The Next Wave of Esports Is Old-School
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
When it comes to sports, these classic video games are proving the maxim "old is gold."
By Jeff Eisenband
As ESPN broadcast the Texas Bowl college football game late December, the contrast one channel over couldn’t have been starker. That same day, ESPN2 aired the Classic Tetris World Championship (CTWC), which finished with 17-year-old American Joseph Saelee claiming his second straight title, taking down 42-year-old Japanese player Koji “Koryan” Nishio in the final at the Portland Expo Center.
Tetris has been around longer than the word esports. But classic video games that have survived on basic consoles and in underground arcades for decades are now making a serious play for the modern esports market that’s expected to touch $1.8 billion globally by 2022, up from $865 million in 2018. And that was before the coronavirus pandemic that’s expected to see esports gain even more mainstream traction than at present, with most physical sports not an option for the moment. These old games are witnessing their audience explode through a marriage of nostalgia with 21st century streaming platforms.
Film producer Vince Clemente founded the CTWC in 2010 to serve as the climax for his documentary on the best Tetris players in the world, Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters. The championship has since turned into a business opportunity thanks to a new toy: Twitch. In 2016, roughly 146,800 hours of Tetris were consumed on Twitch. In 2019, that number soared to 2.7 million hours. It is played on NES — the original Nintendo Entertainment System.
Classic fighting games are also demonstrating that they can win in this brave new world. Street Fighter first entered arcades in 1987. Mortal Kombat (1992) and Tekken (1994) were among two of the other big names to follow. The Evolution Championship Series (“Evo”), the premier summit of fighting game competitions that launched as Battle by the Bay in 1996, is now a wild success on Twitch, where the 2019 edition saw 4.9 million hours of consumption — though not all for classic titles.
The viewership that we’re having is just as strong as any of the big companies, like Hearthstone or League of Legends.
Vince Clemente, founder of the Classic Tetris World Championship
In 2014, developer Capcom took Street Fighter to the next competitive level, introducing the Capcom Pro Tour, a year-round circuit, culminating in the Capcom Cup, a championship tournament in Los Angeles every December. The 2019 season held 55 worldwide events on five continents. The 2019 Capcom Cup, which included a $250,000 base prize pool (along with year-end bonuses), recorded 1.76 million hours watched on Twitch, peaking at 141,688 viewers.
Meanwhile, the CTWC has seen a viewership boom too. The 2019 final eclipsed 1 million YouTube views in roughly one month. The live Twitch broadcast of the 2019 competition reached a peak of 17,727 concurrent viewers and roughly 300,000 total unique viewers.
“To me, it’s crazy,” Clemente says, speaking of the YouTube numbers. “The viewership that we’re having is just as strong as any of the big companies, like Hearthstone or League of Legends.”
Tetris was created in 1984 by Soviet artificial intelligence researcher Alexey Pajitnov, who, now 63, attended the CTWC for the first time in 2019. Like major esports, the road to the CWTC final is intercontinental, with qualifiers funneling through five U.S. regions, along with regional championships in Europe (Copenhagen in 2019), Singapore, Finland, Germany and Hong Kong. “It’s one of those games where you really don’t need a language,” Clemente says. “All these players come from around the world and they can communicate through a video game.”
Fighting games have their own specialty, says Andre Augustin, CEO of Bifuteki, a live-event production company. “They didn’t really need to reinvent themselves,” he says. “They were already some of the higher-competitive games to begin with. It’s one-on-one. You don’t have to match up teams. Match up wits and go.”
Augustin cites the “anybody can win” on “any given Sunday” reality of the open competitions. “A game like Overwatch and a game like Call of Duty, there are big budgets that are put toward the game and they want to change up the meta every time,” he says. By contrast, he notes, a traditional fighting game such as “Street Fighter is like, here’s the point of the game. Go for it.”
For sure, some hardcore gamers are skeptical and feel big-money organizations are killing the sanctity of playing the classic game in an underground arcade, says Augustin. While fighting games spent many years as open-entry games, circuits like the Capcom Pro Tour narrow the field. Meanwhile, major sports video game titles have been coming out with new games every year for decades now.
The demographics of the players can also serve as a limitation. The Tundra Bowl, the self-proclaimed national championship for the 1991 NES football game Tecmo Super Bowl in Green Bay, featured 81 players from 14 states in its seventh edition held on Jan. 25. “They’re educators, blue-collar workers, guys who work in IT,” says Nate Smithson, the creator and tournament director. He wants to expand the field to 200 players and turn the event into a two-day affair not restricted just to Green Bay. But “about two-thirds or three-quarters of our players have families. They are a little bit money-conscious in that way.”
Nostalgia can only carry some of these games so far. Fighting games have reinvented themselves with new console versions. But games like Tetris and Tecmo Super Bowl are locked into their original iterations. Passing the game on has to be done at the grassroots level, like sharing the Beatles or The Wizard of Oz with the next generation, say experts.
But some of the original, classic versions are starting to get their competitive feet in the door. Like the Classic Tetris World Championship, King of 94 was born out of a documentary. Filmmaker Mikey McBryan initiated an NHL 94 tournament in Toronto in 2015, with tournament organizer Darrell Sampson. In 2019, 80 competitors descended on Toronto and Sampson added a B Tournament called Duke of 94. While most players are middle-aged, an 11-year-old upstart — the son of a fellow competitor — played tough and proved a youth movement may be in the works. “People are still finding out about it,” Sampson says. “Every year, we get new people.”
That suggests that even without the flashy appeal of modern esports, these classic games aren’t going anywhere — except maybe TV networks and widespread live-streaming.