While DatBet may have been one of the very first esports specialist betting sites (possibly THE first), esports itself can trace its roots back several decades earlier to the launch of the US National Video Game Team.
Formed in 1983 – long before the established console games that dominate esports were even conceived – the USNVGT was formed of arcade video game champions of classic games like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Centipede.
The team was just one of several initiatives swirling around the vortex of the competitive arcade game world at the time, Walter Day.
Day had founded his own arcade, Twin Galaxies, in Fairfield, Iowa in 1981. A serious arcade game buff, Day had already been researching high scores around the country for months before he opened his own. Soon after opening Twin Galaxies he began publishing his own tally of high scores, and this quickly became the standard reference in the nascent sport.
While Day can seem mild-mannered and unassuming, he also has a keen ability to sense an opportunity for publicity. He partnered Twin Galaxies with the Guinness Book of World Records to become the official institution for recognizing official high scores, and even got Life magazine (then a still important title in the American media) to cover arcade games as a sport. A famous photo of downtown Fairfield shows a row of arcade game cabinets, along with the champion of each game as recognized by Twin Galaxies standing behind them.
Several of the players in the photo went on to become members of the USNVGT when it was founded by Day and a man named Jim Riley soon after. Initially, the team was part of an “Electronic Circus” that Day was taking part in, but this circus only lasted five days before it folded.
The USNVGT did not have a huge budget, and travel would have eaten into their funds significantly, but the players did get compensation. They are believed to be the very first professional esports players in the world.
While the USNVGT was a “national” team, they did not have the opportunity to play in organized esports world championships against other national teams, as frequently happens today.
Still, they managed to play individuals around the country on their tour.
The arcade video game boom began to fade in the late 1980s, and the mania that had surrounded games like Asteroids, Galaga, and Missal Command had completely gone by the start of the 1990s. Still, the USNVGT carried on until 1995, although with different captains and organizers.
Several of the team’s original members are some of the most famous arcade game players of all time. These include Eric Ginner, Darren Olson, Todd Walker and Bill Mitchell. Mitchell has become famous – perhaps infamous – following spike in media interest in arcade games in the last decade. He has been an important contributor to a series of documentaries, including Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007), The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2014), and Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler (2015).
Mitchell was especially prominent in the King of Kong, performing the role of villain in award-winning film.
The films spread Mitchell’s fame beyond the competitive arcade game world, but not in an overly flattering way. Eventually some of the controversy from his Donkey Kong scores led to his downfall. In 2018 Twin Galaxies (no longer led by Day) struck all of Mitchell’s scores from its records following a determination that he had cheated on some games.
The legacy of the USNVT lives on, however, both with a historic website, and in the lives of professional esports gamers around the world!