In its current format, eSports – another name for competitive multiplayer gaming – has been around for over a decade internationally. In Australia, we’re now seeing eSports events sell out entire stadiums to fans eager to watch their favourite athletes compete onstage. It’s a turning point for the online pursuit entering Aussie homes alongside traditional sports viewing, and fans can take part more than ever before.

eSports is a billion-dollar industry worldwide, and it’s just as lucrative for its top competitive athletes as well. One of the highest-profile eSports championships in 2017, The International 7, pitted dozens of teams playing the online battle arena game DotA 2 for a total prize pool of nearly $US25 million. And with nearly $US24 million of that prize pool coming from the pockets of fans keen to watch the action, it’s clear that there’s a ready-made audience for the digital sport.

eSports events are only becoming more popular in Australia as well. The biggest events of 2017 packed out Sydney stadiums with tens of thousands of excited fans, and this year is set to improve on that. With eSports competitions often being broadcast online on platforms like Twitch available for everyone to watch, too, it’s a worldwide phenomenon. More events and tournaments are happening around the world in 2018, too – eSports is here to stay.

What is eSports, and how did it get started?

‘eSports’ is another name for professional gaming, in competitions that usually take the form of organised multiplayer matches – either online, or in person in the case of big worldwide competitions and tournaments. Like traditional sports, eSports covers different game types like real-time strategy titles (top-down games like Starcraft 2 where the player controls dozens of different units on a battlefield) and first-person shooters (where the player represents one individual, often in a team of other players up against opponents or working to complete an objective).

Competitive gaming has been around since ‘70s arcade parlours and the first home game consoles, but eSports as we know it found its roots in the internet cafes of South Korea – ‘PC bangs’, where players could pay an hourly fee and play different games against friends in-store or online. In the 1990s and early 2000s, as broadband home internet became more popular and affordable, these games and their players moved to regular online battles at nights and weekends.

In the past decade, pro-level eSports has moved from cyber cafés and homes to exhibitions in stadiums and arenas – where there were 10 tournaments worldwide in 2000, 260 in 2010, and that number has only risen since. Worldwide eSports organisations and the long-term success of games like Counter-Strike has turned these competitions into a true test of players’ skills – not just their reflexes, but their teamwork, strategy and understanding of the most intricate details of a game’s ‘meta’. Just as traditional sports’ rules evolve over years, so do the rules for each game, its competitive play, and its organising body.

What does the future hold for eSports in Australia and the world?

The biggest eSports tournaments are already broadcast live online to tens of millions of viewers simultaneously, rivalling Australia’s largest sporting events. When you realise that the most popular video game in the world – 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V – has made more money than any blockbuster movie and left ticket sales for any sporting event in the dust, you start to realise the scale of what’s to come.

We’re already living in a world where eSports teams and players are bought and traded like any NRL, AFL or other high-level traditional sport player are, and the prizes for top competitions stretch into the tens of millions of dollars. Players live in dedicated houses with high-speed connectivity and train for hours a day, honing their skills to become the best. It’s clear that eSports isn’t going away any time soon, and as our world becomes even more connected it will only grow and thrive.

eSports is nearly unique in that it allows for everyday gamers, sitting at home in front of their TVs or computer screens, to play the same games as the world’s best players. Indeed, every professional gamer out there today got their start as a hobbyist, and we’re seeing the first eSports athletes with full-time careers starting as young as age 16. As the networks connecting us to each other and to the world become faster and more powerful, we’ll all be able to take part in eSports at every level – from the couch to the stadium.