5.4 — eSports: More Than Just a Game

Host Walter Isaacson and guests trace the relatively new trajectory of eSports that are taking live streams by storm and giving traditional sports a run for their money.
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In this episode:

  • The Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics (0:00)
  • Going to the arcade (3:18)
  • Yet again, the internet changes everything (6:45)
  • The big leagues (10:55)
  • Innovation beyond the game (17:07)
  • Remarkably resilient (21:01)
  • Adding color commentary (24:12)
  • A whole new ball game (27:22)

eSports is a billion-dollar industry that seemingly popped up overnight. In reality, video games have been a spectator sport since their earliest days. All they needed was a way to be seen by people outside the arcade.

More quests to explore in the story of eSports

  • There are a ton of eSports leagues. Here’s a quick list.
  • eSports stars are already becoming free agents.
  • Pro gamers and pro drivers competed in virtual races.
  • Listen to Trailblazers season one episode on the video gaming industry.

Guest List

  • Johnathan Wendel more commonly known by his online alias Fatal1ty, is a 12x FPS World Champion from titles like Quake, Doom and Unreal Tournament. He was an early pioneer of competitive gaming and recently was inducted into the esports hall of fame.
  • MISSHARVEY A five-time world champion in competitive Counter-Strike, and longtime female pro-gaming icon, Stephanie "missharvey" Harvey is now Counter-Logic Gaming’s Director of Esports Franchise Development and Outreach. Formerly a game designer for Ubisoft Montreal, Stephanie dedicates much of her time raising awareness for healthy gaming habits, gender equality, and online toxicity.
  • Dr. Jon-Paul Dyson is the Director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) and Vice President for Exhibits at The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, New York. As Director of ICHEG, Jon-Paul has supervised the growth of the collection to more than 60,000 video games and related artifacts and hundreds of thousands of related library and archival materials, the most comprehensive such collection in the world.
  • Robert Overweg empowers companies to learn from different fields like esports, gaming, art, and philosophy. With clients like Ebay, Vodafone, Vueling, and Heineken, he opens up people to new ideas, applies business model innovation, and rapid prototyping.
  • James Dean is the founder and CEO of the ESL UK. ESL is the world’s largest esports company with 15 offices spanning the globe. It operates the UK’s longest running national esports tournament, the ESL Premiership currently spanning 4 gaming titles.
  • Daniel “FunnyAstro” Hathaway is a professional Overwatch league player with the Philadelphia Fusion. Daniel was discovered in the competitive Overwatch scene for consistently appearing in the top 10 European rankings, and eventually made his debut in the professional scene with standout performances playing for British Hurricane and Atlanta Academy before the age of 18, at which point he became eligible to compete in the Overwatch League.

“Walking out on stage in front of everyone, hundreds, maybe thousands of people cheering for you to win. It's an adrenaline rush like nothing else.”

— Daniel "FunnyAstro" Hathaway, professional eSports player

Walter Isaacson:

It’s late on October 9th in 1972 and in the artificial intelligence lab at Stanford University, they’re going to war. But not just any war, a space war. Hoots and hollers and strange noises can be heard emanating from the lab. There’s an unusually boisterous event going on inside centered of round a state-of-the-art mainframe computer. It looks more like a wall of blue industrial refrigerators, but it’s not. It’s a gaming console among analog clutter in the room, with it’s prototype robotic arms and reel to reel magnetic tapes, five long haired hackers huddle around the computer’s little screen. They’re screaming and gesturing with their controllers as they maneuver tiny spaceships spinning and firing at each other against a black cathode ray background. The game they’re playing is called Spacewar.

Walter Isaacson:

The competitors have named their tournament, the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics and it’s a chance to prove their skill once and for all. The first prize is a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine and the magazine sent the writer Stewart Brand and the legendary photographer, Annie Leibovitz to cover it. It’s a tense battle, but one player, a young programmer named Bruce Baumgart has a trick up his sleeve. He’s played so much Spacewar that he’s mastered playing the game with both hands. It’s enough to give him the advantage. god destroyed one opponent and then another until finally he’s the last spaceship standing.

Walter Isaacson:

When the cheers died down he’s crowned the winner of what is now considered to be the world’s very first video gaming championships. The first Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics would also be the last, but what started over beer and pretzels in a Palo Alto computer lab would eventually snowball into a massive new industry that the tournament’s competitors would have been hard pressed to envision. That industry is eSports and it’s already redefining the future of entertainment as we know it.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 3:

Always a thrill when the home team takes the field.

Speaker 4:

Hello all you people out in game land.

Speaker 5:

The computer signals the action when it’s ready.

Speaker 6:

he’s always been a real hustler. Gives it all he’s got all the time.

Speaker 7:

Today we’re going to play an exciting new game.

Speaker 8:

The results, they’re more than satisfactory.

Walter Isaacson:

Video games may seem like a solitary pursuit, but from the very beginning, they’ve been a spectator sport so it’s no wonder that professional video game competition or eSports has grown steadily over the decades. And in 2020, the industry finally hit the $1 billion revenue mark. With the rise of multi-million dollar tournaments and celebrity players and streaming platforms that allow fans to feel like they’re part of the action, eSports is well on its way to giving quote real sports, a run for their money. But eSports has the potential to do more than provide an alternative to Monday Night Football, eSports fans may take for granted how easy it is to watch their favorite pros’ Twitch streams and follow tournaments from the comfort of their homes. But if you want it to see the cream of the crop, in the old days, you had to get off the couch and hit the arcade.

Jon-Paul Dyson:

Video games really are a public event really before they’re a private event.

Walter Isaacson:

Jon-Paul Dyson is the director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong Museum.

Jon-Paul Dyson:

The first mass market video games, they’re really taking place in arcades and arcades are there where you’re gathering with other people and you want to show off how good you are at the game you’re playing. And you often see this with early games, whether it’s a game like Pong early on, or games like Space Invaders or Pac-Man where people would gather together and they’d watch the best players. They would cheer them on. They would try to copy their moves or the strategies.

Walter Isaacson:

Space Invaders was revolutionary in more ways than one. The game’s phenomenal success and innovative gameplay help create the arcade industry, but beyond its addictive shoot them up gameplay, Space Invaders introduced another innovation that would define a video game experience. That innovation is the high score. Now you can memorialize your achievements by entering your initials on the screen, giving you a burst of local glory.

Jon-Paul Dyson:

It was an innovation to have high score on a game. You may remember the scene of the Seinfeld episode, in which George Costanza is trying to preserve his Frogger high score. There’s a certain acclaim that you would have at a local level, but then you begin to get national groups and people begin to get some recognition for it.

Walter Isaacson:

In Iowa, an arcade by the name of Twin Galaxies began recording high scores from around the country and slowly but surely video game prodigies started to gather some national recognition. But high scores still remained a niche achievement tracked largely by super fans. It was rare that a player could earn enough money to support himself, but as video games moved out of the arcades and into the home, that began to change. By the 1990s, gamers had been playing on their consoles and personal computers for decades, but it remained largely a solitary pursuit. That is until the internet came along and changed everything.

Jon-Paul Dyson:

There are a couple of key moments in the growth of eSports as a professional activity. One key one really is the growth of network computers with games like Doom or Quake. And initially these were computers that were networked locally, what’s called a LAN network, a local area network. And those computers, people would hook up their computers together and battle it out and this is in the early 1990s.

Walter Isaacson:

And around that time, a star was born in the least likely of places, a Blockbuster Video store in Kansas City, Missouri.

Johnathan Wendel:

Well, when I was a young kid around 11, 12, 13 years old, there was actually a Blockbuster tournament where they were holding a tournament for NBA Jam.

Walter Isaacson:

Johnathan Wendell, better known by his gaming moniker, Fatal1ty, is one of the world’s first superstar competitive gamers. He’s also the first ever eSports lifetime achievement awards honoree.

Johnathan Wendel:

And so I really was a big fan of NBA Jam. I was putting in four or six hours a day in training, trying to get good for this tournament and I come from kind of a sports background so I understand the importance of practice, practice makes perfect kind of mentality. And so I went to the tournament and actually took first place for NBA Jam in my city. For me, it was kind of exciting to get my name on the top three list.

Walter Isaacson:

But this wouldn’t be Wendel’s last championship. In 1996, he started playing an utterly addictive game called Quake. Quake was designed for online multiplayer gameplay, which was a breakthrough in the early internet days of the mid 1990s. Wendel was hooked.

Johnathan Wendel:

Quake One was extremely special for many reasons. Obviously playing player versus player online was the beginning. Playing online games in general, player versus player really didn’t exist yet. And Quake One was kind of that breakout game that everyone played. And there was a lot of elitism if you’re really good. If you got really good at Quake, you had this internet fame.

Walter Isaacson:

As he began to win more and more in local tournaments, he realized that a world of professional players was beginning to take shape. Wendel spent the early 2000s winning thousands in championship prizes and watching the sport grow.

Johnathan Wendel:

It was always getting bigger every year. And I kind of said it throughout my career. I was kind of like the Johnny Appleseed or the guy that barnstormed the world. I’ve been to bask every continent besides Antarctica promoting eSports wherever I go and kind of pioneering and talking about what is so great about eSports and why it’s so much fun and trying to explain all of that. Every tournament would be different. There’d be more people tuned in, more people physically at the venue to watch.

Walter Isaacson:

In the early 2000s, several eSports leagues, like the Cyberathlete Professional League attempted to mirror the success of televised professional sports. Cyberathlete, even designed their emblem to mirror the iconic red, white and blue Major League Baseball logo. Wendel himself would famously win a $150,000 prize at their 2005 grand finals event but despite their brief success, most of these leagues folded before the decade was over. eSports just didn’t seem cut out for television like baseball, football and other legacy sports. But just as the internet helped create eSports a hot new technology would soon come along to reshape the industry and help it to come into its own.

Walter Isaacson:

In 2007, Justin Kan and Emmett Shear launched a site called Justin.tv. Justin.tv was a live alternative to YouTube that allowed users to broadcast their lives to the internet in real time. The first subject was founder Justin Kan himself who livecast his daily activities to his audience, 24/7. At the time, it didn’t seem more than a very strange hobby, but then video games entered the mix.

Walter Isaacson:

Justin.tv had a gaming component, which they eventually renamed Twitch. The founders soon realized that viewers cared a lot more about watching people play video games than the mundane details of their daily lives. Watching a game on Twitch for many became a way of hanging out with their preferred eSports personalities. The site’s popularity soon exploded. It created an entirely new business model for professional gamers who can now interact with their fans on a daily basis. There are more than seven million active streamers on Twitch and more than 1.5 billion hours streamed every month.

Stephanie Harvey:

What’s really amazing about Twitch is the interactivity. It’s not just about sending the content.

Walter Isaacson:

Stephanie Harvey, also known as missharvey, is a pioneering eSports player, game developer and gaming advocate.

Stephanie Harvey:

It’s also about writing and interacting and having chat to support the content that you’re doing and whatnot. The arrival of Twitch allowed for competition to be broadcasted across the world in a way that was not possible before. If you just clicked on a link and you watch commentators and you watch the game being broadcasted across the world, just like any sports. That was one of the big thing because it brought spectators, which brought money.

Walter Isaacson:

Harvey started a career in 2003, but even though superstars such as Wendel were winning a $150,000 prizes, there just wasn’t enough money in the industry for most players to make a living.

Stephanie Harvey:

It was a pretty big struggle to support myself in the early days. I would say over 70% of my career, I had to pay to go to events. For kids today that are just joining the eSports world, it’s kind of crazy to think that most of my career, I did not have any income. It was a completely different universe, I want to say. When it became as big as it is today, with salaries and support from big companies, this is unimaginable. This is not something that we thought was possible.

Walter Isaacson:

The new streaming base eSports infrastructure has brought competitive gaming more into the mainstream. There are eSports leagues, professional teams based in large cities, just like pro sports and eSporting events that attract huge crowds of loyal fans.

Daniel Hathaway:

I hope that there are words that describes the feeling of playing on stage. It’s just absolutely incredible.

Walter Isaacson:

This is Daniel Hathaway. When he’s gaming for his team, the Philadelphia Fusion, he goes by the FunnyAstro. He’s a top ranking player in Overwatch, which is a very popular team based first person shooter game.

Daniel Hathaway:

The plans for Overwatch this year, which I have every single week, all the teams fly out to different cities so we could play in front of home and away crowds and that was something that was really incredible, was to see the home fans in Philadelphia that were so enthusiastic and walk out on stage in front of everyone, hundreds, maybe thousands of people cheering for you to win. It’s an adrenaline rush like nothing else.

Walter Isaacson:

eSports pioneers like Fatal1ty and missharvey had to carve out careers in an industry that was in its infancy. For the 20 year old Hathaway, starting a professional career was as simple as being recognized for his exceptional ability. But instead of being scouted say on a high school basketball court, he was discovered gaming at home.

Daniel Hathaway:

When I was around 16 or 17 and I started to get high up in the ladder on many different games at the time, people started to notice me and there are professional scouts who regularly check there to see who’s new, who’s up and coming. And then one day I was one of the people on the ladder that someone checked out and then they messaged me and asked me if I’d like to play for their team. Not really something that I expected because I was just playing casually for fun. I don’t think I really knew at the time how good I was.

Walter Isaacson:

Slowly but surely eSports stores such as Hathaway are becoming honest to goodness celebrities, but it’s a more down to earth kind of stardom. Unlike say, pro football players, eSports personalities can have a deep reciprocal relationship with their fans who spend hours every day watching them stream on Twitch.

Daniel Hathaway:

I think one of the greatest things about eSports is how much we can interact with our fans through live streaming. Every single day I talk to fans, I have a chat where anyone can join and ask questions anytime if they want to know something about what I’m doing or how I’m living outside of the game and then they can watch me play, watch me practice in my individual hours.

Walter Isaacson:

eSports has started to outpace legacy sports in other ways as well. Taking a cue from the agile nature of software development, they’re willing to continually renew themselves. In 2019 during the Fortnite World Cup, organizers announced that they were hosting an entirely new tournament called the Fortnight Champions Series. It would be a multi-million dollar invitational involving 500 players from around the world and it would start in only a few days. That’s on par with the NFL announcing that there’s going to be a second Superbowl during the Superbowl halftime show.

Robert Overweg:

I think eSports and gaming, they are one of the most innovative branches that are out there. I think because they are digital, they just constantly try and try and iterate and try to find better product market fits.

Walter Isaacson:

Robert Overweg is a digital design consultant and writer for the online tech magazine, The Next Web.

Robert Overweg:

These sort of things, they are unimaginable that they would happen during a FIFA or during an NFL or Major League Baseball event. I think it has to do with, because they are brought up with software and software you can just update and you can constantly iterate with it, I think that is part of their mindset.

Walter Isaacson:

eSports is evolving so frequently and creatively that it has begun to blur the line between sports games and even live music. On April 23rd, 2020, a 330 foot tall avatar of superstar rapper, Travis Scott performed a psychedelic concert in Fortnight, attracting more than 12 million fans to a one of a kind virtual spectacle.

Robert Overweg:

Yeah. what I see happening is that eSports is moving way further, way beyond just regular sports and way beyond regular entertainment. It’s not just a game, it’s not just a sport, it’s a social gathering. Imagine that you go into a world where you normally hang out with your friends and now Travis Scott is there, but then larger than life. It’s pretty insane.

Walter Isaacson:

eSports leagues and tournaments are also innovating new revenue models that the traditional sports industry would it be hard pressed to imitate. Most popular eSports games are free to download and watch online, meaning that the barrier to entry is low for players and spectators. Then how do these games make enough money to start international leagues that attract millions of viewers and to pay out huge prize money?

Robert Overweg:

The thing that they make money with is through micro-transactions. The game is free, but when you want to buy a new shield or wants to buy a new sword or a new skin to look cooler in your game, then you need to invest a little bit of money. And that’s what costs a lot of money.

Walter Isaacson:

In fact in 2019, League of Legends alone hauled in more than $1.5 billion of revenue from these micro-transactions, but what’s even more impressive is eSports viewership. By 2021, it’s predicted that eSports viewership in the United States will reach 84 million people. To put that in perspective, that’s more Americans watching eSports than watching Major League Baseball, the NBA or the NHL and its growth potential is even more impressive. In 2019, there were an estimated 451 million eSports fans around the world and that number is expected to reach 650 million in 2023. Furthermore, in a post pandemic world where social distancing has become the norm, eSports have proven remarkably resilient as major legacy sports leagues have struggled to adapt.

Robert Overweg:

COVID-19 had a very large impact on eSports, as you can imagine. We saw the viewership on Twitch grow by 50% and at the same time you saw that one of the most popular games Counter-Strike, they went from, I believe 800,000 players to a 1.4 million concurrent players at the same time.

Walter Isaacson:

But the pandemic had an impact on traditional sports markets as well. When COVID reached the level of a global pandemic in early 2020, the NBA and NHL had to cancel games and postpone their playoffs. Major League Baseball announced a shortened season. When they did return, stadiums were closed to the public and spectators had to watch from home. It’s been estimated that this accounted for nearly $12 billion in lost revenues, but the nature of eSports leagues allowed them to be much more resilient.

Robert Overweg:

League of Legends, they only needed one week to reboot their system and put the entire tournament online. Now this does not apply to all eSports tournaments, but it does apply to a lot of the tournaments because all you need is a fiber optic connection to the internet and you can play together with your team and people can watch it online.

Walter Isaacson:

Not only are eSports leagues proving more resilient, they’re also finding their way onto television networks that were once exclusively the home of legacy sports. In April, ESPN became the official home for the League of Legends spring playoffs. In fact, in 2018, a professional gamer named Tyler Ninja Blevins became the first eSports player to grace the cover of ESPN Magazine and his annual salary is enough to make any professional athlete take notice. Blevins makes anywhere from 500,000 to $1 million a month. And earlier this year, Microsoft paid him more than $20 million to leave Twitch and to play exclusively on their new streaming platform, Mixer. ESports had become so popular and profitable it’s possible the industry could disrupt more than just the legacy sports market.

Robert Overweg:

Netflix sees Fortnite as a larger competition to their profits and to their eyeballs than HBO because you’ve only got limited amount of time that you can spend, so you can watch a few series or a few movies, but if you can hang around with your friends, play a few games, that’s probably a steeper competition.

Walter Isaacson:

And as technologies such as virtual and augmented reality come into their own, they’re opening up opportunities for audience interaction and emotion on an entirely new level. Weaver is a technology platform that uses live and historic data to create mixed reality experiences for eSports fans. Using Weaver, fans will be able to watch live eSports events while seeing interactive statistics and background information overlaid onto their screens. This is the equivalent to color commentary on overdrive with the dose of social networking. But that’s just the beginning. With its new virtual reality applications, Weaver has the potential literally to pull fans into the game.

James Dean:

I think when we look at the perfect experience, if you like, it’s one in which you completely immerse yourselves visually.

Walter Isaacson:

This is James Dean. He’s the CEO of ESL UK. ESL is an eSports company that organizes video game competitions around the world and it’s one of several partners helping develop Weaver.

James Dean:

You are wearing some sort of virtual reality headset. Once you’re in that space, you want to be inviting your friends into that space with you and you also want to be choosing the type of commentators and talent, your favorite team or the type of player you are. But at the same time, we have the virtual map in front of you on a table. We call it the battle room and you can actually analyze what’s going on in the game with your friends, by pointing out particular moments, rewinding the play, focusing in on certain aspects, looking at the probabilities around that gameplay in order to make that entire broadcast fully interactive.

Walter Isaacson:

But it goes deeper than info boxes. Audience members will be able to zoom in and out of the game map in real time while players perform live. They will even be able to replay big moments and see alternative outcomes if players had made different choices in the game. And if that wasn’t enough, Weaver will also be able to transport viewers to the event venue.

James Dean:

Then we look at the virtual reality space. Basically within this virtual space, it’s a way which we can explore and personalize our experience by bringing your friends in to watch this event together. Be surrounded with a live 360 video feed so you’re actually sitting within the stadium. This kind of really layers up that really immersive experience.

Walter Isaacson:

Weaver’s prototype applications are already being tested at eSports events in Europe. In an increasingly distanced world, they might point the way towards bringing friends together to safely enjoy their favorite activities.

Walter Isaacson:

With the future of live sports increasingly in question, the remote nature of eSports has them poised to fuel their growth even further. The huge success of games such as Fortnite has brought online multiplayer video games into mainstream pop culture. They are an entirely new virtual space where friends can gather. And the world outside of gaming has started to take notice. There are already varsity eSports programs at institutions like the University of California and scholarships available to talented players. eSports is also now included in the Asian games, alongside volleyball, swimming, table tennis and gymnastics. They were even seriously considered for the 2024 Paris summer Olympics. And while they didn’t make it in, it seems only a matter of time. Whether you’re a player or a spectator, it’s very much a whole new ballgame.

Walter Isaacson:

I’m Walter Isaacson and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. If you want to know more about any of the people on our show today, go to our website at delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.