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The Next Evolution of Sports: How to Bet on Esports

Video games have been engrained in our lives for over 30 decades. From the first coin-operated video games like Space Invaders to the internet connected home gaming systems that allow people from across the globe to play each other in their living rooms, video games are all around us.

The proliferation of gaming led to tournaments that sometimes garnered thousands of competitors. These competitions were viewed on websites like YouTube and the gamer-oriented Twitch by millions.

The effort to get gaming recognized by bettors was bolstered by the acceptance of a major television network to broadcast the sport.

In 2015, the AT&T WarnerMedia network TBS in conjunction with William Morris Endeavor Entertainment partnered to present the first major televised competition of esports tournaments called ELEAGUE.

With all these major pieces in place, esports finally took their place among oddsmakers as a legitimate entity in which people could place bets.


The First Esport Competition

Video game completions have been around since the advent of video games themselves. They were the successors to mechanical game completions in the form of pinball.

The first known video game completion took place on October 19, 1972, on the Stanford University campus in Stanford, California.

Fliers were plastered all over campus to attract computer science majors and others interested in the event. The fliers read:

“The first ‘Intergalactic spacewar olympics’ will be held here, Wednesday 19 October, 2000 hours. First prize will be a year’s subscription to “Rolling Stone”. The gala event will be reported by Stone Sports reporter Stewart Brand & photographed by Annie Liebowitz. Free Beer!”

The competition took place in Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and featured the game Spacewar!.

Spacewar! had been around since 1962. The original game had been programmed by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the decade between its creation and the time of the tournament, the monochrome 1 or 2 player game had blossomed to a game that allowed up to 5 players and added features such as a gravity well and mines that were left as hazards for players.

The competition featured 2 events:

  • The team completion
  • The 5-man free for all

Due to the coverage of Rolling Stone Magazine, the winners of the tournament are immortalized in the pages of esports history. The winners were:

  • Team competition – Slim Tovar and Robert Maas
  • Free for All – Bruce Baumgart

You may never have heard of Spacewar! because it was designed specifically for the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-1 minicomputer, which was primarily used in business or at universities in the 1960s and 1970s.

But you may have heard some of the games that were based on it:

  • Space War (for the Atari 2600)
  • Asteroids
  • Star Control
  • Space Invaders
  • Galaga
  • Galaxian

In 2007, the game was named at one of the 10 most important video games of all time by the New York Times and subsequently was included in the “Game Canon “of the most important video games in history by the Library of Congress and is now preserved there.

The original game can be found online here.

Televised Video Game Shows

Television took an early liking to esports (back then just known as video game competitions) and focused on targeting children as the main viewer.

The first major show to feature such a competition was Starcade. Starcade ran on Superstation WTBS and eventually on syndication in 1982 and 1983.

The game featured 2 competitors (sometimes the competitors were individuals, sometimes they were comprised of 2 person teams) who competed in 3 rounds to compete for a grand prize.

The game combined trivia with gameplay.

The first round the contestants were asked a toss-up question. The person who buzzed in and answered the question correctly then got to choose a game from the options the show had available (usually the most popular of the time) and had 60 seconds to get the highest score they could. If the game ended before the 60 seconds (i.e. the player lost “a life” in the game) the game ended immediately and the score was recorded. After the first contestant played, the opponent would then play. The highest score won the round. This process would repeat 2 more times until the winner was decided. The winner then went to the bonus round.

The bonus round saw the winner select a game that hadn’t been played previously by either player that day. The player had 30 seconds to beat the average score of 20 other players. If the player beat the score, they’d take home the grand prize. The grand prize usually consisted of one of the following:

  • An arcade game
  • A home entertainment robot
  • A jukebox
  • A vacation for the player and his or her family

On the heels of the cancellation of Starcade, another esports show hit the syndicated airwaves. It was simply called The Video Game. The game had the same premise as Starcade, but added an extra player in later rounds that was a returning champion. It also featured mini rounds that varied by show. The grand prize winner took home an arcade sized video game of their choosing.

The Video Game lasted from late 1984 to late 1985 and was not much of a success. The failure of these 2 shows to resonate with the public would play a huge role in not broadcasting such competitions for years with one noted exception, Nick Arcade.

Nick Arcade was a video game show made exclusively for the Nickelodeon network. The show ran for 2 seasons on the network and was filmed entirely in 1992. The show featured contestants playing video games that were specially created for the show as well as augmented reality rounds where the contestants were “part” of a video game.

While the show aired in repeats for 5 years, the show never caught on and no new episodes were created after 1992.

The Transformation from Video Game Competition to Esports

While television seemed to abandon the idea of video game competition, others embraced it. The idea of competitive video gaming became so popular that in 1990, video game manufacturer Nintendo held the Nintendo World Championships.

The Nintendo World Championships were games that were played on the popular Nintendo (home) Entertainment System (NES). The championships were held in 30 cities across the United States. Winners won a trophy, $250, and a trip for2 to the “World Finals” at Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles. The runners-up received a Nintendo Power Pad (a peripheral device for the NES) and the handheld Nintendo Game Boy.

At the World Finals, competitors competed in 3 age categories:

  • 11 years old and under
  • 12 to 17 years old
  • Over 18 years old

The winners of the event were Jeff Hansen (11 and under) Thor Aackerlund (12 to 17) and Robert Whiteman (over 18). They each received:

  • A $10,000 U.S. savings bond
  • A new 1990 Geo Metro Convertible
  • A 40″ Rear-projection television
  • A gold Mario trophy

Unofficially, the 3 later faced off to determine a single winner. Aackerlund would beat Hanson and Whiteman.

When Nintendo held similar championships in Japan, Hansen went as the US representative and won the World title. He later competed with Japanese champion, Yuichi Suyama in a rematch and won again.

One of the early problems with video game competitions was that it required players to beat each other’s scores.

As technology advanced, this problem was addressed and the first games that allowed players to play “head-to-head” started to emerge.

The first major commercial success was Street Fighter II. While most games had 2 player options, they usually played in alternate turns. Street Fighter II was designed to allow a player to go head to head with either the computer or another opponent. The winner wasn’t based solely on a point system, but how badly one player beat up another (electronically, of course).

The next major advance was the Marvel vs. Capcom series. In the series, characters from Marvel Comics and Capcom video games would do battle. Some of the later arcade style games would allow as many as 6 players on a single game. The series included:

  • X-Men vs. Street Fighter (1996)
  • Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter (1997)
  • Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes (1998)
  • Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes (2000)
  • Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds (2011)
  • Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (2011)
  • Marvel vs. Capcom Origins (2012)
  • Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite (2017)

By the late 90s, the internet had grown to the point where many households had computers and internet connectivity. This led to the development of online gaming.

Games that people could compete with each other started hitting the market. Games and games series such as the Command and Conquer series, StarCraft, World of Warcraft, Everquest, Diablo, and many more hit the market for PC games.

The popularity of home games expanded with the release of the Sony PlayStation 2 and the Microsoft Xbox. Both of which were among the first consoles to allow players to compete against each over the internet.

Modern Esports Arrive and the Origins of Betting

As gaming became more advanced and newer systems such as the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 arrived, competitions like the Nintendo World Championships that took place in 1990 became more common.

Not only were competitions growing, but leagues would form around the world. South Korea was at the forefront of these leagues, soon followed by Europe, who, unlike the US, saw success in gaming shows and even a network based out of the United Kingdom called XLEAGUE.TV.

YouTube, which came online in 2006, would evolve into a gamers paradise, not just showing how-to videos and competitions, but sparked interest in video games and watching people play the games with the “let’s play” genre of videos that were popularized by YouTube broadcaster PewDiePie aka Felix Kjellberg. Kjellberg grew his audience to over 40 million viewers. Kjellberg plays video games and shows a “picture in picture” screen while playing so people can see his face while watching the game action. He does game commentary while playing.

YouTube copycat Justin.TV became a haven for video gamers when it first started in 2007. Eventually Justin.TV died out but before it closed in 2014, a “spin-off” site called Twitch.TV, or simply Twitch, launched. It was specifically for gamers (although it has grown to have other genres). It was purchased by Amazon in 2014 for almost $1 billion.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

In 2012, the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) was released. The game, like many since updated online to give players the latest and greatest gaming experience. One of the updates occurred in 2013 that changed the way players played forever.

The update allowed for “skins” to be earned or purchased during the game. Skins were objects that allowed players to change the appearance of their weapons in the game. In addition to earning or buying skins, players could trade or even sell their skins.

The skins aspect of the game became so popular that players would go on third party websites and wager their skins to try and win the more expensive ones.

Sites popped up with the “CSGO” initials in their domains that allowed for the offsite betting of the skins. This led to lawsuits against the sites and the developer of CS:GO, Valve (they also operate the Steam online game website).

As a result of the suit, Valve issues cease and desist orders to these sites and started banning members for the practice.

But CS:GO was only the first to have skins, another popular game, Defense of the Ancients (DotA, known colloquially as Dota) also offered skins and has a robust skin betting ecology.

Television Getting Back in the Game

So if we look at what happened between the first video gaming show in 1982 and the purchase of Twitch by Amazon in 2014, gaming has grown from about a $20 billion industry to an industry valued at over $100 billion. So it was time to look at cashing in on the craze that websites like YouTube and Twitch were experiencing.

In stepped TBS. TBS had seen the popularity of gaming viewership as well as the popularity of esports leagues. This led to the first major show dedicated to gaming in the US on cable television in 20 years, ELEAGUE.

ELEAGUE started in 2016. The prize pool for the show was $1.4 million. Since then more seasons and specials have been produced including:

Prize Pool
1 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive $1.4 million
2 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive $1.1 million
3 Street Fighter V Invitational $250,000
4 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Premier $1 million
5 Street Fighter V Invitational 2018 $250,000
6 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Premier 2018 $1 million
7 Rocket League $150,000

In addition, a few ELEAGUE events have occurred that weren’t broadcast on TBS. Most were shown on internet platforms such as YouTube or Twitch. These include:

Prize Pool
ELEAGUE Major 2017 – AKA ELEAGUE Atlanta Counter-Strike: Global Offensive $1 million
ELEAGUE Major: Boston 2018 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive $1 million
ELEAGUE Overwatch Open $300,000
ELEAGUE Injustice 2 World Championships $250,000

As you can see, the popularity of gaming led to the success of the series. And in 7 seasons, the TBS show alone has awarded over $6 million in prize money.

Money in the Games

TBS and ELEAGUE aren’t the only people throwing money at the esports industry. Some of the larger prize pools over the last few years include:

Prize Pool
2017 League of Legends World Championships $4,596,591
2018 Call of Duty World League Championships $1.5 million
2017 International Dota 2 $24,787,916*

*The largest in esports history

But prize money isn’t the only money coming into the industry. Sponsorships from the video gaming industry, clothing industry, beverage industry, music industry, and other industries that fit in with the gamer lifestyle contribute to the cash flow.

In addition, colleges are getting into the mix. Over 100 varsity esports teams have been formed across the country and there’s talk of the NCAA recognizing it as a sport. In addition, the International Olympic Committee has held discussions about integrating esports into the fold.

So with all the big money players, the time to start betting on these games was afoot.

There were issues at first with oddsmakers taking action on esports. They included:

  • Esports were highly unregulated
  • Bookmakers were worried about match rigging and collusion
  • Esports mostly attracted players under 18 years old
  • Oddsmakers lacked familiarity with the games
  • Players skills weren’t well known to develop odds

Based on the volume of bets that skin sites were getting, traditional oddsmakers started taking bets. At first, it was on the more popular games like CS:GO and Dota. But as the money on esports betting started coming in, more games were introduced.

Typical Esports Bets

  • Money Line Bets –
  • These are traditional bets where the odds of winning are given. A money line bet may be on the outcome of a tournament or a particular match, for example.

  • Handicapped Bets –
  • These bets are bets that allow you to bet on an outcome other than just who wins. For example, instead of betting on a player to win, you say that they’ll win with a score of 10 to 7, which increased the odds and the payout.

  • Over/Under Bets –
  • These bets are based on totals in the game. For example, you may bet how many total kills in a game. The over/under may be 57.5. In this case, if you bet under, it has to be 57 or less, over must be 58 or more (since there’s no such thing as ½ of a kill).

    Many over/under bets exist in esports and vary depending on the video game. For example, bets on the number of maps that the player has gone through, total points in a game, total rounds in a game, number of weapons accumulated, etc.

  • Prop Bets –
  • These can really be anything that doesn’t fall into the above categories. These are bets that are events that happen in or during the game. Prop bets can include the total length of time played, which team scores first, will there be delays longer than 10 minutes in the game, etc.


While the concept of video game tournaments is over 45 years old, the industry of esports is in its infancy.

As the games and the systems that they play on become more complex, the desire to play increases. Today, we have the Xbox One X and the PlayStation 4 Pro as the major players in the home console market. PC and Laptop games also account for a large portion of the market as well. Especially when Microsoft introduced PC/Xbox compatibility with Windows 10, allowing gamers to seamlessly access their Xbox live accounts on either type of device.

Today the video game industry itself is worth over $150 billion and the esports industry is worth nearly $50 billion worldwide. With that kind of money being thrown around, it was just a matter of time before oddsmakers started jumping in on the deal.

In the future, esports and esports betting will continue to grow. As video game manufacturers come out with more titles and consoles, new players will enter the arena, which will allow both to prosper.

Sponsorships will continue to increase as companies know that esports is a way to reach younger demographics.

With the possibility of the NCAA and Olympics adding esports to their dossiers, it will only increase the oddsmakers willing to take bets. As major sportsbooks in Las Vegas and Atlantic City become more familiar and comfortable with the oversight of these leagues, they’ll be more willing to increase their betting options.

For now, while sites may take bets on esports, you still may be limited as to where and how you can bet, so you may need to search for a sportsbook that meets your betting needs.

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