Retro Gaming & eSports: Current State & Wish List 

This year, an estimated 29.6 million viewers will tune in to eSports events each month. By next year, Insider Intelligence estimates that number will rise to 31.4 million monthly viewers. One reason for the boosted popularity is the diversification of eSports games. 

When the industry began taking off in the mid-2010s, games like CS: GO and League of Legends dominated early competitions. Twitch helped push these games to new heights, as millions of new gamers tuned in to watch their favorite hosts play and then compete on official teams.

Many are also betting on outcomes of teams and tournaments. Sites like OddsChecker offer free deals for new bettors. In the past, oddsmakers focused on traditional sports, but many platforms now offer lines on eSports. As the industry grows, so does fan engagement across the board.

But eSports aren’t exactly a new concept. In fact, one of the very first eSports competitions took place back in 1980. Atari hosted a gaming classic for its arcade hit Space Invaders, which saw 10,000 gamers compete for a prize.

Luckily for fans of retro gaming, these older titles haven't been relegated to the past. In fact, retro eSports is a growing trend that could see expansion in the coming decade.

The Best of Sidebar Events

Today, popular retro games survive via side circuits at events like Evo. From Street Fighter to Super Smash Bros. Melee, these fighter games have huge followings… even if they’re small change compared to giants like Garena Free Fire. Because the games have been around for longer, there are ‘bigger’ legends associated with them. 

For example, Daigo Umehara is the world’s leading Street Fighter player who’s been playing the game for decades—and fans will fly from far and wide for a chance to see him compete. Super Smash Bros. Melee, on the other hand, sees action outside of Evo tournaments and has a growing pool of competitors. In recent years, competitions like Smash Summit have seen prize winnings teeter around $75,000.

A Staple?

So, is there a possibility that retro titles will attract more gamers in the coming years? For the most part, retro titles remain a fringe interest and are more popular amongst older gamers who grew up with consoles like Atari and, more recently, GameCube. Space Invaders isn’t exactly the feature of any major global competitions.

Last year, for example, KFC hosted an online eSports competition for Space Invaders and Tetris, two of the most popular arcade games from the 1970s and 80s. But gamers weren’t competing for a major cash prize or a chance to advance to the global championship. Instead, KFC offered a branded arcade machine. 

This marks one of the greatest challenges for retro eSports, which is finding an organizer that can provide sufficient prize money to motivate newcomers to try out the game. In other words, younger generations, especially at the highest levels of competition, need to have a reason to play the game on a professional level.


StarCraft Case Study

It’s clear that the most popular retro games still have followings and are still the subject of smaller-scale tournaments and competitions. There’s one notable example: StarCraft. The (original) game has survived in South Korea, where thousands still compete in the original StarCraft: Brood War release from 1998.

With a release date less than 25 years ago, some might argue that StarCraft isn’t a first-gen retro video game—especially with its latest release. However, the game has the same ‘sticky’ quality much like early Super Mario games from Nintendo—and it’s by far the most successful retro game in modern eSports. In 2022, there are 21 major events scheduled for StarCraft gamers. 

The prize pool varies for each, ranging from around $1,000 to up to $14,000 in larger, private leagues. Given most StarCraft fans are concentrated in South Korea, the country hosts most of the tournaments. This gives a key clue into the game’s success, which seems to be having a large fan base in a single geographic location.

It's a one-off, but Starcraft shows that retro gaming can stick around and compete with modern titles.

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Last Updated: Sep 15, 2022