Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Prehistory of esports - The First Video Game World Record?

In today’s post, I take another look back at what I call the “prehistory” of esports. I have tackled the subject before in posts about the American Video Athletic Association, the Atari $50,000 Centipede tournament, the Electronic Circus, the 1974 All Japan TV Game championship and others. Sadly, this era is barely covered in what few histories of esports have appeared (and there have not been many). And in the few instances where it is covered, it is not covered in any depth. For instance, aside from the Centipede tournament, I have never seen any of the topics above even mentioned, much less covered in even cursory detail.
Today, I cover another possible seminal moment in the history of esports that I have never seen mentioned. Actually, I did not discover this one on my own. Marty Goldberg brought it to my attention when he sent me a short UPI article on the incident, prompting me to investigate further. So what is the incident? It was possibly the first serious attempt – or maybe the first attempt period – at a video game world record.

No, I am not talking about Steve Juraszek or Greg Davies or Atari’s 1980 National Space Invaders Championship. This one goes all the way back to May 1975 where Roger Guy English tried to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by playing a video tennis game for seven days straight – or possibly five (the details are a bit hazy as we shall see). Actually, English was already in Guinness – or about to be – at the time he made the attempt, as you can see from the UPI article below.

This article appeared in a number of papers around the country, but this is the earliest one I’ve found. It's from the May 11 issue of the Hayward Daily Review. It's also the one Marty sent me. English also claims that he once had a record for setting the most world records with nine (including the record for most records itself). But before we get into the details, let’s backtrack a little.

So who was Roger Guy English? English was born in 1950 and at the time of the attempt, he was living in La Jolla (a neighborhood in San Diego). One of English’s first loves was movies. In 1959, he started collecting movie posters after he got a poster for On the Waterfront from a local theater. By 1970, he had amassed a collection of 10,000 of them. He also had a movie museum in his garage and made annual trips to LA to see the Academy Awards, sometimes brining along a carload of friends. Hoping to make a career out of his passion, English studied cinematography at Mesa College in San Diego – though I don’t know if he graduated. He later studied literature at University of California, San Diego and wrote two, apparently unpublished, novels (one called “Don’t Stop the Rock”). Perhaps Roger’s first taste of national fame came in 1970 when he and a cousin hiked 2,000 miles from San Diego to Vancouver, British Columbia to promote ecological awareness. The trip took just over two months and earned mentions in a number of newspapers.

Roger and his cousin (though it may have been a friend) Valerie Mayers after their ecology walk - from the San Diego Union, October 29, 1970.

 In 1974, Roger was running a store in Pacific Beach called American Graffiti that sold nostalgic memorabilia. According to English, the incident that led to his year a serial record breaker came when a friend who owned a nightclub called and told him that the club was going bankrupt and asking for help. After racking his brain for weeks English came up with the idea of setting a world record for dancing the twist in the nightclub. Just as he was about to start, however, the police told him that there was a state law prohibiting anyone from doing anything for more than eight consecutive hours in a 24-hour period. Relieved, English called the attempt off, but when the story made headlines and people began organizing protests at the county courthouse, English decided to defy the police warning and go ahead with the attempt. From July 11 to 16 1973, he spent 102 hours, 28 minutes, and 37 seconds twisting the night (and the day, and the night and the day…) away and the resulting publicity made him a local celebrity. The attempt was later the subject of a question in Trivial Pursuit, Baby Boomer Edition.

From the 1977 edition of Guinness

Before long, others began calling English asking him to do similar publicity stunts to promote their businesses. For his second stunt, he decided to break the record for voluntarily going without sleep, which was then 11 days, 18 hours, and 55 minutes by Bertha Van der Merwe of South Africa. This time, the goal was to promote a local store called the Love Shop Waterbed showroom. English broke the record by staying awake for 12 days on a waterbed in the window of waterbed store from 10:30 a.m. on March 20 to 10:30 a.m. April 1, 1974.

After that, he set his sights on the record for treading water to promote the heart association. After just five minutes, he was exhausted and thought about giving up. If he did, however, he would lose the momentum he had built up. So he pressed on and treaded water for 18½ hours. If it was a record, it did not last long. In August 1975, Pete Bahn Jr. shattered the record by treading water for 41 hours and 11 minutes.
            In late April 1974, English participated in the Oddball Olympics in LA where he tried to set a record by singing for 75 hours – though it appears that he was not successful. Another unsuccessful attempt involved kite flying. If treading water had been difficult, another record was anything but when English kissed 3,000 girls in 8 hours
[1]. For his next feat, starting in August 1974, English swam the length of the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans - though it is not clear if he finished. On December 27, 1974, Bank of America paid English $500 an hour to tell jokes for five hours and 15 minutes at the Winner’s Circle Lodge north of Del Mar. He claims he did not get a single laugh.

From the 1977 edition of Guinness

English in 1974, from the San Diego Union

In the spring of 1975, English decided to set a new marathon record involving one of the latest crazes that was then sweeping the country - video games. For his video game attempt, English set up shop in a mobile radio station at a shopping center, where he spent seven days and five minutes (though English says it was five days) taking on all comers before calling it quits on May 10. During his marathon session, English squared off against over 30,000 spectators, an anteater from the San Diego Zoo, and employees of KFMB radio station. English claims that he got so good at the game that he was able to beat two opponents at once while playing only with his toes.
   The big question for me is what game English played. Was it an arcade game or a home game? The above article refers to th game as “Pong” but it is unclear if they meant Atari Pong or Home Pong or some other Pong clone (the term "Pong" was sometimes used for ball-and-paddle games in general).. English claims that the attempt was intended to promote the introduction of the game. This makes it unlikely that it was Atari Pong and the date also seems a bit late for Home Pong. It could have been that he was doing a promotion for a department store etc. that was introducing a new console. If it was an arcade game, the May date and the fact that it was in San Diego make me wonder if it could have been Cinematronics' first game Cinematronics was founded in April, 1975 and could well have released their first game around this time.
    Perhaps even more interesting is the UPI article's claim that KFMB was the “sponsor of a countrywide ‘Pong-a-Thon’ tournament to determine who will represent the city in national competition.” Could this have been the first nationwide arcade video tournament in the US? (there was one in Japan in 1974). I've always suspected that there must have been at least a few Pong tournaments somewhere. Unfortunately, I have found no other reference to this one and am suspicious that it ever existed. The name 'Pong-a-Thon' sounds to me like a description of English's record attempt itself. On the other hand, the article specifically mentions a "national competition."
   As for the record, while English indicates that it made it in into Guinness I could not confirm that it did. I did not find it in the 1975, '76, or '77 editions. I could only find three records for English in the 1977 edition (staying awake, twist dancing, and kissing) and found no mention of a video game record of any kind – though I could have been looking in the wrong spot. Whether it made the official record books or not, however, it may well have been the first attempt at a world record involving video games.

Note – for more information on Roger, you can watch 2006 documentary “The Spectacle Artist”: He discusses the video game record at the beginning of part two.

Aside from the article above and Guinness, primary sources include several issues of the San Diego Union. Oddly (given that the attempt was made in San Diego), while I found a number of articles on English’s earlier attempts in the Union, I didn’t find one on his video game attempt, or any articles on him at all in 1975 or 1976. Perhaps it is an issue with Genealogybank’s indexing of those issues. 

[1] English claims that the kissing record was his eighth record (which automatically gave him his ninth record for most world records) and that it occurred after his video game and swimming records but the record was reported in an April 29, 1974 newspaper story. The Guinness Book of World Records included the record, but did not indicate when it occurred. The UPI story claims that English kissed 2,892 women in 24 hours but that Guinness rejected the attempt – though this seems to be false given that the record was in Guinness.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Annotated Atari Depositions - Part 5

Today, we continue with Nolan Bushnell's depositions from January 13 and 14, 1976.
MR. WILLIAMS: Q. As I understand your prior testimony, the game which eventually was known as Pong was· developed after you entered into the agreement with Bally Manufacturing?

A. That's correct.

Q. And Mr. Alcorn did not start working on the game until after that agreement was entered into?

A. That's correct. I think so, yes. I can't remember the exact chronology, but it was in the space of a week or a month or something like that.

Q. I have here a copy of Bushnell Exhibit 2 which was marked as an exhibit during your deposition in July of 1974. The first…

<26 lines missing>

Q. Have you ever seen a demonstration game sold by Magnavox under the name Odyssey?

A. Yes. I have.

Q. When did you first see such a game?

A. I saw it at some kind of distributor meeting or showing that they had in I think it was the Airporter Hotel by the San Francisco Airport, I don’t remember the exact date.

[Note - The exact date was May 24, 1972 at the Airport Marina Hotel in Burlingame. Below is a photo of Nolan's signature in the guest book for the event - taken from Goldberg and Vendel's Atari Inc.]

Q. Do you remember the approximate date?

A. No. I think Magnavox probably knows when it was better than I do.

Q. Do you recall whether it was prior to the time that you entered into the written agreement with Bally?

A. Yes, it was prior to that. It was while I was still employed at Nutting.

Q. So you must have seen it prior to the time that you instructed Mr. Alcorn to develop the game which subsequently became Pong?

A. That’s true.

Q. Did anybody else go with you to the distributor meeting?

A. Yes. I think it was either Mr. Ralston or Mr. Geiman or maybe both.

[Note the two other Nutting employees who attended were Rod Geiman and Charles Fibian.]

Q. Ralston?

[Note - the transcript misspells his name. It was actually Dave Ralstin (with an "I")]

A. Yes. He was the sales manager for Nutting.

Q. How do you spell Geiman?

A. G-e-i-m-a-n, I think.

Q. Did you go there as part of your employment with Nutting?

A. Yes, I did.

Q. Were you asked to go there?

A. Yes.

Q. By whom?

A. I think it was by Bill Nutting. I mean, either him or Geiman. They had heard about it, that it was a video game, and since we thought we were the only show in town we thought we would like to see what was happening.

Q. Do you recall what you saw at the demonstration?

A. Yes. I saw a game. I believe I saw a handball game or, you know, the thing that they called handball and the ping pong game.

Q. Did you see any other games at that demonstration?

A. They had the rifle there, but it wasn't working.

Q. Did you see any other games operating other than handball and ping pong?

A. No, I didn't.

Q. Could you briefly describe the ping pong game that you saw?

A. Well, it was, you know, the light spot that moved back and forth when you hit it with the paddles.

Q. The light spot was on the face of the television screen?

A. Right.

Q. And the paddles were also displayed on the face of the television screen?

A. Right.

Q. How did they appear?

A. They were square blobs

Q. Were there any other objects on the screen other than the paddles or the light spot?

A. Not to my knowledge.

Q. Was there a line down the center of the screen?

A. I don't remember.

Q. Did you play the game that you saw?

A. Yes, I did.

Q. Was there just one Odyssey unit being demonstrated or were there a number of them?

A. I believe that there was only one.

Q. Which one of the games that you saw did you actually play?

A. I think I played both of them.

Q. Do you recall how long you were at the show?

A. No, I don't., It wasn't very long. A half-hour.

Q. Did you discuss what you saw at the show with anybody associated with Nutting?

A. Yes, I did.

Q. Who did you discuss it with?

A. Mr. Ralston, Mr. Geiman.

Q. . Did you  discuss it with Mr. Nutting?

A. I think on returning I did.

Q. What was your discussion with Mr. Nutting?

A. Oh, I just said that it was, you know, a home unit, not very interesting to play, no competition.

Q. Did you have any further discussion with Mr. Nutting about the Odyssey unit?

A. Concerning that? Oh, I can remember telling him that I didn't think that it used the kind of circuitry that we had. The motion was a little too erratic to be digitally manufactured.

Q. What did you discuss with Mr. Ralston relating to the Odyssey unit?

A. Pretty much the same thing, that I didn't consider that it was--you know, that it would ever be competition for us in the coin-op. That it was, you know, not a good game.

Q. What did you discuss with Mr. Geiman?

A. Pretty much the same thing.

Q. Did you discuss the features of the games as might be applied to coin-operated games?

A. No, I did not.

Q. When did you first meet Mr. Ted Dabney?

A. I guess the first day that I interviewed with Ampex.

Q. Did you discuss the Odyssey unit with Mr. Ted Dabney?

A. I must have. I mean, he was working at Nutting at the time

Q. Do you recall what that discussion was?

A. No, I don't.

Q. What was Mr. Ted Dabney's position at Nutting at the time?

A. I think he was an industrial engineer.

Q. When did you first meet Mr. Alcorn?

A. While he was employed at Ampex.

Q. Was Mr. Alcorn employed at Nutting also?

A. No, he wasn't.

Q. Was he employed at Ampex up until the time he started working for Syzygy?

A. No. Well, I hired him from Ampex, but from the time i knew him at Ampex he was on a work·study program and I think he, upon graduation, went to work for another company in Los Angeles before returning to Ampex.

[Note: the company Al worked for was Peripheral Technologies, Inc.]

Q. Prior to the time you saw the Odyssey game at the distributors' meeting you were just referring to, had you learned of the existence of that game?

A. Through word of mouth somebody said that there was a game going to be shown up there. I believe it was Mr. Nutting who had learned of it first.

Q. When did you first learn of that game?

A. When Mr. Nutting told me.

Q. Can you place that in time, say, with relationship to when you went to the distributor meeting?

A. It was probably like a week in advance.

Q. What did Mr. Nutting tell you when he told you about the game?

A. He says, "There's a TV game by Magnavox I've heard of." He didn't know what Magnavox had on their mind. We were afraid they were going to compete with us in the coin-op. He.thought we should find out what's happening.

Q. Did he describe the types of games that you could play on the Odyssey unit at that time to you?

A. I don't believe he knew. I'm not sure. I really don't remember.

Q. Prior to the time when Mr. Nutting told you about the Magnavox game did you have any knowledge of any activities of any other companies in the field of video games?

A. None. Oh, let me take that back. There was a company that was attempting to do a Spacewar using a mini computer, and I believe we were aware of that. Somebody in Menlo Park.

Q. Do you know the name of that company?

A. No, I don't.

Q. Do you know the name of anybody associated with that company?

A. A guy named Bill Pitts.

Q. So as of the time when Mr. Nutting told you about the Odyssey game you had no knowledge of any activities by any companies other than Nutting or the company of Mr. Pitts relating to video games?

A. Correct.

Q. When did you first learn that Sanders Associates was doing work in the field of video games?

A. I believe that was subsequent .o my finding out that Magnavox had a patent and upon seeing the patent I saw that it was assigned from Sanders Associates.

Q. When did you find out that Magnavox had a patent?

A. It was sometime after I came back from Chicago. I think one of the guys from Bally said that there was a Magnavox patent.

Q. Was that after the time that you went to the distributor meeting and saw the Odyssey game?

<31 pages missing>


A. It was after.

Q. As I understand your testimony yesterday, the game apparatus which you commenced building in 1970 along the lines indicated in your prior paper that you wrote while at the University of Utah was intended to use a raster scan cathode-ray tube display system?

A. That's Correct

Q. When did you first decide that you wanted to use a raster scan cathode-ray tube display system in that apparatus?

A. Probably it was coincident with the time that I decided to pursue this on an active basis.

Q. What time was that?

A. It was the early spring.

Q. Of 1970?

A. Yes.

Q. For what reason did you decide to use a raster scan cathode ray tube display instead of some  other t:rpe of cathode ray tube display system?

A. I felt cost, and, you know, it was a consumerized manufacture version rather than a scientific item. It was just a more cost effective solution.

Q. That is, the cost of the raster scan system was more cost effective than some other type of scan system you might have used?

A. Any other system I knew of.

Q. In the monitor system which you did actually build what apparatus did you use for the cathode-ray tube display portion?

A. Oh, I used an old--it was either a Dumont or a Sears, Roebuck television set and I also used a small Miratel monitor. I really used both of the units in the development.

Q. Did you use the TV set that you referred to in the first part of the development and then switch to the Miratel monitor, or did you use them both at the same time?

A. I think the Miratel was used first.

Q. Was there a model number on that?

A. There probably was. I have no idea what it was. It was gray, about that long (indicating) and had about a 10-inch screen.

Q. About how long did you indicate?

A. About two feet.

Q. Where did you obtain the Miratel monitor?

A. We bought it from a surplus scrap dealer in Mountain View.

Q. Why did you stop using the Miratel monitor and go to the Dumont or Sears, Roebuck TV set?

A. Well, the Miratel was a high resolution 525 line machine and I think it had like a 10-megahertz video amplifier in it and we wanted to see what our machine looked like on a crappy standard consumer--we also wanted a bigger screen.

Q. Was the TV set which you used one which was capable of receiving television broadcast signals, at least prior to the time you started using it?

A. Before we got it, yes. After that we disabled the other junk in it.

Q. What part of the TV set did you disable?

A. Well, we just tied into the video amplifier. That's so that the IF and RF sections were not used.

Q. Did you make any other alterations to the TV set?

A. I think we used the audio amplifier as well.

Q. Did you modify the audio amplifier any?

A. I can't remember. I think the set was slightly over-scanned.

That's the end of the testimony I have from January, 1976. I also have depositions from 1974 and March 1976. I will probably start with those next time.
In the meantime, here are a few photos.
First, here's Bill Nutting from 1944:
Here are some marquees from some unreleased Bally/Midway games that I found on the web (I think the first two are from Arcade Heroes).

Speaking Willie Lump Lump, here's a picture of a promotional keychain for the game that sound designer Bob Libbe sent me.


Here is some concept art for Mothership and Earth Friend from Bill Kurtz's Encyclopedia of Arcade Video Games. At least Kurtz calls it concept art. The first one looks more like a marquee to me.
 The idea for Mothership came from Marvin Glass & Associates - a toy firm that did some video game design work for Bally/Midway. Mothership later turned into Kozmik Krooz'r by Midway's internal design team.

Earth Friend (aka Earth Friend Mission) was designed at Dave Nutting Associates but never released - though it was tested in the Chicago area.  It was supposedly a color vector game.
 Here is some concept art for another unreleased game called TankMaze that artist Steve Ulstad sent me.


 Finally, here is a cabinet for another unreleased Bally/Midway game called Aerocross. At least one is from Craig's List.