Esports is Dead! Long Live Esports!
The fraught and intransigent relationship between competitive gaming, sports, and humanity
In the spring of 1961, a handful of graduate students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology began programming what has been canonized as the first video game: Spacewar! Inspired in part by the space race and pulp science fiction, Spacewar! was intended to test the limits of MIT’s state-of-the-art PDP-1 computer. But the game’s developers quickly discovered that the PDP-1 was too weak to simulate the choices and actions of a virtual opponent. Their solution was to design Spacewar! for two players, and then let the players do the thinking for themselves.
Spacewar! debuted in 1961, at the MIT Department of Computer Science’s open house. The game’s designers organized a small exhibition match for attendees to watch. Writing about the tournament for Creative Computing in 1981, J.M. Graetz recalled that “to provide for the crowds we (accurately) anticipated, [we attached] a large screen television to the computer to function as a slave display. Perched on top of a high cabinet, it allowed a roomful of people to watch in relative comfort.”
This was the first video game tournament in human history, and perhaps it’s not coincidence that it took place alongside the debut of the “first” video game.
Competitive gaming, in other words, is exactly as old as video games themselves. Video games are often maligned as a solitary, antisocial hobby, but single-player games are not the origin of the medium — they’re a deviation from it. As players, our heritage is competition. Long before video games could ever be played alone, they were designed to be played together. And as long as there have been multiplayer games, humans have used them to satisfy our seemingly innate need to compete and bear witness to competition. From Massachusetts to Seoul, from 1961 to today, in every time and place that video games have existed, they have been accompanied by some culture of competitive play.
But something changed in the waning years of the second millennium. In 1999, Eurogamer, then the world’s largest independent game magazine, announced the formation of the Online Gamers Association (OGA). Despite its amateurish presentation (you can…