sold in 2014 for $100K!

This tournament toured 29 cities across the US, and participants clashed for prizes including a $10K savings bond, a 1990 Geo Metro convertible and Nintendo systems.


Doom, a hit first-person shooter (FPS), became one of the first online competitive multiplayer games with a 4-player deathmatch mode.

Blockbuster Video holds their first Video Game Challenge, which gave competitors the choice to rack up a high score at their local Blockbuster in either Super Nintendo (SNES) or Sega Genesis games. State champions got a TV and a free trip to Florida for the finals, with the grand prize winner getting a trip to San Francisco to tour GamePro, EA and Capcom’s offices.


Nintendo followed up the Nintendo World Championships with their PowerFest to promote the SNES. The tournament featured a similar format with different games, although no mythical golden cartridges were released.


Games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat introduced direct competition to determine the best player, rather than achieving the highest score. This laid the groundwork for player vs. player (PvP) video games of the future, as well as the Evolution Championship Series (Evo) fighting game tournament. Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994), FPS Quake (1996) and other head-to-head competitive games began to proliferate.


The Quake “Red Annihilation” competition is commonly regarded as the first true esports event. Over 2000 participants competed online in one-on-one deathmatches, and the top 16 players were flown to Atlanta, Georgia in a gaming arena on the floor of the Electronic Entertainment Expo. The winner, Dennis Fong, received legendary game developer John Carmack’s (co-founder of id Software, maker of Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein) 1987 Ferrari 328 GTS.

The Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) was founded in June of 1997, with Quake being the first league game played. The Professional Gamers League (PGL) began September of 1997, with StarCraft as their first-ever tournament.


Internet access, speed and popularity of video games continues to grow and more individuals gain access to gaming PCs, which are increasingly affordable and powerful.


South Korea, following their mass-building of broadband internet networks and LAN gaming centers, became a hub of esports. The Korean Esports organization began, with Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Park Jie-won coining the term “esports”.

Counter-Strike (2000), originally a mod for Half-Life (1998), has become one of the most influential and popular FPS in history, spawning several spinoffs throughout the years. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) remains of the most popular and lucrative games in esports, ranking #2 for total prize pool in 2020 according to Esports Earnings, with over 14,000 players and 5,827 tournaments.


Major League Gaming (MLG) is launched, eventually becoming the first televised video game console gaming league with their Halo 2 Pro Series in 2006.


Often cited as the most iconic and exciting moment in competitive gaming history, the “Evo Moment #37” or “Daigo Parry” occurred at Evo. Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong faced off in Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, with Daigo as Ken and Justin as Chun-Li. Daigo managed to parry 15 strikes in a row with only 1 pixel remaining in health, a very difficult and precise maneuver.


FUN Technologies holds the Worldwide Webgames Championship, with 71 players competing for $1 million, showcasing the growing prize pools of esports.


Watching and participating in esports competitions becomes easier than ever with the advent of Twitch, plus esports streamers become recognized as athletes and professionals in their own right.


Nintendo holds the Wii Games Summer, a tournament that lasted over a month, with over 400,000 participants. Super Smash Bros Brawl earns a place in the pantheon of most popular esports games, along with its predecessor, Super Smash Bros Melee (2001).


The Twitch live streaming platform is launched, becoming a major means of connecting gamers to esports competitions and famous individual players live streaming their gameplay. Gamers can now make livings streaming their games right out of the comfort of their homes by building an audience and gaining advertising and sponsorship deals.


12 billion minutes of video are consumed on Twitch, the most popular streams being League of Legends and Dota 2. Universities and colleges begin offering athletic scholarships to esports players and consider them varsity athletes. Plus, the US formally recognizes esports players as professional athletes, allowing them visas to enter the US to compete.

In October, the Season 3 League of Legends World Championship sells out the Staples Center, with 15,000 fans in attendance and 32 million unique viewers on Twitch.


eSports Arena launches their first location in Santa Ana, CA, a 15,000 sq. ft. venue which seats 1,400 for both amateur and professional events. Founders Paul Ward and Tyler Endres laid the IT infrastructure in the building, and kept the aesthetic to the essentials, with a concrete floor and modular layout allowing for the hosting of different events. Additionally, the facility contains meeting rooms, a studio, production rooms, as well as a kitchen and bar.


The LoL World Championships brings in 43 million viewers, with over 60 million viewers in 2017, topping both the MLB and NBA.


The International Olympic Committee leaves open the possibility esports could eventually become an Olympic sport, as esports organizations continue to build serious reputations around the world.


The Luxor Hotel’s HyperX eSports Arena opens in Las Vegas, NV, featuring a 30,000 sq. ft., multi-level arena, competition stage, 50 ft. LED video wall, production/broadcasting rooms, as well as common spaces for PC and console gaming.


The Fortnite World Cup raises a prize pool of $100,000,000, with over 2 million spectators. Esports teams competed for prize pools in excess of $34 million dollars in The International 9, a 2019 Dota 2 tournament.


eSports Arena has expanded their presence to over 16 Walmart locations across the US, where they also sell esports gear and host both casual online play and tournaments.


We hope you enjoyed this overview of the history of competitive gaming and esports. If you’re interested in your own esports arena, CDW gets what it takes for esports. From the data center to the gaming keyboard and mouse, we have the technical expertise to provide your institution with a custom esports solution. Whether you need advice on esports arena design, you’re looking to level up your current setup or trying to start up an esports team at your school, we can help.