The week of October 12, 2014

Understanding the esports phenomenon

By Kevin Morris

Professional gaming has become a phenomenon. If you want to prove it, there are a few clutch numbers you can toss out. There are prize totals: $11 million for a tournament in a game called Dota 2, $2.2 million at stake in the League of Legends world championships. There are audience numbers so big they don’t seem real: 70 million (at least) watched an esports event in 2013; 22 million people alone watched the League of Legends world championships last year.

Any story about pro gaming would be negligent to leave these numbers out. We know. We’ve written plenty of explanatory paragraphs about esports at the Daily Dot, where we run one of the only verticals dedicated to esports in the English-speaking world. But the more you write those numbers out, the more you realize they don’t tell a thing. They have the effect of superlatives, weighty adjectives that sound impressive but obscure understanding. They don’t tell you what’s really going on. They don’t tell you the story.

There are many threads in the narrative of esports’ transformation. The industry has constantly been on the cusp of permanence: booming and busting and then reforming, each time just a little bit stronger than the last. But if you were to look for one starting point, one trailhead, maybe you could start with a little high school cafeteria in a sleepy town in Sweden 20 years ago. There, a couple of kids,  Kenny Eklund and Martin Öjes, wired together their computers and held a computer party with their friends. Make art, they told participants. Have fun. Be creative.

Year by year, that simple edict proved wildly successful.

The gathering—which Eklund and Öjes dubbed DreamHack—grew too big for the cafeteria, or even the town, to contain. By 1999, 3,000 people were showing up every year, and some of them wanted to play games competitively. They introduced cash prizes and started broadcasting games. The seed of competitive gaming had been planted, and DreamHack would grow into the biggest and most successful esports tournament in Europe, hosting multiple events across the continent each year that bring in tens of thousands of spectators.

There’s another thread that’s harder to see and often forgotten about. It begins in 1981. That’s when Mavis E. Arthur and James R. Caruso walked into the office of Ted Turner with a proposal for a unique new television show: Turn a studio into one of these new-fangled arcades, fill it with the best video games money can buy, and let a couple of contestants duel it out for prizes. Turner was sold and Starcade—likely the first ever esports broadcast—was born. It would run for three years.

Then there’s the point no one can ignore, the one that everyone with just a passing interest in competitive games knows, or thinks they do. A decade after Starcade’s last broadcast, the father of a kid named Jonathan Wendel gave his son an ultimatum: Either you show me some money, you prove you can make it playing video games professionally, or give them up for good. A few months later, Wendel came back with $4,000 and a message: This is for real, and I can do it. Within 10 years, he’d make nearly a half million dollars, becoming the most famous and highest-earning esports player ever—for a time.

There are plenty of other stories that have been forgotten about, unbelievable tales of comebacks and great skill, of loss and triumph within murky arcade halls and cavernous auditoriums, from Stockholm to San Francisco to Seoul. But there has to be an opening chapter, and here’s yours: the latest edition of The Kernel.

Esports have become a phenomenon. The numbers prove it. Now it’s time to understand it.
Photo by Wikimedia | Remix by Max Fleishman