The Rise of E-Sports: Overwatch League and the Hearthstone World Championships

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With the 2018 World Hearthstone Championship Tournament having just come to a close following an incredibly intense competition over the month of January and the Overwatch League having just been formally announced, there has never been a better time to be a fan of e-sports.

Blizzard Entertainment, a longtime champion of the e-sports industry and creator of famous games like Starcraft, Starcraft 2, World of Warcraft, and Warcraft 3, all of which built the foundations of the e-sports industry, has been constructing the foundation for a reimagining of the industry for years.

E-sports has had a number of peaks and valleys, but the recent surge of interest in competitive gaming seems to be one that will last for the foreseeable future, especially because of the introduction of major players outside of game publishing and development companies themselves.

The gaming industry was long regarded as a sleeping giant, capturing billions of dollars in revenue without significant understanding or attention by major financial analysts due to outdated social stigmas around gaming.

And don’t be mistaken, we’re not including things like online casino in this figure, that’s a completely different industry entirely.

E-sports is now proving that it, too, has been an underestimated industry.

The History of Esports

In the year of 1985, an event that would prove to be legendary unfolded thanks to the golden-age arcade classic Donkey Kong. Detailed in the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, one of the most public and controversial competitions in video game history began when Steve Wiebe challenged Guinness Book of World Record’s World High-Score Champion Billy Mitchell.

Mitchell had received the Guinness Book Record recognition for holding the highest score ever recorded in six classic games, including Donkey Kong and Pac-Man.

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Wiebe attempted to unseat Mitchell both publicly and via videotaped play, neither of which Mitchell agreed to recognise. When Wiebe went to now-famous arcade hall Funspot in Laconia, New Hampshire, he set beat Mitchell’s record live, only to have Mitchell submit a tape hours later showing him beating Wiebe’s new score.

Mitchell was notoriously hostile towards Wiebe, and Wiebe alleged that there was evidence that Mitchell had doctored the footage of him re-taking high scores.

Wiebe became the champion de jure by breaking Mitchell’s recorded Donkey Kong score live at Funspot’s arcade.

While this was by no means a mainstream event, Wiebe and Mitchell’s competitive gaming feud was the foundation of spectator gaming, with fans of each player (and arcades in general) watching the two play both live and on video.

The advent of the internet changed the game entirely for competitive gaming, opening unprecedented avenues for competition and play.

Gaming companies like Nintendo, Blizzard Entertainment, and SEGA all began organising the earliest forms of e-sports in the 1990s, with live console and PC competitions garnering notable attendance.

The Nintendo World Championships began in the 90s and Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft real-time strategy game released in 1997, which would prove to be one of the most influential games in the history of e-sports.

Also worthy of note was the 1999 release of Sony Online Entertainment’s Everquest, one of the earliest examples of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG).

The sheer number of consecutive players opened the door for competitive player-versus-player content as well as large-scale cooperative “raids” which were entertaining to follow, even for those not involved in playing the raid.

The early 2000s saw the formal release of Battle.Net, the very same platform that hosts the biggest games in e-sports today. Battle.Net, a platform designed by Blizzard Entertainment, allowed for players to compete head-to-head in games like Starcraft and Warcraft 2 and play cooperatively in games like Diablo 2.

In an unpredictable turn, Starcraft exploded in popularity in South Korea, leading to the creation of competitive leagues, TV events, and massive public expos. Starcraft’s expansion pack, Brood Wars became one of the most popular e-sports in history, with Korean games reaching worldwide audiences via the internet.

These games build communities just like those of traditional sports, with star players, well-known commentators, and sponsorship deals for teams and players.

The mid- and late-2000s brought console e-sports to the scene in full, with the Major League Gaming organization bringing games like Call of Duty and Halo to competitive exhibition. E-sports found a significant audience at gaming conventions, which were also rising in attendance drastically in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

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Why E-Sports Is Surging Now

While gaming companies building competitive communities around their games has always been the core fuel of the e-sports industry, the interest and involvement of third parties has acted as an incredible catalyst, magnifying the investment of companies who hope to foster communities for their games.

Twitch.tv is possibly the most influential of the third party companies to get involved, offering live-action, personality-fuelled game streaming available to make or view by anyone who makes an account.

Recently, Amazon Prime partnered with Twitch.tv and multiple game developers to bring bonus rewards to Amazon Prime users who also have Twitch and accounts with popular game distributors or developers.

Since the advent of Twitch as a reliable streaming option, companies like Blizzard have organised most of their major tournaments and e-sports events to be viewed directly through Twitch, the most recent of which is the Overwatch League and the Hearthstone 2017 World Championship Tournament.

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While the Hearthstone World Championship brings in hundreds of thousands of viewers from all over the world, supporting their local champions, the Overwatch League is an all-new type of organisation.

Boasting regular, geographically-based teams complete with jerseys, team logos, and team colours, the Overwatch League is to-date the closest system resembling traditional sports organisations; its advent has been heralded with an incredible amount of attention from fans who’ve been itching to have a local team to support.

Now, thanks to the Overwatch League, fans of Blizzard Entertainment’s record-breaking First Person Shooter can enjoy playing the games themselves while also rooting for incredible teams like (full disclosure: my personal favourite team) the San Francisco Shock or the Boston Uprising.

These teams are, most interestingly, backed by world-renowned sponsors of traditional sports teams. For example, Boston Uprising is sponsored by the Kraft Group, who has also sponsored American Football team the New England Patriots.

No matter what era of e-sports you got involved in, the future looks to be a true golden age for the industry.

If the Overwatch League continues to prosper, and major world-class tournaments like the Hearthstone Championship Tournament continue to gather such groundbreaking crowds, other smaller-profile games might see their time in the spotlight, and the industry might come to rival that of the traditional sports industry.