The first esports tournament was held way back in October 1972. Organised by Stewart Brand, best known now as the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. Back in 72, he was a young writer, working a a story for the Rolling Stone magazine. His piece was about the exciting future computers, and he was particularly interested in Gaming.
His 9000 word article was featured in the magazine in December of 1972, and as part of his research to compile the article, he presented the world’s first esports tournament. Competitors had congregated at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab in Los Altos, California, to compete in the popular game of Spacewar. The lab was one of the few locations in the world with the necessary equipment to handle such a tournament.
Spacewar was a deathmatch type game, forerunner to such classics as Doom and Counter-Strike. Both players are in charge of a spaceship, which is floating in space. Using jet propellers and torpedoes, you must destroy your opponent’s craft.
The tournament was simply called ‘Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics’ and the grand prize was a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. The winner would also have bragging rights as the first ever winner of a video game tournament.
AT the time, video gaming was a very new concept, and few people even knew of their existence. Those few players had now idea of the legacy they were becoming an integral part of. Stewart Brand said; “It may seem extraordinary that you can now fill arenas with people who want to watch videogames, but it’s a perfectly reasonable outcome of what you could already see in 1972.”
Brand had already taken part in the organisation of a few events in the area, including Trips Festival, and featured in some pop culture of the time. However, he realised that videogaming had a serious future and said of the time “I discovered that drugs were less interesting than computers as a way to expand your consciousness,”
“You were balancing skill versus luck, and not only dealing with the threat of your opponents, but the threat of losing control and being slurped into the sun.”
Brand remembers visiting computer labs at universities and other institutions, and said “There were always some young engineers gathered around the computer blasting away at this game Spacewar.“
He was amazed by how engrossed the players seemed to be in the game; “I saw them having some kind of out-of-body experience,” he commented. “Their brains and their fingers were fully engaged. There was an athletic exuberance to their joyous mutual slaying. I’d never seen anything like that.”
“I was intrigued at the quality of game design intelligence these guys had from the very start,” Brand explains. “You were balancing skill versus luck, and not only dealing with the threat of your opponents, but the threat of losing control and being slurped into the sun. And hyperspace was an astonishingly brilliant breakthrough.”
The equipment at the lab in Los Altos was so sophisticated (for the time) that it allowed five players to play at once, and had the capacity for an audience. Brand saw the opportunity this afforded and persuaded the executive officer, Les Earnest, to host the ‘Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics’ and he invited students and researchers to attend, with the promise of snacks and beer.
On the night of the tournament, Brand arrived with the staff photographer of the Rolling Stone magazine, none other than Annie Leibovitz, the now world renowned celebrity photographer. Brand said of Annie that night; “This all must have been very strange to her, but she got really good pictures of people in the scene.”
After a tense battle, a Stanford grad student, Bruce Baumgart emerged victorious. He was, and remains to be, the Intergalactic Spacewar Champion of 1972.
The very first line of Brand’s article in the Rolling Stone magazine sums up his correct opinion of the future of gaming; ‘Ready or not, computers are coming to the people.’