Every industry and every sport needs its pioneers — the people who go out there, break the mould and prove that what everyone said couldn’t be done can be done. In traditional sports, there have been many great pioneers. In 1978, Viv Anderson became the first black soccer player to represent the English national team and promptly received a telegram from the Queen.
Danica Patrick’s many firsts in motorsport include becoming the first woman to win an IndyCar race series (2008 Indy Japan 300) and the first to clinch a pole position in the NASCAR Cup Series. And in 1968, Dick Fosbury raised athletics to new heights when he became the first high jumper to adopt a back-first technique. The “Fosbury Flop” allowed athletes to jump higher than ever before and is now the standard for competitors across the world.
The important thing about pioneers is that they open the door and inspire others to follow. And the same is true with eSports. The young players of today have role models to look up to and from an early age, and they can view gaming as a solid career path. Gamer Razork explained how watching Rekkles and Caps inspired him to get serious with gaming.
But it hasn’t always been that way. Early gamers had no industry structure to support them. There was little interest from the media and sponsors were virtually non-existent. The early pioneers were mavericks just in it for the game and had to beg, steal and borrow to make their way.
The first gaming “Olympics”
These pioneers first appeared way back in the 1960s. By this time, a computerized version of tennis had already appeared but some computer science students at MIT named Steve Russel, Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen had been working on a new game called “Spacewar!” using a PDP-10 computer. The game featured two players who controlled spaceships and fought against each other as well as a depleting fuel load and the gravitational pull of a planet.
In 1972, 24 players gathered at the Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University to take part in the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics. The Prize? An annual subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.
The console and arcade revolution
In the same year, the first home console (Magnavox Odyssey) appeared and many more followed. Arcade games also became hugely popular thanks to titles such as Space Invaders and Asteroids. Many games could only be played by a single player and high score tables became the benchmark for competitive gaming.
In 1980, the first “Space Invaders Championships” were held in New York and attracted 10,000 competitors. This time, the prize was a full-size Asteroids arcade game, won by William Salvador Heineman.
The influence of Walter Day
Gaming competitions based on achieving high scores became very popular in the 1980s and a reference service called the “Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard” was established to keep records. The founder, Walter Day, understood the need for a system for confirming and recording records. Anyone could claim to have beaten a record but if it wasn’t on the list, it was not recognized.
Walter Day was a pioneer of bringing rules and regulations to the gaming world on a national scale and this opened the door for regional and national competitions and grand scale. Today, games are strictly regulated and statistics and data are even used by betting companies to set eSports odds. This wagering element is a fairly new part of gaming and has helped to boost growth even further.
Day also founded the first US gaming team and fronted the “North American Video Game Challenge”, recognized as the first multi-game tournament for elite gamers in the US.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Armin Stürmer was bringing similar organization to the European gaming scene and between the two of them, set the ball rolling towards where we are today, with a thriving industry also looking to improve. By the 1990s, the likes of Nintendo got in on the act, but it soon became clear that PC gaming in combination with the internet would shape the future of eSports.
Over the next 10 years, players fought for ever-increasing sums of money and by 2008 prize funds over $1m were being handed out and a whole new generation of gamers were inspired to pursue professional careers.