eSports History: The Fighting Games
While most will think of shooters and MOBAs when they hear the word 'eSports', competitive gamers owe a great deal to the emergence of the arcade fighter.
Competitive gaming as we know it today arguably arrived with the fighting game.
Multiplayer gaming has existed as long as there have been video games. As far back as 1958, Tennis for Two offered competitive gaming via an oscilloscope and early computer.
Tennis for two. m-e-g-a.org
But eSports competitive gaming, where organized events see players go head-to-head in battles of skill, really came about once arcades brought people together around one-on-one fighting games. It's a genre where releases are referred variously as fighters, FTGs and – albeit it incorrectly – beat 'em ups. Strictly speaking 'beat 'em up' refers to fighting games with scrolling environments and multiple enemies to take down in various locations. It was fighting games that came first.
The Rise of Head-to-Head Fighting Games in Competitive Gaming
While Sega's 1976 release Heavyweight Champ is generally recognised as the earliest game themed around brawling, it was Technos Japan's 1984 arcade hit Karate Champ that popularized head-to-head fighting games as a competitive endeavour.
Really, though, Street Fighter II is the title that established something like eSports as we know it today. Back in 1991 Capcom's creation offered pick-up-and-play accessibility that got millions mashing buttons. Yet Street Fighter II equally demonstrated the game design depth needed for players to develop complex skills and strategies. The development team at Capcom followed up with refinements geared towards the emerging competitive scene, such as Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting, Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers and Super Street Fighter II Turbo.
Street Fighter II Turbo. Capcom
Street Fighter's Influence in eSports
With the Street Fighter series making huge profits and inspiring competitive tournaments, more game companies moved in on the space. Iconic titles like Virtua Fighter, King of Fighters, Tekken, Soulcalibur, Killer Instinct and Mortal Kombat all made their series debuts between 1992 and 1995, along with countless other lesser examples of the form. Indeed, some point to the flood of fighting games and Street Fighter II clones as being part of the reason arcades soon started to close. After all, too many similar games made arcade's appeal something of a niche.
Until the year 2000 and the prevalence of the internet as an everyday technology, however, fighting game events were modest, locally-minded and not connected to overseeing organisations. As online communities emerged, however, so did more organised gatherings, leagues and networks of players, leading to huge international competitions, such as Evo Championship Edition, which brings genre devotees from all over the world to compete for big prizes.
Mortal Kombat, Warner bros. interactive entertainment.
Back in 1996, Evo was a local event named 'Battle by the Bay'. Bringing San Francisco-area players together, the gathering – of which grainy footage still exists – helped shape the future of modern eSports. It wasn't the first competitive event by any stretch, but in the wake of the rather formal tournaments built around the first Quake, Evo proved that the noisy energy of arcade competitions could easily captivate crowds.
There are other international fighting eSports events, like Japan's presently suspended Tougeki – Super Battle Opera, but Evo continues to lead the pack, with countless national and regional events seeding players into it. And the games played at these events? Street Fighter, King of Fighters, Tekken, Soulcalibur and other classics still dominate. Equally, though, a number of newer series designed for fighting tournaments have been released, and stand alongside the big names at events like Evo.
As such, next time you check in to a fighting tournament through a streaming platform, you're likely to see titles such as BlazBlue, Melty Blood and Injustice rubbing shoulders with their famed forbearers.
Yet despite those games inspiring captivating skill, huge prize pools and vast audiences online and in-person, there remains a notion with many non-fighting players that FTG events aren't quite pure eSports. Perhaps it's fighters' status as a niche game relative to the likes of FPSes, or the fact that the tournaments pre-date contemporary eSports.
Regardless of all that, however, eSports owes a great deal to Street Fighter and its ilk. So whether today you stand as a League of Legends maestro or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive sharpshooter, you owe just a little respect to the pixelated 2D games and the arcades where the conventions of eSports were first forged.