The first video game tournament was held on October 19th, 1972. Competitors gathered at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab in Los Altos, California to do battle in the sci-fi rocket combat game Spacewar. At the time, the lab was one of the only a handful of locales in the world with hardware sophisticated enough to run it.
The event was put together by Stewart Brand, best known today for his leadership of the Long Now Foundation, but then a 33 year-old writer and editor who was in the midst of working on a magazine feature story for Rolling Stone. The story was about the tremendous potential of computers to unleash creativity and change society. And as far as Brand was concerned, nothing seemed to embody that potential more than video games.
His epic 9,000-word feature ran in a December 1972 issue of the magazine, between a cover story about Carlos Santana and an advertisement for The Connoisseur’s Handbook of Marijuana. Brand was credited in the story as the magazine’s “sports reporter,” and he presented the world’s first esports event to readers as a pulse-pounding spectacle. He also celebrated the skill of the players as if they were star athletes, dubbing them “those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology.”
In October of 1972, not many people even knew that video games existed – the first Pong machine would not be installed until six weeks after the tournament was held. The select few who did play games never could have imagined that the medium would become a lucrative spectator sport. “It may seem extraordinary that you can now fill arenas with people who want to watch videogames,” says Brand. “But it’s a perfectly reasonable outcome of what you could already see in 1972.”
The winner of the world’s first video game tournament received a free subscription to Rolling Stone, and a chance to be immortalized in print by a young shutterbug on the magazine’s staff. But the real prize would be the bragging rights that came with being named the Intergalactic Spacewar Champion of 1972.
Brand had something of a knack for staging epochal cultural happenings. In 1966, he co-produced the infamous Trips Festival with Ken Kesey. Thousands of hippies attended this three day event in San Francisco to listen to psychedelic rock and drink punch dosed with LSD. He figures heavily in Tom Wolfe’s countercultural touchstone The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. (Brand also made a cameo appearance in Tom Wolfe’s counterculture touchstone The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – he’s the guy driving the pickup truck, wearing a white butcher’s coat and necktie but no shirt.)
Brand was equally tuned in to the technological revolution that was rocking the Bay Area at the time. “I discovered that drugs were less interesting than computers as a way to expand your consciousness,” he says.
In 1968, Brand helped the inventor Doug Engelbart orchestrate a presentation at a computer conference that has come to be known as The Mother of All Demos. Engelbart demonstrated video conferencing, the computer mouse, email, hypertext, word processing and a windows-based organizational structure. Basically, he predicted most of the elements of the modern personal computer and the modern workplace.