From Space Invaders to Starcade – How the 80s Invented eSports

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by Staff & Contributors

in Gaming

While it might seem like our obsession with the 1980s is predominantly based on the sheer joy of Transformers, GI Joe and He-Man, we do have to admit that this glorious decade was responsible for so much more than some of the finest kids TV ever created.

Video gaming in the 80s was something truly special, with the period seeing the creation of some of the best-loved arcade games and consoles that the industry has probably ever seen. It was also the decade that, of course, gave us the likes of Donkey Kong, Mario and Sonic – hugely loved characters who continue to remain a core part of the gaming world. Seriously, who would have thought that an adventurous Italian plumber who first appeared on our gaming screens back in 1981 would be the subject of a forthcoming encyclopaedia and a new movie almost 40 years later?

However, the 1980s did more than just set the template for what we all recognise as modern video gaming, it also had a hand in inventing that quintessential 21st-century pastime – competitive gaming, which is now perhaps best known as eSports.

A full-blown phenomenon

It is hard to believe at this point that there is anyone who isn’t at least aware of the term ‘eSports’ but, for the uninitiated, here is a little introduction. The world of professional gaming is now a fully-fledged global phenomenon, with competitors and teams from across the world doing battle in major competitions in front of thousands of fans for huge sums of prize money. According to research from intelligence body Newzoo, the eSports economy is expected to be worth more than $905 million this year.

Sponsorship and advertising are expected to make up a huge part of this, which is unsurprising considering that large corporations from across a range of sectors are keen to get in on the act. For example, if you follow Counter Strike: Global Offensive team Astralis you will see Audi as their shirt sponsor, while TV company Lionsgate’s deal with Overwatch League side LA Valiant means The Evil Dead spin-off Ash vs Evil Dead now features on their jerseys. There are also the likes of Gillette and Intel backing tournaments, while a major betting scene has developed with websites offering odds on a host of top competitions.

Humble origins

Of course, all of this excitement had to start somewhere and eSports’ humble beginnings can be traced back to the start of the 1980s. More specifically, it is generally agreed that the first real competitive gaming competition which took place in the decade was held in New York and revolved around the absolute classic Space Invaders. In the region of 10,000 gamers are thought to have taken part in the event, which perhaps could be seen as a sign of things to come in terms of eSports’ popularity.

Nowadays eSports fans tend to catch the latest action on streaming services like Twitch and this desire to watch the very best players in action was foreshadowed when competitive gaming made a move onto TV for a short time in the 1980s. Starcade saw contestants do battle on a host of the latest video games, which meant companies had a great platform to promote their latest creations. While the show only ran for 123 episodes across a couple of years, it is thought to have featured more than 200 games and its important influence has never been forgotten. Incredibly, last year there were even reports of it making a potential comeback.

Finally, another important gaming moment in the 80s was the launch of Twin Galaxies. Created by Walter Day, the organisation played a vital role in tracking high scores on a host of games in the US and, in the process, arguably set an early benchmark for the monitoring of gaming data that is now, of course, a key part of eSports.

A major role

So, it is fair to say that the 1980s has had a huge impact on what we now know as eSports, although it is worth remembering that not everything went to plan. As Ausretrogamer outlines, the Atari World Championships held in Chicago in October 1981 has become notorious for a host of issues, including only attracting around 130 gamers despite promoting that thousands would be in attendance.

Despite such setbacks, however, it is fair to say that important foundations were laid across the decade, which have undoubtedly shaped and influenced the huge multimillion dollar industry that is now in the ascendancy.


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