A few months back, I posted about the American Video Athletic Association. Since, I have exchanged e-mails with its founder so I thought I’d do a follow-up post with more details.
In January 1982, Time magazine ran a cover story on the video game phenomenon that was then sweeping the country. The article featured a sidebar on a teenager Steve Juraszek, who had played a single game of Defender for over 16 hours. Walter Day considers the issue’s cover date (January 18, 1982) to be the birthdate of the golden age of video arcades. It was also a key date in the history of eSports, if for no other reason than that it indirectly lead Day to establish his Twin Galaxies Video Scoreboard, one of the earliest serious attempts to make video gaming a sport.
While Day’s efforts are well known, however, and many consider him the father of eSports, he was not the only person to think of the concept. At least two others were making similar efforts in 1982. One of them was an entrepreneur in Madison, Wisconsin named Dennis de Nure.
According to his autobiography, Dennis was born John Michael DeNure in 1956 in Platteville, WI (“home of the world’s largest M symbol”) and changed his name to Dennis Amadeus de Nure after seeing the film “Amadeus.” In 1982, around the time Walter Day was starting his famous scoreboard, DeNure was playing Pac-Man at bars in the Madison area and thought, “how neat it would be to turn video game playing into a sport that I trademarked.” While Walter Day wanted to bring glory to the players, however, DeNure had another motive. He wanted to get rich, and he thought that the way to do so was to secure the intellectual property rights to the concept of video gaming as a sport.
Toward that end, on April 5, 1982, DeNure incorporated a company called Video Athlete Corporation, which was located at 120 W. Mifflin Street in Madison. He persuaded his landlord, Otto Zerwick, to invest $15,000 in the company, which at that point consisted of little more than a name and a trademark on the term “Video Athlete” (though the trademark was not filed until July 6). With cash in hand, DeNure hit upon an odd publicity stunt to promote his new idea. Over drinks, he got to know the elephant keeper at the Dane County Zoo and persuaded the keeper to let him sneak into the elephant enclosure with a Defender cabinet and take pictures of the zoo’s star pachyderm, Winkie, “playing” the game. It was dangerous business. In 1966, Winkie’s predecessor, also named Winkie, had stomped a three-year old to death and the second Winkie would later send a handler to the hospital and, after being moved to an elephant sanctuary in 2000, kill another handler. Nonetheless, DeNure entered the temperamental elephant’s cage and, by placing a peanut on top of the game, got her to pick it up with her trunk, making it appear that she was moving the joystick. Another photo showed three gamers playing games in front of the Madison skyline with the logo “We Are Athletes of a Different Kind.” While the photos did not really lead to anything, they did put DeNure in touch with a local arcade owner, who had supplied the games for the photo shoots.
Now that he had a source of games, DeNure began to think of ways to promote his idea. His initial plan was to have a semi-trailer full of video games that would travel the country. First, however, he decided to stage a tournament in Madison, initially to be called the Video Athlete Festival, sponsored by the “American Video Athletic Association” (aka AVAA or ah-vah), another group DeNure had created. DeNure had an audio technician create a 60-second radio commercial for the event and booked a spot at the Dane County Forum. In addition to individual and team tournaments, the festival would have door prizes, representatives from various video game factories, a “video guru” comedy act, and over 100 video games. DeNure even paid Steve Juraszek to come to Madison to attempt to break his famous record and persuaded an AP reporter and photographer to cover the attempt. It was an impressive plan, especially for 1982. But it never came off.
On May 21, the day before the festival, DeNure ran an ad in the Madison Wisconsin State Journal. The tournament, sponsored by “Video Athletes Across America” (yet another DeNure creation) would feature six different games: Centipede, Defender, Tempest, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, and Omega Race. Juraszek would be on hand, where he would be challenged by Robert Crocker, an 11-year-old local video game “expert.” At the last minute, however, the arcade owner pulled out and rather than trying to salvage the situation, the now-bitter DeNure cancelled the event. In the end, it may not have mattered, since by his own admission, DeNure did not really know what he was doing at the time.
He did not give up on video athletes, however and instead began thinking of new ways to promote the concept. He created an ad for the American Video Athletic Association that ran in the July and August issues of Electronic Games featuring the likeness of Steve Juraszek and offering a one-year membership in the AVAA for $12.95. Gamers could also submit their high scores without joining the association. If they did join, they got a t-shirt, membership card, quarterly newsletter, and “handy pocket guide to Video Athletics” that included gameplay hints, comparison charts, and a rating system with five ranks: Scrambler, Defender, Commander, Invader, and Avenger.
Meanwhile, DeNure started writing letters seeking supporters his idea to just about anyone he could think of, getting nothing in return but rejections. George Lucas’s secretary told him the George’s daughter loved the shirt, but passed. Arthur C. Clarke suggested that DeNure read his essay “The Playing Fields of Space.” Isaac Asimov was too busy and Ted Turner said “no” multiple times. His letters to coin-op manufacturers, distributors, and operators did not fare much better, though he did get a meeting in a McDonald’s with Atari’s Joe Robbins, who suggested that he do a survey.
DeNure also was toying with a number of other names, phrases, and concepts that he hoped to trademark, like “Video Athlete League (VAL),” “Machine Sports,” and “make sport not war.” His most ambitious idea involved something he called the Video Athletic Machine Sport, or VAMS, unit. The VAMS unit, which would be built into newly created video games, would include a “video-tac” (video tachometer) dialog board that would provide a “Universal Scoring System” to convert scores to a 100-point scale, a “Universal Time Factor System” that allowed the player to select short, medium, or long games, and a “Universal Tri-Field Setting System.” A group called the “AVAA-Control Committee” would determine how to convert the scores for different games and difficulty levels. VAMS was part of a more elaborate plan to turn video gaming into a competition along the lines of baseball or basketball. Competitions, which be played in arenas called an “Electronic Ball Parks,” would consist of a ten-inning “game” between two teams of nine players. Each team would have three forwards, three guards, two centers, and a “signal captain.” Games were divided into one of three types and could be played for one of three durations. During each inning, team members would play specific games for specific lengths of time at specific difficulty levels based on the inning and their position. Based on their score, players would be awarded a single, double, triple, home run, or grand slam, earning one to five points, which would then be converted into “conversion points” (the details here are a bit hazy).To add an element of chance, a “VAL Baseline Spinner” was created, though even DeNure no longer what it was supposed to be used for. It was an elaborate system – probably too elaborate – but DeNure hoped that once industry movers and shakers were onboard, they would simplify and improve it.
DeNure’s master plan involved more than just tournaments, however. A professional team called the Star Scorers would be formed. Gyms called “valcades” would be established where players could play against other video athletes for $5. A language called “AVAA-Talk” would be created. Playoffs, like the Crown of AVAA, would be held. Tournaments would be promoted on a TV show called Planet Play. DeNure even wrote a 108-page screenplay for a movie called “Star Scorers of the AVAA” intended to educated consumers about video athletics as well as a book called “The Age of the Video Athlete.” Other ideas included a national organization for operators (which would promote tournaments), a quarterly newsletter listing everyone who achieved a high score on one of 15 selected games per month in member arcades, a syndicated comic strip, video game triathlons, and an arcade t-shirt with a special pocket for tokens.
Unfortunately, ideas are all DeNure had and he was never able to interest anyone in turning them into reality. Very few people joined the AVAA (the pocket guide and newsletters eventually became a booklet called “The New Peace Sign”). DeNure does seem to have published The Age of the Video Athlete, which was listed in the bibliography of a book called Reading Programs For Young Adults. It was also mentioned in the June 1, 1983 issue of Play Meter, which described it as a 98-page manual on promoting video games as a sport, with details on running sanctioned “Video Game Festivals”, including sample radio ads, and other info. By 1987, DeNure seems to have dropped the video athletics idea and moved on to other things.
In 1985, he was running a shoeshine stand in Madison. In October 1986, the Madison Capital Times reported that he was pushing to have the state motto changed to “Eat Cheese or Die.” In April 1987 the Wisconsin State Journal reported that he was running a shop called DeNure’s T-Shirt Factory and 60s Museum at 555 State Street, selling tie-dyed T-shirts and 60s memorabilia. Two months later, the Journal reported that DeNure’s “travelling cow cart” had been robbed of its entire inventory of cow-themed t-shirts, bearing slogans like “Cows are udderly cool.” The cart was mounted on a snow mobile trailer that DeNure pulled around the state with his van to various farm events.
Late in 1987 (if not earlier), DeNure launched his political career with a run for Dane County Executive. In early 1988, he pleaded no contest and was fined for hurling apples at a Richard Haas mural being painted at Olin Terrace. Later that year, he entered the race for mayor. Starting around 1993, he ran a store in Madison called Game Haven that sold Magic the Gathering and Pokémon cards, as well as board games and Beanie Babies. In 2002, he served a two-year sentence in Iowa for drunk driving. As of this writing, he is apparently still designing t-shirts and pushing for one of his other big ideas – the Museum Mile.
 DeNure was using the name “Dennis,” however, long before the film was released.
 The trademark application gives a “first use in commerce” and “first use anywhere” of April 15, 1982. DeNure remembers that he had the trademark before he began planning his tournament. He also remembers that he had some ads in national magazines, but that appears to have come later.
 Some of these ideas may have come after 1986.