A group of individuals zip around like pinballs, moving at too high a speed to keep track; one team, previously on the offensive, are now in trouble, under heavy attack from their opponents, who have bounced back with an increased vitality. The audience hold their breath, chants falling silent, as commentators provide a blow-by-blow account of what is going on in front of them. And then it’s all over. The crowd goes wild as the winning team erupt in celebration, triumphant in their victory.

The event is not a football match, or an NFL final, but last year’s iteration of ‘The International’, the annual Dota 2 championships – one of the largest eSports events in the world. Similar scenes – in intensity if not in size – are hoped for at Imperial College Union next Saturday, as IC eSports prepare to host the second annual Varsity between Imperial and UCL. Up to 200 participants and spectators will come together to play games like League of Legends, Dota, and Starcraft 2, while many more will follow along online with a stream hosted on Twitch. Imperial, who won last year, are looking to defend their title, hoping to hold aloft the trophy at the end of the day, while winning teams will be taking home laser-engraved plaques. “This year is essentially bigger in every way,” Liam Couch, secretary of ICU’s eSports society tells me, with a bigger audience, more awards, and increased sponsorship.

eSports – professional competitive gaming, mainly featuring Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games, such as Dota 2 – seems like something that you might see in a science-fiction vision of the future. But its pedigree is longer than you might realise, with the earliest competition taking place decades before most of today’s eSports superstars were even born. In October 1972, an announcement was placed on bulletin boards across Stanford University, advertising “The first ‘intergalactic spacewar olympics’”: the prize was a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone, and the event was photographed by Annie Leibovitz – then a 23 year old staff photographer, years before her rise to fame. ‘Free beer!’ was promised.

“eSports are beginning to really take off in the UK, with events like Varsity highlighting their prominence”

Compared to current tournaments, this was a much more sedate affair: five players competed in a single room at Spacewar!, a 1962 game popular among the programming community. The premise was simple: two ships – the “needle” and the “wedge” – fight against the gravitational pull of a central star, whilst trying to shoot the other down, all representing in glowing green outlines. Those involved didn’t know it, but they were involved in the first iteration of what is now a multi-million dollar industry: one small step for gamers, one giant leap for eSports.

Over the next couple of decades, players largely focused on setting high scores in arcade games like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong, gaining publicity from organisations like the Guinness Book of World Records. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that eSports really took off. And it wasn’t in America – it was in South Korea.

VR Headsets being tried out by eSports members // IC eSports

By the end of 1997, East Asia was in the gripe of a financial crisis. The collapse of the Thai economy due to the increasing burden of foreign debt caused multiple countries to topple like dominos. Over a period of two weeks, Moody’s lowered South Korea’s credit rating from A1 to B2, and a series of one-day slumps led to mass unemployment: over a year, the number of unemployed citizens nearly trebled, to around 1.5 million.

It was against this context that the eSports phenomenon blossomed. Some have argued that there were three crucial factors: a government that increasingly funnelled money into telecommunications and internet infrastructure; the rise in popularity of LAN gaming centres called PC Bangs; and high unemployment rates, which left many Koreans with much more disposable time.

Since then, eSports have taken off at a phenomenal rate: in 2000, the Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA) was founded, coming under the authority of the government’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. As well as organising tournaments, part of KeSPA’s remit is to establish basic welfare principles for those taking part at a professional level: companies are required to have a one-year minimum contract with players, while PC bangs require children under 18 to leave by 10pm. It’s part and parcel of eSports increasing cultural presence. As Liam tell me: “eSports have been growing in popularity for a number of years now, with people able to compete against friends and develop themselves as professionals, which was previously not possible.”

“Last year, nearly 4,000 tournaments shelled out a prize pool of $111 million to top players”

It makes sense for governments to get in on the eSports action – games are big business. While a number of critics still question whether video games are true works of art, their popularity is manifestly evident in the economic figures: last year, the video game industry made $109 billion in revenue. To put that number into context, the global box office for films last year was a mere $41.2 billion, while worldwide art sales came in at $45 billion

And this is a market that shows no sign of slowing down: last year the industry grew 7.8%, and is expected to expand massively on smartphone platforms. eSports has the potential to increase this growth even further, as tournaments with eye-wateringly high prize pools proliferate. In 2000, there were 50 eSports tournaments worldwide, with a total prize pool of $675,000; by last year this had ballooned to nearly 4,000 tournaments, shelling out $111 million to top players.

Writing for The Verge, Ben Popper identifies the release of Starcraft II in 2010 as a key turning point: the game, a science-fiction real time strategy game in which you play as one of three main species, “was embraced by a global community of rabid fans who had been playing its predecessor for more than a decade.”

But while eSports remains largely centred around the Korean market, it is beginning to move to the UK too – the British eSports Association was established in 2016, while events like Varsity highlight their prominence. Speaking to Liam, he tells me: “the increasing popularity and profile of our Varsity reflects an increasing desire to watch competitive eSports. The fact we’re hosting an event similar to traditional sporting events shows how mainstream this is becoming”. Even the name was a deliberate choice, as Roy Lee, ICU eSports’ chair tell me: “instead of calling this an eSports competition, we’ve chosen to call it an eSports Varsity, to break the negative perceptions around eSports, and show the public the similarities between eSports and traditional sports in universities”.

eSports require immense focus on the gameplay // IC eSports

Will they ever be as popular as in Korea though? While Liam admits that “the culture is entirely different in South Korea… this is why they’re miles better than everyone else,” Roy feels that the next few years will be vital for eSports in the UK: “We are seeing strong and accelerated movements in the States due to heavy, focused investments towards students,” he tells me, “what we can do as an eSports society in the coming years will determine whether university eSports in the UK can keep up with these countries in terms of its standards and quality. Competitions between universities shouldn’t be limited to within London, or even within the UK. We should look to compete globally.” The society is currently working on plans to compete with American universities in the near future.

The debate about whether eSports should be counted as ‘real’ sports is ongoing; those who defend eSports would point out the quick reaction times and agile minds needed by those who ascend to the top of the leagues, arguing that such skills are similar to those required in a number of professional sports. But the safest argument may be in audience numbers: the 2014 League of Legends championship, for example, saw 40,000 fans pack into the same arena South Korea used for the 2002 World Cup semi final; in the States, the first eSports arena has been launched in Santa Ana, California, while later this year the first eSports Arena on the Las Vegas strip is set to open its doors. Viewership of the tournaments has also exploded, thanks to platforms like Twitch, which was bought by Amazon in 2014 for $1 billion. In 2013, the League of Legends world championship had 32 million people across the globe watching; last year’s NBA finals had an audience of only 20 million.

“eSports Society is currently working on competing with American universities”

It seems likely that, should the growth currently enjoyed by the eSports industry continue, it may leapfrog a number of other traditional sports. “It’s important to note that eSports are achieving a number of participants and viewers it took traditional sports decades or centuries to achieve,” Roy tells me, “I am certain that eSports will be part of university culture very soon.” eSports are also challenging traditional assumptions about what gaming and gamers look like: “gamers still find themselves defending their passion for eSports,” Roy tells me, “they are immediately associated with the stereotype of anti-social nerds in their parents’ basement.”

The atmosphere at the tournaments show that this couldn’t be further from the truth: thousands of people go along to cheer their favourite teams along, coming together for a brief moment in celebration of teamwork and strategy. “eSports bring people together,” argues Liam, “they participate in something bigger, experiencing it as a group, in much the same way other sports and hobbies do. eSports give people an avenue to do what they love whilst sharing that with other people.” Looking at videos of these tournaments, and you’d be hard pressed to disagree: while the players are locked in a battle of wills with their screens, their faces masks of steely determination, around them there’s a legion of fans, who have come together, and are eagerly looking on.

Imperial College Union’s eSports Society will be hosting their Varsity against UCL on Saturday 27th January, from 10am, in the Union Concert Hall. All day tickets are available from the Union website – £4 for players and members; £5 for everyone else.