Esports is a global phenomenon now commonly seen in every corner of the world. Professional gamers can be found on every continent, as well as tournaments, teams, and organizations. Much like soccer, the worldwide presence of esports is part of the reason it has exploded into a billion-dollar industry. This wasn’t always the case, as it took many years for esports to reach global recognition and acclaim. For a long time, esports only existed in Eastern and Western countries.
When referring to regions in this post, the “East” refers to Asian countries while the “West” refers to Europe and the United States. Both have a long history with esports, though they are very different from each other. Much of this has to do with the culture regarding video games in the East and West and doesn’t only encompass which games are popular but also the role esports plays in their respective societies. Upon deeper examination, it becomes clearer how the cultural differences between the East and West influenced trends that can still be seen today.
In its primitive state, the first esports events can actually be traced back to the United States. The first recorded video game competition was for Spacewar and was held at Stanford University in 1972. Years later, in 1980, Atari held the Space Invaders was the earliest large-scale video game competition, with more than 10,000 players participating across the US. This event was held in various cities, where high scores were recorded and compared on a leaderboard. It inspired many other “high score” challenges for popular arcade games and helped popularize video games in America.
Released in 1991, Street Fighter II is often viewed as the game that started tournament-style events. Rather than try to beat each other’s scores, players could now square off against one another to determine who was more skilled. Its success led to more games implementing multiplayer modes. The popularity of competitive gaming began to take off from there, and by the late 1990s, several large-scale international tournaments were being held in the United States. These included Evolution Championship Series (Evo), Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL), and Professional Gamers League (PGL).
Beginnings of Modern Esports in the East
For most of the 1990s, video game competitions were only really heard about in the US. This was puzzling given that most of the top games at the time were made by Asian companies. Japanese giant Nintendo even held the 1990 Nintendo World Championships and 1994 Nintendo PowerFest in numerous American cities but not their home country. The East finally started forming its esports culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s, primarily in China and South Korea. After the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, many people were left unemployed and looking for other passions to pursue. The recession coincided with the rise of internet cafes and LAN gaming centers, known as PC bangs in Korea. Out-of-work citizens were drawn to these gaming lounges, and esports soon took off in the East.
StarCraft and StarCraft II still have strong competitive scenes. Image source: Blizzard Entertainment.
By far, the most popular multiplayer game in Asia during this time was Starcraft. Released in 1998, the real-time strategy game became extremely popular in China and Korea. Several tournaments and other Starcraft competitions began to surface, and the South Korean government began to take notice. In 2000, the country’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism founded the Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA) to regulate esports in the country and help recognize them as official sports. They also aimed to sponsor new events, create career paths for professional gamers, and encourage the general public to play video games. In a remarkable sense for what the future would hold, the formation of KeSPA is the first instance of an entity unrelated to video games endorsing esports. Gaming was popular in other Asian countries but was still surrounded by stigma in those societies. South Korea met esports with open arms, and to this day, the country produces the most pro gamers and holds them in the highest regard.
Emergence in the West
Fighting games like Street Fighter, Tekken, and Super Smash Bros. were the first competitive titles to feature tournaments in the Western world. These even predated the South Korean esports explosion, with the now-iconic Evo debuting in 1996. Quake was another popular title in the 1990s that developed a large and loyal following. However, the rise of modern esports in the West can be attributed to one franchise: Counter-Strike. Released in 2000, Counter-Strike is a tactical 5v5 shooter that started out as a mod for Half-Life. It quickly became the West’s most popular competitive game, especially in Europe. The first major tournament was held at the 2001 Cyberathlete Professional League, with many more to follow. Counter-Strike is still the top esport in the West, having maintained its stronghold for over twenty years.
It didn’t take long for Western countries to follow South Korea’s example and make esports a legitimate enterprise. The early 2000s saw the formation of the Electronic Sports League (ESL) in Europe and Major League Gaming (MLG) in the United States. Both organizations became focal leaders in growing esports in the West, holding large-scale tournament circuits for some of the era’s most popular games. ESL was the home for top competition in Counter-Strike and Dota 2, while MLG featured an extensive, revolving list of titles, including Halo, Gears of War, and various fighting games. Along with other organizations, these two giants paved the way for competitive gaming to flourish in the West and influenced the creation of an esports industry akin to that of traditional sports with leagues, branded teams, and international championships.
There are a number of key distinctions that make gaming in the East and West unique from each other. Much of it has to do with their contrasting ideologies towards cooperative play. Team-based esports that emphasize collaborative tactics and communication are much more popular in the East. This can be traced back to the popular LAN gaming centers where people would congregate in groups to play their favorite games. Players could form team bonds playing with one another and devise strategies in-person while building up chemistry. On the other hand, Western gamers favor titles that allow them plenty of opportunities to showcase their individual skill. Many players in Europe and the US started out playing on home consoles and had to compete locally with their siblings, neighbors, or close friends. Arcades gave them a place to meet up in large groups, but these were not very accessible given that there was often only one machine for each game. As netplay became more advanced, many gamers abandoned arcades altogether in favor of gaming almost entirely online. From there, a gaming culture developed that was big on personal achievements and styling on opponents for an added layer of expression.
Multiplayer Quake was one of the first games to be widely thought of as an esport. Image source: id Software.
These two opposing gaming principles are reflected in both regions’ most popular esports titles. In the East, games like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Overwatch reign supreme. These games are all team-based and heavily rely on communication and cooperation to succeed. Early on, 1v1 games like Quake, Street Fighter, and other fighting games were favored in the West. As esports began to grow, Europe and the US began to embrace more team-based games. These were primarily first-person shooter (FPS) games like Counter-Strike, Halo, and Call of Duty that still revolved around outstanding individual performances leading to team success. There are few instances of games transcending regions. Western esports organizations eventually began fielding teams for League of Legends and Dota 2 but have struggled to compete with the Chinese and Korean teams that dominate the competition. Similarly, Asian players or teams have a minimal presence in games like Quake and Counter-Strike. The one team-based game that is widely popular in both regions is Overwatch. Still, the bulk of Overwatch League rosters are mostly made up of Korean and Chinese players. Fighting games are the only esports equally popular in the East and West.
Influence In Societies
For most of the 2000s, esports had very different levels of impact in the East and West. After taking the country by storm in the late 1990s, esports had an instant cultural impact in South Korea. Gaming channels like Ongamenet (OGN) and MBC Game were among the first television channels to focus their programs completely around gaming and esports. Both networks formed their own Starcraft league (or Starleague), which attracted millions of viewers each. Giant corporations like Samsung and SK Telecom took note and assembled teams of top players to compete in Starleagues. It was remarkably early for such prestigious names to delve into esports, showing its potential in the Asian market.
Meanwhile, China was also developing its professional Starcraft scene, and players formed the China E-Sports Association in 2000. After several of these players and teams medaled at World Cyber Games 2001 and the country’s talent began to show, the Chinese government began encouraging esports despite the stigma surrounding video game addiction. Soon many of China’s internet companies began investing in teams and organizations. It had taken a little longer, but by the mid-2000s, China had joined Korea as leaders in the Eastern esports movement.
The obsession with esports in Asian countries has made professional video game players celebrities in the East. Some players—such as Lim “BoxeR” Yo-hawn and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok—are even viewed similarly to South Korean movie stars. Many Chinese Dota 2 players like Lu “Somnus ` M” Yao, Xu “fy” Linsen, and Wang “Ame” Chunyu are among the highest-earning pro gamers in the world. These players’ notoriety leads to sponsorships and other business ventures that can turn gaming into a lucrative career.
Image source: Fredrick Tendong
In Western nations, it took a while for esports to influence culture and become a part of mainstream society. The industry was still in the beginning stages with little support from large corporate sponsors and few broadcasting options. Professional gamers are also not as big of celebrities in the West as they are in the East. Their fans certainly know them, but they don’t receive as much recognition outside of their respective communities. Without sponsors and television exposure, many of the world’s top gamers during the 2000s went largely unheard of. Things have changed a bit during the 2010s, but even today, they are mostly famous within the industry, and only a few are household names. In fact, streamers and content creators specializing in entertainment over tournament competition are more famous in the West than professional players.
It took until 2006 for the first live esports event to be televised in the West when the MLG Halo 2 Pro Series was shown on USA Network. Around the same time, G4tv began exposing American television audiences to gaming culture. In Europe, shows like GIGA Television in Germany covered esports but never broadcasted live events. That changed when XLEAGUE.TV was founded in the UK. The channel was wholly dedicated to competitive gaming and was home to many live esports events, including many hosted by ESL. Later on, in the 2010s, television giants like ESPN, Turner Broadcasting, and TV 2 began broadcasting live events with elaborate studios and production design. The need for television exposure for esports in the West dwindled down with the rise of Twitch and YouTube Gaming. Now anyone with internet access can stream live events completely free and interact with casters and commentators through the chat. Streaming quickly became the best way to view esports, and viewership reached astronomical levels. Corporations and entrepreneurs finally realized the revenue esports could generate and started investing heavily into the industry. Though it took well over a decade, esports finally found its place in Western society.
Challenges On Both Sides
There are many social stigmas that aspiring pro gamers must often overcome to achieve their dreams. They exist in both the East and the West, but the East has stricter societal norms making them harder to get around. Some of these cultural taboos surrounding gaming in Asia have even been incorporated into the law. Most notable is Japan, the home to many video game powerhouses like Sony, Nintendo, and SEGA. The government deemed playing video games for cash prizes to be gambling, which has been highly illegal since 1962. This legislation has stifled growth for the country’s esports industry, despite an abundance of talented players. Video game tournaments are not outlawed in Japan, but a cap of 100,000 yen ($895 USD) in prize money can be rewarded. Low earning potential has kept many high-profile esports titles like Dota 2 and Counter-Strike from holding major events in Japan, which, in turn, has limited the nation’s representation in those titles. The most prominent professional gamers from Japan play fighting games, with Street Fighter, Tekken, and Super Smash Bros. being the most popular. The fighting game community is largely a grassroots scene, and most players come up competing for the love of the game and not necessarily to make a living. Major fighting game events are held more often in Japan than any other esport, but at heavy financial losses for the organizers. Tournaments wishing to give out full-sized cash prizes must be completely free to enter in accordance with Japanese gambling laws.
Japanese company Nintendo was founded in 1889 and still remains a global powerhouse today. Image source: George Kedenburg
The Chinese government has historically instituted several laws discouraging video games from society. From 2000 to 2015 there was a ban on nearly all video game titles, consoles, and arcade machines as video game addiction was a perceived threat to the Chinese youth and a negative influence on society. While some consoles like the PlayStation 2 were permitted for sale, they were not popular because most games could not be imported into China. Fortunately, the ban had no restrictions on PC games. Thanks to this loophole, China’s PC gaming and internet cafes flourished during the 2000s. Like South Korea, this influenced Chinese gamers to gravitate towards team-based competitive titles but made it that gaming at home was virtually not an option. Despite Chinese esports athletes succeeding and the Chinese government recognizing them as beneficial to the country, it’s still imposing restrictions on young people playing video games. China recently imposed a three-hour weekly video game limit for players under 18. Moreover, the restrictions only allow games to be played on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday between 8 pm and 9 pm. This severely limits the country’s ability to develop gaming talent at a young age and stifles casual gamers’ ability to enjoy their passions.
You might also like 10 life lessons you can learn from competitive gaming.
In the West, gaming is not entirely accepted, but no restrictions keep players from improving. However, unlike Asian countries, Europeans and Americans are largely discouraged from pursuing careers in esports. Gaming has long been considered a “lazy” act or merely a hobby, especially in a corporate-run society like the United States. Many parents try to sway their children away from chasing gaming careers because they fear they won’t be able to earn a paycheck. This was never actually the case, as many pro gamers could make honest livings during the 2000s. Now that esports has evolved into a billion-dollar industry, and gaming can be a very profitable career path. Simply streaming on Twitch can open up earning avenues without having to leave the house. Conveniently enough, when more money is earned corporations become involved and open up job opportunities for many people. Despite esports being a legitimate career choice today, there are very few college courses or trainee programs that young people can take for a streamlined entry into the industry.
Read more: 4 esports careers you might not have considered.
Bridging the Gap
With the esports industry becoming more global by the day, the gaming cultures in the East and West have converged some. While they have glaring differences, both have come to embrace esports and spawned the creation of numerous gaming communities. Many Western brands and corporations have partnerships with Eastern esports organizations and vice versa. Tournaments and other events now have a worldwide competition format with regular matches between teams and players from each region. Most importantly, the success of esports in Asia, Europe, and the US has opened the door for the rest of the world’s gaming communities. Central America, South America, Africa, and the Middle East have all made efforts towards building up esports over the past decade. It has come to fruition with many success stories like Brazilian Counter-Strike team FURIA Esports and Pakistani fighting game player Arslan “Arslan Ash'' Siddique. While cultural differences will always set people apart, gaming brings the world together as one community.
Read this next
The history of Counter Strike
When I was young, Counter Strike was a Mod. Here's how I saw it grow into what we see today.
What are online esports?
‘Esports’ are competitive video games, played as sports. Often part of large tournaments, only a few top esports stars have managed to compete for the big prizes. We’re opening up esports to everyone.
Competitive gaming is so much more than just esports
How not all competitive gaming is necessarily esports