Making the esports dream a reality

"Quake 2," by id Software, was one of a slew of early online competitive video games that offered up a whole new world of connectivity. id Software

When I was 11, my best friend Sam and I would play baseball and basketball in the local playground, then go to his place to watch "Pokemon" on TV and play video games on a new PC he had gotten for his birthday. We were both huge fans of a new game called "Warcraft 2." One of Sam's other friends, Tim, also bought "Warcraft 2," and with dial-up modems becoming more common, we played each other over the Internet for the first time.

I was instantly hooked.

I spent the rest of the day and night playing "Warcraft 2" online at Sam's house, and I couldn't get out of my head the unbelievable feeling of playing another human being in an online game. Even after Sam's interest faded, I still went over to his house practically every day just to play "Warcraft 2" online.

There was nothing else I could focus on besides playing and winning the game, and I knew right then that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Of course, I wasn't the first to the party. It was 1996. Competitive gaming had been born 20 years earlier.

In the summer of 1975, Atari released the home version of "Pong" and some 150,000 gamers across America bought it. "Pong" had a simple format with a moving ball and two paddles to hit back and forth, allowing for compelling competition with friends, family and complete strangers through a video game.

In the 1980s, arcades had become the foundation of a culture for people who not only wanted to play games but have an active social experience. It wasn't until the release of "Street Fighter I" by Capcom in 1987, and really "Street Fighter II" in 1991, did we get a glimpse of what would turn into today's esports ecosystem. Street Fighter brought a true competitive nature to arcades that didn't exist before, and Street Fighter is the oldest competitive game to still be a part of esports today. Arcades were the original breeding ground for face-to-face competition, where the only way to stay on the machine was to win. The more you win, the more quarters you keep. Losers went home with empty pockets.

The popularization of console gaming was the next big step at getting young competitive kids like me, who weren't part of the arcade scene, to grow into a new generation of fans playing their friends at home on Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.

But, what came next blew our gaming minds: Computers! The Internet! PC gaming!

Dial-up modems be damned, this was one of the first experiences for someone in, for example, Los Angeles to play with someone in New York, or Stockholm, or Seoul, all from home. Legendary American game developers id Software and Blizzard kicked things off with their hit franchises Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake for id, and the Warcraft series for Blizzard in the late 1990s.

These developers are some of the largest and most respected in all of video games now, but back then, they were the first guys making unique, original games for PC gamers specifically. While console games were all the rage with Nintendo and Sega, PC games struck a cord with those who wanted to use a keyboard and mouse over everything -- values that hold strong for PC gamers today. Seattle-based Valve entered a short time later with Half-life, and a user-created modification of the game soared in popularity, eventually becoming a standalone team-based shooter called Counter-Strike.

Blizzard followed up "Warcraft 2" with "Starcraft," a game that embedded itself deeply into an entire nation's mainstream culture, an ocean away in South Korea. After spending a year or two playing "StarCraft" on Battle.net, I found "Quake 2" in the early 2000s. "Quake 2" was the first game I was serious about playing online competitively.

In 2002, I led an all-star USA Quake 2 capture-the-flag squad against the Europeans. I created the team, recruited the best players across North America and was the in-game leader. I practiced and played as a first-string starter, but would take myself out of the game if needed for certain maps better suited for my teammates. We were one of the first all-American teams to play in what was then an all-European league.

I realized in those early competitions that I would never be a professional gamer. I wasn't playing the right game, the right game mode, and more realistically, I didn't have the talent and skill to be a pro.

Instead, I chose to write about this community. I've always wanted to expose both the hardcore fans and those out of the know, to this fascinating industry.

More than a decade has gone by since those early Quake 2 competitions, and since then we have seen the rise of world-class team organizations, superstar players, year-long leagues, multimillion-dollar prize pools, sold-out sports stadiums filled with fans and hundreds of millions of people watching from home on their computers, phones and tablets.

The esports market is now expected to soon be over a billion-dollar business, according to market analyst reports, thanks to the dawn of livestreaming video technology, long-awaited sequels and new additions to historic video game franchises, as well as a healthy dose of social media.

Meanwhile, I turned 30 in November, officially old-timer status in esports, and somehow made my dreams come true. I have been in this world for over half my life.

I should call Sam and thank him for the hook up.