“19 years ago, we had a dream. We had a vision. We had bedrooms, basements and LAN cafés with barely-working connections. We had no idea how far we’d come.” – ESL Website
Still holding the record for the world’s largest esports company and the oldest one which is still operational, ESL continues to be an ever-expanding multi-billion dollar industry with more brands and publishers coming in and partnering up with them. From a small online gaming league to what it is today, the journey of ESL is one which has 19 years of struggle, joy, and success stored in it.
Early History and Success
Based in Cologne, Germany, it was launched in the year 2000 as Electronic Sports League, a successor of Deutsche Clanliga. The company started with hosting online gaming leagues and renting out servers for various game competitions across Germany and Europe while parallelly running a gaming magazine. Later abbreviated and officially renamed as ESL, the company would further branch out to produce TV shows based on gaming, and broadcast tournaments both online as well as in theatres. It currently has 11 offices in six continents employing over 500 people all over the world.
Organizing several big and small events during the mid and late 2000s including the Games Convention in 2006 and three seasons of Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) in 2007, 2008, and 2009 successively, ESL took a major leap of success after 2014. In 2015, IEM Katowice was at that time the most watched esports event in history having over 1 million viewership in Twitch and more than 100,000 people present at the event. Seeing their success, Modern Times Group (MTG), a Swedish digital entertainment company, bought a 74% stake in ESL from its parent company, Turtle Entertainment in July 2015. Almost immediately after the deal, ESL announced its participation in “Esports in Cinema” which would broadcast live esports events to over 1500 movie theaters all over the world.
2015 and onwards
Following ESL One Katowice 2015, some esport athletes revealed that they used a medical drug called Adderall to improve their cognitive abilities while playing. ESL immediately began working with the World Anti-Doping Agency and the National Anti-Doping Agency and instituted an anti-drug policy for its events thereby becoming the first international esports company to do so. They conducted random drug tests at their events to make sure that the policy was properly implemented. Anyone found using a drug prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency would be penalized, with penalties ranging from reduced prize money and tournament points to disqualification and a maximum two-year ban from their events.
ESL would then continue to beat one after another world record. Working with publisher Valve Corporation in August 2015, they hosted ESL One Cologne 2015 which had over 27 million viewers, making it the most-watched and largest Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) tournament at that time. The same year in October, ESL held a Dota 2 championship at Madison Square Garden Theater and partnered with ArenaNet to produce ESL Guild Wars 2 Pro League. In November, IEM San Jose 2015 which was held at the SAP Center in San Jose, California made a smashing world record having over 10 million viewers watching the tournament through Twitch thus making it the largest CS: GO event in USA at that time.
In the same month, ESL finally acquired E-Sports Entertainment Association (ESEA) after several prior collaborations. ESL uses the ESEA anti-cheat system to monitor ESL CS: GO Pro League. During the World League’s Pro Division tournament in 2016, ESL partnered with Activision for its Call of Duty World League. In 2017, ESL partnered with Hulu, an American television network, to produce four esports series – Bootcamp, Player v. Player, ESL Replay, and Defining Moments. It was the same year when they hosted ESL One Hamburg Dota 2 Major partnering up with Mercedes-Benz.
Other contribution to Esports
Apart from just organizing and promoting esports, ESL has taken several steps to ensure that esports remains to be a healthy and noble form of sports and entertainment. As mentioned above, they were the first international esports company to institute an anti-drug policy for their esports events. They are one of the members of the Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC), a non-profit association responsible for maintaining moral code of conduct and ensure a corruption free environment at esports events. It was ESL and Intel, who came up with the Anykey initiative, a diversity initiative which was created to highlight and bring to fame, the under-represented members of the gaming community such as LGBTQ people, people of color, as well as women.
“Esports is now a global phenomenon. Sold out arenas. Record breaking streams. Fans cheering for the new generation of legends and teams – with more players joining us every day, on all levels. We helped turn an underground movement into the world’s fastest-growing sport.” – ESL Website
There’s no denying that ESL played a vital role in shaping the international gaming community as we know it. They helped budding gamers become celebrities. They made sure that every event is conducted in an orderly and friendly manner. They’ve come a long way from what they were 19 years ago. And with the support of gamers and esports enthusiasts all over the world, they will continue to host the world’s biggest gaming events.