Like movies, television shows, and books, many individual video games can give players a singular, unique experience. Whether it's providing a burst of fun or a compelling narrative, games can satiate the need for entertainment in the short term. However, it is online gaming that has lasting power; these are video games that drive players to come back every once in a while, or even on a daily basis.
Online games can come in all shapes and forms: video games like Minecraft provide users with a massive and essentially limitless sandbox to play in; shooters like Call of Duty have a competitive edge and constantly add new features and content; and mobile games can utilize certain monetization techniques to compel players to pay up in order to continue playing or improve their performance. Whatever the case, these games provide enjoyment for players in the long term—along with profits for the companies that own them.
With that in mind, Gamesville took a look at 10 of the most iconic online video games in history. These games made a huge splash in gaming communities when they were first released, even garnering attention in larger popular culture conversations and reaching audiences who otherwise wouldn't play video games. The games in this list have been chosen based on their impact and the number of games they inspired after their release. This list also considers the time period in which these games were released and is in chronological order.
Read on to see which of your favorite online games have reached iconic status.
Video game studio Valve Corp. is an extremely influential company that created a landmark narrative title with Half-Life in 1998 and developed Steam, which is the largest PC gaming marketplace.
Among Valve's successes is Counter-Strike, a shooting game that emphasizes tactical planning and maneuvering over running and gunning. Upon its initial release in 2000, Counter-Strike garnered extreme popularity, with the title becoming synonymous with online gaming in the early 2000s. The team-based and objective-based game is extremely punishing, with player characters dying in one hit; teamwork and tactics such as the use of smoke grenades are essential for defeating the opposing team.
A massively popular successor game called Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was released in 2012, and Valve replaced it with a major update simply titled Counter-Strike 2 in September 2023. Other popular games that Counter-Strike has inspired or been compared to include Rainbow Six Siege and Valorant.
When studio Bungie and publisher Microsoft released Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001, the Xbox brand was very new, and video game consoles were not the preferred platform for online gaming compared to personal computers. That all changed with this futuristic sci-fi shooter, which sparked the beginning of a multimedia franchise and revolutionized first-person perspective shooters (FPS). Halo: Combat Evolved contained a massive single-player story with compelling world-building and backstory, depicting a large-scale conflict between humans and aliens in the future.
But it was Halo's multiplayer features that made the game essential to shared gaming sessions in college dormitories, lifting the Xbox brand and justifying Microsoft's foray into gaming. With the 2004 release of Halo 2, Microsoft's Xbox Live online service became the standard for console online services. The Halo franchise has grown into a line of several video games, novels, and a television show, while Bungie moved on to create the online video game Destiny.
Even those who have never played a video game have likely heard of World of Warcraft, a massive multiplayer online game by Blizzard Entertainment. What the MMO genre entails is a game that allows a large number of players to gather and interact in the same shared game space, and World of Warcraft has long been the dominant game of the genre. Taking place in the fantasy world of Azeroth, World of Warcraft allows players to create their own characters and undergo various quests, which will have them fighting monsters and traversing through dungeons.
The game became an instant addiction, even for "nongamers," and created both online and in-person communities centered around playing the game around the world. Gameplay innovations in World of Warcraft would inspire future MMOs, and the overall pop culture influence of the game can be seen in media like the classic 2006 "South Park" satirical episode titled "Make Love, Not Warcraft."
Roblox is a difficult game to describe, as it is more of a platform for users to create their own games and interactive experiences. Launched in 2006, Roblox is a family-friendly platform that allows users to program and craft games, while also allowing them to play games made by other users. Roblox also has a comprehensive economy, letting users buy, sell, and make virtual items for their in-game character.
On the downside, monetization practices for Roblox have led to accusations of financial exploitation of children and their parents, as children are the primary demographic of Roblox. On the plus side, Roblox has taught children basic computer programming, and it became a major hub for interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Churches have held services on Roblox, and young players have learned more about social movements such as Black Lives Matter through Roblox experiences.
As a "multiplayer online battle arena," League of Legends from Riot Games has two teams compete against each other in a symmetrical battlefield from an isometric camera perspective. League of Legends specifically pits teams of five players against each other on a map with three main lanes, with both teams also having "minions" fighting against enemies. The staying power of League of Legends comes from two sources: the extensive lore and backstories behind the ever-expanding cast of playable characters, and the intense competitive scene the game created.
The League of Legends World Championship is one of the biggest esports tournaments to this day, with high viewership and a big prize pool worth millions of dollars. League of Legends alone is responsible for a massive boost in popularity for esports, and it has served as a template for future video games to build their own competitive scenes. The lore of League of Legends has led to various spinoff games and even a highly popular Netflix animated show titled "Arcane: League of Legends."
One can't talk about iconic online video games without mentioning the bestselling game of all time: Minecraft. Released by studio Mojang in 2011 following a period of public beta testing, Minecraft allows players to mine materials from an essentially infinite world and build structures on their own servers. There is also a survival aspect to the game where players must fend off zombies and other enemies at certain times.
What resulted was an extremely influential and important video game, a game that grew into a platform to express creativity and ingenuity. Players have formed communities within and outside of the game, with conventions centered entirely around Minecraft becoming common. Minecraft has also been utilized in educational settings. Microsoft bought Mojang and the Minecraft brand in 2014, and the game has still remained popular among both gaming and nongaming audiences.
Developed by King, Candy Crush is a mobile game that has more than likely been installed on your phone at one point or another. The game is simple, yet addictive: Players must tap on candies presented in a grid on their screen and switch them around; points are earned when three candies match in a row or column.
Candy Crush popularized the "freemium" model of mobile games when it was released in 2012, letting players spend real money in order to continue playing the game or "boosters" to make the game easier. And the results are staggering, with King reporting in September 2023 that Candy Crush has generated $20 billion of revenue in the game's lifetime.
Candy Crush has become infamous for being a distraction from work, with even politicians from numerous countries caught in the act of playing the game during important events or meetings. If that doesn't indicate the mainstream crossover and appeal of Candy Crush, what does?
Despite the controversies surrounding the Grand Theft Auto series regarding its violent content, the franchise from Rockstar Games has endured. What turned out to be an unprecedented success for Rockstar, however, was Grand Theft Auto Online. This online game was released in 2013 as the multiplayer component of the massively successful and acclaimed single-player game Grand Theft Auto V. While Grand Theft Auto Online launched with technical issues, fixes to the game alleviated many problems for players, and they found that there was much to do within the full experience.
Grand Theft Auto Online allows players to create their own character and complete various types of missions, with the mainstay of the game being elaborate "heists" that players can plan and execute with their friends. Rockstar adds new missions and types of content on a regular basis, with updates continuing to this day. Outside of additions from the developers, players have also crafted their own stories within GTA Online, engaging in immersive forms of role-playing. Grand Theft Auto V, which is required to play GTA Online, is frequently on the charts for bestselling video games, with 185 million copies in lifetime sales as of August 2023.
Developer and publisher Epic Games struck gold with Fortnite, but not in the way the company originally envisioned. In development since 2011, Fortnite was released in 2017 as a cooperative experience meant for four players; these players would mine resources and build forts to prepare for attacks from various types of monsters. Upon the release of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, a "battle royale" video game that pitted 100 players against each other until only one is left, Epic Games experimented with the battle royale format within Fortnite, creating Fortnite Battle Royale—and it became a runaway success.
By 2018, the battle royale aspect of Fortnite became hugely popular, thanks in part to a livestream in which rapper Drake played the game. Epic struck deals with numerous companies to promote movies, films, comics, and other games within Fortnite by including character skins and other content based on other media, such as "Avengers: Infinity War."
The wide accessibility of Fortnite, as it is free-to-play on PC, all modern consoles, and mobile devices, has led to the game's popularity amongst children, even getting them in trouble in school. Popular dances make their way to Fortnite as emotes, and artists including Ariana Grande and Travis Scott have performed virtual concerts in the game.
Similar to playground games like Mafia, and even films like "The Thing," Among Us from independent studio Innersloth is based on deception, mistrust, and deduction. Players take the roles of crewmates who must carry out tasks in an environment such as a spaceship; however, among the crewmates is one or several imposters who are tasked with killing all crewmates before they complete all tasks. Once a body is found, all players regroup and attempt to deduce who the imposters are.
Among Us was released in 2018 with little public attention, but the game exploded in popularity in 2020 during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Streamers on platforms like Twitch began playing the game to connect with friends during lockdowns, and viewers found charm in the game's colorful and cute art style—despite the violence of the imposter discreetly murdering players. The paranoia that Among Us has inspired during play sessions has led to the word "sus" becoming a prominent part of the pop culture lexicon, and politicians such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have played the game on livestreams to promote voter registration for younger Americans.
Story editing by Cynthia Rebolledo. Copy editing by Tim Bruns. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.
This story originally appeared on Gamesville and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.