The defining moments that shaped the esports world
It might be tough to believe, but competitive gaming has a history that stretches back nearly half a century.
The day? Oct. 19, 1972. The prize? A yearlong subscription to Rolling Stone. The arena? The Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab in Los Altos, California, according to the publication. The game? Spacewar, which came out, perplexingly enough, in the 1960s.
It’s tough to see it, but there’s a thread that ties the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics to sold-out League of Legends World Championship matches at the Madison Square Garden in New York, the swell of the crowd at Counter-Strike’s ever-astounding IEM Katowice and $30 million-plus prize pools for Dota 2’s The International. These games, tournaments, players and even fans might seem disjointed, but there’s an intrinsic connection between the trends, moments and movements within the gaming and esports worlds and what we see on our screens today.
Be it QuakeCon in August 1996 or Riot’s fan-monikered IceLAN in May 2021, Upcomer’s mission is to explore the past, present and future of esports. And to look forward, you have to first look back. So here are our choices for some of the most impactful events in esports over the last 30 years. They might not be the biggest plays or most outlandish, drama-packed events, but they’ve all shaped the scene in ways that you might not expect.
1996: QuakeCon shows the special spark offline events have
Quake, and specifically QuakeCon, paved the way for offline events to eventually take over as the predominant home for pro esports competitions. QuakeCon was put together by fans and embraced by developer id Software as a way to celebrate the first-person shooter with competition intertwined.
“You have the people who made a revolutionary game who were the ones organizing a LAN event,” Quake specialist and esports personality Rod “Slasher” Breslau said. “This was really a semi-revolutionary thing.”
Promoting competitive Quake, though, was never id Software’s intention. QuakeCon was used to show off the company’s revolutionary software, promote its new games and allow for some fun competition for fans on the side.
“It was never intended to be a competitive gaming focused event,” Slasher said. “That is why the CPL and PGL existed.”
Those two frontier esports leagues, the Cyberathlete Professional League and Professional Gamers League, came into the scene in the years following the first QuakeCon. What started off as a 30-person event at a hotel in Garland, Texas, turned into a Dallas sensation and trend-setter for the gaming and esports industries.
The CPL and PGL piggybacked off the proven interest in LANs with a focus on the competitive side of gaming, leading more directly into modern esports.
“Having an event like QuakeCon and having people come together and play was such an insanely cool concept that it was going to take off no matter what,” Slasher said. “Gaming at a LAN is bigger than esports. … To only have the competitive side would have held back the scene, because esports is only a segment of online gaming. We needed QuakeCon to show us the way of what online gaming, on an LAN, could be.
“It will always be a really important part of gaming, and especially PC gaming.”
The game’s developer, id Software, might not be, though. The company “completely f***ed up,” Slasher said, and both it and eventual id Software buyer Bethesda have all but bailed on one of the original pillars of esports.
“Esports is a billion-dollar industry, and the game that started it all is completely irrelevant,” Slasher said. “And that is absolutely a travesty, and there’s no one to blame other than id Software and Bethesda and what they’ve done.”
– Parkes Ousley
1997: Magic gathers steam on ESPN2
When we think of competitive gaming or esports on TV, most would probably think of Heroes of the Storm’s Heroes of the Dorm, Turner Broadcasting System’s ELEAGUE or even Super Smash Bros. being on Disney XD. But what you probably did not know is that all the way back in 1997, Magic: the Gathering found its way onto ESPN 2 for the 1997 world championship.
Magic: the Gathering was the first collectible playing card game designed by math professor Richard Garfield to be played in between turns during Dungeons and Dragons sessions. Released in August of 1993 with the Limited Edition (Alpha) expansion, Magic was an instant hit.
After the success of expansions like Revised Edition and Ice Age in 1996, Wizards of the Coast saw an opportunity to expand Magic to a broader audience. This saw them partnering with ESPN for their world championship in Seattle, WA in ’97. At the time, ESPN2 was slated to appeal to a younger audience, focusing on collegiate sports, auto racing and extreme sports like BMX and snowboarding. Having the same demographic as Magic’s target audience, Wizards hoped that having the highest level of play on ESPN2 would help them appeal to the greater mainstream.
The broadcast was a mixture of live commentary over gameplay and cutaways to anecdotes about the players. And while it was a clean broadcast, Magic doesn’t do itself any favors to the layperson. Magic is a complex game with a lot of varied card interaction and is hard to parse for the average viewer. “That ESPN2 broadcast in 1997 was probably the best live coverage Magic ever received, and you can see glimpses of it in the modern Magic broadcast to this day.”
– Amanda Stevens
1999: Counter-Strike creates the Wild West of esports
It was the Wild West of the digital age. There was no Twitch, no Steam, and no Twitter in 2000 and yet the first Counter-Strike major offered a $150,000 prize pool. Teams from all over North America and Europe entered to compete at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dallas and elsewhere. There was no way to watch the games live unless you were at the tournament in person, but Counter-Strike still had a dedicated following unlike any other in the West.
Counter-Strike as the springboard for a number of esports organizations. Teams including Ninjas in Pyjamas, SK Gaming, and Evil Geniuses scrimped enough sponsorship money—sometimes from mom and dad for some players—in order to compete. The first handful of majors, including the Cyberathlete Professional League World Championship, became the jumping off point for organizations that are household names today.
There was no roadmap when these teams were beginning to build around Counter-Strike, Quake, and StarCraft. Everyone was learning about the esports world on the fly and that gamble paid off for a select few. Some of the oldest teams in esports history sprang from Counter-Strike to sign teams in other esports ranging from FIFA to Super Smash Bros. The dominant force that was League of Legends didn’t launch until 2009, making Counter-Strike the game that propelled the Western world into contention.
– Aron Garst
2000: OGN revolutionizes esports broadcasting
Formed in 2000, OGN (originally OnGameNet) was a South Korean TV channel that specialized in broadcasting esports tournaments. It was initially created as a response to the growing popularity of StarCraft and professional gaming in Korea and broadcasted OnGameNet Starleague, a professional StarCraft league that saw the rise of Lim “Boxer” Yo-hwan, widely regarded as one of the most successful esports players of all time. OnGameNet later had a hand in producing the highly prestigious StarCraft Proleague, which ran for 13 years.
Newer esports fans will likely be familiar with OGN from more recent ventures – namely, League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) and OGN Overwatch APEX. Both owned and operated by OGN, these tournaments were integral to building the Korean fanbases of their respective games, with OGN’s involvement curating a huge part of their popularity.
Over its 20-year history, OGN was frequently lauded for its high-quality production as well as the strong narratives that it built around teams and players, some of which still persisted years after they were first introduced. In later years, as various game publishers regained exclusive broadcasting rights of their intellectual property, OGN saw a steep decline in viewership and eventually shut down in 2020.
– Bonnie Qu
2001: The Console Wars shape gaming, again, and again, and again
In the earliest days of console gaming, plenty of companies tried their hands at making consoles in hopes of dominating the market. Nintendo and Sega were the first to duke it out, but gaming was still a niche hobby at the time. Eventually, Sony killed that whole back-and-forth with the first PlayStation, quieting the battlefield for a time.
Then, Microsoft tried to snatch a piece of the pie by releasing the original Xbox in November 2001.
While the PlayStation 2 slapped the first Xbox down in terms of sales, the narrative of two tech giants going at it in the gaming arena drew mainstream interest, and the general popularity and accessibility of gaming grew as console options swelled.
Microsoft learned their lesson and came back stronger with the Xbox 360, and that success officially kicked off the modern console wars, which still rage to this day with the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X.
Now, fans on both sides sling insults at each other, arguing about who has the better technical specs, first-party titles or price points. Most of the specific arguments don’t matter, but the competition and discourse crucially fueled a spike in popularity that helped make gaming big enough to birth something like the esports industry. Even if we all know deep down that PCs are the most powerful way to game or compete, none of us would be where we are without these console arms races.
– Jason Krell
2002: The genesis of the MOBA
Today, games like League of Legends and Dota 2 are a global phenomenon, but the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre that has taken the world by storm came from relatively humble beginnings.
It all began in 2002, with a fan-made mod for StarCraft 2: Brood War titled Aeon of Strife. The map, created by anonymous developer Aeon64, allowed players to select powerful individual units and team up to take on a computer-controlled army that sent endless waves of enemies down three lanes towards the players’ base. The game ended when either side lost a key structure or all four players died.
While Aeon64’s creation today feels closer to a tower defense game than a MOBA, it provided the very first blueprint for what was to come. Inspired by Aeon of Strife and with the much stronger map-building engine of Warcraft III at his fingertips, Kyle “Eul” Sommer developed Defense of the Ancients, or DotA for short. Produced as a mod for The Frozen Throne, DotA pit two teams of five players against each other in a much richer gameplay environment, where heroes now had abilities and players could purchase items to customize their power level throughout the game.
When Eul (short for Eulogy) gave up development of DotA and passed the reigns to the community, it created a chain reaction that ultimately changed the history of gaming forever. DotA soon gave way to DotA: Allstars, a wildly popular successor to the map that kickstarted a global craze perhaps best preserved within the music video for cult classic electronic song “DotA” by Swedish DJ, Basshunter.
Developers that worked on Allstars went on to become key components of gargantuan game producers that would bring MOBAs to the mainstream. Steve “Guinsoo” Feak and Steve “Pendragon” Mescon helped build Riot Games, while legendary Allstars developer IceFrog went on to become a lead designer at Valve.
As the dust settled, games like Heroes of Newerth, League of Legends and Dota 2 emerged. The modern MOBA was born.
– Taha Zaidi
2003: Steam sends shockwaves through the gaming industry
When it launched in September 2003, Steam struggled to support the hundreds of thousands of players that were tasked with testing the service before it went live. The huge influx of interest was just a sign of things to come. Jump to 18 years later, and upwards of 50% of PC game sales and downloads go through Steam.
Steam was the platform before platforms existed. It standardized the way we play PC games with friends, the way developers sell their games to us and even the way we download and store the games we buy. It lives in every part of the gaming industry, including esports, and though many have tried, no other directory has been able to unseat Valve’s creation.
While Steam originated as a way for Valve to patch games like Counter-Strike, it’s become the Facebook of gaming. It’s a social network that has added a list of features, including the Steam Workshop, Cloud, Steamworks, the storefront and more that gave players almost everything they need.
Epic Games, Activision, Ubisoft, Microsoft and other major companies are still trying to catch up to Steam with launchers like the Epic Game Store and Battle.net. It took years for it to get where it is today, but no other storefront comes close to the dominance that Valve has with Steam.
– Aron Garst
2005: Brood War overtakes traditional sports in South Korea
In the summer of 2015, over 120,000 fans converged to watch a grand final take place. No, it wasn’t the Super Bowl or the World Cup Final.
It was Brood War.
A record-breaking crowd (still holding to this day) showed up to the breezy Gwangalli Beach located in Busan, South Korea, to watch arch-rivals SK Telecom T1 face KTF MagicNs in the Proleague fans. It was a battle for supremacy featuring the game’s biggest and brightest stars with seemingly the entire country watching on.
Fans showed up the night prior to the final taking place to sleep on the sands of the beach in hopes of snagging a front-row ticket to watch South Korea’s two premier competitive gaming teams fighting for a championship. SKT were backed by the godfather of South Korean esports, Lim “BoxeR” Yo-hwan, and the other side, KTF had built a superteam headlined by Hong “YellOw” Jin-ho, Kang “Nal_rA” Min and Park “Reach” Jeong-seok.
In what was expected to be a coronation for KTF and their golden lineup in front of the largest esports crowd ever became a party for BoxeR and SKT, as they won the final in decisive fashion.
To this day, the legend of Gwangalli beach lives in the lifeblood of South Korean esports, with other game titles such as League of Legends holding major domestic finals on the legendary grounds. Almost 20 years later, even with different names, the rivalry between SKT (now T1) and KTF (now KT Rolster) carries on, fondly known around the world as the “Telecom War.”
– Tyler Erzberger
2009: The beginning of the Big MOBA Bang
The development and release of Dota 2, which came out in beta in 2009, marks a quintessential checkpoint in the rapid growth of modern esports as we know it. What started out as the groundbreaking Warcraft 3 mod, helmed by Kyle “Eul” Sommer, laid the foundation for the multiplayer online battle arena genre not only in the world of esports, but gaming in general.
Today, Dota’s biggest international event, The International, boasts the largest total prize pool for a single tournament in esports.
Dota developers Steve “Pendragon” Mescon and Steve “Guinsoo” Feak would later join Riot Games co-founder Marc Merrill in working on League of Legends, one of the first “Dota clones.” League of Legends, released in 2011, drew heavy inspiration from Dota’s MOBA and ensemble roots while cutting out some of the complexities and barriers to entry of the game, giving it a more simplified look. Today, we know League as the most popular esport in the world, raking in over 3.8 million peak viewers at the most recent 2020 World Championship alone.
Heroes of the Storm, while late to the party, was another wildly popular MOBA developed by Blizzard as an answer to the success of Dota and LoL. HotS would remove common MOBA mechanics shared by its predecessors such as an item shop and last-hitting, and feature characters from some of Blizzard’s larger IPs: Warcraft, Starcraft II, and Diablo III.
Eventually, HotS would fizzle out due to lack of maintenance support, and the eventual – and seemingly abrupt – demise of its pro scene in 2019. Dota, and moreso League of Legends, still carry the MOBA torch and continue to push the boundaries of what esports can be as both a cultural and commercial phenomenon.
– Nick Ray
2009: Evo fights on thanks to Street Fighter IV
When Street Fighter IV was introduced at it’s first EVO, entries for it’s tournament tripled that of other games. Ten year old relics like Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Marvel vs Capcom 2 were the top games at the biggest fighting tournament in the world, but the scene needed an injection of life. Capcom’s return to simple, 2D fighting mechanics, was the boost of energy the community needed.
The fighting game community, including everything from major to regional scenes, was sputtering in the early 2000s. Attendance, entries, and overall popularity of franchises like Mortal Kombat and Soul Calibur was waning, but Street Fighter IV gave everything a boost. Capcom’s efforts seeped into the work of other fighting game developers, pushing them to make sure their games had deep and responsive mechanics of their own.
The fighting game community is robust today with a number of hugely popular sequels, including Mortal Kombat 11 and Street Fighter V, that wouldn’t have been possible without Street Fighter IV. It sold nearly 10 million copies in its lifetime and brought fighting games to a new level for the competitive and casual communities alike.
– Aron Garst
2010: Match-fixing mars South Korean StarCraft scene
It all began with internet rumors in early 2010.
A few weeks later, those online whispers turned into screams of certainty.
The biggest esport in South Korea, StarCraft: Brood War, which had become a cultural phenomenon in the country, had its darkest day with the confirmation of a match-fixing scandal that included numerous top players. In total, 11 players were permanently banned from competing professionally by the Korea e-Sports Association for betting and throwing matches. At the forefront of it all was one of the supposed ring-leaders of the operation and one of Brood War’s iconic figures, Ma “sAviOr” Jae-yoon. The famed Zerg player was effectively wiped from the game’s history, with all of his titles won during his career stripped and vacated.
History would repeat itself five years later in Brood War’s successor, StarCraft II, in which another legendary Zerg would see their fruitful career come to an abrupt end. Lee “Life” Seung-hyun, who debuted professionally in 2012 at 15 years old, had built up a reputation in his short career as one of the, if not the greatest player in StarCraft II’s five-year history. But that would all fall away on Jan. 29, 2016, when he was arrested for throwing games in a similar gambling scheme to the 2010 scandal.
While other pros would also find themselves indicted in the fixing of matches, Life was the biggest name to lose their career, handed a sentence of 18 months of prison suspended for three years and a fine of $61,000. He, like sAviOr and everyone else found guilty in the pair of match-fixing scandals, is permanently banned from competing in any video game professionally under KeSPA supervision.
– Tyler Erzberger
2010: StarCraft II King of the Beta wins over the West
On Monday, July 26, 2010, Western esports changed forever in a cramped auditorium in Los Angeles.
Before thousands were selling out the Staples Center, home to the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, there was the 100-person cadre that attended the Razer King of the Beta StarCraft II tournament and the game’s official launch. Hosted by Sean “Day” Plott, the King of the Beta pitted some of the best players during the game’s testing period to see which would enter the full release, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, with ultimate bragging rights and (at the time) a hefty first-place prize of $2,000.
In the grand finals, American Greg “IdrA” Fields outlasted South Korea’s Seo “TricKsteR” Ki-soo to kick-start what would become one of the most well-known careers of any esports professionals in the early 2010s.
Those hundred live viewers would multiply rapidly as StarCraft II established itself as the go-to esports title in the West in the coming years, headlining game conventions from North America’s Major League Gaming to Europe’s DreamHack. Names like Idra, Chris “HuK” Loranger, Jang “MC” Min-chul and more would revolutionize what it meant to be an esports pro, turning simple gaming LANs into fully-fledged pro wrestling bouts with the spectacle to come alongside with the matches themselves.
– Tyler Erzberger
2011: League takes the free-to-play model off mobile
Free-to-play has made gaming more accessible than ever, esports included. The format gives players the entire package for free – except for the wrapping paper, of course. The concept presents cosmetics, clothing and other items that don’t affect gameplay, as the main source of a game’s income. It changed the gaming world in the late 2000s.
Revenue for free-to-play games grew larger than premium game sales in the App Store in 2011, and one PC game, League of Legends, went free-to-play around the same time. The trend only grew from there as revenue and the number of games adopting this model rose. Since its initial success, massive games like Fortnite, Call of Duty: Warzone, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2 and others have begun using the model to reach, maintain or grow their spectacular popularity.
This get-in-and-pay-later model has been around since 1987, but it’s never been nearly as successful as it is now. Prominent successes like League fundamentally changed how developers approach making games, how we play them and how accessible they are for people around the world.
– Aron Garst
2013: Cosmetics become a business of their own
The in-game commercialization of some of the most popular esports titles was pivotal for long-term success, with both Valve and Riot Games jumping on the non-competitive microtransaction train in 2013.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive launched in 2012 without the weapon skins, gloves and different character models seen in matchmaking games today. Players were left to compete with the plain textures of the AK-47 and M4A4.
One year later, though, Valve made a change that would bring an economic-based system to an esport in its infancy. The Arms Deal update brought more than 100 weapon skins to CS:GO, organized into 10 different categories that represented different maps from the game.
While CS:GO’s cosmetics boosted the popularity of the title itself, it took a few years to become the titan esport it is today. By contrast Riot’s League of Legends, released three years earlier than CS:GO, celebrated its rife esports scene, in particular, using cosmetics.
Riot’s history of commemorating pro teams for international success began in 2013, with skin releases to celebrate Taipei Assassins’ victory over Azubu Frost in the $1 million League of Legends World Championship one year prior. TPA Mundo, Ezreal, Nunu, Orianna and Shen were released to the public from 2013-14, and the tradition has swelled ever since.
– George Geddes
2013: Dota 2 fans create the biggest esports event in the world
No other esport has prizing like Dota 2, at least when it comes to the International. The scene’s world championship regularly puts up tens of millions of dollars since the game’s developer, Valve, introduced the “Compendium.” The first edition of in-game offerings dropped in 2013, allowing players to contribute 25 percent of the Compendium’s total price to the event’s prize pool. This only produced a modest $2.8 million, but that was just the beginning.
As Valve added more and better content to the Compendium, the prize pool exploded. It hit $10 million the next year, and nearly doubled the year after that. Most recently, in 2019, players managed to crest an absurd $34 million.
Simply put, no other esport comes close to Dota 2 when it comes to this sort of crowdfunding, let alone prize pools in general. After all, according to Esports Earnings, the five highest paying esport events are all different iterations of the International. This tournament regularly proves that there is a lot of money in esports, even if the Dota 2 scene isn’t always the trendiest esport. Now it’s just a matter of whether any other game can replicate the same success. Despite many years of success, few others have tried to replicate it or done so at the same scale.
– Jason Krell
2013: Twitch takes over
Justin.tv started in 2007 as a place for anyone to broadcast their lives to the world. In 2011, the company added Twitch as a spinoff of their original vision that focused on video games. But by 2013, the sideshow had become the main attraction; Twitch had over 45 million unique viewers just two years after its launch.
Justin.tv was rebranded to become Twitch Interactive one year later after getting eclipsed by its own creation. It was shut down in August of 2014.
Amazon came knocking that same month, dropping nearly a billion dollars to purchase Twitch and “help them achieve their vision faster,” according to CEO Emmett Shear. The purchase was the first step on a long staircase that led to pure Twitch domination in the gaming space. The tech conglomerate coupled Twitch with its subscription service, Amazon Prime, acquired companies to support the streaming platform and introduced a way for streamers to receive a commission from sales of the games they played.
These are all pieces that have come together to build the marketing powerhouse that Twitch has become today. It led to the explosion of the battle royale genre, the rise of streamers like Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek and Ben “DrLupo” Lupo, and the incredible popularity of Fall Guys, Among Us, and other overnight success stories that define streaming in 2021.
– Aron Garst
2014: OpTic put on a Call of Duty master class at ESPN’s X Games
OpTic Gaming had the X-factor in June 2014 following their decisive victory over Team Kaliber to win the first X Games Gold medal to be awarded in Call of Duty.
The star-studded OpTic Gaming roster of Seth “Scump” Abner, James “Clayster” Eubanks, Jordan “ProoFy” Cannon and Mathew “Nadeshot” Haag were not the favorites going into the event, however.
Evil Geniuses, formerly of compLexity, won the $1 million prize pool Call of Duty Championships earlier that year, cementing themselves as the best team in Call of Duty: Ghosts. All eyes were on Evil Geniuses to take the event to continue their legacy, but OpTic had to rewrite history.
OpTic qualified for the double-elimination medal bracket after defeating FaZe Red and EnVy to come up against Evil Geniuses in the first round. OpTic, to almost everyone’s surprise, defeated the reigning champs to come up against Team Kaliber in the final.
Although the event had already provided some of the most nail-biting Call of Duty to date, the final was a spectacle in the title’s esports history.
ProoFy popped off, Team Kaliber’s Jevon “Goonjar” Gooljar-Lim clutched up, Clayser won his crucial one-on-one and OpTic were crowned X Games gold medalists for the first time in the title’s history. They would repeat the following year and cement themselves in the years to come as the greatest Call of Duty dynasty of all time.
Beyond the tournament itself, the crowd, fanfare and reception from the esports community made an impression on traditional sports fans as well as ESPN. The company also aired Heroes of the Dorm, a collegiate Heroes of the Storm competition, that year, and two years later launched its own esports vertical. While ESPN shuttered that project in 2020, citing lost revenue during the coronavirus pandemic, the company’s presence in esports made a lasting impression throughout the sports world and helped legitimize the community to many big buyers from traditional spaces.
– George Geddes
2014: Riot Games brings Super Bowl-style openers to esports
In 2014 at the Seoul World Cup Stadium, League of Legends esports staked its claim as a larger-than-life cultural phenomenon.
Not a cult online musical personality, not a faceless indie artist, but Imagine Dragons would perform their new song “Warriors,” which was composed specifically for the 2014 world championship, live at the event. The performance was the catalyst to a shift in Riot’s ethos surrounding LoL esports that placed emphasis on fanfare and entertainment value.
The show became equally as important as the competition, if not more.
From here on, the bar was set. Worlds became a stage for Riot to put on epic, Super Bowl-esque opening ceremonies that would provide an unforgettable experience to viewers through musical acts and high-production visuals.
In 2017, the game developer created an augmented reality experience for viewers at home with an Elder Dragon soaring into the Bird’s Nest in Beijing during the first act of the title game. The moment earned Riot an Emmy for Outstanding Live Graphic Design and made AR a staple for the company’s performances in the coming years.
At the 2018 final, Riot smashed their own standards with the debut of virtual K-pop group “K/DA” featuring League champions Evelynn, Ahri, Akali and Kaisa represented by artists Madison Beer, Miyeon and Soyeon of (G)-IDLE, and Jaira Burns.The live show even included AR versions of the characters dancing along.
Their song, “POP STARS,” went on to become more popular than anyone could have imagined. In the first month after its release, it outperformed K-pop mega-groups EXO and BTS on Billboard charts.
Riot officially entered the music game and doubled down on large-scale pre-game shows after K/DA’s success. The music, the dancing, the lights and effects, would all become as crucial to the authenticity of the world championship as the games themselves.
Riot has since executed on similar live experiences with the debut of TRUE DAMAGE in 2019 and K/DA’s recent 2020 comeback, which was done in front of a limited audience at Worlds due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
– Nick Ray
2014: The “Korean Exodus” shapes League and esports globally
As the esports world found out with the rise of StarCraft, South Korea was particularly dominant in competitive gaming. That was no different with League of Legends, and after the region started winning Worlds upon the creation of more established regions in 2013, the other major regions wanted a piece of that talent.
After South Korea’s second Worlds title in a row in 2014, the professional League of Legends scene had the “Korean Exodus,” a moment that defined the global transfer market and growth of League into the internationally competitive market it is today. Regions like China, North America and Europe went after the wealth of big names in South Korea and paid a premium during the 2014 offseason to try and keep up with League’s premier region while gutting the region of some of its talent in the process.
All 10 players from the starting roster of the 2014 world champions, Samsung White, and their sister team, who they defeated in the semifinals, Samsung Blue, dispersed and went to China for various teams. In that list are some of the greatest players of all time, like Choi “DanDy” In-kyu, Heo “PawN” Won-seok, Gu “imp” Seung-bin, Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu and Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong.
Along with those 10, a handful of other big stars headed to NA and EU and well as China. Heo” Huni” Seung-hoon and Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin went to Fnatic, and Ryu “Ryu” Sang-wook went to H2k Gaming. Jeong “Impact” Eon-young, Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in, Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin, Ham “Lustboy” Jang-sik, Shin “Seraph” Woo-yeong, and others went to North America for various teams. Song “Rookie” Eui-jin, Choi “inSec” In-seok, Kim “Doinb” Tae-sang, Lee “Flame” Ho-jong, and others went to China.
Through the next couple of years, the trend continued, with other big stars like Kang “TheShy” Seung-lok, Lee “LokeN” Dong-wook, Lee “Scout” Ye-chan, Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho and many more making their way to various regions. With more than 30 players gone in just a few offseasons, Korea averaged enough players to completely fill two rosters leaving each year.
Despite the abundant departures, League Champions Korea remained dominant in League of Legends for a few more years. South Korean teams won Worlds every year until 2018, when China’s League of Legends Pro League took the title and followed up with another in 2019, until Korea finally reclaimed their seat at the throne in 2020.
– Parkes Ousley
2016: The Overwatch League builds a franchise model for esports
BlizzCon 2016 became a watershed moment for esports with the announcement of the Overwatch League, a professional league produced by Blizzard Entertainment that would take a more traditional approach to esports with franchised, city-based teams.
With a $20 million investment from team ownership groups, Blizzard touted the 12 organizations starting the league as eventual permanent fixtures for hometown fans, rather than relying on a relegation and promotion system or qualification method for major events that were common throughout esports at the time.
Before that announcement, no notable esports leagues had moved into franchising. The Overwatch League’s move spurred a change in that regard, with major League of Legends regions, such as North America’s League Championship Series and China’s League Pro League, beginning to pursue franchising as well. This heralded a wave of franchised esports leagues around the world, with Europe’s League European Championship and South Korea’s League Champions Korea following suit. Activision-Blizzard’s Call of Duty League, which launched two years after the Overwatch League, followed the same format and city-based franchising model.
Though some have criticized the decision to take inspiration from traditional sports, the move towards franchising reflects the growth of the esports industry. The Overwatch League may have been the first major franchised league, but it certainly won’t be the last.
– Bonnie Qu
2017: Traditional sports and esports meet
The National Basketball Association has been on the cutting edge of pop culture in recent years and that was never more apparent than on Feb. 9 of 2017, when they announced the creation of the NBA 2K League. Fully backed by the NBA themselves, in partnership with the game’s creator Take-Two Interactive, it was a full-court press by the traditional sports league to spearhead the fusion of the two worlds. During the league’s inaugural season, 17 NBA franchises invested in their own 2K League team, with Knicks Gaming defeating Heat Check Gaming to become the first-ever champions.
This would coincide with numerous NBA franchises putting their money into the world’s most popular esport, League of Legends, as the Cleveland Cavaliers (100 Thieves), Golden St. Warriors (Golden Guardians) and Houston Rockets (Clutch Gaming) entered the scene. They would all buy spots into the 10-team League Championship Series, the premier North American competition for the game. Withstanding teams paid $10 million and newcomers paid $13 million to join the growing league. Along with teams investing in esports, we’ve seen individual athletes either invest or join esports teams themselves. For example, Steph Curry having a stake in NA powerhouse TSM, whereas fellow NBA star Ben Simmons joined FaZe Clan, an organization he’s followed since he was a kid growing up in Australia.
– Tyler Erzberger
2017: Battle Royale Explosion
Surviving has never felt as amazing as it did in 2017. Planes and battle buses became commonplace as millions of players parachuted to the ground before fighting to the death. The suspense, action, and storylines featured in the battle royale genre during it’s explosion were unrivaled. The genre took the world by blue storm and there was no safe circle to be found.
It all started when Katniss Everdeen volunteered to be a tribute on the silver screen. A group of Minecraft players took inspiration from The Hunger Games movies, which popularized the last person standing concept, and applied it to their favorite brick-building game. The mode even simulated how the fight starts in the movies by putting players around a pile of equipment.
Other mods came soon after, but the real explosion didn’t come until Brendan Greene experimented with H1Z1. His mod eventually led to the creation of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. A game that exploded to almost 500,000 concurrent players on Steam. While not the first battle royale, it was the name that blew up alongside the genre itself. Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Call of Duty: Warzone followed in its footsteps.
– Aron Garst
2018: Ninja, Fortnite and Drake create a mainstream moment
Fame, fortune … and Fortnite.
Three words to describe the celebrity status Tyler “Ninja” Blevins was about to achieve in 2018. 27-year-old Ninja, a former Halo professional, was known as the most popular streamer on the platform, averaging up to around 140,000 viewers per stream, according to Twitch Tracker.
But Ninja’s solidification in mainstream culture was formed by an influx of viewers, Fortnite’s popularity and his individual prowess in the gaming community. With the world watching, Ninja caught the attention of America’s best-selling solo artist of all time Drake.
The pair would play duos on Fortnite to around 628,000 concurrent viewers. In this way it became the most popular stream set by an individual content creator on Twitch. Fellow rapper and NFL player Travis Scott and Juju Smith joined in on the fun shortly after, finalizing the conjunction between the mainstream and Twitch culture.
During the peak of his popularity, Ninja gained hundreds of thousands of subscribers, millions of followers and he earned himself a fortune. Ninja was on track to become the most popular figure in the gaming community entirely.
From pineapple on Pizza to the state of Fortnite, Ninja’s unlikely Twitch stream with Drake guaranteed his supremacy on the platform.
– George Geddes
2018: Riot’s reckons with discrimination allegations
The creative directors behind the most popular esport in history, League of Legends, faced a number of sexual discrimination allegations.
Riot Games was put in the spotlight once more but it was for all of the wrong reasons. Several current and former employees of the Los Angeles-based company told Kotaku of several instances in which executives at Riot discriminated against them on the basis of their sex.
The “bro culture,” as it was described, rang true to several employees. “The ‘bros before hoes’ thing is so ingrained even though they claim to be a meritocracy,” one former Rioter told the publication.
In response, Riot published an extensive apology in August of 2018 to all former and current Rioters that had faced discrimination while working for the company. The company expressed its desire to become much more inclusive and sought to systematically change the treatment of women at Riot.
“We will weave this change into our cultural DNA and leave no room for sexism or misogyny. Inclusivity, diversity, respect and equality are all non-negotiable,” Riot said.
The current chief operating officer at Riot, Scott Gelb, was later temporarily suspended in December for inappropriately touching the genitals of employees and made other inappropriate remarks, according to Kotaku.
– George Geddes
2018: Twitch, and streamers, shape a new meta
Everything changed once the Just Chatting nation attacked. In November of 2018, Twitch lifted its gates and announced that a new section, Just Chatting, would be implemented; one where the streamers wouldn’t have to play a game at all times in fear of being punished.
They could… just chat.
This began a new era where gaming streamers started to become personalities; not having to be tied down to a single game, or any game at all. Streamers could make money and thrive on Twitch by talking to their chat and reacting to YouTube videos. This turned Twitch from a place where everything revolved around esports and gamers playing their game of choice to a world of variety. One day, a fan’s favorite streamer could be playing a game and the next they could be doing an entire stream ranking their favorite pizza toppings.
Nowadays, Twitch resembles reality television more so than a simple gaming streaming platform, with almost every top streamer collaborating in some shape or form. This has created what has become known as “Twitch metas,” where the top streamers find specific trends and games to collaborate alongside in. During these peaks, a certain game ascends to the top of the directory, with seemingly every big-name streamer partaking in the hottest new trend. In the last year alone, Fall Guys, Among Us, Rust and even the 1,500-year-old game of chess have become part of the top games on Twitch; streamers from every background possible riding the wave of viewers and hype.
– Tyler Erzberger
Esports joins the #MeToo movement
Near the end of June 2020, allegations of sexual misconduct by streamerSayNoToRage, otherwise known as Lono, came to light. Within the next few days, multiple women came forward to corroborate those claims.
From there, an influx of women in esports, gaming, and adjacent spaces spoke out about their personal experiences with sexual assault and harassment within the industry. This led to multiple allegations against pros, streamers and other personalities surfacing. As more women came forward with their own stories, various communities, especially the Super Smash Bros. community and the FGC, were put under a microscope.
Figures like Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios, D’Ron “D1” Maingrette and Grant “GranDgranT” Harris were only a few names on a long list of people facing allegations for actions towards women, in some cases minors, within the scene. Content creator Sky Williams faced backlash for his involvement and being complicit in cases such as ZeRo’s, which took place under his roof at one on of multiple “Sky House” locations.
The aftermath found Barrios banned from Twitch and dropped from Tempo Storm and Maingrette banned from 2GGaming events. Harris was removed from Evil Geniuses and has since deplatformed himself. While these individuals faced formal repercussions, plenty of others, such as Williams, did not.
The surge in brave victims speaking out and the discourse that followed aren’t the first times esports has had to confront issues of sexism, harassment, and alleged assault. The 2018 Kotaku report unveiled rampant sexism within Riot Games’ culture and resulted in an investigation by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Recently, Riot CEO Nicolo Laurent was accused of gender discrimination and sexual harassment, continuing the saga that began years ago at the company.
These events reiterated that the esports industry continues to be an unsafe place for many women and victims of assault. The fallout managed to incite needed, though long overdue, change, such as the FGC’s establishment of an official code of conduct, but there’s still a long way to go.