esports began in the smoky pinball arcades of the 1970s and is now a thriving industry. Today, players compete for huge prize pools, while tens of millions watch the live streams. In the early days, as players complained of back pain, gaming chairs emerged to ride the esports wave. This article tells the unofficial history of gaming chairs.
History of esports
The story begins in 1980. That year, Atari released Space Invaders for the Atari 2600. To promote the game, Atari held a national championship. A total of 10,000 people turned up to the finals in New York, making it the first large-scale esports tournament.
As pictured below, the gaming ergonomics of the time were horrendous. Players sat on fixed steel chairs while craning necks to see TV screens positioned too high.
Esports simmered on low for 20 years after the Space Invaders tournament. Then, in the early 2000s, things heated up in South Korea.
1998: Starcraft in S. Korea
At the start of 1997, South Korea was an Asian tiger with swagger. Dozens of stock trading rooms popped up around Seoul. Locals could spend the day smoking, trading stocks and chatting with their pals. By the end of that year, the dream shattered.
In late 1997, many big Korean companies were unable to pay off their loans. The stock market crashed, and the Korean currency lost half its value.
A year after the economic crash, Blizzard released Starcraft. It was an intelligent strategy game that appealed to the hordes of jobless South Korea youth of the time. Many stock trading rooms converted to PC gaming rooms.
Starcraft exploded in popularity and big business cashed in. In 2002, big companies like Samsung and SK Telecom began to put money into pro esports teams. Korean TV channels Ongamenet and MBCGame started running Starcraft tournaments.
Players competed for cash prizes, with games broadcast live on each channel. Record audiences tuned in as their idols played their favorite games for high stakes. Despite all the buzz, player ergonomics remained an afterthought.
Early esports ergonomics
As the South Korean Starcraft frenzy took esports to new highs, ergonomics were brutal. Pictured below is the setup for the 2005 Cyber games, with white plastic chairs for the players.
When Call of Duty came out in late 2005, interest in esports surged yet again. Despite this, the gaming ergonomics of the time were still primitive.
In 2005, a study of UK internet users found that the average time spent online had increased to around 10 hours. As seated computing time went up, so did back pain cases.
That’s because as esports grew in popularity, gamers spent longer periods sitting at computers. With the crude seating of the era, back pain was inevitable.
Big business ignored this opportunity until the recession of 2001. As car sales crumbled, many in the auto industry began twiddling their thumbs…
2011: Twitch streaming
Until this point, esports were only broadcast on TV. Market penetration hit another level when streaming service Twitch launched in 2011. Twitch began broadcasting tournaments online. This gave even casual gamers a easy access to a new spectator sport based on their favorite titles.
Twitch era Sitting Disease
A year after it launched, Twitch averaged 6 billion minutes of content watched every month. Aspiring pros would spend full-time hours sitting to build an audience. Any time they left their computers, they’d risk losing viewers to another channel. Former streamer Joe Marino nearly died pursuing a streaming career. His advice: “Find that balance. Get up, move around do something other than sit. Standing desks help but it wont fix it. You have to move.”
In 2012, a 23-year old Taiwanese gamer ignored that advice. Chen Jung-yu paid for 23 hours at a Taipei Internet cafe. At the end of his 23 hours, the clerk noticed him sitting rigidly with a blackened face, stone cold dead.
With sedentary behavior on the rise, DXRacer proved to have excellent foresight. For a few reasons, their models proved the perfect solution for the era. First, gaming chairs are good for your back, supporting long periods of sitting.
Second, gaming chairs promote good posture. Third, good posture yields many benefits that help gamers perform at a higher level.
History of gaming chairs
During the 2000s, America lost 5.7 million, or 33% its manufacturing jobs.
It was a pandemic of industrial plant closings. Here’s the Packard Automotive Plant, on East Grand Boulevard on Detroit’s east side, 2006:
The decade began with a recession in 2001. Then, the Sept. 11 attacks caused a stock market decline that crippled the auto industry.
Also in 2001, a startup company called DXRacer began making luxury car seats. Their timing was terrible. That same year, Chrysler discontinued their Plymouth brand. In 2004, GM cancelled their Oldsmobile division.
In 2005, oil prices began rising. Sales of gas guzzling American cars dropped off. Facing dwindling returns in a shrinking market, thumb-twiddlers at DXRacer took action.
2006: world’s first gaming chair
According to company lore, “inspiration and curiosity” brought a groundbreaking idea to life. In 2006, DXRacer released the world’s first modern gaming chair.
There aren’t any photos of that original model, but it became the blueprint of all gaming chairs to follow:
In hindsight, these elements are obvious. In 2006, they were groundbreaking.
The high backrest with curved edges supported the shoulders. Removable neck and lumbar cushions kept the spine aligned. Caster wheels attached to a 5-pointed base with adjustable height. Adjustable armrests and backrest recline let users change position without standing up. Finally, thick padding and faux leather tied the whole thing together.
The result was very well received. These new chairs allowed users to sit better, work harder & game longer. The modern gaming chair had arrived.
Over the next two years since the DXRacer launch, the esports industry hummed along. Annual prize revenues jumped from $4.6 million in 2006 to $6.4 million in 2008. But the player ergonomics were still very basic.
Also in 2008, AKRacing launched as the second big gaming chair company in the industry. Like DXRacer, this Taiwanese outfit made luxury car seats in a crumbling auto market.
Seeing the success of DXRacer and the growth of the esports market, it was a no-brainer. They started making their own versions of DXRacer’s blueprint.
They also jumped into esports promotion. In 2013, AKRacing sponsored the World Cyber Games.
2009: DXRacer esports partnerships
In response to AKRacing’s challenge, DXRacer stepped up their game. At the 2009 World Cyber Games in Chengdu, China, they provided chairs to all players.
That began an active run of DXRacer partnerships. They went on to sponsor many other major tournaments. They also went on to partner with several teams, such as Natus Vincere and Ninjas in Pyjamas. Most recently, DXRacer became the official gaming chair for the 2019-2020 Gears 5 Major Circuit.
2012: cheap knockoffs
As the esports scene heated up, DXRacer and AKRacing remained the only two gaming brands on the market. But several cheap DXRacer knockoffs started flooding Chinese websites.
These looked like DXRacer gaming chairs, but only on the outside. Inside, they used cheap plywood stuffed with surplus foam. It was the same build as cheap office chairs, but with flashy DXRacer-inspired styling.
For most people, DXRacer’s concept was too new and too expensive (around $300 per chair). Those who tried cheap knockoffs were disappointed. As a result, gaming chairs remained a niche product only of interest to hard-core gamers.
That kept gaming chairs out of reach of the masses – until Homall showed up in 2012.
In 2012, Chinese furniture company Homall launched a gaming chair division. Their mission was to reverse-engineer the best features of DXRacer chairs to sell cheap but solid products.
Instead of cheap plywood, they used a cheap steel frame. In place of cheap foam, they used high-density foam blocks. The result was a hit, bringing the concept of gaming chairs to the masses.
Today, Homall’s Classic Series is Amazon’s best-selling gaming chair of all time.
As Homall chairs began selling like hotcakes, another aspiring Chinese brand watched from the sidelines. A year after Homall’s launch, a Chinese furniture manufacturer called GTRacing joined the fray.
The result was a chair with better features and a slightly higher price. Today, the GTRacing Classic is also one of Amazon’s all-time best-selling gaming chairs.
2014: pro class upgrades
2014 was a massive year for both esports and gaming chairs. In esports, a Dota 2 tournament prize pool equaled that of a PGA tour. Also that year, more people tuned in to watch esports finals than the NBA finals.
The gaming chair scene also took a huge leap forward.
Two brands appeared on the scene that took gaming chairs to another level. New features included:
- Integrated lumbar support: internal lumbar like a pneumatic luxury car seat.
- Cold foam padding: a superior form of padding with greater resistance and durability.
- Larger sizes: wider, deeper seats to fit bigger and taller users.
In Singapore, a pair of jaded Starcraft players jumped into the industry. Alaric Choo and Ian Alexander Ang felt that the current gaming chair options were weak. After launching their brand in 2014, they sold 200,000 chairs for around $15 million USD in sales.
In 2019, Secretlab began to surge. First, they secured a round of venture capital from Heliconia Capital Management. Next, they released 2020 Series upgrades for big improvements over previous models.
German brand Maxnomic also launched in 2014. Their chairs are designed in Germany, produced in China and sold worldwide. Like Secretlab, Maxnomic quickly became a top-selling luxury brand. There were two reasons for their success. First, the quality of their chairs exceeded what DXRacer was offering at the time.
Second, they make robust esports partnerships. For example, months after launching the company, Maxnomic was the official chair for Dreamhack 2014. Today, Maxnomic boasts some of the highest profile partners in the world.
For example, Ninja is the world’s most popular streamer. Team Liquid is the world’s most successful esports team. Both are Maxnomic partners, exposing these chairs to millions of viewers on a regular basis.
2015: more pro class brands
While DXRacer set the precedent, Secretlab and Maxnomic raised the bar with a higher level of esports chair. Two more high-end brands joined the industry with products matching up to the same level of quality.
In 2015, Vertagear met that level when they launched from a base in Los Angeles. They took the advanced features perfected by Secretlab and Maxnomic and came up with their own interpretations. Vertagear chairs are colorful, solid and thickly padded. They also hold up very well under intense gaming loads.
Soon after launching the company, Vertagear plunged into the esports world. In June 2015, they set up a display at an ESL One Dota 2 tourney in Frankfurt.
They continued showing up at European gaming conventions for a few years. In 2017, they signed a deal with Team Immunity, their first of many pro team partners. Today, Vertagear sponsors the Capcom Cup and works with several pro teams including Team Splyce.
In 2016, a group of German designers came together to launch Noblechairs. Unsatisfied with what the gaming chair market had to offer, they released their own. Noblechairs offered upmarket seats with subtle styling.
Like Secretlab, Maxnomic and Vertagear, Noblechairs made high quality, pro-calibre chairs. But they banked on a demand for sophisticated designs that never materialized. As a fallback, Noblechairs plunged into esports, offering custom designs for partners.
In 2017, they partnered with Endpoint, a pro team from the UK. In 2018, they added Berlin International Gaming as a partner. Today, their partners include top German teams like SK Gaming and mousesports.
2019: thriving, viable industry
In its 13th year, the gaming chair industry boomed – in step with the esports industry. In 2019, the esports industry generated $1 billion in revenue for the very first time. A big part of that was record viewers tuning in to watch esports.
As viewership increased, more money went into production. Today, most broadcast events have super-slick production values. Example:
In 2019, viewers responded in droves. In October 2019, the League of Legends finals became the most-watched esports event of all time. Over 7 days of League of Legends finals play, viewers watched 24.6 million hours of content.
The average audience per minute during the LOL finals was 21.8 million viewers. To put that in context, the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals averaged 3 million viewers over seven games. 3.3 million watched the 2019 Wimbledon men’s final. 8.14 million tuned in to watch the 2019 baseball All-Star game.
That shows how people in 2019 gamed more, watched more streams and spent a whole lot more time siting.
As a result, the gaming chair market is also crushing record numbers. A 2019 market industry report forecasts 5% growth in the gaming chair market over the next 5 years.
Also in 2019, Secretlab took over from Maxnomic as official sponsor of the LOL finals. They joined Mastercard and Alienware as global sponsors of the tourney. That marked a point where gaming chairs reached the global podium as a big business player.
In 2020, the gaming chair industry turns fourteen years old. Once dismissed as gimmicks for nerds, gaming chairs have become essential to esports.
Here’s a summary of the whole story:
1997: South Korean financial crisis.
1998: Blizzard releases Starcraft. Jobless Korean youth make the game a global phenomenon.
2000: American recession
2001: DXRacer launches as maker of luxury car seats.
2001: American auto industry crashes. DXRacer’s luxury car seat market evaporates.
2006: DXRacer launches the world’s first gaming chair with an industry-defining blueprint.
2008: AKRacing expands on the DXRacer blueprint with their own brand of gaming chairs.
2009: DXRacer responds to the challenge by dominating esports partnerships.
2011: Twitch launches their revolutionary streaming service. Soon after, they start streaming esports tournaments.
2012: Homall and GTRacing release cheap but sturdy versions of DXRacer’s blueprint. These cheap chairs introduced gaming chairs to the masses.
2014: esports enjoyed one of its biggest years to date. Two new major players emerged. Secretlab and Maxnomic took gaming chairs to the next level with new pro features.
2015: Vertagear and Noblechairs plunge in as rivals to Secretlab, Maxnomic and DXRacer.
2019: the gaming chair industry generates $1 billion in revenue. Viewership numbers break records. Secretlab steps forward as a dominant brand, forging powerful global partnerships.
In 1998, the world’s top esports game was Quake II. This was a first-person shooter game. Players needed fast reflexes and muscle memory to succeed.
In March 1998, Blizzard Entertainment released StarCraft. It was a science fiction real-time strategy game, set in a distant part of the Milky Way galaxy. While Quake demanded athletics, Starcraft required brain power.
Success required strategic thinking and clever execution. This provided the perfect means for jobless, over educated Korean youth to spend their time. So many flocked to the game that big business began to take notice.
At the same time in America, the auto industry was imploding.
In hindsight, three seemingly unrelated factors provided the spark. Hordes of slouching Koreans, an American recession and a DXRacer warehouse full of unsold luxury car seats. These three factors led to the birth of the gaming chair industry.
Esports relies on user generated content. Gaming chairs let users sit better, work harder & game longer. As esports takes off, gaming chairs have become an integral part of the ride.