Friday, 2 September 2016

E-Sports History #1 - The first videogames

While I am working on my thesis researching e-sport culture I became intrigued with its history. So why not pen it down as a series?! Will try to post something every week.  Sources can be found at the end of the post and will update the particular posts with new info if found.

Alan Turing is generally seen as the inventor of the early computer, but also the programmer of the first digital game. In 1951 he developed the first chess game on paper after Claude E. Shannon published Programming a Computer for Playing Chess. While there was no computer to run the actual program, in fact an algorithm to be precise, Turing had to calculate every move the machine would have made by hand. Taking him around thirty to fifteen minutes calculating a single move. Not very efficient, but in essence the first electronic game was developed. He later tried to code the algorithm onto Manchester Ferranti Mark 1 computer, but never was able to finish.  It would take another 7 years before the world saw the first multiplayer game with a graphical display in the form of Tennis for Two. It had the capability to accommodate two players competing making it the first multiplayer game. Not to be confused with PONG as Tennis for Two used a side by side view instead of the top-down perspective we all know. William Higinbotham in 1958 made the game to entertain visitors of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a nuclear research facility, during annual open house days. Unfortunately the game was lost when it was disassembled in 1959 as the game was never intended to be a product, but only a novelty to impress open house guests. Various attempts are made to recreate the game on the original hardware used at that time, but we will never know the real Tennis for Two.

The most significant beginning of e-sports and gaming in general came with the invention of Spacewar on the Programmed Data Processor-1 (PDP-1) by Stephen R. Russel, Alan Kotok, Peter Samson and Dan Edwards whom were inspired by the Doc Smith’s sci-fi Lensman novels and completed the game in the spring of 1962. A two-player game on one of the early computers that used a real screen and keyboard with the objective to shoot the other player's spaceship. According to Russel Spacewar is a simulation of a reasonably complicated physical system that was now capable to show what was going on. Besides showing a sophisticated piece of software it also afforded the users to play the game against each other. Electronic competitive gaming among students was born and described in the first edition of MIT university newspaper Decuscope:

If, when walking down the halls of MIT, you should happen to hear strange cries of “No! No! Turn! Fire! ARRRGGGHHH!,” do not be alarmed. Another western is not being filmed -- MIT students and others are merely participating in a new sport, SPACEWAR!

A beautiful first encounter that uses the word sport to identify intense electronic competitive gaming going on a small scale. In an era where networks were virtually non-existent students shared the symbolic and binary tapes with each other or even wrote down the code on a piece of paper in order to play the game at their university. In the mid-sixties there was a copy of Spacewar on almost every research computer in America and hundreds of personal variations on the source code. One of these variations made it possible to play the game in Free-For-All with five players at the same time or Deathmatch mode. The first documented e-sports competition in October 1972 was at Stanford University.
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! - Announcement flyer distributed on campus.

The first e-sports event that lives it days through the words of Stewart Brand and the eyes of Annie Liebowitz. Some vivid observations were penned down by Brand in his article Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums that exceeds just an account of a single unfolding event. The Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics sparked the era of gaming with numerous aspects still being around at this very moment. It was the first time a nickname was linked to a player’s name. While it was not uncommon for “hackers” of that day to use a nickname, easier for coding and leaving a signature, it is the first time a player was described by his nickname in a competition. REM, short for Robert E. Maas, could be very well the first gamertag ever be used in a competitive gaming event. Unintentional, as Maas was a programmer first who just participated in the competition, the start of a widespread phenomenon in gaming culture that was later more incorporated when online multiplayer games became mainstream. Other aspects of the gaming culture can already be found reading the observations at the first Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics.

Spacewar affected the way people thought about programming. The simplicity and efficiency of the code challenged other programmers to be creative in the applications written for computers.

To be continued.


"Alan Turing - The First Ever Chess Program - Which Had No Computer to Run On!" YouTube.  19 Nov. 2012.

Brand, Stewart. "Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums." Rolling Stone, 7 Dec. 1972.

Edwards, D.J., and J.M. Graetz. "PDP-1 Plays at Spacewar." Decuscope,

Shannon, Claude E. "Programming a Computer for Playing Chess." Computer Chess Compendium (1950)

When Games Went Click: The Story of Tennis for Two (2013) -

"A History of Esports." Team Liquid - StarCraft 2 Pro Gaming News