The best esports moments of the decade
1:19 PM ET
We have learned a lot about esports since 2010. In the past decade we’ve seen organizations rise and fall, myriad growing pains and arguments for and against mainstream acceptance, and we have learned the official way to spell esports. It’s not e-sports, eSports, or e-Sports (thanks for the nod, AP Stylebook). To celebrate entering what is sure to be another eventful decade in competitive gaming, we reached out to a number of esports veterans to weigh in on the biggest, most memorable and most important moments in the past 10 years.
Note that your mileage may vary here. While this is in no way a complete list, consider it a tasting of some of the incredible moments that helped shape the last decade.
2013 League of Legends season and world championship
“Without a doubt, the 2013 League of Legends World Championship elevated the esports industry to new heights and provided the model for future stadium events. The finals in the Staples Center symbolized the popularity of streaming video content and the viability of large-scale esports production and fandom in the Western world. This was the moment where esports began to seep into the public consciousness and drew interest from investors to a burgeoning industry.” — Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles, Overwatch League caster
On Oct. 4, 2013, 32 million people tuned in to watch South Korea’s SK Telecom T1 pummel China’s Royal Club in the 2013 League of Legends World Championship finals at Staples Center in Los Angeles. It was a 23.8 million increase in viewership over the Season 2 World Championship, which was watched by 8.2 million people, making it the most watched esports event in history at the time. This number may seem paltry when compared to the viewership totals posted by Riot last week for 2019 worlds — 21.8 average minute audience, 44 million peak concurrent viewership — but the increase in interest between the second and third seasons was the most significant of these viewership jumps. This is despite the fact that subsequent jumps in viewership numbers have surpassed it.
Jokes about the Season 1 World Championship having been held in caster David “Phreak” Turley’s basement were already on the rise, playfully comparing production values. Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles, former English-language caster for OGN’s Champions tournament, cemented himself as South Korea’s most vocal champion in the West, complete with a conductor’s hat and train whistle as the conductor of the SK Telecom T1 “hype train.” The English broadcast talent itself ballooned from two hosts and four casters in Season 2 to one host (2019 Game Awards winner Eefje “Sjokz” Depoortere) and 16 casters/analysts, while the number of teams increased from 12 to 14.
Season 3 marked a dramatic shift in the League of Legends competitive landscape. For its first two seasons, League of Legends esports had primarily been a circuit series of tournaments scattered across the globe — OGN’s Champions being the most competitive — along with the Garena Premier League, the esport’s first official league. Season 3 added three regional leagues: China’s LoL Pro League (LPL), the North American League of Legends Championship Series (now LCS) and the European Championship Series (now LEC). This set the tone for years to come, ultimately culminating in franchising for North America, China and Europe.
It wasn’t simply structure that swept through the landscape but a fundamental understanding of the game itself. Role definitions that were pioneered in Season 2 by players like Moscow Five jungler Danil “Diamondprox” Reshetnikov and World Elite AD carry Gao “WeiXiao” Xue-Cheng were perfected and surpassed by their position peers. In South Korea, teams began executing clearer and more intricate macro movements and minion wave management. Teamfight intricacy and coordination increased.
This all came to a head at the Season 3 World Championship. While South Korea had already been identified as potentially the strongest region in Season 2, Season 3 is where this was repeatedly proved via game knowledge and coordination. While 2014 worlds cemented the era of South Korean dominance, Season 3 is where it all began.
The release of StarCraft IIBlizzCon and StarCraft II. Blizzard Entertainment
“The launch of StarCraft 2 and the creation of digital hubs for consuming tournament content has been the biggest catalyst for the growth of esports in the last decade. The hype around one of the first games built with esport features for spectating created a massive base of broadcasters, and many of the top dogs, esports or otherwise, in the gaming space owe much to the game and its scene for how things got going.” – Nathaniel Fabrikant, former player and current caster
Without StarCraft II’s impact on the West, we aren’t where we are today with games like League of Legends. When the game first released and organizers like Major League Gaming and DreamHack got involved along with the Global StarCraft League in South Korea, it truly become a global esport that started to bring the West ever so closer to countries like South Korea and China that were already filling studios to watch games like Dota, Warcraft and the original StarCraft.
With the rise of online streaming, it was the perfect time and place for StarCraft II to bring esports to the forefront in the West, with an already established ecosystem in South Korea becoming the blueprint for how a lot of the early teams built out their rosters and approached what it means to be professional gamers.
For better or for worse, if it weren’t for StarCraft, there wouldn’t be team houses in the West. South Korea was so far ahead of everyone in terms of infrastructure that copying what they were doing had to be the answer to catch up to their superstar players. As the years went along, StarCraft II began to fade with the introduction of newer and easier to play titles, and we’re now at a point when what made StarCraft as a franchise so popular in 2010 has become the reason why it has been swallowed up and passed. Because of the road that SCII paved, it made esports more accessible to a larger audience, and that has led to simpler games such as Fortnite taking over the market the past few years in the West.
Still, the next time there is a sold-out Fortnite event at a sports arena or League of Legends is setting a viewership record, remember StarCraft II. Without its popularity, who knows where esports would be going into the new decade.
The rise of TwitchPhoto: EPA/ADAM S DAVIS
“The marquee moment for esports over the last decade was the launch of Twitch. While livestreaming esports wasn’t new, in 2011, when Twitch was created from JustinTV, it opened up an entirely new set of opportunities for esports that had previously been closed. For example, quickly after the launch of Twitch, access to Korean StarCraft leagues was a few mouse clicks away. Prior to that, U.S. and EU audiences had to download VODs or use weird streaming applications to watch some of the best in the world play. It allowed folks like MLG, ESL, DreamHack, TakeTV (Home Story Cup) and other leagues to monetize and reach larger, more global audiences. TV wasn’t working for esports, but this decade gamers (and more specifically esports fans) got their own network that created a global destination for esports coverage. Whether it was fighting games, StarCraft, League of Legends or Counter-Strike, fans went from limited access to their favorite players and teams to an unprecedented level of access from around the globe.” — Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, director of creative development at Twitch
When Twitch was created in 2011 as a branch of Justin.tv, it opened a whole new world that hasn’t even come close to reaching its full potential as we ride into the 2020s. Esports and Twitch go hand in hand, and neither becomes as big as it currently is in the West without the other. During Twitch’s early years, there were competitors trying to match the purple-tinted streaming website, but by the time Amazon purchased the company for $970 million in 2014, it had established itself as the head of the table as the place to go for streaming gaming content.
Six years since Amazon’s purchase, the website and its impact have only grown, with almost every major esports event taking place on the platform in some shape or form. Beyond just esports, it has become comparable to YouTube in its replacement of cable television for today’s youth, as streamers have become reality television for the high schoolers around the world. From esports to talk shows to people cracking eggs on their head as they spin around in circles endlessly, Twitch has a little bit of everything. And as the impact on streaming only gets larger, so will the competitors trying to carve out a small piece of Twitch’s monopoly as we head into the new decade.
Google (YouTube), Microsoft (Mixer) and Facebook aren’t as flimsy or shallow-pocketed as Twitch’s opponents in the past. The next round of jostling has already started, and Twitch, comfortably in the front with everyone else chasing, isn’t ready to give up its position at the head of the table anytime soon.
2014-15 League of Legends South Korean exodusHeo “Huni” Seung-hoon heads into the EU LCS studio. Provided by Riot Games
Many of you may groan to see this as a pick, especially with another League of Legends event already on the list. After much deliberation, the 2014-15 offseason (also known as the Korean Exodus) is my personal pick for moment of the decade, despite the potential narrow League of Legends focus. This is an event that I keep returning to not only when writing about League of Legends but also when writing about how other esports approach roster construction, region locking, scouting (or lack thereof) and organizational infrastructure.
On Oct. 19, 2014, the five members of Samsung Galaxy White raised the Summoners’ Cup as the 2014 League of Legends world champions. Where the Season 3 League of Legends World Championship kicked off the era of South Korean dominance, 2014 worlds and Samsung White cemented it on home soil at the Seoul World Cup Stadium in Mapo-gu. As the confetti was cleared and Imagine Dragons took the Seoul World Cup Stadium stage, talks were already taking place between South Korea’s best and brightest and top organizations in China’s LoL Pro League, as well as North American and European teams.
What had been started by 2014 Star Horn Royal Club’s high-profile acquisition of former KT Rolster jungler Choi “inSec” In-seok and support Yoon “Zero” Kyung-sup — other LPL organizations had brought over South Korean players, but SHRC had made the worlds finals — became a haphazard transformation of nearly every LPL team into a hybrid lineup. In 2015 LPL Spring, only three of 12 teams had all-Chinese rosters (and one of them, Oh My God, still had a South Korean coaching staff). By 2015 LPL Summer, there was only one domestic Chinese roster: Royal Never Give Up (although the Royal organization had fielded a hybrid lineup that spring).
Over in North America and Europe, the door had been firmly closed on full-Chinese or South Korean lineups coming to either League Championship Series after the 2014 success of LMQ, the Chinese lineup that became NA’s third 2014 worlds representative. Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin’s arrival to Team Liquid from SK Telecom T1 K was the most high-profile NA signing of that offseason, although only two of the 10 NA LCS teams that spring had all-domestic lineups. In Europe, the Fnatic top side pairing of Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon and Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin took the EU LCS by storm.
The flood of South Korean talent across regions major and minor coincided with two monumental, oft-forgotten structural changes to South Korea’s competitive scene: the transformation of OGN’s Champions tournament to a new league format called LoL Champions Korea and the eradication of sister teams (two professional teams both competing under the same organization). When EDward Gaming and their hybrid lineup that featured South Korean players Heo “PawN” Won-seok and Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu beat SK Telecom T1 at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational, it was seen as a harbinger of South Korea’s demise, but it was proved false by SKT’s undefeated run through the 2015 world championship and South Korea’s subsequent domination at worlds until 2018.
Yet, this initial talent flood was still a watershed moment in esports history, the repercussions of which we still don’t yet know the full scope. Since the 2014-15 offseason, South Korea has had to compete with multiple other major regions for their own talent in League of Legends. Through a rocky process of trial and much error, LPL teams learned how to effectively scout and create stronger, more cohesive hybrid lineups like this year’s world championship roster of FunPlus Phoenix. Through the failures of 2015-16, many LPL (and EU LCS) organizations also learned to value their own domestic talent more.
Like the aforementioned Season 3 League of Legends World Championship, the 2014-15 Korean Exodus is remarkable not only for what it was, but for how it informed what came before and after. Although one can also point to Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft history, the region-locking and friction that came from the 2014-15 offseason likely informed the Overwatch League’s decision to forgo region-locking completely. Lessons learned from the infrastructure struggles of hybrid lineups across the world following the Korean Exodus — not only should South Korean players not be marketed as robots, they should be treated like actual humans; prepare for not just language barriers but cultural differences — were either taken to heart or ignored completely by a variety of esports organizations in multiple titles.
C9 beats FaZe at Boston MajorCloud9 became the first North American team to win a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Major with its victory against FaZe Clan in the Eleague Boston Major finals. Provided by ELEAGUE
Up until 1954, it was widely considered impossible to run a 4-minute mile. Yet after Roger Bannister completed the feat, more and more people began to break the record, ushering in a new wave of how people look at track and field and human limitations in general.
Before Cloud9 won the Eleague Boston Major in 2018, it was widely considered impossible for a team built solely from North Americans to actually win the top prize in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The top teams just didn’t come from NA, and if they did, they had to have a superstar player imported from Europe to have any chance to beat a team from Sweden or France. For as long as I can remember, North American Counter-Strike was the punchline to the end of a joke. The region’s most promising roster, iBUYPOWER, railroaded themselves by match-fixing in a 2014 scandal uncovered by journalist Richard Lewis. It was disappointment after disappointment for North America.
Four years removed from the iBUYPOWER scandal, though, it would be the one member of the team who was not banned, Tyler “Skadoodle” Latham, who finally brought a North American team to the promised land. In what felt like it was scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter, Skadoodle’s C9 upset the European superteam of FaZe Clan in a marathon of a series to win the major in Boston; more than a million people tuned in on Twitch to watch the fairy tale conclude.
While a North American team hasn’t won a major since C9’s triumph, the perception and results of the region have shifted since the impossible happened. At the end of the 2019 season, two of the top four teams in the world are from North America, with Team Liquid and Evil Geniuses both legitimate threats to win the upcoming major in Brazil in May.
ZeRo wins 56 Smash tournaments in a rowGonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios was a phenom in Smash 4. Provided by Robert Paul/DreamHack
As a pro player, winning one tournament is difficult, but defending your title to go for a repeat victory? Now, that’s what is truly hard.
How about a three-peat? Even more difficult.
Four-peat? Nearly impossible
Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios won 56 straight Smash for Wii U tournaments from Nov. 2014 to Oct. 2015, shattering all that we thought was possible in how one person could dominate a competitive game. This wasn’t like ZeRo was playing a game that wasn’t popular and had no new challengers nipping at his heels any time he entered a room. Smash 4 was one of the more popular fighting game titles in the world, and ZeRo, having to put up with the pressure of the streak in each tournament he entered, powered through what was a test of not only his skill and endurance but his mental strength as well.
What started as a wholesome story of a boy from Chile becoming the best Smash player in the world quickly turned into what seemed like every fan in the crowd lusting for him to finally be knocked off his perch. For ZeRo, though, winning is all he could do to make as much money as he could, with some tournament victories only paying enough to cover what would be the cost of the flight back home if he didn’t have a sponsor. ZeRo recently admitted on social media that he made only $45,000 from his historic streak, less than what some players make in a month in salary.
I remember when I brought up in 2014 and 15 how it sucks that you can consistently place top 5 at super majors and still lose money, only to be called greedy by the general public…
Let it be known that the year I won 56 tournaments, and every single super major, I made ~45k.
– Tempo ZeRo (@zerowondering) October 7, 2019
On the bright side, ZeRo’s streak has led to a successful career not only as a professional gamer but also as a streamer, his latest move probably landing him a lot more than $45,000, as he signed an exclusive streaming deal with Facebook.
Thank you to everyone who weighed in on the best esports moment of the decade:
- Cody Conners, partnerships manager at Twitch
- Ben Goldhaber, CEO of Juked
- Patrik “cArn” Sättermon, CGO of Fnatic
- Nathan Fabrikant, esports host and former pro
- Michal “Carmac” Blicharz, vice president of pro gaming at ESL
- Victor “Nazgul” Goossens, co-CEO, Team Liquid
- William “Chobra” Cho, esports host and veteran
- Hector “H3CZ” Rodriguez, co-CEO, NRG Esports / Chicago Huntsmen
- Paul “Redeye” Chaloner, esports veteran host
- Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles, veteran caster
- Erik “Doa” Lonnquist, veteran caster
- Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, director of creative development at Twitch
- Sundance DiGiovanni, co-founder of Vindex
- Chris “Puckett” Puckett, veteran host and talent
- Alan “Nahaz” Bester, Dota 2 analyst and personality
- Rick Fox, three-time NBA champion and former owner of Echo Fox
- Amelia Savery, esports veteran
- Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski, StarCraft commentator and personality
- Alex “Goldenboy” Mendez, host for esports and All Elite Wrestling
- Gabriella “LeTigress” Devia-Allen, esports commentator and personality
- Jacob Wolf, ESPN esports reporter and talent
- Emily Rand, ESPN esports writer and talent
- Tyler Erzberger, ESPN esports writer and talent