A History of Esports - Page 5
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Part 2, 1980s-1995
1980 saw the release of Battlezone by Atari, a tank warfare game. If Maze Wars and Spasim invented the first-person shooter genre, Battlezone is what brought it to the attention of the American public.
1up.com summed it up, writing, “While [Atari Programmer and Battlezone Designer Ed] Rotberg probably can't be credited with creating the [FPS] idea, it was his tank game which set the standard. Battlezone was a case of the right game at the right time: an innovative step forward in game design offered to a public hungry for something new and sophisticated. Early games were in a lot of ways a learning process for gamers as much as for the designers who made them; as arcade-goers mastered basic gameplay concepts, they graduated to more intricate forms of action.”
In introducing admittedly basic 3D FPS gameplay, Battlezone set the stage for the mammoth genre that produced blockbuster after blockbuster in the 1990s and 2000s and would become the premiere esports genre in the Western world for much of that time.
One of the most talked-about anecdotes surrounding the popular game started when retired American generals contacted Atari about creating a version of the game to help train soldiers. The game’s designer, Ed Rotberg, was profoundly displeased with the attention he received from the military.
“You’ve got to remember what things were like in the late 1970s, and where those of us who were in the business came from - our cultural background,” he said in The Ultimate History of Video Games. “Those of us who found our way to video games … it was sort of a counter-culture thing. We didn’t want anything to do with the military.”
Nonetheless, Military Battlezone, a much more realistic and complex version of the game, was created much to the consternation of Rotberg.
The FPS was gaining the attention and the money of the video game playing world and, whether it liked it or not, beyond.
Hello, Nintendo (1981)
In 1981, a small Japanese games company struggled to establish a foothold in the American market. After several failures, their American salesmen were on the brink of bankruptcy. With funds extremely low, Nintendo brought Donkey Kong to America.
The game, the first creation of Shigeru Miyamoto, would go on to sell 67,000 units according to Eddie Adlum of RePlay Magazine. It became a cultural phenomenon in the United States. “Do the Donkey Kong” by Buckner & Garcia, of “Pac-Mac Fever” fame, hit #103 on the Billboard charts.
The game’s success was huge and its legacy is immense.
It is the first appearance of Donkey Kong and Mario, two of the most iconic video game characters of all time. It was the launching pad for Nintendo of America, a company which would be a major player and then come to dominate American and global video games in several years. It began the game design career of Shigeru Miyamoto, a man who reigns as arguably the most important and respected designer of all time.
After a string of misses, the major hit Donkey Kong laid the foundation for the originality, playfulness and overall aesthetic that would come to define Nintendo’s games. Later, Donkey Kong would also significantly help the cause of Nintendo’s first home console, the release of which ranks high on a list of the most important moments in video game history.
Like many of the hit games at the time, it became a major focus of competitive gamers striving to earn a high score and a world record. The struggle to claim supremacy continues today: recent record-breaking performances were chronicled in the 2007 documentary “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.”
Billy Mitchell (born 1965) is a golden age legend. Mitchell’s gaming accomplishments include the first perfect game of Pac-Man, high scores in games such as Donkey Kong Jr., BurgerTime and Centipede and being dubbed the greatest arcade gamer of all time and the greatest gamer of the century by major media outlets and, most often, by himself. Mitchell, a Massachusetts native, held the world record for Donkey Kong with a score of 874,300 for over two decades.
His showy blend of arrogance, confidence and ultra-competitive behavior has made him a celebrity and, often, a villain in the competitive gaming world and beyond. He is almost certainly the first of his kind, a man who attracted wider attention not just for his gaming but for being a self-aggrandizing player, a self-promotional workhorse and an intelligently self-forged commodity in and of himself.
Billy Mitchell was one of two main characters featured in King of Kong. Steve Wiebe, the other featured competitor in the film and a major rival of Mitchell’s, would finally break Mitchell’s record by almost 200,000 with a score of 1,049,100 in 2007.
The popularity of the Wiebe/Mitchell rivalry has survived despite both players’ scores being surpassed by New Yorker Hank Chien.
The personal dynamic between Wiebe and Mitchell is so engaging and dramatic that Seth Gordon, the director of King of Kong, said, in an interview with TheFilmlot.com, that the “archetypes of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker are very present … It’s unbelievable. Billy is such a good gamer that when he’s finished beating the games, he moves on to play games with people.”
This rivalry has helped renew and sustain interest in competitive gaming for classic arcade games through multiple decades.
The bust (1984)
The greatest hit of the golden age of video games was 1981’s Ms. Pac-Man, a sped up version of the original game (Pac-Man) with extra mazes, smarter ghosts and a female protagonist. It became one of the best selling games in arcade history and one of the biggest challenges for those gamers who wanted to compete.
Billy Mitchell’s 1985 high score of 230,020 was not broken for 11 years. Abdner Ashman set the latest record in 2006 at 933,580 according to Twin Galaxies.
Starting in 1982, the arcade business began to stagnate and then decline. Once more, interest in video games seemed to tail off.
The home console business was becoming crowded. Activision was formed when several designers at Atari left over compensation and credit issues, problems that were all too common in the growing industry. When Activision began to create games for Atari’s VCS, the ensuing court action and Activision victory led to the legitimization of third party publishing and can claim partial credit (but only partial, as first party publishers did more than their fair share) for the eventual flood of the market with games of notoriously poor quality.
Activision themselves were unqualified successes, quickly becoming the fastest growing company in U.S. history. Poetically, Activision took that crown from their former bosses and rivals at Atari.
In fact, as the market flooded and sales slowed, some of the most critically successful games of the era were released. However, they seemed to be the exception to a growing trend. In response to the rapid growth of the video game industry over recent years, developers rushed to release as many products as possible to exploit the new source of profit.
Many games were objectively terrible ideas from the start.
“Purina created a game titled Chase the Chuck Wagon, a video-game version of a television commercial for Chuck Wagon dog food,” wrote Steve Kent in The Ultimate History of Video Games. That is not exactly inspirational stuff.
Chase the Chuck Wagon looks fun from here.
“There were too many people with too many arcades and too many games that they owed too much money on,” said Walter Day in the Frag documentary, “and everything went down the tubes in what was known as the 1984 bust.”
Companies vastly overestimated sales and manufactured more units than they could sell.
“Atari manufactured 12 million copies of Pac-Man [for the Atari 2600 console] even though the company’s research showed that less than 10 million people actually owned and used its 2600s,” continued Kent.
The floodwaters rose as a dozen different consoles were released on the market at the time. Legendarily dismal games on the Atari 2600 soured gamers on new releases and squandered capital. Of particular note is E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a colossal creative and commercial failure, celebrated even today as a singularly magnificent bust.
The bloated industry had delusions of grandeur. Once the impending disaster was identified, grossly large licensing payments were made to bring arcade hits to home consoles ostensibly to save the day. Instead, millions of dollars in huge licensing were but another nail in the industry’s coffin.
Hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs were lost by individual companies as consumers simply stopped buying. Bankruptcies hit, companies were sold and the American video game industry was hamstrung and forever altered.
The industry that had enjoyed a meteoric rise to success was now deep in a crater of its own devastating design.
Rise of Nintendo (1983-1990)
The American game industry suffered greatly in the middle of the 1980s. Headlines were dire, commonly cited as reading one form of “Video Games are Dead” or another. American arcades emptied and the console market suffered a deluge of bad products while prices spiraled downward. Although the rest of the world did not suffer a market collapse as significant as in the US, the Americans’ leading position in the industry meant that the ripples were felt across the globe.
The collapse meant the end of an era. American dominance in the industry, the prominence of arcades and several big name companies and products became relics of the past.
Still, reports of the industry’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Europe, Canada and, most importantly, Japan carried on into the next era.
The Apple II, the IBM PC and the Commodore 64 were notable players during this time. All three were personal computers and, it was assumed, pictures of the future of the industry. Arcades and consoles were given up for dead by many.
It was Nintendo, a little known toy company from Japan that had moved into the arcade market, that would become the next great torch bearer in the industry.
Now you're playing with power.
The Nintendo Famicom (Family Computer) debuted in Japan in 1983. According to The Ultimate History of Video Games, the console sold well in its native country. Three million units were shipped in 18 months.
By late 1985, it had been renamed the Nintendo Entertainment System. It entered the American market in New York and immediately became successful enough to justify continued effort on Nintendo’s part to conquer America. Those efforts culminated in the 1986 explosion for the system on the back of a heavyweight marketing and sales campaign as well as a strong company identity. Three million units were sold that year and, according to The Ultimate History of Video Games, sales doubled in the next year. Nintendo and its system have been widely credited with “restarting” video games in the United States.
Nintendo games and characters such as Mario, Donkey Kong, Punch Out and Duck Hunt have come to define this era of gaming, an era which reaches into today. Memories of playing these games, particularly Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt with my sisters, all of us young and mesmerized by the television in our basement, are among some of the earliest memories I have.
1987 saw The Legend of Zelda, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, Metroid and Castlevania released, some of the most successful and influential games and franchises of the era.
In 1990, the Nintendo World Championships were held in Hollywood, California.
Woo! Yeah, woo! Yeah, thank you.
This is an event in which the ostentation and flamboyant flair for dramatics (it was inspired by the children’s movie The Wizard) may leave the viewer speechless. A few favorite touches from the event include the emcee with his earnestly permed hair, his inexplicable Oscar-worthy tuxedo, his jumping and yelling on stage (“woo!”), the bad jokes, the often directionless and boundless hype, the awesomely poor acting on the part of the clueless commentator and the unbelievably bright, loud and histrionic early-90s aura that permeated the entire thing. This was a time when the volume was often stuck on high. This was an event aimed at children, an aim and aura that gaming (and competitive gaming) would not be able to shake for years despite the aging and maturation of the playing audience.
Specialized versions of Super Mario Brothers, Rad Racer, and Tetris were played at the event. Echoing earlier events, scores were “normalized” as follows: (Super Mario Bros.) + (Rad Racer x 10) + (Tetris x 25) equaled the final score.
Prizes ranged from $250 for an age group winner to the much heftier top prizes: a $10,000 U.S. Savings Bond, a convertible and a 40’’ TV.
Several comparable competitions were held in the first half of the 90s including two more major Nintendo tournaments that received some media attention.
As the turn of the decade neared, Nintendo stood atop a renewed video game industry with around 90% of the market. The question on the minds of everyone from investors to competitors to Nintendo executives was simple: would it last?
Real Time Strategy (1981-1989)
The 1980s saw the creation and refinement of a number of genres important to esports. One of the most significant competitive genres of all time has been real time strategy (RTS).
"Eastern Front was widely lauded in the press. It is considered to be one of the first computer wargames that could compete with paper-and-pencil games in terms of depth of play."
Before RTS games, the ancestry of the genre can be traced back to war games. In particular, Eastern Front (1941) was a 1981 title on Atari 8-bit systems. Prior to this game, turn based war games were the rule with little to no exception.
With Eastern Front, combatants (playing either Germany or Russia) made their military decisions at separate times but had them play out on screen simultaneously, thus simulating real time strategy play as well as the technology of the time could muster.
The first true proto-RTS game was spotted in the wild in 1982 on the Intellivision console. Designer Don Daglow, widely acknowledged as one of the most important game designers of all time, and Mattel (now the world’s most profitable toy company) created and published Utopia thus laying the foundations for a genre which remains robust and successful to this day and has been at the forefront of competitive gaming since the 1990s.
In Utopia, players owned one of two islands and aimed to please their citizens by planting crops, building houses and funding rebel activity on their opponent’s island. Over the course of your ‘term of office’, the player had to choose his or her course wisely and quickly in order to outwit and outscore an opponent.
Throughout the decade, the genre crawled forward. Titles such as Stonkers (1983) attempted to bring real time war to home computers. Stonkers itself was plagued with slow gameplay and all too common software errors but nevertheless won some praise for its interesting concepts.
The Ancient Art of War (1984) was a considerably more successful take on the genre. It focused on the tactics of a small, ancient battle as players tried to adjust army composition and formations in order to claim victory.
Herzog Zwei (1989) was the first game to meet most of the tenets of the modern RTS genre. In Herzog Zwei, you control a single fighter jet. Through it, you purchase units and issue basic commands as you wage real time war against your opponent. As your tanks, jets and missiles are launched at your enemy, its easy to recognize the game as a living and breathing precursor to the modern RTS (and ARTS) genre.
Herzog Zwei is remembered as one of the best multiplayer Sega Genesis titles of all time.
It would take one more landmark game in 1992 before the RTS genre fully arrived at its present form.
Sports games (1988-1996)
Sports games have been around almost since the beginning of video games altogether. 1958’s Tennis for Two was the first of many attempts to get the excitement of sport captured in the virtual world.
By the 1980s, celebrity athletes and coaches were regularly approached to attach their names to games. Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, Pat Riley’s Basketball, Arnold Palmer Golf and Joe Montana Football were but a few of the many celebrity endorsed games appearing on the landscape during the decade.
The most important new appearance in the sports genre was John Madden Football in 1988 on the Apple II.
Just prior to that release, 1987’s Earl Weaver Baseball by Electronic Arts (EA) was a relatively realistic baseball simulation released to a warm reception from critics and gamers alike. It set the stage for the growth of EA Sports, the most successful brand in sports games by far.
EA followed up with John Madden Football in 1988, a game in which realism was stressed to an extent never before seen. Madden (a Hall of Fame American football coach with the Oakland Raiders in the 70s and a prolific football analyst after that) threatened to withdraw his name several times when EA suggested anything at all that veered toward the unrealistic such as seven men on a team rather than eleven.
As a result of that strict adherence to reality rather than fantasy, that strict faith to the game of American football rather than to practical hardware issues, the game’s initial development was slow and the first product suffered technical woes for Madden’s vision.
“We were trying to model NFL football on a computer with less horsepower than your watch,” said Joe Ybarra, an EA producer, to Patrick Hruby at ESPN in 2009.
The investment would, of course, pay off a thousandfold. Just a few short years down the road, the franchise became a huge hit on the Sega Genesis, laying the foundation for Electronic Art’s rise to the top of the industry and for Madden’s primacy as well.
The Madden franchise is considered the grand daddy of the entire sports simulation genre. Over the course of almost three decades, Madden has come to define the sports sim genre and can rightly be called, at the very least, an inspiration for almost all of the great sports franchises today. Becoming increasingly popular and more profitable, the franchise can claim major credit for the sped up mainstreaming of video games in the US during the 1990s.
Over twenty plus years, Madden has evolved from a simple three button game of football to a game that requires a full time work ethic to compete at the top tier.
EA won major breakthrough successes on the Sega Genesis (and, to a lesser extent, the Super Nintendo) with Madden and a line of similarly realistic franchises. Tristan Donovan called the Genesis version of the game “a defining moment in sports games.”
Sales from Madden and other sports games (and other, relatively mature titles) helped Sega even the playing field in its increasingly heated competition with an arrogant Nintendo during the early 1990s. The resulting industry boom marked the end of an era of uncertainty about gaming’s future. As bottom lines became larger and larger, the industry’s numerous past booms and busts were put in the rear view mirror and have stayed there ever since. Since 2000, gaming has been bigger than Hollywood.
According to ESPN, EA’s 1990 market capitalization was about $60 million. In 1993, it was $2 billion.
“More crucially, video games were suddenly cool,” wrote Patrick Hruby at ESPN, “the province of older teens and college kids, young men who loved competition and talking smack. Escaping the geek world, gaming set course for the center of the pop culture sun.”
1996 marked EA Sport’s transition to 3D thanks to the release of powerful 32-bit consoles such as the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn. The move to 3D, along with advances in gameplay, software and hardware meant that by the mid to late 90s, the game was easily recognizable as a modern Madden title.
Eventually, EA Sports games would become the top competitive sports titles of all time.
Karate Champ to Street Fighter (1984-1990s)
Although the 70s saw the advent of fighting games with 1976’s Heavyweight Champ, it was not until the 1980s that the games began to resemble the fighting genre of today. Karate Champ, a 1984 arcade title, began the march toward the modern fighting genre.
Spanner Spencer at EuroGamer.net wrote, “the colourful and highly accessible coin-op karate simulator rocked the arcades graphically, imaginatively and literally. The brilliant control system, wonderfully responsive gameplay and encyclopaedic list of martial arts moves set an immediate and lofty benchmark for the tournament games that would follow, and still holds its own in the one-on-one arena to this day.”
B. at ProgressiveBoink.com described his experiences, writing, “Karate Champ began its life as a one-player contest versus a computer opponent. Player WHITE and Player RED faced off in a martial arts dojo under the supervision of a tournament judge. The two ‘Ryu and Ken’ trendsetters battled back and forth until a blow connected. Sometimes you'd haul off and hit a super fire convoy back spinning magical dream kick and crush the guy's face with your big toe and the judge would scream out ‘half point!’ This is where I learned to curse.”
From there, the genre grew. Fighters and beat-em-ups became one of the most reliably profitable genres in the business, an attractive option to everyone in development and design. So, as one might predict, a vast number of fighters were produced and varied from inconsequential nothings to industry changing.
Street Fighter, the originator of the most influential fighting series of all time, arrived in the arcades in 1987. Although the rise of the fighting genre still lay ahead, this is the game that directly defined what the genre would become. Colorful characters, fantastic abilities with special hidden moves, blocks, challenges, pressure sensitivity and more originated here.
While the game was received with mixed reviews, Capcom excitedly pushed for a sequel.
The fighting genre’s ascension marked a broad move toward more mature subject material for games, a move that would see video games become one more battleground in the American culture wars of the 90s. On the other hand, the maturation of content would aid in the accelerated mainstreaming of games during the same period. If they ever were, video games were not just for kids anymore.
Street Fighter 2, the most important fighting game of the era and the most lucrative arcade game in a decade, arrived in 1991.
A game that has sold over ten million copies at home and tens of thousands of arcade machines all over the world (‘60,000’ according to Replay by Tristan Donovan), Street Fighter 2 in the early 90s rejuvenated arcades that had atrophied since the golden age in the 80s.
The “combo system” allowing for the combination of several standard and special moves has its origins in this game and would become a feature in the genre henceforth. The breadth and diversity of the attacks gave the player a larger arsenal than they’d previously had. The player was making more decisions than ever before as they fought an increasingly tactical battle with each punch and kick, jump and crouch, advance and retreat. The foundations of a truly competitive game were forged with Street Fighter 2 in the newly crowded arcades and in living rooms on the Super NES.
The early classic Street Fighter 2 arcade scene would gather a full head of steam as a competitive game. It would become an era in which machines were found not simply in dedicated private arcades but in grocery stores, liquor stores, laundromats, your local pizzeria, gas stations, restaurants and many public areas in between.
In the beginning, local arcades were isolated and competition was generally limited to a small group of regulars. That would soon change as competitors migrated from arcade to arcade in search of games.
Zaid Tabani’s documentary series “RUN IT BACK: The Road to SoCal Regionals” opens with an anecdote describing the growth of the scene.
“One day, there were two people who walked into the arcade [where I played] and they just got on the Street Fighter 2 machines and they destroyed us,” said James Chen, now a top commentator and a player with deep roots in the genre and scene. “Everything we knew about the game changed all of a sudden. One of the tactics that was just getting popular at the time was jump attack, walk up and throw. A lot of people considered that cheap so people didn’t do it.
James Chen, photo: neoempire.com
“When we played these guys, they’d just jump attack, walk up and sweep. Every time they did that, we’d stand up to counter-throw and get swept. Every single time, almost by reflex, by reaction. We couldn’t control it even though we told our hand not to stand up, we’d just do it and get swept every time.
“All of us at that local arcade were just confused because these two random guys just came in and destroyed us. After they finished beating us, they actually came and said to my brother and I that we were two of the better players they’d faced because we actually realized something was going on. They handed us a couple of fliers and told us about a tournament at a comic book store called ‘World’s Finest’ and said they wanted as many good players there as possible.
“It turned out that the two guys who walked into the arcade was a guy named Tony Tsui and Tomo Ohira. They were actually going around recruiting people for World’s Finest. They basically showed us that we sucked at the game. What we saw at World’s Finest was on a whole different level. It was one of the most amazing experiences ever because it showed us that Street Fighter was being played at a level far beyond anything we knew existed.”
The two men that James Chen encountered that day were some of the most important American players of the 90s. Additionally, World’s Finest was the most competitive tournament of the era. Suffice to say, Chen caught quite a break when he met Tony and Tomo.
Tony Tsui was a top tier tournament player.
Tomo Ohira has been called ‘the first legend’ of Street Fighter, the Mozart of the game, a player whose historic tournament winning streaks are still revered today. From 1991 to 1994, Ohira reigned on-screen and off as the king of Street Fighter in America. His unparalleled physical reactions, his mental agility and his indefatigable dedication put him atop his game until he retired at the ripe old age of 17 to chase girls and, eventually, an education.
Mike Watson, a contemporary and rival of Ohira’s, has written much on Ohira’s dominance.
“His Ryu was beyond anyone,” wrote Watson in 2006. “I would destroy anyone else in this game and he would still beat me 70-30. Seriously, out of all the best Street Fighter players ever, Tomo was by far ahead of everyone at any time. By far.”
One great question mark in Tomo’s brief career was Japan. Although Ohira utterly dominated many American tournaments, his interaction with Japanese players was severely limited by the lack of online play and the lack of a modern worldwide tournament infrastructure, one that enables players to jet-set around the globe in search of the world’s best.
The second great question mark in Tomo’s career is put to everyone who brings up Ohira’s legend. Was he really as good as they say? After all, you will not find a full recording of an Ohira match. Ohira did not compete in Japan, did not play against modern greats such as Daigo. Ohira played in a time without online play, before modern esports. Was the level of competition lower?
It is important to take into account the distorting effect that time and nostalgia can have on memory. That said, one must to some extent defer to the other top players of the time, many of whom have played and succeeded into the modern era, such as Mike Watson, Kuni Funada and Jeff Schaefer. Although they differed slightly on where exactly to place Ohira in the grand scheme (Funada, one of the few players in that era with experience on both sides of the Pacific, thought there were several players in Japan who could compete on Ohira’s level), none of them do anything but reassure us that Ohira was the best player in America by a significant margin and a top candidate for best in the world.
Jeff Schaefer, one of the best players in Southern California during the early 90s, described his introduction to Ohira in a 2009 YouTube vlog.
After establishing himself as the dominant force in Orange County, California, Schaefer began to hear of a little kid from Los Angeles County named Tomo who was “just a steam roller, just a machine.”
“Some people I knew arranged a meeting with him,” said Schaefer. “He got dropped off at some arcade. Just this little hundred pound Japanese kid walks in, must have been fourteen years old. I’m sitting there, we’re playing old school Street Fighter 2 and this kid just took me to the cleaners. He just annihilated me. I’d never seen anything like it, I didn’t even think it was possible.”
At this point in the video, Schaefer is shaking his head. Even two decades later, the memory is still vivid and incredible to him.
“If Tomo played, he’s going to win,” said Schaefer. “The kid was way better than me, way better than anyone else. He was the best.”
In another moment, Schaefer takes a stab at an obvious question which has been asked again and again: was Tomo better than today’s top player, the man they call “the beast”, Daigo Umehara?
“I’ve played Daigo,” said Schaefer, who has famously beaten Daigo with a perfect round. “Daigo is good. Daigo is no Tomo.”
In any enduring competitive game, comparing players across eras is a tempting but tricky task full of maybes and could-be’s. Although we cannot transport today’s great Street Fighter players back in time to play Ohira at his peak, it is always a fun argument to have.
What is not up for argument is that Ohira’s legendary play still holds significant weight and Ohira’s legendary wins still send an amazed grin across the faces of those who witnessed them.
In celebrating Street Fighter 2’s twentieth anniversary, the 1UP.com staff described their collective discovery of the now classic game.
“... We were stunned. There may have been only a dozen on-screen characters (and you couldn't even control four of them!), but each was huge, unique, and blessed with an embarrassment of animation. The breadth of the fighters' movements was matched by the diversity of their moves and the depth of the possible strategies. Mike Haggar and friends could punch, kick, jump, swing a mean steel pipe, and sacrifice a chunk of health to perform a secret move; the World Warriors could deliver punches and kicks in three different levels of strength apiece, and each of those varied further, contextually, according to the fighters' current stance and motion. Special moves weren't a dangerous desperation move but rather an integral part of each fighter's repertoire. Street Fighter II may have been a game about dirty brawls and solving disputes through force, but it courted intimate knowledge of each character's move sets and rewarded tactical play. It required thought and smarts -- hardly what you'd expect to see in a game where you could punch a dude in the stomach so hard he'd puke. And that was before we discovered combos.”
For a time, Street Fighter 2 and its iterations dominated the competitive arcade scene. It is still played competitively today.
The hustler ethic last seen prominently in the 80s reemerged once again as tireless top tier players travelled from tournament to tournament, arcade to arcade in search of the next victory, the next prize.
Relatively competitive scenes emerged independently in New York City (at arcades such as Chinatown Fair), Southern California and Northern California, sparking a national arms race. In particular, the California scene was the site of an increasingly heated intrastate rivalry, one that survives until this day.
The Street Fighter scene of the 90s is remembered by players such as Alex Valle as one of fierce competition, an all-out experience fueled in no small part by the lack of easy access online gaming and thus the cost - mental, physical and financial - that it took to play at a high level. Old school players describe a competitive environment in the 90s where the investment required to be great was exponentially higher than today and where the reward was greater still.
“Fuck yeah, I miss the 90s,” said Valle in “Run it Back.”
“I don’t know how to explain it but when we played, we played it with everything we had,” said Jimmy Nguyen, Chief Operating Officer of LevelUp Gaming, in the Run it Back documentary. “It was like the last thing on earth to do. Now, it’s like there’s so much to play and people choose what to play, they split their time. It’s just the focus isn’t completely there when it comes to dedicating your skill and time to it.”
Tomo Ohira, the ‘first legend of Street Fighter’, was not above mocking a tournament opponent standing just inches away. Top tier players regularly shunned anyone deemed lower than them, relegating the lesser players to the ‘little boy machines’ while greats occupied the ‘big boy machines’. Trash talk was and is a part of the soundtrack of the game. The Street Fighter 2 competitive culture was brash, hot blooded and deeper than almost anyone truly grasped.
The next significant game in the genre was Acclaim’s Mortal Kombat, released in October 1992. Arcades, already reanimated by the new wave of games led by Street Fighter, took to Mortal Kombat immediately, making it the most popular game since Street Fighter while never replacing Street Fighter’s competitive scene.
Mortal Kombat’s relatively high quality, violent and unique visuals set the game apart. The game used “digitized footage of real-life actors … [to] acheive a high level of detail,” said artist John Tobias in Replay. Of course, the famously bloody fatalities used to end fights were one of the game’s biggest selling points as well as a lightning rod for controversy, furthering hostility toward games in an environment where US Democratic Senator (and Vice Presidential candidate in 2000) Joe Lieberman said publicly that he wished for an outright ban on violent video games.
3D games such as Virtua Fighter, Tekken and Marvel vs. Capcom pushed the genre forward technically as the 90s went on but could not match the high intensity competitive culture of Street Fighter 2 in the first half of the decade. As arcades eventually went the way of the dinosaurs, home consoles became increasingly prolific. The competitive fighting scene’s heart rate slowed greatly as the new millennium approached.
Dune 2 and the modern RTS (1992)
By the 1990s, PCs had a long and distinguished history in gaming. Commodores (VIC-20s and 64s) and Apple IIs sported enormous libraries of games.
Additionally, an entire generation of programmers was raised on the Apple II during the 80s. They would come to prominence at the turn of the decade and produce some of the most successful games of the 90s and beyond, helping further build up PCs as gaming machines.
The real time strategy (RTS) genre as we know it today was sired in 1992 with the release of Westwood Studios’ Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty. The term RTS came into use with this game thanks to Dune 2’s designer Brett Sperry.
After two decades of evolution, many core characteristics of the modern RTS can be traced directly to Dune 2.
Dune 2’s visuals set the standard for the genre. The minimap, the command box and the playing screen are all implemented here in ways that are mimicked twenty years later in games such as StarCraft 2. Units built by gathered resources - spices, in Dune's case - were pioneered here. This is the first title which adheres to the now genre-defining model: "Harvest, build, destroy". In fact, a myriad of now taken-for-granted features first saw the light of day in the sands of Dune: Tech trees, army asymmetry, mouse-operated game play and total war 'till elimination all originated here.
The game is undeniably slow even when compared to its immediate successors. As later games such as Warcraft and Command & Conquer would reveal, a game that makes speed a core part of play is a game where creativity is more often showcased. When a player has to solve more problems, make more decisions and do it all more quickly, the good are soon separated from the great. The skill ceiling is higher and gaps emerge, better players beat inferior opponents more often and, when the solutions are varied, a competitive game is able to sustain itself for longer periods of time.
By far, the single biggest difference between Dune 2 and its successors was Dune’s lack of multiplayer. The entire genre would soon be defined by its multiplayer modes, eventually rising to become the most important competitive genre on the planet for at least some time. Whereas single player games presented finite albeit fun challenges for gamers, facing off against fellow humans meant a potentially infinite battle of wits that would change the face of gaming forever.
If Westwood Studios had known in 1992, the same year Dune 2 was released, that online gaming would soon rise and change video games forever, perhaps they would have waited just a few months.
Instead, the glory of modern online gaming belongs in large part to the storied id Software thanks to their successful stable of games from 1992 and on.
The internet (1990s)
Through the 1980s, getting online generally meant connecting to specific networks with expensive fees and limited services. The networks were isolated from one another and, due in no small part to the prohibitively high cost of bandwidth, networks could barely begin to provide a significant number of gamers with the experiences they sought.
The developers behind ARPAnet, the internet precursor designed by the United States military, had long held ambitions to unify global communications networks. From its 1960s inception and through the 1980s, the network grew as communication standards became uniform. Academia, industry and finally the public were given access to the network.
Formerly isolated networks from around the world were soon connected and growing. By the early 90s, the foundations for the modern internet sat ready to hold the weight of one of the most significant inventions of all time.
For our purposes, the 90s are important for many reasons but none are more obvious than the mainstreaming of online gaming. It is but a part of that phenomenon which has helped shrink the world to the size of a pea.
Wolfenstein 3D and Doom (1992-1995)
First-Person Shooters rose to prominence on the PC in 1992 with the release of Wolfenstein 3D. Created by id Software (whose history has been thoroughly explored and skillfully written about in Masters of Doom by David Kushner), Wolfenstein transported the player into the body of a bloodied commando shooting through a fortress filled with Nazis and their attack dogs.
It was the first time most consumers had seen this kind of world brought to life. It was certainly the first time they’d seen it from this unique perspective. Players were shocked and fixated. Released as shareware (one part of the game was free while the complete product cost money), it became the most popular game online by far, attracting mountains of praise from every corner of the happily electrified gaming universe.
As would become id Software’s modus operandi, the game attracted vast positive and negative attention simultaneously. The smooth, unmatched gameplay and the cutting edge graphics excited PC owners. The Nazi imagery and casual violence against dogs and humans alike attracted hostility in North America and Europe including an outright ban in Germany that was lifted only recently.
The next game by the outfit would be one of the most important, highly praised and influential games of all time.
Released in December 1993 as shareware (a third of the game was available for free), Doom marks the beginning of modern online gaming. Thanks in part to the astronomical success of the game, the id Software founders were quickly ascending from wild success stories to absolute rock stars with their consistent production of hits in the 90s.
The game is known for blazing a number of new trails.
The innovative 3D graphics represented new technological heights. The graphics helped Doom look like no other game ever had. Doom was both darker and brighter than any other game had ever been. The ability to skillfully shift back and forth was a major breakthrough.
The technology built by John Carmack gave the team a newly developed power over the all-important artist’s tool that is light. The game looked more realistic, meaner and more inviting for the millions of players looking to explore a hellish landscape. The gameplay was faster and smoother. The unrestrained violence, intensity and shock value was higher than ever before.
Most importantly, the game was playable over networks. At first limited to local networks (LANs) and direct connections over modems, it was DWANGO (Dial-up Wide-Area Network Game Operation) that provided online matchmaking to a growing army of Doom lovers starting in 1994.
The gore went to new extremes and antagonized powerful cultural enemies in America and abroad. In 1999, Doom and Duke Nukem (a contemporary FPS that roughly and gladly pushed cultural boundaries) along with several movies were blamed by vocal critics for the Columbine High School massacre in which two heavily armed students murdered one teacher and 12 other students.
According to freedomforum.org, “The lawsuit was filed by the family of slain teacher Dave Sanders and on behalf of other Columbine victims.” The judge threw out the lawsuit and warned that any other decision would have a chilling effect on free speech.
It is hard to overstate the impact that Doom had on modern gaming.
Doom made huge technological advances with the 3D engine.
The bloody visuals from artists pushed boundaries with horror and fear. The soundtrack included intense industrial music and animal screams.
Online deathmatches, invented here, revealed an entirely new dimension to gaming.
As one of the most celebrated games of all time, it was launched as shareware.
Perhaps most important, the gameplay brought the FPS genre to a new plateau.
Doom took the road less travelled time and time again. Astoundingly, the bold choices seemed to pay off nearly every time.
Gaming centers opened up offering pay-to-play machines featuring Doom and promoting tournaments for the best of the best. Texas, home to id Software, was well on its way to becoming a mecca of competitive gaming as venues such as Austin Virtual Gaming offered tournaments that players and even designers (most notably John Romero) competed in. It was at AVG where Romero would suffer his first defeat in Doom.
Doom also saw the birth of demos or replays, a tool that allows players to record gameplay and share it with fellow fans.
A European fan could now watch an American play a game from six months ago as though the match was taking place live. The fan could dissect the strategy and get into the mind of the player in a way that was not previously possible. Demos would become a staple and near-requirement of the competitive gaming world.
The advent of demos saw the birth of the speed run scene. In speed runs, players compete by trying to finish single player levels as quickly as possible. Although speed runs are played on all manner of modern games, the single player nature of it is a call back to the old high score competitions of arcades.
Doom demos recorded player movements, making it easy to send watchable proof of your run to a competitor in a small file.
Speed runs have spread to countless single player games (from Mario 64 to Half-Life). It remains an active competitive niche even two decades later.
Demos and replays also opened up the world of skill movies (also known by a number of other names including “frag movies” and “highlight films”) that would explode in popularity over the next half decade as they helped promote players, teams, competitions and games in general.
Finally, demos resulted in the advent of machinima, cinematic productions most often containing a narrative. Although these sorts of movies often have little or nothing to do with competitive gaming, they do aid in promoting the games themselves as the films have become a popular medium over a decade and a half. Frag movies often take machinma ideas and use them to great effect.
The two leading personalities at id Software were John Carmack, the lead programmer of Doom, and John Romero, the lead designer. Due to their previous successes (Commander Keen, Catacomb 3-D and then Wolfenstein 3D among other games), Doom (one of the most highly anticipated and well received titles of the era) and their subsequent dramatic victories and failures, the two Johns remain icons in the gaming world.
Please, go read Masters of Doom by David Kushner when you are done with this history.
Fans and professionals alike revere the games the two Johns created together, telling the stories of their lives and careers as though they were passing a scared legendarium from generation to generation, gamer to gamer.
John Romero, complete with metal rock star hair and ego, is said to have coined the now ubiquitous term ‘deathmatch’ while developing the multiplayer mode for Doom. The name set the tone for the gruesome game itself as well as the deathmatch genre of FPS gaming for years and years to come.
One of id Software’s most important contributions to the industry was their tendency toward openness with their software. Wolfenstein 3D, a minor wonder at the time, was one of the first games to ever license its software to other developers. The licensing strategy was a serious financial boon for id and pushed the FPS genre forward on the back of id’s progress. Although the practice of selling a developer’s technology (the game engine specifically) in this manner was once taboo, even frowned upon, it is now the norm in the gaming industry.
Allowing the licensing of software opened up new ways to do business for the industry. Quake’s engine (from id Software’s 1996 hit) was used in celebrated games such as Half-Life.
Doom continued forward along this path toward revolutionary openness.
Before Doom, the idea of user modification of software (modding) was a minor and, ultimately, greatly limited experience. To an extent never before seen, Doom allowed users access to many of the same tools that id programmers used in creating the game. This granted users the power to create modifications (mods) such as new maps, weapons, characters and more that would, by their very nature, extend the lifespan, expand the depth and broaden the appeal of the game.
Allowing serious modding was a huge step in gaming and in competitive gaming, one that has echoed through the decades. From this decision and the thousands of dedicated fans who took up the challenge, you can directly trace a line to some of the most important competitive games of all time. Counter-Strike (which evolved from a Quake mod called Action Quake 2) , Team Fortress Classic (originally a successful 1996 Quake mod titled simply Team Fortress) and many other modifications for Half-Life (a 1998 FPS built on the licensed Quake engine and considered by many to be one of the greatest games of all time) allowed that game to remain near the top of the industry and competitive gaming industry for over a decade.
In other genres, significant franchises such as StarCraft, Warcraft and many more have thrived in no small part due to their fan base’s creative abilities for over a decade. When fans are able to control their game, stagnation can be staved off for years with clever mods written by bright modders keeping a game fresh, fun, relevant and well played.
“I look back at Quake as the golden age of game modding,” said John Carmack in 2011, “before the standards rose so high that it required almost a full time commitment to do something relevant. I am very proud that many of today’s industry greats trace their start back to working with Quake.”
Major game publishers all over the world are packed to the brim with developers who got their start modding Quake.
Once again, the American military came calling to license the Doom technology in order to train soldiers. Unlike previous notable incidents, id signed off on the military’s proposals with no known qualms.
id Software became a multi-multimillion dollar entity with a profit margin that most media outlets described in hallowed tones and sometimes compared favorably to heavyweights such as Microsoft. id’s fan base grew and the competition intensified in and out of the game.
As Street Fighter 2 took head to head competition in the arcades to new heights, Doom and Doom 2 (with the inclusion of DWANGO at $8.95 per month and then the greater rise of the net shortly thereafter) took competitive gaming to the internet, to the country and to the entire world.
The first major Doom 2 tournament was held at Microsoft’s “Judgement Day ‘95” a Halloween event held first and foremost to promote Windows as a major gaming platform. It had undeniable star power: Jay Leno entertained and Bill Gates played coy with a shotgun to promote the new Windows’ version of Doom.
Dennis Fong (Thresh), an 18 year old born in Hong Kong who had spent half his life in the United States, was one of twenty top gamers as decided by international qualifiers flown in to compete in front of some of the most powerful and well known men in the industry.
Thresh recalled the day’s events with GotFrag.com in 2005.
“Deathmatch '95 was probably the biggest gaming tournament ever up to that point in gaming history. The tournament coincided with the launch of Microsoft Game Studios and was held at Microsoft HQ in Redmond, WA. As you can imagine, Microsoft doesn't do anything small, so the event was a huge extravaganza, with the competition being one of the highlights of the launch party.
“By virtue of having already played most of the top players around the country and beaten them, I was considered one of the favorites to win the tournament. Another player who went by the handle ‘Merlock’ was considered the other favorite. Due to a random draw, we ended up facing each other in the semi-finals. I ended up beating him something like 10-5. Merlock got so upset he slammed the keyboard and threw his chair off-stage. It was quite the scene, particularly since LAN tournaments weren't all that common back then.”
For his efforts in victory, Thresh’s prize was state of the art hardware. In a five-year gaming career, Thresh became one of the first modern esports stars, successfully competing in franchises such as Doom, Quake and (much less successfully) StarCraft. In a 1999 profile piece, the Washington Post asserted that Thresh had “earned $250,000 in prize money, endorsement fees and book royalties.”
“More than any other single person, he [Thresh] put a face on the gamer community,” wrote King and Borland in Dungeons and Dreamers, “at a time when a curious world was trying to figure out just what this strange new activity was all about. He helped reassure some of those outsiders that gaming might be a reasonable pursuit, that starting into the computer screen and trying one’s best to kill one’s opponent as quickly and as often as possible didn’t necessarily create a homicidal maniac.”
Thresh’s star would continue to rise in the competitive gaming world and then in the tech world at large as he later founded successful companies in Xfire, GX Media and more.
Deathmatch ‘95 and many subsequent competitions illustrated finally that deathmatches weren’t simply a distraction or a sideshow. Instead they were the beginnings of a sport that demanded center stage and full attention.
Next installment due Monday, Apr 09 11:00pm GMT (GMT+00:00)
i would recommend you read the post in the OP as opposed to the posted reply - that's where i'm editing and fixing any errors. so far ive just found formatting errors.
Can't wait for part 2