Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Early Video Game Tournaments And Players

Two questions for today:

1) What was the first arcade video game tournament - or at least the first national one?

2) Can you name the player who may have been the first arcade video game player to gain national attention? I'm not talking about an AP or UPI story that got picked up by local papers across the country. This guy was featured in a truly national medium.

As for question 1. I actually don't know the answer and no one else seems to either.
According to Walter Day, the first video game tournament ever was the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics, which took place in Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Lab on October 17, 1972. This was a computer game tournament, however, not an arcade game tournament.

Given the popularity of foosball and pool (and later Air Hockey) tournaments around the time Pong came out, it seems likely that there were arcade video game tournaments in 1973 but I haven't found a documented one.

Here's one I did find, from the December, 1974 issue of Vending Times:

Could this be the very first arcade video game tournament? Probably not, but it might well be the first national one. It's actually not 100% clear from the article that this was an arcade, rather than a home game tournament but given that Sega sponsored it and it was reported in Vending Times, it seems likely that it was.

International Coin Olympics

Another early attempt started in 1976. Millie McCarthy, president of the New York State Coin Machine Association had long wanted to create an International Coin Olympics that would include video games, pinball, foosball, and pool. On January 10, 1976 it seemed her dream was on the way to reality when a group of operators met in Atlanta to form the Games Tournament Board (though it seemed to concentrate mostly on pinball) . In 1978 McCarthy began to organize the first International Coin Olympics. Qualifying tournaments were to be held starting in November, continuing over an 18 month period with finals in New Orleans in February of 1980. A prize fund of $135,000 was announced, promotional kits, seminars, and films were created and the event was even announced in trade magazines, but it never came to be. The event was cancelled when pinball manufacturers started staging national tournaments of their own.

Scores Winter Pinball Olympics

In May of 1979, Play Meter reported on a video game tournament conducted by Scores arcade of Dallas, TX as part of the Winter Pinball Olympics. Four video game tournaments were held on individual games - Atari Football, Double Play, Triple Hunt, and Space Wars. A fifth competition was a "decathlon" consisting of five pinball games and five video games (Space Invaders, Breakout, Sea Wolf, Laguna Racer, and Destroyer). The Atari Football tournament drew the biggest field (512) and was won by Rock Hornburgh.

National Space Invaders Championship

            It wasn't an arcade tournament but the November, 1980 National Space Invaders Championship was one of the earliest and most influential national video game tournaments in the U.S.. Sponsored by Atari in conjunction with the release of its Atari 2600 Space Invaders cartridge, the tournament drew over 10,000 contestants. Regionals were held in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fort Worth, Chicago, and New York with the five regional winners facing off on the home version of the game at Warner's New York headquarters. Bill (now Rebecca) Heineman of Los Angeles (who later co-founded Interplay) won the finals and a new Asteroids cocktail machine. Electronic Games said of the tournament "More than any other single tournament, the 'Space Invaders' Tournament established electronic arcading as a major hobby[1]."
Here's a photo from the New York regionals:

OK. How about question #2.

Well, this isn't the answer to the question, but this may be one of history's first forgotten gamers - Sabrina Osment.

Who? Sabrina Osment - that's who. And who is Sabrina Osment? Why one of the "Gremlin Girls" of course. And who the heck were the Gremlin Girls?

Back around April of 1977, Gremlin introduced their new game Hustle. To publicize the game, they launched a 12-city tour in which the "Gremlin Girls" (Sabrina Osment and Lynn Reid) took on all challengers in the game. Any player that could win 2 out of 3 games from the girls took home a crisp $100 bill. The results? The Gremlin Girls won 1,233 to 7. Yep, you read that right - 1,233 to 7. On Hustle. Color me cynical but something doesn't seem right here. I mean, it's Hustle people. Why kind of strategy could there be? Some of you are probably thiking that male players just threw the games to the ladies, but I can't believe that 99.9% of them would - espeically if they had to forego a hundred bucks to do so (and this was 1977).

OK. On to question #2.

Who was the arcade player who won national media attention for his skills.

Why Greg Davies of course.


Don't I mean Steve Juraszek?

Nope. This guy came first.

On July 23, 1980 Greg Davies played Asteroids for 21 hours and 50 minutes on a single quarter at T's-N-Tilts arcade in Murray, Utah scoring 10 million points. The feat landed him a guest spot on the Nickelodeon talk show Livewire in July of 1981 (six months before Juraszek appeard in Time). Davies' fame was short-lived, however. When the Atari Coin Connection newsletter reported the score, they listed him as Shawn Davies. Five months earlier, in the May, 1980 issue Atari Coin Connection had reported a high score of a million on the game, noting that it was "…the highest score known". By the next issue they'd already received word of a score of over 7 million.

I said I wasn't counting AP or UPI stories, but if I did, another early player would be Randy Otto, who was featured in an AP story in August of 1981 for his Pac-Man high score.

So does anybody know more about these players or tournaments or about any earlier ones?

If Walter Day is reading this, maybe he has records of them in his voluminous arcades (unless he's tossed them out).

[1] Electronic Games, March, 1982


  1. Could this be the very first arcade video game tournament? Probably not, but it might well be the first national one. It's actually not 100% clear from the article that this was an arcade, rather than a home game tournament but given that Sega sponsored it and it was reported in Vending Times, it seems likely that it was.

    I wouldn't be surprised if they were arcade machines otherwise. I read "Terebi Gamu" on the sign in the photograph (TV Game), though that could be what Japan was referring to video games of all sorts at that point in time, and Sega was still in the arcade field then if they weren't doing home machines yet.

    1. In the U.S. the terms "T.V. Games" and "television games" was still being used to refer to arcade video games in 1974.

      Not everyone was calling them "video gamees" yet.
      The term "video games" appears to have started in 1973, but it took a few years for it to become the standard and there were a number of different terms used in the early years (i.e. "video skill game", "TV Tennis game").