Ten milestones in the history of competitive gaming
Just like they play sports, most people play video games for fun. But also just like they play sports, some people play video games competitively, both professionally and in organized amateur leagues. Yes, really. All over the world, big-money tournaments take place constantly, offering the top gamers a chance to prove their skills for fame and fortune, and several organizations exist for registering top scores, regulating high-level tournaments and promoting video games as a virtual sport. Right here in Denver, the Colorado Cutthroat Connection is sponsoring a multi-game tournament this weekend at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, offering local gamers a chance to test their mettle. To shed some light on this burgeoning field of competitive endeavor, we've compiled a list of noteworthy moments in the history of organized competitive gaming. After reading it, don't be surprised if you're struck with the desire to polish up those long neglected Pac-Man skills for a run at the world record.
1982: Twin Galaxies becomes the scorekeeper of record
You want to know who has the best score ever in Galaga? Twin Galaxies knows (it's some dude named Stephen Krogman, by the way). The Twin Galaxies arcade opened in 1981 and made history on February 9, 1982, when owner Walter Day made public his database of video-game high scores, compiled over months of traveling to every arcade he could find. If you're going to be competitive about something, someone's got to keep track of who's the best, and Twin Galaxies is still filling that role thirty years later. Even Guinness World Records recognizes Twin Galaxies as the official supplier of verified video- game records.
1982: Starcade brings competitive gaming to TV
When Starcade hit the airwaves in December 1982, it validated an entire generation's dream that playing video games competitively was a real thing. How it could not be? It was on TV! It had to be real! Sure, it was just a cheesy game show whose primary purpose was no doubt to market new video games to those impressionable youngsters, but every kid who ever saw it wanted nothing more than to get a shot to show their skills on TV, winning valuable prizes (your very own arcade game, what could be more valuable?) and proving to their parents for once and for all that video games were not a waste of time and money. Take that, dad!
1984: The first billion-point game
The early days of video-game history were all about achieving arbitrarily high scores in various single-player games, and in 1984 the arbitrarily really high threshold of 1 billion (with a B) points was achieved in the game Nibbler (a game remarkably similar to the Snake game found on millions of old cell phones). The feat was achieved at Twin Galaxies (naturally) by Tim McVey, over an almost 45-hour-long marathon game. He was recognized for his achievement by having a day named in his honor, having a feature article written about him in one of the top gaming magazines of the day, and getting a free Nibbler game of his very own.
1991: Street Fighter II sets the standard for fighting games
Street Fighter II wasn't the first fighting game (duh, the II probably tipped you off on that one); that honor goes to the venerable Karate Champ from 1984. It wasn't even the most famous -- Mortal Kombat's cartoonish gore and the outrage it caused earn that title. So what's its claim to fame? It was -- and arguably still is -- simply the best fighting game ever made. For years after its release it was the gold standard of competitive gaming, in part for popularizing the concept of players facing off against each other directly and in part because it was a beautifully designed and exquisitely tuned electronic arena. It was also one of the best-selling games of all time.
1993: Doom creates the first-person shooter blueprint
Doom packed a lot of shooter innovation into one classic game, but the most important innovation of all was its multiplayer deathmatch modes. Up to four players could square off against each other, via a network (and later online), laying the groundwork for basically every multiplayer shooter that followed. When you consider how many of the biggest game franchises of today that includes -- Halo, Call of Duty and Battlefield, just to name three -- it's easy to see why this was such a big deal. It's also the direct precursor to Quake, one of the first games with a serious competitive multiplayer following.
1997: The first professional gaming association is founded
Competitive gaming took a giant leap on June 27, 1997 when the Cyberathlete Professional League was launched as the first serious professional gaming organization. Since then, the CPL has paid out more than $3 million in prize money, seen a variety of competitors launch their own professional gaming leagues, and been acquired by a company out of Singapore. Will professional gaming ever reach the kind of popularity as other pro sports? Only time will tell, but every professional sport has to start somewhere, and professional video gaming started here.
1999: The Counter-Strike mod is released
Counter-Strike got its start as a relatively realistic "mod" (short for modification; basically an add-on to an existing game that adds new features, up to and including a complete overhaul of the game) for the popular Half-Life game. A few years later, the mod became so popular that the company that made Half-Life hired the mod's developers and made it an official product. Because of its intensively skill-based gameplay, it's long been a favorite game for competitive gamers. Several versions now exist, but the original is popular at pro tournaments to this day. That's incredible longevity for a video game, and it's safe to say that the game's influence has spread much further than its already impressive payer base, with innovations it introduced showing up in numerous other gaming franchises.
2000 StarCraft is released
The real-time strategy genre is another favorite of competitive gamers on every level, from enthusiastic amateurs to consummate pros, and no game epitomizes the genre better than Blizzard's StarCraft. The science-fiction setting and exquisitely balanced yet completely frantic gameplay proved an irresistible combination to millions of gamers. Pro competition followed shortly, with the game becoming so popular in South Korea that there are three TV stations that broadcast its games, and its top players are legitimate celebrities, some of whom earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a years for playing.
2003: Competitive gaming gets its first real celebrity (non-Korean edition) in Fatal1ty
Any sport that wants to reach the big time needs a few celebrities to spread the word and garner media attention outside of its circle of hardcore fans. Professional video games got their first (here in the U.S., anyway) when Jonathan Wendel -- aka Fatal1ty -- became the subject of MTV's True Life series. More mainstream media attention followed, with media outlets like 60 Minutes, Time and the BBC all featuring the top-tier gamer in mainstream media reportage. Word is Wendel has since retired from competition, at least temporarily, but when the history of pro gaming is written, he'll deserve a chapter all to himself for breaking the news to the world that, hey, pro gaming is a thing.
2007: King of Kong is released
These days, if you want your political, cultural or artistic movement to be recognized and legitimized, you better hope someone will make a moving documentary about it -- something that humanizes the whole thing and puts a sympathetic, recognizable face on it. Competitive gaming got that with the excellent 2007 film King of Kong, a heartwarming story about the quest to set the world record in Donkey Kong. Show this one to your mom (maybe back-to-back with Fatal1ty's MTV doc) and she might finally accept your desire to be the best Halo player ever as a legitimate ambition in life. Or not, but she'll probably enjoy the movie, anyway.
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