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The History of Computer Games and the Birth & Future of Esports

Industries & Innovation | Innovation

The history of computer games can be traced back more than a century to the 1910s. While the first examples employed simple programming and technologies, the games of today have evolved so that complex and realistic graphics, deep story-telling and online matches enabling simultaneous player participation worldwide are now possible. Once considered something played by only a small group of passionate fans, these games are now enjoyed by people of all ages, genders and nationalities. In this evolutionary process, electronic sports (esports) have quickly risen to become a new genre of competitive sports adored by many. This essay will examine the birth and future of esports while looking back at computer games’ history.

1 – The Dawn of Computer Games

The first computer game, which was very innovative for the time, was the chess automaton El Ajedrecista, invented by Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres Quevedo in 1912. Following this, a computer-based tic-tac-toe game called OXO and developed by University of Cambridge graduate student A.S. Douglas appeared in 1952. Later, in 1962, Spacewar! was created by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; it is considered the first well-known video game in the world. In 1972, American company Atari released the table tennis-themed video game PONG, which became a major hit in the US and had an impact worldwide. Said to be the first commercially successful arcade video game, it made a significant contribution to the popularization of video games.

2 – The Golden Age of Arcade Video Games

Arcade video games enjoyed worldwide popularity from the 1970s to the latter half of the 1990s, with iconic titles such as Pac-Man and Space Invaders mesmerizing legions of young players. The year 1990 saw the arrival of SNK’s NEOGEO arcade cabinet, built on revolutionary “Multi Video System” (MVS) technology that allowed several titles to be played on the one machine—a break from convention. The NEOGEO hardware had a major impact on the industry.

The fighting game boom that swept through the 1990s also deserves mention. Landmark titles such as Street Fighter II and Fatal Fury made one-on-one competitive play the norm, moving the market away from its tradition of CPU-based opponents. The advent of these competitive fighters led to a thriving arcade scene full of daily dedicated players, which in turn fostered an entire community—complete with regular matchups, tournaments and other events. These events served as a place for players to interact with each other, contributing greatly to the development of gaming culture.

NEOGEO commercial arcade cabinets (released 1990)

The Spread of Console Games and Their Move Online

The NEOGEO home console (released 1990)

From the mid-1980s to the 1990s, games for home consoles also became more widespread. Nintendo’s Family Computer (Nintendo Entertainment System) and Sega’s Mega Drive (Genesis) brought video games to numerous households around the world, while SNK’s NEOGEO console enabled premium arcade-perfect experiences from the comfort of consumers’ homes; this led to a rise in popularity of fighting games and other action titles. The Sony PlayStation released in the mid-to-late 1990s and revolutionized the video game industry as the first home console to make effective use of 3D graphics.

From 2000 onwards, games increasingly went online with the spread of the Internet. The emergence of massively multiplayer online RPGs (MMORPGs) for PC made player interaction—via cooperative and competitive play—increasingly common. Online play became available on home consoles thereafter with the rollout of the Xbox network (formerly Xbox Live) and PlayStation Network services in 2002 and 2006 respectively.

With the increased availability of smartphones from the 2010s onwards, the number of mobile games surged. The 2020 outbreak of COVID-19 brought even more games online due to increased demand from people staying at home, accelerating the spread of online competitive and cooperative play. With just an Internet connection one could now play games with anybody, anywhere. A Newzoo report provides evidence of this, showing that the number of users in the video game market grew from 2 billion in 2015 to 2.9 billion in 2020. In that same period, sales were also recorded as growing from US$93 billion to approximately US$180 billion, a near-twofold increase. Further growth is expected as the world’s player population increases and the video game market expands.

Source: Newzoo / Global Market Report 2023

4 – The Birth and Development of Esports

The esports concept was first defined in the mid-to-late 1990s. Street Fighter tournamentBattle by the Bay—predecessor to the Evolution Championship Series (Evo), the world’s largest fighting game event—was held in California in the middle of the decade. The Red Annihilation tournament for first-person shooter (FPS) title Quake is regarded as the first esports tournament to offer prize money; it took place in 1997, the same year that the concept of “professional gamer” (players who took home substantial winnings, received sponsorship contracts, and earned money from endorsements) also came into being in the US. Other titles such as StarCraft and Counter-Strike helped boost the esports scene thereafter.

The development of this professional gaming scene is also of significance. Entering the 2000s, South Korea became an esports hub all of its own—frequently introducing professional leagues and large-scale tournaments. This movement spread to other regions, as esports found itself undergoing rapid growth in North America and Europe as well. Teams and leagues were becoming professional organizations; players were receiving specialized training.

SNK World Championship 2023:
Global esports tournament organized by SNK

As the world of esports has evolved, so too has the viewer experience. From the 2000s to the present, the spread of YouTube, Twitch and other streaming platforms has cultivated a culture of spectating esports online. As a result, tournaments evolved into events that brought players, venue spectators and online viewers together—millions of people worldwide, together as one, swept up simultaneously in the excitement of the moment.

According to a report by Global Information, Inc., the size of the esports market exceeded US$2.1 billion in 2024, with forecasts pointing to even more growth (to almost US$5.3 billion) by 2029. Sponsorships, advertising, media broadcast rights and other esports-related business ventures are also expanding rapidly, with further growth of their own expected in the future.

5 – Esports Make Their Medal Debut at Olympic-Related Events

Esports have been adopted as medal sports at Olympic-related events in recent years. The Olympic Esports Series (OES) 2023—a worldwide virtual and simulated sports competition created by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in collaboration with International Federations (IFs) and game publishers—commenced in March 2023. Over a three-month period, both amateur and professional players competed in qualification rounds for the featured games; the finals took place during the first ever Olympic Esports Week (Singapore, June 2023). OES 2023 was a resounding success, bringing together more than 500,000 participants and recording over six million stream views across all channels.

Other large-scale competitions in 2023 where esports made their medal debut include the East Asian Youth Games (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, August 2023)—which primarily featured male and female competitors from 15 to 18 years of age—and the 19th Asian Games (Hangzhou, China, September 2023).

6 – Helping Young People Grow Through Esports

With their evolution, esports are no longer just for entertainment or competition; they also have a major impact on youth development. Esports teach young people the importance of abiding by set rules (as well as the skills required to actually play the games in question) and also develop their mental discipline as they invariably confront and overcome tense situations—just like physical sports. Players foster communication and leadership skills by cooperating with their team members during each game, plus develop a spirit of fair play and sportsmanship by learning to respect their opponents. These skills are extremely beneficial not just in the world of esports, but also in daily life and future career development; after all, proper comprehension of rules, calmness under pressure and an effective team-focused mindset are crucial to any profession. Of course, the concentration and problem-solving skills that also result from esports training are of enormous value in an individual’s academic, regular sporting, and general social life as well.

Esports are even beginning to garner attention in educational environments. Robert Morris University in the US commenced its esports scholarship program in 2014—the first of its kind in the entire world. Europe and Asia followed suit by starting their own integration of esports and education thereafter. According to the Network of Academic and Scholastic Esports Federations (NASEF)—an organization supporting the development of human resources through esports—there was a dramatic increase in the number of schools adopting esports for learning and club activities in the four years from 2018 through 2021. In the US that amount grew from 72 to 1,682 institutions; in Japan, the increase was from 71 to 285.

These kinds of initiatives enable the world’s youth to grow as human beings (through competition) and gain business knowledge related to esports (through classes and other programs)—all while pursuing their interests. The realm of esports houses new opportunities and potential for youth development, comparable even to physical sports, and their importance as such will likely continue to grow in the future.

7 – Conclusion

Computer games have undergone a remarkable evolution (and have seen tremendous technological innovation) over the course of history. With the spread of the Internet and their subsequent move online, they have become a form of entertainment that players all over the world can participate in at the same time. Meanwhile, the esports of today transcend the entertainment medium entirely, resulting in a brand-new competitive and interactive sports culture. With expectations of further growth in the future, esports will likely continue to serve as a virtual sport that encourages young people’s development and provides passion and excitement to many. As a leading body in the games industry, SNK also wishes to do its utmost to contribute to the development of games and esports, based on its corporate mission: “Create a culture that excites the world: The Future Is Now.”