20 years on, was the PlayStation 2 the father of esports?
As the day that Sony brought its second PlayStation console onto shelves, March 4th 2000 is a red letter day in the history of gaming. It became the best-selling console of all time, but also ushered in a new era of gaming.
The original PlayStation was a child of a strange project between Sony and Nintendo. Sony had no presence in the gaming market at that time, but was bringing its CD-ROM technology to Nintendo’s cartridge-based consoles. The relationship went sour, and Sony went it alone, bringing out its first console in 1994.
PlayStation proved to be a roaring success, and Sony set about developing a successor. It revealed the new console in 1999, demonstrating the huge graphical leaps and potential behind the new DVD-based games with titles like Gran Turismo 2000, a demo follow-up to the first Gran Turismo game which had sold almost 10 million copies at the time.
When the PS2 went on sale in Japan in March 2000, it sold a million units in its first day. It saw similar success when launched in North America in October and Europe in November, eventually selling 155 million consoles across its lifetime.
Developers were able to exploit the console’s advanced graphics, processing ability, and larger storage space to create far more realistic environments. Nowhere was this more obvious than the Gran Turismo titles, first with Gran Turismo 3‘s huge leaps over its predecessor, and then Gran Turismo 4 which earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for its enormous 700+ stable of vehicles. The two titles racked up 26.5 million sales between them, and GT3 was in the top ten fastest-selling games ever at the time.
However the PS2 brought something else to the table too: network play. A staple of PC gaming, network play brought a new dimension to consoles. Initially the PS2 used a network interface called iLink, developed by a working group of Sony, Panasonic and Apple, to connect up to six consoles together in the same place – a Local Area Network, or LAN. GT3 supported iLink, bringing the ability to race against other people to a realistic console racing game for the first time.
Sony moved to a standard network connection, offering a network adapter for the original PS2, but also bringing out a new, smaller version of the console with an integrated network port. While this still allowed for LAN modes, it also opened up the possibility of playing against others over the wider internet.
While Polyphony Digital, the team behind Gran Turismo, did experiment with an online version of Gran Turismo 4, Microsoft was the first to enter the online multiplayer arena with a realistic console racing game for its Xbox console.
The success of the first PlayStation console, and impending release of the second, had prompted Microsoft to begin development of its own, competing device. Similarly, Gran Turismo’s success had paved the way for other simulation-style racing games in the same vein, and when Forza Motorsport arrived for the Xbox in May 2005, it beat Sony to the punch for online racing.
Sony’s first online GT game was Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. This was broadly an extended demo for the new PlayStation 3 console, featuring a smaller car list and hinged on the online multiplayer aspect. That has since become a fixture in both series through multiple games.
Naturally this breeds competition, and the rise of online racing has resulted in racing esports – officially sanctioned series that see the best drivers compete against each other in live events. There’s at least one esport series for every major racing game title now, including the Forza RC championship, F1 Esports, and the Le Mans Esports Series.
Sony went a step further still, releasing a version of Gran Turismo in 2017 that was focused on esports, called Gran Turismo Sport. The GT Sport competition differs in that it is officially certified by the governing body of world motorsport, the FIA. Players compete in online races to qualify for live events around the world, culminating in a grand final held in Monaco each year.
The 2019 event pulled in some 50 million views, with nearly 12m watching the grand final live. Even more remarkable than that, the FIA honours the champion with a trophy awarded during its annual Prize Giving gala, granting them equal standing with the champions of real-world motorsport. The FIA even used GT Sport for its own Motorsport Games last autumn, as one of six motorsport disciplines.
20 years on from its launch, the PlayStation 2 is leaving a spectacular legacy.