Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Today we’re going to look at Pong. In the beginning there was Pong. And it was glorious! Just think of the bell bottoms at Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California on November 29th 1972. The first Pong they built was just a $75 black and white tv from a Walgreens and some cheap parts. The cabinet wasn’t even that fancy. And after that night, the gaming industry was born. It started with people starting to show up and play the game. They ended up waiting for the joint to open, not drinking, and just gaming the whole time. The bartender had never seen anything like it. I mean, just a dot being knocked around a screen. But it was social. You had to have two players. There was no machine learning to play the other side yet. Pretty much the same thing as real ping pong. And so Pong was released by Atari in 1972. It reminded me of air hockey the first time I saw it. You bounced a ball off a wall and tried to get it past the opponent using paddles. It never gets old. Ever. That’s probably why of all the Atari games at the arcade, more quarters got put into it than any. The machines were sold for three times the cost to produce them; unheard of at the time. The game got popular, that within a year, the company had sold 2,500 , which they tripled in 1974. I wasn’t born yet. But I remember my dad telling me that they didn’t have a color tv yet in 72. They’d manufactured the games in an old skate rink. And they were cheap because with the game needing so few resources they pulled it off without a CPU. But what about the code? It was written by Al Alcorn as a training exercise that Nolan Bushnell gave him after he was hired at Atari. He was a pretty good hire. It was supposed to be so easy a kid could play it. I mean, it was so easy a kid could play it. Bushnell would go down as the co-creator of Pong. Although maybe Ralph Baer should have as well, given that Bushnell tested his table tennis game at a trade show the same year he had Alcorn write Pong. Baer had gotten the idea of building video games while working on military systems at a few different electronics companies in the 50s and even patented a device called the Brown Box in 1973, which was filed in 1971 prior to licensing it to Magnavox to become the Odyssey. Tennis for Two had been made available in 1958. Spacewar! had popped up in 1962 , thanks to MIT’s Steven “Slug” Russel’s being teased until he finished it. It was initially written on the TX-0 and was ported to the PDP, slowly making its way across the world as the PDP was shipping. Alan Kotok had whipped up some sweet controllers, but it could be played with just the keyboard as well. No revolution seemed in sight yet as it was really just shipping to academic institutions. And to very large companies. The video game revolution was itching to get out. People were obsessed with space at the time. Space was all over science fiction, there was a space race being won by the United States, and so Spacewar gave way to Computer Space, the first arcade game to ship, in 1971, modeled after Spacewar!. But as an early coin operated video game it was a bit too complicated. As was Galaxy Game, whipped up in 1971 by Bushnell and cofounder Ted Dabney, who’s worked together at Ampex. They initially called their company Syzygy Engineering but as can happen, there was a conflict on that trademark and they changed the name to Atari. Atari had programmed Galaxy Game, but it was built and distributed by Nutting Associates. It was complex and needed a fair amount of instructions to get used to it. Pong on the other hand needed no instructions. A dot bounced from you to a friend and you tried to get it past the other player. Air hockey. Ping pong. Ice hockey. Football. It just kinda’ made sense. You bounced the dot off a paddle. The center of each returned your dot at a regular 90 degree angle and the further out you got, the smaller that angle. The ball got faster the longer the game went on. I mean, you wanna’ make more quarters, right?!?! Actually that was a bug, but one you like. They added sound effects. They spent three months. It was glorious and while Al Alcorn has done plenty of great stuff in his time in the industry I doubt many have been filled with the raw creativity he got to display during those months. It was a runaway success. There were clones of Pong. Coleco released Telestar and Nintendo came out with Color TV Game 6. In fact, General Instruments just straight up cloned the chip. Something else happened in 1972. The Magnavox Odyssey shipped and was the first console with interchangeable dice. After Pong, Atari had pumped out Gotcha, Rebound, and Space Race. They were finding success in the market. Then Sears called. They wanted to sell Pong in the home. Atari agreed. They actually outsold the Odyssey when they finally made the single-game console. Magnavox sued, claiming the concept had been stolen. They settled for $700k. Why would they settle? Well, they could actual prove that they’d written the game first and make a connection for where Atari got the idea from them. The good, the bad, and the ugly of intellectual property is that the laws exist for a reason. Baer beat Atari to the punch, but he’d go on to co-develop Simon says. All of his prototypes now live at the Smithsonian. But back to Pong. The home version of pong was released in 1974 and started showing up in homes in 1975, especially after the Christmas buying season in 1975. It was a hit, well on its way to becoming iconic. Two years later, Atari released the iconic Atari 2600, which had initially been called the VCS. This thing was $200 and came with a couple of joysticks, a couple of paddles, and a game called Combat. Suddenly games were showing up in homes all over the world. They needed more money to make money and Bushnell sold the company. Apple would become one of the fastest growing companies in US History with their release of the Apple II, making Steve Jobs a quarter of a billion dollars in 1970s money. But Atari ended up selling of units and becoming THE fastest growing company in US history at the time. There were sequels to Pong but by the time Breakout and other games came along, you really didn’t need them. I mean, pin-pong? Pong Doubles was fine but , Super Pong, Ultra Pong, and Quadrapong, never should have happened. That’s cool though. Other games definitely needed to happen. Pac Man became popular and given it wasn’t just a dot but a dot with a slice taken out for a mouth, it ended up on the cover of Time in 1982. A lot of other companies were trying to build stuff, but Atari seemed to rule the world. These things have a pretty limited life-span. The video game crash of 1983 caused Atari to lose half a billion dollars. The stock price fell. At an important time in computers and gaming, they took too long to release the next model, the 5200. It was a disaster. Then the Nintendo arrived in some parts of the world in 1983 and took the US by storm in 1985. Atari went into a long decline that was an almost unstoppable downward spiral in a way. That was sad to watch. I’m sure it was sadder to be a part of. it was even sadder when I studied corporate mergers in college. I’m sure that was even sadder to be a part of as well. Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the founders of Atari, wanted a hit coin operated game. They got it. But they got way more than they bargained for. They were able to parlay Pong into a short lived empire. Here’s the thing. Pong wasn’t the best game ever made. It wasn’t an original Bushnell idea. It wasn’t even IP they could keep anyone else from cloning. But It was the first successful video game and helped fund the development of the VCS, or 2600, that would bring home video game consoles into the mainstream, including my house. And the video game industry would later eclipse the movie industry. But the most important thing pong did was to show regular humans that microchips were for more than… computing. Ironically the game didn’t even need real microchips. The developers would all go on to do fun things. Bushnell founded Chuck E. Cheese with some of his cresis-mode cash. Once it was clear that the Atari consoles were done you could get iterations of Pong for the Sega Genesis, the Playstation, and even the Nintendo DS. It’s floated around the computer world in various forms for a long, long time. The game is simple. The game is loved. Every time I see it I can’t help but think about bell bottoms. It launched industries. And we’re lucky to have had it. Just like I’m lucky to have had you as a listener today. Thank you so much for choosing to spend some time with us. We’re so lucky to have you.
Sometimes an idea is so good it keeps showing up. Electronic ping-pong games are one of those ideas. The game was independently invented at least twice, in 1958 and then in 1966. But, here's the thing, PONG didn't come around until the 70s. What were theses earlier tennis games? Did Atari steel the idea for their first hit? Today we go on an analog journey to find some answers.
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It’s human nature to make everything we do competitive. I’ve played football, ran track at times, competed in hacking competitions at Def Con, and even participated in various gaming competitions like Halo tournaments. I always get annihilated by kids who had voices that were cracking, but I played!
Humans have been competing in sports for thousands of years. The Lascaux in France shows people sprinting over 15,000 years ago. The Egyptians were bowling in the 5,000s BCE. The Sumerians were wrestling 5,000 years ago. Mesopotamian art shows boxing in the second or third millennium BCE. The Olmecs in Mesoamerican societies were playing games with balls around the same time.
Egyptian monuments show a number of individual sports being practiced in Egypt as far back as 2,000 BCE. The Greeks evolved the games first with the Minoans and Mycenaeans between 1,500 BCE and 1,000BCE and then they first recorded their Olympic games in 776 BCE, although historians seem to agree the games were practiced at least 500 years before that evolving potentially from funeral games.
Sports competitions began as ways to showcase an individuals physical prowess. Weight lifting, discus, whether individual or team sports, sports rely on physical strength, coordination, repetitive action, or some other feat that allows one person or team to stand out.
Organized team sports first appeared in ancient times. The Olmecs in Mesoamerica but Hurling supposedly evolved past 1000 BCE, although written records of that only begin around the 16th century and it could be that was borrowed through the Greek game harpaston when the Romans evolved it into the game harpastum and it spread with Roman conquests. But the exact rules and timelines of all of these are lost to written history. Instead, written records back up that western civilization team sports began with polo appearing about 2,500 years ago in Persia. The Chinese gave us a form of kickball they called cuju, around 200 BCE. Football, or soccer for the American listeners, started in 9th century England but evolved into the game we think of today in the 1850s, then a couple of decades later to American football. Meanwhile, cricket came around in the 16th century and then hockey and baseball came along in the mid 1800s with basketball arriving in the 1890s. That’s also around the same time the modern darts game was born, although that started in the Middle Ages when troops threw arrows or crossbow bolts at wine barrels turned on their sides or sections of tree trunks.
Many of these sports are big business today, netting multi-billion dollar contracts for media rights to show and stream games, naming rights to stadiums for hundreds of millions, and players signing contracts for hundreds of millions across all major sports. There’s been a sharp increase in sports contracts since the roaring 1920s, rising steadily until the television started to show up in homes around the world until ESPN solidified a new status in our lives when it was created in 1979. Then came the Internet and the money got crazy town.
All that money leads the occasional entrepreneurial minded sports enthusiast to try something new. We got the World Wrestling Body in the 1950s, which evolved out of Jim McMahon’s father’s boxing promotions put him working with Toots Mondt on what they called Western Style Wrestling. Beating people up has been around since the dawn of life but became an official sport when UFC 1 was launched in 1993. We got the XFL in 1999. So it’s no surprise that we would take a sport that requires hand-eye coordination and turn that into a team endeavor. That’s been around for a long time, but we call it Esports today.
Video Game Competitions
Competing in video games is as almost as old as, well, video games. Spacewar! was written in 1962 and students from MIT competed with one another for dominance of deep space, dogfighting little ships, which we call sprites today, into oblivion. The game spread to campuses and companies as the PDP minicomputers spread. Countless hours spent playing and by 1972, there were enough players that they held the first Esports competition, appropriately called the Intergalactic Spacewar! Olympics. Of course, Steward Brand would report on that for Rolling Stone, having helped Mouse inventor Doug Englebart with the “Mother of All Demos” just four years before.
Pinball had been around since the 1930s, or 1940s with flippers. They could be found around the world by the 1970s and 1972 was also the first year there was a Pinball World Champion. So game leagues were nothing new. But Brand and others, like Atari founder Nolan Bushnell knew that video games were about to get huge.
Tennis was invented in the 1870s in England and went back to 11th century France. Tennis on a screen would make loads of sense as well when Tennis For Two debuted in 1958. So when Pong came along in 1972, the world (and the ability to mass produce technology) was ready for the first video game hit. So when people flowed into bars first in the San Francisco Bay Area, then around the country to play Pong, it’s no surprise that people would eventually compete in the game.
From competing in billiards to a big game console just made sense. Now it was a quarter a game instead of just a dart board hanging in the corner. And so when Pong went to home consoles of course people competed there as well.
Then came Space Invaders in 1978. By 1980 we got the first statewide Space Invaders competition, and 10,000 players showed up. The next year there was a Donkey Kong tournament and Billy Mitchell set the record for the game at 874,300 that stood for 18 years. We got the US National Video Game Team in 1983 and competitions for arcade games sprung up around the world. A syndicated television show called Starcade even ran to show competitions, which now we might call streaming. And Tron came in 1982. Then came the video game crash of 1983.
But games never left us. The next generation of consoles and arcade games gave us competitions and tournaments for Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat then first-person game like Goldeneye and other first-person shooters later in the decade, paving the way for games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. Then in 1998 a legendary StarCraft 2 tournament was held and 50 million people around the world tuned in on the Internet. That’s a lot of eyeballs.
Team options were also on the rise. Netter had been written to play over the Internet by 16 players at once. Within a few years, massive multiplayers could have hundreds of players duking it out in larger battle scenes. Some were recorded and posted to web pages. There was appetite for tracking scores for games and competing and even watching games, which we’ve all done over the shoulders of friends since the arcades and consoles of old.
Esports and Twitch
As the 2000s came, Esports grew in popularity. Esports is short for the term electronic sports, and refers to competitive video gaming, which includes tournaments and leagues. Let’s set aside the earlier gaming tournaments and think of those as classic video games. Let’s reserve the term Esports for events held after 2001.
That’s because the World Cyber Games was founded in 2000 and initially held in 2001, in Seoul, Korea (although there was a smaller competition in 2000). The haul was $300,000 and events continue on through the current day, having been held in San Francisco, Italy, Singapore, and China. Hundreds of people play today. That started a movement.
Major League Gaming (MLG) came along in 2002 and is now regarded as one of the most significant Esports hosts in the world. The Electronic Sports World Cup came in 2003 were the first tournaments, which were followed by the introduction of ESL Intel Extreme Master in 2007 and many others. The USA Network broadcast their first Halo 2 tournament in 2006.
We’ve gone from 10 major tournaments held in 2000 to an incalculable number today. That means more teams. Most Esports companies are founded by former competitors, like Cloud9, 100 Thieves, and FaZeClan. Team SoloMid is the most valuable Esports organization. Launched by League of Legends star Dan Dinh and his brother in 2009, and is now worth over $400 million and has fielded teams like ZeRo for Super Smash Brothers, Excelerate Gaming for Rainbow Six Seige, Team Dignitas for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and even chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura.
The analog counterpart would be sports franchises. Most of those were started by athletic clubs or people from the business community. Gaming has much lower startup costs and thus far has been more democratic in the ability to start a team with higher valuations.
Teams play in competitions held by leagues, of which There seems to be new ones all the time. The NBA 2K League and the Overwatch League are two new leagues that have had early success. One reason for teams and leagues like this is naming and advertising rights. Another is events like The International 2021, with a purse of over $40M. The inaugural League of Legends World Championship took place in 2011. In 2013 another tournament was held in the Staples Center in Los Angeles (close to their US offices). Tickets for the event sold out within minutes. The purse for that was originally $100,000 and has since risen to over $7M. But others are even larger. Arena of Valor tournament Honor of Kings World Champion Cup is $7.7M and Fortnite World Cup Finals has gone as high as $15M.
One reason for the leagues and teams is that companies that make games want to promote their games. The video game business is almost an 86 billion dollar industry. Another is that people started watching other people play on YouTube. But then YouTube wasn’t really purpose-built for gaming. Streamers made due using cameras to stream images of themselves in a picture-in-picture frame but that still wasn’t optimal. Esports had been broadcast (the original form of streaming) before but streaming wasn't all that commercially successful until the birth of Twitch in 2011.
YouTube had come along in 2005 and Justin Kan and Emmett Shear created Justin.tv in 2007 as a place for people to broadcast video, or stream, online. They started with just one channel: Justin’s life. Like 24 by 7 life. They did Y Combinator and managed to land an $8M seed round. Justin had a camera mounted to his hat, and left that outside the bathroom since it wasn’t that kind of site. They made a video chat system and not only was he streaming, but he was interacting with people on the other side of the stream. It was like the Truman Show, but for reals.
A few more people joined up, but then came other sites to provide this live streaming option. They added forums, headlines, comments, likes, featured categories of channels, and other features but just weren’t hitting it. One aspect was doing really well: gaming. They moved that to a new site in 2011 and called that Twitch. This platform allowed players to stream themselves and their games. And they could interact with their viewers, which gave the entire experience a new interactive paradigm. And it grew fast with the whole thing being rebranded as Twitch in 2014.
Amazon bought Twitch in 2014 for $1B. They made $2.3 Billion in 2020 with an average of nearly 3 million concurrent viewers watching nearly 19 billion hours of content provided monthly by nearly 9 million streamers. Other services like Youtube Gaming have come and gone but Twitch remains the main way people watch others game. ESPN and others still have channels for Esports, but Twitch is purpose-built for gaming. And watching others play games is no different than Greeks showing up for the Olympics or watching someone play pool or watching Liverpool play Man City. In fact, the money they make is catching up.
Platforms like Twitch allow professional gamers and those who announce the games to to become their own unique class of celebrities. The highest paid players have made between three and six million dollars, with the top 10 living outside the US and making their hauls from Dota 2. Others have made over a million playing games like Counter-Strike, Fortnite, League of Legends, and Call of Duty. None are likely to hold a record for any of those games for 18 years. But they are likely to diversify their sources of income. Add a YouTube channel, Twitch stream, product placements, and appearances - and a gamer could be looking at doubling what they bring in from competitions.
Esports has come far but has far further to go. The total Esports market was just shy of $1B in 2020 and expected tor each $2.5B in 2025 (which the pandemic may push even faster). Not quite the 100 million that watch the Super Bowl every year or the half billion that tune into the World Cup finals but growing at a faster rate than the Super Bowl, which has actually declined in the past few years. And the International Olympic Committee recognized the tremendous popularity of Esports throughout the world in 2017 and left open the prospect of Esports becoming an Olympic sport in the future (although with the number of vendors involved that’s hard to imagine happening).
Perhaps some day when archaeologists dig up what we’ve left behind, they’ll find some Egyptian Obelisk or gravestone with a controller and a high score. Although they’ll probably just scoff at the high score, since they already annihilated that when they first got their neural implants and have since moved on to far better games!
Twitch is young in the context of the decades of history in computing. However, the impact has been fast and along with Esports shows us a windows into how computing has reshaped entire ways we week not only entertainment, but also how we make a living. In fact, the US Government recognized League of Legends as a sport as early as 2013, allowing people to get Visas to come into the US and play. And where there’s money to be made, there’s betting and abuse. 2010 saw SaviOr and some of the best Starcraft players to ever play embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. That almost destroyed the Esports gaming industry. And yet as with the Video Game Crash of 1983, the industry has always bounced back, at magnitudes larger than before.