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Best Of 2020: How Nintendo And A Band Of Teenage High Score Obsessives Created The Idea Of The Pro Gamer

© Jeff Hansen

Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!

This feature was originally published in May 2020.

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.

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