1990 Nintendo World Championships© Jeff Hansen

Esports is old. Its origins stretch back to the very first days of video games as a medium. Was competitive gaming born with the invention of Tennis for Two in 1958, the very first video game? Or in 1972 when Rolling Stone hosted the first Space War! competition in a university computing lab?

No: esports arrived when the concept of being a pro gamer – playing rather than making video games – entered the public consciousness. Even if it was simply a child’s dream vocation, in the same way he or she might once have aspired to be a cowboy, pirate or astronaut; this was pivotal.

And as it turns out, for a company not much interested in the esports industry in 2020, Nintendo played an unexpected role in making this happen with the Nintendo World Championships in 1990. But the story goes back almost a decade before this.

He begins keeping a database of game high scores. Except it’s not a database. That’s dull. It’s the Twin Galaxies International Score Board

It’s 1981. Atari is hosting its first World Championship at the Chicago Expocenter, with $50,000 on the line, and $20,000 going to the overall winner. The tournament itself is a disaster; there are only funds for a few hundred Centipede cabinets, which competitors have to pay to play – but the event inspires determined 14-year-old Texan Ben Gold, who notices that even in this gathering of the best Atari players, there’s no sense of camaraderie.

He goes back to Dallas and starts buying more and more pizza from his local parlour, just so that he can play the games there. He gets hooked on Defender, then its follow-up, Stargate. He starts playing longer and longer on one quarter. 7 million points, 10 million points. After a while, Gold begins to wonder if he has the highest score of all, and phones the arcade manufacturer, Williams Electronics. To his surprise, the staff are nonplussed, but they pass him along to someone who cares: Walter Day, an arcade owner in Ottumwa, Iowa.

A former oil broker, Day is determined to make his place of business, Twin Galaxies, more than what it is: a small arcade in an even smaller town. He begins keeping a database of game high scores. Except it’s not a database. That’s dull. It’s the Twin Galaxies International Score Board.

Walter tells Ben that the Stargate high score is 36 million; Gold promptly plays for 36 hours straight, breaking the record on the night he turns 16. Walter rings the pizzeria to confirm the score and now Ben is a record holder. But he’s more than that, though, as Walter is dreaming much bigger still. Ben is a world champion, and he ought to be recognised as the star he is; in fact, Walter has a proposition for him. Would he like to come to Twin Galaxies? As gaming’s first umpire, Walter is organising a little get-together of all the world’s best players.

They all assemble in November 1982 for what later becomes an iconic photo. Billy Mitchell, still to become the hot-sauce-selling villain of The King of Kong documentary, is here. So is Steve Harris, 17, Popeye expert and later founder and publisher of Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine. A culture of connected players competing starts here.

Other events follow; Walter and Ben fly out to LA to compete on television show That’s Incredible!, and since Walter is not one to shy away from hyperbole, they do so for the title of World’s Best Video Gamer. They face off in five different games, a medley format that will later underpin the NWC.

Then in the summer of 1983 Day hits the road, forming the first-ever US National Video Game Team (USNVGT), complete with matching uniforms. This plucky band, including Mitchell, Harris and Gold, set out across the US in an old school bus, stopping at arcades to show off their skills and raise money for charity.

They make it to Seattle, home of Nintendo of America, where they meet with managers and are given Nintendo handhelds to take home with them -– but some of these are later traded for food on the road

It’s not smooth sailing, however: the team arrive at a Sega arcade cabinet factory on the day that its workers are notified the facility has been bought by Midway and layoffs are looming. They make it to Seattle, home of Nintendo of America, where they meet with managers and are given Nintendo handhelds to take home with them -– but some of these are later traded for food on the road.

Finally, the squad, down to just Walter, Billy and Nibbler player Tom Asaki, make it to Washington where they deliver challenges to the Italian and Japanese embassies to field national video game teams of their own and come at them. Neither country does.

Why does this team matter so much, if everyone was ignoring them? Because they dreamed, and dreamed big.

The arcade crash of 83-84 kills Twin Galaxies and Day steps way from the team, but the USNVGT, now helmed by the savvy Harris, continues. He brings sharpshooting Cheyenne expert Donn Nauert on as the new captain and face of the squad as they pivot into endorsements and reviews.

By the mid- to late 80s, Nintendo’s stratospheric success with both the Nintendo Entertainment System and its Nintendo Power magazine have made marketing managers a bit more savvy to the players’ potential. In 1987, Nauert, now USNVGT team captain, is paid to promote the Atari 7800 console in a series of commercials aired in prime slots on Saturday morning kids ’ cartoons, wearing his stars and stripes shell suit.

This is crucial. 'Pro gamer' may not be a viable career at this stage – though Nauert will later work as a game producer for THQ – but it has at least entered the dream space. It’s something. A 'what if?'

Then in 1988 Harris sets up his own magazine, U.S. National Video Game Team’s Electronic Gaming Monthly, reviewing new console games. The name is quickly shortened to EGM, and it later becomes the most widely-read games publication in the world.

The stars of the U.S. National Video Game Team never find riches as esports athletes later will, but they are starting to use their ability to play games, not code them, in order to enter the gaming industry. In 1988, the producers of That’s Incredible! once again turn to the USNVGT to fill a segment of the magazine show. Donn Nauert strolls out onstage, neck slightly stooped from the weight of his medals, an all-American hero for a new generation.

Harris was negotiating a deal with Nintendo for the USNVGT to become the official company team and even run Nintendo Power for them, only for it to fall apart at the last minute

Once again, three young teenage boys face-off, this time in a compilation of Nintendo games. It’s the format here that makes the most impact. It may even have helped inspire a Hollywood movie, which in turn directly shaped the course of competitive gaming – not least because, at the same time, Harris was negotiating a deal with Nintendo for the USNVGT to become the official company team and even run Nintendo Power for them, only for it to fall apart at the last minute.

Then the following year, Nintendo makes its biggest play yet for the children of America, teaming up with Universal Pictures for the release of The Wizard. The oddly dark tale about a pair of young brothers travelling to a $50,000 game tournament in LA, ‘Video Armageddon ’ takes on a new aspect when these behind-the-scenes deals are considered. The similarities to the That's Incredible! TV format are obvious, from the crowd to the gauntlet of NES games used.

Whether by intent or not, the That's Incredible! TV segment and Universal Pictures film set the template for the spectacular 1990 Nintendo World Championships, which sees 8,000 players in 29 cities across the US competing to be crowned the world’s best.

The finals are lifted straight out of The Wizard, set in the same location (Universal Studios, originally selected by director Todd Holland because he thought it would look better than the school cafeteria initially proposed in the script), using two of the same three games (Super Mario Bros. 3 and Rad Racer).

You already know how they played out: reclusive teen Thor Aackerlund, one of the greatest Tetris players of all time and the first player to hit Level 30, annihilates the competition.

Here’s why the USNVGT, their TV appearances, their almost-partnership with Nintendo, is so crucial. With the NWC, the tournaments they’ve been putting on for years suddenly hit the mainstream. Nintendo is suddenly saying that the ultimate goal of playing Tetris isn’t just to have fun, but to be the best, anywhere. And if you are, you get the sports car, the cash prize, the TV, the rare NES cartridge and Mario statue later worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Nintendo World Championships’ biggest impact was not on the bottom line of a few talented teenagers but on the wider public consciousness

Unwittingly, Thor becomes the first-ever professional gamer. He’s hired as a spokesperson by Camerica, the company behind the Game Genie cheat cartridges for consoles. His parents are unable to work, so Thor’s gaming abilities force him to become the family’s sole breadwinner in the following years, creating a sense of pressure that compels him to withdraw from the public eye. An unfortunate side effect, but the fact he must do so is indicative of something greater.

The Nintendo World Championships’ biggest impact was not on the bottom line of a few talented teenagers but on the wider public consciousness. The event, scrupulously marketed and sanitised in the Nintendo way, showed that gamers could be venerated too, not scorned. The NWC recognised that their talents would be something to be admired, acquired – even rewarded. When enough people seek the same rewards, a new vocation is born.


This feature is an edited extract from 'This is esports (and How to Spell it): An Insider’s Guide to the World of Pro Gaming' by Paul ‘Redeye’ Chaloner, published by Bloomsbury Sport, with a recommended retail price of £12.99. It is available to order in paperback, ebook and audiobook now.

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