Esports might seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, but the truth is far from that! Old-school video game competitions have been around since the early ’70s. The first one on record took place at Stanford University on October 19, 1972, when students gathered to compete in the intergalactic combat game Spacewar. The big prize? A subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. Since then, esports has only grown.

Nowadays, people play in cutthroat tournaments globally with massive prize money on the line. It’s also a super-lucrative industry. Forbes estimates that the ten most valuable esports companies are worth a combined $3.5 billion—and that number seems to be growing.

Take a look at how an industry that started in a college classroom grew into a spectator sport that attracts entire stadiums full of enraptured fans!

‘70s & ‘80s

Aside from that very first Stanford tournament, video game competitions took place primarily in arcades during the late ’70s and ’80s. High-score chasing on games like Space Invaders became a popular pastime, with Atari hosting a Space Invaders Championship for over 10,000 attendees in 1980. This event pushed competitive gaming into popular culture as a mainstream hobby.

Just one year later, game enthusiast and arcade owner Walter Day founded Twin Galaxies, the first online platform that recorded high scores on competitive video games and established a set of standards for doing so. Twin Galaxies soon became the go-to database for high-score records.

In 1983, Guinness World Records entered video game achievements as a brand-new category and asked Twin Galaxies to officiate high-score competitions. Day is also responsible for forming in 1983 the U.S. National Video Game Team, which competed in arcade games such as Karate Champ, Commando, Gridiron Fight, and Kung-Fu Master.

Televised esports also aired during the early ’80s on a show called Starcade, where contestants vied to beat each other’s high scores. The United Kingdom followed suit, as did popular culture with films like Tron. As the early forms of the internet became more accessible during the late 1980s, a game called Netrek attracted players and was named the “first online sports game” by Wired Magazine in 1993.

‘90s & Early ‘00s

The ’90s ushered in new technology and innovation for both at-home game consoles and arcades. Street Fighter II popularized one-on-one competition as opposed to simply beating the last player’s highest score. The Evolutions Championship Series began in 1996 and featured Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Street Fighter Alpha 2 in tournament-style play.

As the internet became more accessible in homes across the globe, esports grew with competitive online multiplayer games. Meanwhile, South Korea stepped onto the esports scene in a big way. Widespread installation of broadband internet combined with the 1997 financial crisis resulted in high unemployment rates and made gaming centers called PC Bangs popular places for people to pass the time. There, Korean youths could play massive multiplayer online games such as StarCraft.

The Korean Esports Association was founded in 2000 with the sole purpose of regulating and promoting esports. Televised competitions were especially popular in the country, with StarCraft and Warcraft III tournaments being streamed on 24-hour stations dedicated just to video games. The U.S. also showed some esports on T.V. from 2005–2008, with ESPN’s Madden Nation show that featured players competing on Madden NFL.

World of Warcraft (WOW) landed on the scene around the same time in 2004. Developed by Blizzard, WOW greatly impacted video games as a whole, particularly the MMO genre, and went on to inspire multiple spinoffs like Shadowlands. The Arena World Championship, an annual tournament for WOW players, marks its 16th anniversary this year. The best players from around the globe compete for a share of the $800,000 prize and championship bragging rights. According to estimates, WOW continues to attract around 8.5 million players nearly twenty years after its release. Esports doesn’t stop there. The genre has only grown in popularity, as did the audience who enjoyed watching players battle for victory. The biggest esports boom is yet to come!


The 2010s was a big moment for esports. The industry grew tremendously with bigger crowds and, most impressively, big prize money. The International, an annual world championship in Dota 2, consistently breaks the record for esports prize pools. In 2011, the total was $1.6 million, and that crowdfunded prize pool has only grown. This year (in 2023), the prize pool is expected to be somewhere between $25 and $30 million!

Online streaming services such as Twitch, launched in 2011, helped esports grow by bringing tournaments right into players’ homes. Twitch regularly streams the most popular esports competitions, and statistics show that viewers on the platform spend an average of two hours watching events such as The International. When they’re watching that long, viewers like to up the ante, with live betting taking place during matches via sites like

Twitch also helped at-home gamers monetize their platform by introducing Twitch Affiliate, allowing streamers to make money as they game. That Rolling Stone subscription prize from forty years ago pales compared to the income serious esports players can make these days!

Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV), initially released in 2010 to an overwhelmingly negative response, was retooled and re-released in 2013. This second version re-inspired disappointed fans and remains a popular choice over a decade later. Estimates show that FFXIV attracts a base count of over 40 million total players. Black Desert from 2016 is another popular MMO choice where you can adventure with your character through a dynamic system chockful of exciting options.

The growth potential of the esports industry is endless. In fact, just earlier this year the International Olympic Committee revealed early details about the Olympic Esports Series 2023, a tournament currently taking place through live finals in June of 2023. Is this a move to one day classify esports as an Olympic sport? Only time can tell, but it would be pretty sick to win a gold medal for gaming!