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The history of eSports: don’t call them just games

Electronic sports: often abbreviated to eSport, e-Sport or esport, indicates playing video games at a competitive and professional level. The games that are part of it are usually multiplayer, although it is also possible to compete with single player games, trying to get the highest score. The most common genres are real-time strategy (RTS), fighting games, first-person shooter (FPS), Massively multiplayer online (MMO), driving games, Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA). They are played competitively at amateur, semi-professional and professional level, and championships and tournaments are organized, both online and live. Live tournaments are organized just like any other sporting event, with referees and, specialized e-commentator, while the qualification phases are often held through online platforms. Among the best known international competitions are the World Cyber Games, the Electronic Sports World Cup, the DreamHack and the various annual tournaments organized by ESL (originally Electronic Sports League) and MLG (Major League Gaming).

When thinking about eSports, one only refers to the events of recent times forgetting that, in reality, their history is about fifty years old. The first organized video game competition we know of was a small Spacewar! tournament (famous video game shooter made in ’62) held on October 19, 1972 at Stanford University with about twenty participants, sponsored by Rolling Stone who offered as first prize an annual subscription to the magazine.

Spacewar! screen

Atari, a U.S. manufacturer of video games and hardware, in 1980 organized a Space Invaders tournament for Atari 2600 that attracted over 10,000 participants and, after about 6 months of events scattered throughout the nation, the final was played in the spring of 1981 at the University of Connecticut in Stamford. The latter, considered as the first official event, started a movement parallel to that of video games culture: eSports.

1980: Space Invaders tournament organized by Atari

In the 90s the phenomenon of PC gaming exploded, giving birth to games that have marked the history not only of the competitive scene, but also of the gaming industry itself. It should also be emphasized how important for the growth of eSport were the LAN parties, non-professional events that usually took place in Internet Cafes (but also at home) thanks to a LAN (Local Area Network), through ethernet cable or wireless, where a group of people had the opportunity to collide or play together without running into the slow internet connections of the times.

This period is also characterized by the great presence, on the market and on the competitive scene, of first-person shooters, sports games and arcade games.

A vast growth in the phenomenon occurred in the late 1990s, with the introduction of major sponsored competitions, also broadcasted on TV, and the formation of professional sports tournament organizations specialized in video game competitions, such as the “Cyberathlete Professional League”, founded in 1997 in Dallas, Texas.

The first years of 2000 will be a great turning point for eSports. How? Through the introduction of services that allowed players from all over the world to ” battle”, communicate and play together through a home console.

For example, Microsoft introduced the Xbox, with Xbox Live: a web server, digital distribution and virtual community service, developed and offered by Microsoft since November 2002, which allows those with at least an ADSL connection to play multiplayer games over the Internet.

For the PlayStation, the console produced by Sony Interactive Entertainment, was created the PlayStation Network, a service offered by Sony since November 2006 for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PlayStation Portable and PlayStation Vita. It allows those with a broadband internet connection to play games in multiplayer.

And among the turning points for eSports, we can not forget the tournaments: among them MLG (Major League Gaming, 2002) and ESL (Electronic Sports League).

The last twenty years are considered the modern age of eSports, which have renewed the industry and concretized this worldwide phenomenon. The proliferation of competitions with prize money close to 2 million dollars has led to the creation of professional leagues in every country in the world, the creation of professional teams. Moreover, the growing availability of online streaming multimedia platforms, especially Twitch.tv, has become fundamental for the growth and promotion of eSport competitions.

In December 2014, Rob Pardo, one of the creators of World of Warcraft, put forward the proposal to make electronic sports an Olympic discipline. Pardo based his initiative both on the physical exercise required of competitive players in electronic sports, and on the number of spectators and participants in the various tournaments.

eSports, as entertainment frontier, are establishing themselves in Italy also in relation to soccer and Serie A. Games like PES or FIFA represent now a real professional reality. The official championships that were born – and that are being born – are the proof of this.

In Italy, Sampdoria, Empoli and Genoa paved the way for eSports, and over time some other clubs joined. For example, Juventus has closed a partnership with Konami that will secure Juve’s participation to the eSerieA exclusively on PES, football simulator awarded at E3 2019 as best sports game.

PES 2020 Juventus team

In addition, the club played a leading role in the Coronavirus era. More than one hundred thousand spectators attended the European Friendly Cup, a friendly tournament that, on an international scale, saw the Juventus team challenge Munich, Celtic, Schalke 04 and Arsenal. The event attracted almost three times the maximum capacity of the Allianz Stadium, important numbers when compared to the solid reality, but only relative if the world in which you move is that of online.

It is a strategy, that of Juventus in the eSports sector, which aims to put the club in the leading position for the entire national movement, which only in recent months has been equipped to launch – alongside the Serie A – also the corresponding eSerieA.

Football leagues around the world are gradually organizing themselves to give more and more space to the gaming part of soccer and, as a result, many prominent clubs have created their eSports divisions: some are recruiting professional players, others are building their own team, while some have bought already existing successful teams. Football eSports are an easy route for teams hungry for spectators to reach a new segment of young audiences.

League of Legends All-Star – Paris 2014

Clubs want to position themselves as a global sports brand, as did the Barcelona brand, for example, which in building its eSports division has acquired a successful team competing in the professional Rocket League, the tenth most popular game in the world. Or as the German football club Schalke 04, one of the first participants in eSports, did, which is a veteran competitor of the European League of Legends Championship Series, the professional league of the world’s leading eSports game. The latter examples are in line with the general trend of major sports clubs to move towards a business model more similar to entertainment, repositioning their brands and transforming their organization accordingly. The more ambitious are exploring the most diverse ways to engage the younger generation by providing a wide range of experiences associated with their brand.

LEA explained us how eSports is a fast growing sector, and we believe it can become more and more important. Currently the global audience is around half a million worldwide and is estimated to reach 1.7 million by 2021.

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