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1. 1980 Space Invaders Tournament
While it wasn’t the first video game tournament, the 1980 Space Invaders tournament was what brought gaming contests to the mainstream. And the insane popularity of this event surprised just about everyone!
What made this event so notable was just how many people participated. Organizers didn’t know if very many players would actually show up. To their shock, over 10,000 players participated, and this even formed the foundation of what would eventually become the modern eSports scene.
2. The 1983 Video Game Masters
It’s a little tough to talk about a “Video Game Masters” tournament without snickering at the name. But these events helped to legitimize video game tournaments and landed winners in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The intent of the 1983 event was to take some of the top gamers from around America on a kind of tour of the country, stopping at key locations (like Nintendo headquarters) and contest destinations. But pretty much everything went wrong: their bus kept breaking down and eventually died, they had to keep borrowing things like money and vehicles, and the poor players were constantly on the hunt for the real prize: free food.
At the center of this weird event was a young Billy Mitchell. While he was known even then for setting high scores, fellow players remember him more for his high speed: he got pulled over when a cop clocked him for driving the team’s rented car (now that the bus was dead) at 94 miles per hour.
3. Activision Patches
Not all video game contests were major tournaments. This is something Activision proved in the 1980s while accidentally inventing the video game achievement.
Back in the day, Activision invited players to complete certain challenges in the game and then take a picture of their TV as proof. Once you sent it to them, the company would mail you a congratulatory letter (sometimes from a game character) and send you a sweet patch.
Believe it or not, players are still completing these Activison challenges. And while you can no longer ask Activision for a patch, you can track these beautiful patches down via eBay and other secondary markets.
4. The Original Spacewar Tournament
Gaming tournaments and eSports are a big business these days. But it all started with a humble little contest at Stanford University.
The university hosted a tournament for the game Spacewar! And they knew how to advertise it: flyers for the event called it “The first ‘Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics” and promised students “free beer!”
The event was effectively sponsored by Rolling Stone, who took photos and published the story in their Sports section. Because of that, some consider this the true beginning of eSports. As for the winner, all they got was a subscription to Rolling Stone, but maybe the real prize was the free beer they found along the way.
5. Atari $50,000 World Championships
Atari was emboldened by the success of the Space Invaders tournament in 1980. To ramp things up, they held another event called the Atari $50,000 World Championships. And it ended up being one of the worst decisions the company would ever make.
Based on the previous event, Atari hoped to attract at least 10,000 players, but they only ended up with 138. Why was that? Well, the company expected players to pay for their own travel and accommodations and then pay an extra $60 to compete. They even expected players to bring their own quarters to compete in the one and only game: the arcade version of Centipede.
You might expect a smaller event would make it easier to win. But the winners’ checks bounced, making this possibly the worst gaming tournament ever held.
What would happen if a video game contest became the stuff of legend? Then it would probably look a lot like Swordquest.
To promote their games like Earthworld, Fireworld, and Waterworld, Atari held a contest where players would have to solve riddles between comic books and video games until finalists would compete for the last prize. But the video game crash kept Atari from completing the fourth game and completing the contest.
Because of this, only two of the major prizes were awarded: a Talisman of Penultimate Truth and a Chalice of Light. Other prizes were made and never awarded, including The Sword of Ultimate Sorcery that was made of gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies. That sword was worth $50,000 by itself back in the day, and many modern players still dream of hunting down these prizes that were never awarded.
7. Nintendo World Championship
For 80’s kids, the Nintendo World Championship remains the ultimate gaming contest. It was inspired by the contest at the end of the movie The Wizard, but Nintendo found some interesting ways to make the event pretty weird.
This event kicked off Nintendo’s mania for using special cartridges for their major events. Players had exactly six minutes and 21 seconds to play Super Mario Bros., Rad Racer, and Tetris. The highest score won, but the Tetris points were weighted so much higher than the other games that the best strategy was to get Mario killed ASAP so you could get more Tetris points.
Major prizes included a car, a big-screen TV, a $10,000 savings bond, and a Mario trophy. But the real winners were the contestants who held onto the special cartridges that now sell for about $20,000!
8. Campus Challenge 1992
Nintendo’s Campus Challenge events seemed like a no-brainer. What better way to market to older gamers that liked the Sega Genesis (which had come out two years before) than by holding events on college campuses?
As usual, players had to compete on a special cartridge and had six minutes and 21 seconds to rack up points. But two factors made this event an oddity: the first is that the grand prize ($10,000) was determined by a random drawing of campus winners instead of an ultimate showdown.
The other oddity is that unlike other competitive Nintendo cartridges, there are only three of these carts left that we know about. Every year, players hope to find one of these cartridges and make a pretty penny: one cart sold for $4,000 back in 2006!
9. PowerFest 94
PowerFest 94 was Nintendo’s major tournament once the SNES came out. And in true Nintendo fashion, they made it pretty damn weird!
Once more, players had to compete in various games for six minutes and 21 seconds. And once again, the winning strategy was to get to the final game (Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball) as quickly as possible because of the way the points were weighted.
What made the event painful is that one of the games was the notoriously difficult Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. And what made it truly strange was that Nintendo could not whip up their usual custom cart for the event. Instead, they Frankensteined four ROMs together in a contraption that is nearly as big as the SNES.
10. The 1994 Blockbuster Video World Game Championship
Despite giving gamers an event template with their World Championship, Nintendo didn’t host that many major events. And that left companies like Blockbuster to host events such as the 1994 Blockbuster Video World Game Championship (an event that Dr. Disrespect claimed to have won).
The basics of the tournament were simple enough: players competed in various games for the Genesis and SNES, including NBA Jam, Clay Fighter, and Sonic the Hedgehog 3. But the strangest part was that Shaquille O’Neil was there to help promote his new game Shaq-Fu.
Some winning players were among the first people in the world to play Shaq-Fu. And honestly, that’s probably the best way to make those winners feel like losers!
11. Super Star Fox Weekend
Back in 1993, the hype for the first Star Fox game was very real. And to capitalize on that hype, Nintendo held a special Star Fox competition throughout both America and Europe.
Players competed on a special Star Fox cartridge and could win prizes like lapels and t-shirts. But the weird part of this event concerned the main prizes: for winning at individual locations, players could walk away with the ugliest windbreaker ever created. And the grand prize (a trip to Europe) was awarded via a random drawing of store winners.
The punchline? The winner didn’t want to go to Europe and took a cash payout instead. It’s probably for the best--in Europe, he’d have to master calling the game Star Wing instead of Star Fox.
12. Red Annihilation Quake Tournament
Depending on your age, the name “Red Annihilation” may not mean much. But in 1997, this was the name of the premier nationwide tournament for the PC shooter Quake.
The funniest thing about this tournament was the prize: John Cormack 1987 Ferrari 328 GTS. Interestingly, the winner of this tournament was Dennis Fong, who had previously won the Deathmatch ‘95 event. By this point, Fong was earning over $100,000 per year from gaming tournaments and is often considered the world’s first professional gamer!
13. Iron Man Joust Tournament
Details of some of the strangest video game contests have been largely lost to time. But for some of them, even the smallest details reveal how wild it really was.
For example, The Strong National Museum of Play uncovered details about an “Iron Man” Joust tournament back in the ’80s. During this event, an 18-year-old named James Vollandt successfully played the arcade game Joust for sixty-seven and a half hours!
Of course, he did lose consciousness for about 15 minutes. But we won’t hold that against him.
14. Hearthstone Grandmasters
In the modern age of gaming tournaments, it’s usually not the companies making headlines. Instead, it’s the players. And nowhere was this more clear than with the Hearthstone Grandmasters in Taiwan in 2019.
After his match, the player Ng Wai Chung (better known as Blitzchung) voiced his support for Hong Kong’s protests against China. In response, Blizzard banned him from tournaments for a year, terminated the employment of his interviewers, and took away his winnings.
After enough public outcry, Blizzard restored his winnings and reduced the ban. But the fallout of their response was countless players calling for a boycott and discussing how Blizzard is clearly in bed with China. And though they allegedly took action against the player because they wanted to keep politics out of their games, players soon transformed Overwatch’s Mei into an icon for the liberation of Hong Kong.
15. Super Hot Ronny’s Rumble
So, what’s the strangest video game contest ever held? It’s very likely to be the event known as Super Hot Ronny’s Rumble.
What made this contest interesting is that it combined tests of physical endurance with tests of video game prowess. To this end, players had to master things like smashing pinatas, running to helicopters, and shouting phrases with a mouthful of marshmallows.
Oh, and there were some video games, too.