Iwas at Ground Zero for the birth of eSports, and didn’t realize it.
The year was 1982. The location was Ottumwa, Iowa. More specifically, it was inside a storefront video game arcade called Twin Galaxies.
After a challenging day teaching at Evans Junior High, I would often stop in to play a few games of “Star Castle,” one of the pantheon of single player games hitting the market along with “Pac-Man,” “Space Invaders” and “Centipede.”
“I’m sure we talked numerous times, and I probably gave you change.”
That comment was from Walter Day, the founder and owner of Twin Galaxies, and the oracle who placed Ottumwa at the center of the world video game map.
I tracked him down on a recent visit to Iowa after reading several articles finally giving him credit for building the foundation for eSports.
For those unfamiliar with electronic sports (I was), it has become a half-billion-dollar industry where individuals and teams compete for high scores on video games. More than 200 million people watched or played eSports in 2014. Championship tournaments sell out stadiums such as the Staples Center and the 40,000-seat World Cup Stadium in Seoul, while drawing an online audience of 27 million — more than view the final round of the Masters.
It all began in Twin Galaxies.
Back in 1982, the southeast Iowa town — known best at that time as the fictional home of Radar O’Reilly on the TV show “M*A*S*H” — was not thrilled with this new notoriety. I remember the local debates when the mayor declared Ottumwa the Video Game Capital of the World, bringing coverage from “LIFE” magazine and ABC-TV’s “That’s Incredible.”
While Day personally felt what he was doing was not understood at the time, he holds no grudge.
“I realized that trying to get the small town in Iowa, surrounded by cornfields, to take this heady path of being the Silicon Valley of gaming was a big step for them,” Day said. “We shouldn’t judge them harshly for it — there was no other way the community could respond.”
For those born too early or too late, the early 1980s marked the dawn of the video arcade. Many a teen ran through fistfuls of quarters trying to run up scores on video games, perceived as timewasters at best and gateways to delinquency at worst.
But Day, a natural salesman, saw opportunity. It started when he was “failing as an oil broker” in Houston in 1980. A friend took him to something he’d never seen — an arcade. By the end of the night, Day was “addicted” to “Space Invaders.” And he had glimpsed the future.
“I saw kids playing “Berzerk” at a high level of skill with big crowds of people around them,” he said. “Even at that early moment in history, people were prepared to be spectators and watch high level video game playing before their very eyes.”
Back in Ottumwa, he opened Twin Galaxies. He began keeping an international scoreboard database. Soon he was receiving 50 to 75 phone calls a day from players around the world wanting to report their scores. Guinness World Records pegged him to help edit video game scores for their Book of World Records.
Unfortunately for Day, he was about 30 years ahead of the rest of the world, too early for the technology that brought the Internet, live streaming, and big sponsorships.
Today, eSports is a huge business. The day before I interviewed Walter Day, it was announced that the New York Yankees had become official investment partners of Twin Galaxies.
“They bought into it as their official entry into the world of eSports,” Day reported. “They announced they are going to put their assets and strength into making Twin Galaxies as big and as good and as powerful as possible. It’s unreal.”
Sadly, Day no longer holds any financial interest in the name and brand he created. However, he has become recognized for his role in establishing the industry and is busier than ever. He travels the country to do public appearances and referee for the eSports industry, and has created a series of trading cards.
Most intriguing of all, he is completing a musical, “Twin Galaxies: Love and War in the Video Game Capital of the World.”
Day calls it his love story and “where my heart is.”
“The story is amazing,” he said. “To be in a small town, I was a nobody, wasn’t even part of the industry. I just started an arcade and had an idea, and it blossomed. I like to say it was divine fate, because there were so many moments, so many bottlenecks that could have stopped the whole process from happening. Today, 36 years later, it’s a world legend.”
In 2015, even the city acknowledged its heritage, dedicating a 220-pound bronze plaque declaring Ottumwa as The Historic Birthplace of Organized Competitive eSports.
Day deflects any praise, attributing the success to a combination of chance and fate and a “little bit of creative skills” he brought to the table. In retrospect, it seemed inevitable.
“It was a huge industry being born,” he said. “People were fascinated by games. In arcades all over the world people were trying to beat the games and become champions in their local arcade. It became an amazing opportunity to show your skill without having to be a sports jock. This suddenly opened up a whole new realm for people who otherwise might have had a geeky, dorky existence.”
Oh, if only I’d stuck with “Star Castle.” Who knows what I’d be doing today?