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When Did Esports Get So Popular

In this article, we cover when some of the biggest moments and biggest people in gaming boosted the popularity of esports.

Competitive gaming has been around longer than most would think. In fact, the first actual Esports competition was held in the 1980’s with 10,000 participants battling head-to-head in the classic “Space Invaders.” 

 It would be over 20 years later that gaming competitively really took off and became the behemoth industry and sport it is today. While the art of competition has been deeply ingrained into human civilization since the beginning of time, gaming was something new and grassroots in the beginning. After creeping up in the underbelly of society, the esports community exploded into the mainstream in the early 2000’s. 


If it had to boil down to just one moment that changed everything in esports history, it would probably be the moment Daigo Umehara beat Justin Wong in “Street Fighter III: Third Strike” at the Evolution World Championship Series in 2004. It was a defeat that would become one of the most iconic moments in competitive gaming history. 

Source: ESPN

Umehara ended the match with a perfect parry of Wong’s (Chun-Li’s) finishing move that was thought to be impossible. He then turned around and used his own player (Ken)’s finishing move to win, sending spectators into a frenzy and cementing his place as a gaming legend. Since then, it has continued to be a standout moment, garnering over 30 million views on youtube and making it one of the most watched tournament highlights of all time. 

Over time, more of these momentous events occurred, bringing more and more interest, especially in the fighting game community. In the years following the epic beatdown that was Umehara vs. Wong, a string of tournament moments brought even more crowds to the sport. In 2008, curing the CSCA West Coast Circuit, gamer duo SilentSpectre and Tang performed perfectly choreographed attacks and defeated players Lucky and Zhu during a match of Super Smash Bros. Melee

The string of perfectly choreographed moves that are unavoidable and cannot be escaped became dubbed as the “Wombo Combo” and still spawns many memes to this day. 

With tournaments garnering more attention than ever, competitive gaming began to attract a broader spectrum of attendees and people began to take it more seriously. In 2009, various schools across the nation began their own esports leagues. 

These leagues, just as with other sports, opened doorways for collegiate players to go professional. In fact, up-and-coming gamers can even apply for esports scholarships for some of the most competitive games like League of Legends, Overwatch, and Valorant. These collegiate leagues helped take competitive gaming to a whole new level by establishing in the mainstream that esports was truly a sport to be taken seriously and a new opportunity for young students to take advantage of. 

It showed that there could be a real future in the time and effort it takes to become a successful player. 

On top of these pivotal tournament moments and the induction of esports into the world of collegiate sports leagues, the introduction of streaming boosted competitive gaming exponentially with the birth of the now massive live-streaming service, Twitch, in 2011. 

In just one year, Twitch had attracted over 20 million active viewers. Previously, we were all stuck watching pre-recorded streams through sites such as youtube but services like Twitch (and now YouTube Gaming) allowed people to observe in real time and even interact with the players and each other. 

Fans flocked to watch popular streamers such Ninja and Dr. Disrespect, who in turn, were launched into mainstream media gaining fame and notoriety. Famous streamers began getting sponsorships and opportunities for marketing and merchandising. They became household names, even hosting other famous celebrities on their streams and being invited onto talk shows and newscasts. 

Streaming boosted esports by showing the potential there is in professional gaming to become a media star on top of displaying a massive amount of skill in their craft. This type of fame also encompassed gaming teams, such as TSM, Team Liquid, and FaZeClan, that have accumulated massive amounts of followers. 

The rise of streaming services also played a valuable role during the pandemic where people found themselves able to interact, make friends, and be a part of a community even while being forced to stay at home. 

In fact, a recent study at Georgia State University showed that viewership significantly increased from pre-pandemic numbers to the duration of the covid era and since, have not decreased. In their study, respondents cited continuously that esports provided them with much needed social interaction with other like minded individuals and helped them not feel so alone.  

The popularity continues to grow with each passing year for a multitude of reasons. New games are released, new teams are created, tournaments organized, and more opportunities are presented to players. Even in the last four years, monthly esports viewership in America went from 21 million people up to almost 30 million and that number is only projected to grow. 

So just within the last 20 years, competitive gaming went from being a niche hobby of a few to being a mainstream event viewed by millions. Some even say that perhaps one day the popularity of esports will encompass that of other sports. Who's to say? All we know for sure is that esports exploded onto the scene within the last 20 years and the growth of popularity shows no signs of slowing down.

As esports continues to expand, more and more events continue to spring up around the globe. Some of the most anticipated upcoming tournaments for the end of 2022 and beginning of 2023 are the 2022 International 11 in Singapore happening October 15 through October 30th. The upcoming globally acclaimed Dreamhack 2022: Atlanta will be taking place from November 18th to November 20th, followed by Dreamhack’s return to its origin nation in Switzerland for Dreamhack Winter 2022 taking place from November 24th to November 27th. 

All we know for sure is that esports exploded onto the scene within the last 20 years and the growth of popularity shows no signs of slowing down.

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