Video Game Tournaments for Money and Prizes: a history

Gaming tournaments for money and prizes have a longer history than you might think!

The earliest record of a video game tournament was in 1972 in sunny California. An intrepid group of students of Stanford University boldly went where none had gone before, taking part in “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics”, to win a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. The prize may have been underwhelming, but the video game tournament was born.

Atari kicked off the new decade with the Space Invaders Championship, with a record turnout of 10,000 participants. Considered one of the most iconic games in history, Space Invaders elevated gaming from a novelty to an international industry.

That tournament saw the coronation of the first national Space Invaders champion, Rebecca Heineman. Scoring 165,000 points in two hours, she won her own stand-up arcade game. It was the beginning of a long career association with gaming for Rebecca – she went on to work on the development of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom.

Medieval Treasure Hunt

1982 saw Atari launch the infamous Swordquest competition. And it was exactly what it sounded like – a literal quest for an actual sword worth over $50,000! Winners could also earn a chalice, a crown, or a philosopher’s stone – each worth around $25,000 USD. All together, these prizes were valued at a staggering $150,000 USD – that’s an even more staggering $400,000 USD today.

Four escape room-style video games – Earthworld, Fireworld, Waterworld, and Airworld – were released with complimentary comic books developed by DC comics. Players had to decode hidden messages within the games to win the chance to play a special version of the game at Atari HQ. In short, you really had to commit to win this thing.

However, Atari ran out of money and had to cut the competition short – leaving one game unreleased. The remaining sword and stone are still missing. Some say the crown is in the hands of a mysterious winner who cannot be identified for legal reasons.

A picture of the Atari magazine advertising the Swordquest prizes: a sword, a talisman, a crown and a philosopher's stone.
SwordQuest Prizes via Atari Magazine

Gaming Goes Global

The 90s started with a bang as Street Fighter and Tekken took the market by storm, introducing competitive multiplayer modes for the first time. These fighting games also brought about the founding of EVO (Evolution Championship Series) in 1996.

QuakeCon‘s ‘Red Annihilation Tournament’ was held at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 1997. Considered to be the first major esports event in history, it brought the idea of video game tournaments for money and prizes to an ever-widening audience.

The tournament saw sixteen players battling in a fight to the death on Quake. The winner – Dennis Fong – walked away with a 1987 Ferrari 328 GTS (which he still owns today!). Fong was named as the first professional video gamer by Guinness World Records. He has gone down as a true legend in video game history.

A picture of Dennis Fong posing next to a red Ferrari.
Dennis Fong with His Ferrari

Generation LAN

The birth of the internet in the 90’s allowed for PC gamers to join the skill-based gaming party. And they were actual parties: ‘LAN Parties’ brought the gaming session to a new level, beyond the limits of that one guy’s cool basement (nothing says ‘friendship’ like sharing cables and computers into the dead of night).

PC games like Counter-Strike, Starcraft and Warcraft gained a loyal base, creating a new generation of players and fans like these handsome fellas.

A photo of six young men gaming together with monitors and television sets around them and cables across the floor.
‘LAN Party’ posted by a now deleted Reddit user

A financial crisis in South Korea was the stage for the next micro boom. A craze for internet cafes and LAN gaming centres offered people the escapism they needed. When the economy improved, the passion for gaming stuck around. Televised tournaments like World Cyber Games and Major League Gaming – with prizes of up to $1mil USD – and a growing audience of men and women soon followed.

Real money and prizes

And, that growing audience has allowed professional gamers to earn serious money. Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf won $3 million USD in the Fortnite World Cup in 2019. To put that in perspective, Dennis Fong made around $100,000 USD a year at the peak of his career. He’d have to play for 30 years to make what Bugha made in a weekend!

But, the professionalisation of any sport comes with a cost. Esports has become a real juggernaut. Kids with dreams of turning pro practice for 8 hours a day, dedicating their lives to the grind like an aspiring athlete. Naturally, gaming becomes less about fun and more about a potential path to riches and greatness.

What about players who just want to enjoy a good contest? Well, with Stakester, you can enjoy playing your favourite games, like Fifa 21 or Warzone, with a sense of heightened competition. All you have to do is download the app, choose your game and entry fee, and play!

A photo of Kyle Giersdorf with his trophy at the Fortnite Cup Finals.
Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf with his trophy

The next step

Apps like ours offer players the chance to compete on their own terms, away from the pay-to-win mechanics you see in popular titles. Every competition on Stakester is set up to be as fair as possible, with unique rulesets for each game. Download the app today and back yourself in the Stakester arena!