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Spacewar! and the Birth of Esports

If you were to look at the news these days, you may think esports is a new thing. And, to be fair to your local News 4 reporter, esports has only recently come out of the basements and bowling alleys to present itself to the general public in the last few years. The truth is, the first esports tournament happened nearly 50 years ago.

In August 1972, Pong was the biggest thing around. Having made its debut at Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California in August, the future suddenly became clearer – videogames would be a big deal. Just a few months later, Stanford University would take things to the next stage…

The flier reads:

The first ‘Intergalactic spacewar olympics’ will be held here, Wednesday 19 October, 2000 hours. First prize will be a year’s subscription to “Rolling Stone”. The gala event will be reported by Stone Sports reporter Stewart Brand & photographed by Annie Liebowitz. Free Beer!

The game, Spacewar!, was already a decade old, but it was still popular. After all, Spacewar! was a blast.

The game allowed two players, with each player controlling a different ship taking part in the battle. Each ship has limited fuel and torpedoes, and the goal is to survive the longest. Along with avoiding the other players and their torpedoes, you would have to look out for the four mines scattered across the field of play.

Because of the limited fuel, players could use Newtonian Physics  – the ships continue to move even when the player is not accelerating – and the gravitational pull of a star in the center of the playfield to move around.  You could also use hyperspace to get out of a sticky situation, but it wasn’t always a great call – hyperspace would randomly place you somewhere else on the screen, and each time you used it, the chances of your hyperspace engine exploding and killing you increased.

With the fliers up and the kegs purchased, nearly two dozen gamers met in Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to take part in the first videogame tournament. Ralph Gorin, the Head System Programmer and a big fan of  Spacewar!, sat at the PDP-10 and did a little tinkering, upping the number of players Spacewar! allowed from two to five. He also set the game for one-hit kills and limited the ships to one torpedo each. There would be no learning curve for new players.

There were three events held that day, Free-For-All, 1v1, and Duos. The three winners – Bruce Baumgart took the Free-For-All, while Slim Tovar and Robert E. Maas won Duos – walked away with one-year subscriptions to Rolling Stone. Tovar also won the 1v1. If he just ended up getting two copies of Rolling Stone every month or if he gave one subscription to a pal is unknown.

On that October night in California, some 20 players came together to drink a few beers and play some games. Surely none of them realized that they were giving birth to esports.

You can read Stewart Brand’s original article for Rolling Stone here.

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