Those of us born in or before the eighties remember a different style of gaming than that which is popular today. Back in our day, to use the eye-rolling parlance of your dad, competitive gaming was either in person or based on high scores. The internet was non-existent, or so basic and limited that it simply was not supported or viable for a gaming service. Today we know general competitive games have moved away from the split-screen systems and towards online connections for their head-to-head chaos, often as practice for tournaments and eSports. How did we get here, and what effect did competitive gaming have on the internet as a whole?
Dial ‘Em Up
In the late ’90s, when the internet first became popular at least among enthusiasts, it was hideously slow. What takes a second to transmit today might have taken longer than an hour back on a 14.4k. Combine this lack of speed with the limited processing power of older devices, and we were left with games where competition was much more limited in scope, yet still popular
Early on, the most basic versions of these games could be as simple as board games, with chess being an ever-present favourite. Text-based multiplayer games helped bridge the gap between older and developing technology, with games like MUDs (multi-user dungeons) starting the protoforms of online gaming with major competitive components.
As the internet improved, followed by a commensurate advance and cheapening in general computing power and the proliferation of consoles, it was inevitable that these games would become bigger, better, and more widely adopted. The big leap here was the jump from 56k dial-up to cabled internet and beyond, which created an absurd leap in what was possible. It was the sixth generation of consoles which brought mass online competitive gaming to the greater market, led in no small part by the likes of Microsoft and Bungie’s Halo Series. Some countries like Korea were early adopters of this new form of entertainment, with tournaments of StarCraft, which was released in 1998, setting the stage to what would later be fully adopted as eSports. Nowadays, any game with a viable competitive component will have an associated online presence and community and, depending on the popularity of the game genre, they often have significant eSports followings as well.
Over time, the gaming industry reached a point where it overtook the film industry in terms of profit. In 2016, for example, the gaming industry was worth more than the film and music industry combined, worth $92b vs film’s $62b and recorded music’s $18b according to the Huffington Post. What happens when something becomes so popular it dominates worldwide entertainment? People begin to jump on board, of course.
This has led to a trend of gamification across many different industries. Industries which want a piece of this pie jump into the fray, with results running the gambit from some of the best to some of the worst. Brands started adding video game and/or competition elements to their platforms, while the video game industry itself skyrocketed. The infamous Atari version of the film E.T, for example, is well known for its terrible and nearly unplayable nature. On the other side of the spectrum, we have something like the Arkham series, based off of the Batman comics, which has been received as revolutionary and bar-raising.
Perhaps the most apparent of these are the Flash or mobile type games which litter Facebook and other social media, becoming what we now see as a core part of the social media experience. These are relatively cheap to produce, allow easy competition via an always-on environment and usually allow for enormous profit via microtransactions.
The Return of the Odd Challenge, and the Oddly Challenging
That is not to say that it is only traditional video games that have embraced technological progress to add more competitive elements – far from it. Today, all sorts of systems are benefiting from competition and trendsetting gamification. Accounts for websites and platforms associated with games are commonly adopting a form of user account levelling, as can be seen with multi-game websites like Kongregate and systems such as Steam. With these, players can often compete with each other in terms of achievements and point accumulation, on a meta, platform level.
In other words, they’re working from a pre-existent gaming framework to increase interaction and involvement through further gamification of the platform itself. Pokemon was first introduced in 1998 as a single-player title (actually, two single-player titles) for the Gameboy, but the popularity of the franchise has not only meant numerous sequels but also the gameplay becoming multiplayer in inventive ways. These have included the opportunity to play against and together with other players on Twitch, as part of a popular TwitchPlays event launched on February 2014, which saw thousands of players controlling the Pokemon action via a chat interface. Slots are you against the machine but have recently have extended beyond this singular level of gaming and used the internet to reach into the multiplayer sphere, with the implementation of online slot tournaments. Such events might not have been impossible in the age before the internet, but they would be extremely limited and certainly wouldn’t come with such capacity for competition between so many users. Similarly, systems like the one offered with UPlay allow points earned in one game to unlock bonuses in another. This even extends to some which aren’t necessarily game-based, like some of the levelling systems incorporated by the Google App store, or the more intrinsic competitions put forward in the effort to gain clicks or likes from social media similar to Facebook or Instagram posts.
Even single-player games have been able to again enter the competitive scene in a way that they haven’t since a bunch of friends competed against each other’s score back in the arcades. Streaming services like Twitch and improved recording software have allowed speedrunning and high-score chasing to reach a level of viability and visibility which they have never held before. These don’t even have to be digital in nature, as even pen and paper or dice based games can now easily be played online with the simple purchase of a webcam. In this way, competitive gaming has not only evolved alongside the internet, in many ways it taken advantage of everything the internet has to offer, always asking for more and helping push the envelope of better connection speeds and improved integration.
An Enduring and Future Legacy
With newer developments in gaming such as the popularization of the long-coming virtual reality systems, we again see the internet playing an important part in selling, shaping, and sharing the overall experience. We don’t quite know what to assume as this new form of digital gaming enters the mainstream, but if the examples we already have of competitive VR games like Sparc or Sports Bar VR are any standard, then we can expect both progress in a way which has never before been possible, and better integration of already existing games into yet another medium. Brands such as Maximum Games have announced collaborations that will lead to VR titles in recent months, so we’re eager to see what comes of them.
The internet has been shaped by dozens of different industries, but few can claim to have had as important an influence as competitive gaming. This two-way street has existed since the very first iterations decades ago and follows, hand in hand, with each leap in speed and processing power. Nothing has helped such an inherently tech-driven industry as gaming as the internet has, and will continue to do so into a future where eSports are not just more visible, but more accepted as a mainstream entertainment option.