The 1980s Origins of Pro Gaming

We may currently be living in the golden age of digital technology, but when it comes to modern gaming innovations we have the 1980s to thank for their emergence. After all, this was the decade when video gaming was brought to the masses with the release of the first home gaming consoles.

Did you know, however, that we can even trace the origins of eSports and Pro Gaming back to the 1980s? There’s an idea in the gaming world that eSports, as we know it today, originated in the internet cafes of early 00s South Korea. While East Asian countries have played a vital role in developing the market to the behemoth that it is now, it’s thanks to our favorite decade that pro gaming even took off at all.

Sports in the 21st Century

Electronic Sports and competitive gaming have taken not just the gaming industry by storm, but the entertainment world as well. In 2021, the segment was worth over $1.08 billion and pro gaming was even included as a digital event in the run-up to the 2021 Olympics.

From online poker tournaments to international RPG battles, there are now a wealth of pro gaming opportunities available to the most committed players. However, just because there are more career opportunities for gamers now, it doesn’t mean it's easy to carve a successful run. Even competing in a digital tournament requires a lot of preparation, and as for meeting the demands and challenges of international gaming – well, you’d need to follow a schedule similar to elite athletes and Olympians.

The modern eSports ecosystem is, of course, dominated by advanced technology – whether that’s in grassroots tournaments held online or the major annual events that are broadcast to audiences across the globe. But, back in the 1980s things looked a little different...

The World’s First eSports Tournament

Believe it or not, the first precursor to our modern-day eSports championships was contested via the arcade classic Space Invaders. In 1980, Atari held the first-ever Space Invaders Tournament, drawing in over 10,000 gamers from across the US to compete for the title of the best “Asteroids” player in the world.

It was a pretty seminal event in the development of video gaming and pro gaming, helping to establish the activity as a mainstream pastime and laying the seeds for video gaming as a professional career.

As for the winner of the world’s first organized video game tournament... well, that title went to a youthful Rebecca Heineman. This budding gaming superstar would go on to design 1988’s The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate and become a founding member of gaming companies including Logicware and Interplay Productions.

Gaming as a National Activity

Three years after Atari set the ball rolling with its Space Invaders event, Walter Day and Jim Riley founded the U.S National Video Game Team (USNVGT) in July 1983. The two men brought with them a wealth of experience in gaming and entertainment - Day invented the first referee service for video games, the Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard – and the pair inaugurated Steve Sanders as team captain.

The team itself travelled throughout the US as part of the Electronic Circus tour, competing in arcade games and challenging other countries via visits to foreign embassies. It would be two years later before the team competed in its first annual US event, however.

In 1985, the US National Video Game Team competition was held and featured games included Karate Champ (1984), Commando (1985) and the beat ‘em-up classic, Kung-Fu Master (1984).

The Decade Draws to a Close...

After the success of the tournament, the team would go on to publish the Electronic Game Player Magazine and the Top Score Newsletter – early versions of the social media platforms used by gamers and eSports players today.

The reach and influence the USNVGT possessed as the decade drew to a close was substantial. Donn Nauert, team captain in 1986, was cast in TV commercials for the latest Atari model (7800) and also served as a referee for the televised NES three-game competition that was broadcast on the show That’s Incredible!

It could even be said that that particular competition laid the groundwork for the 1990 Nintendo World Championships that kicked into gear at the birth of the new decade.

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