Today, millions of people from all over the world take part in a multi-billion dollar a year industry called competitive gaming. The rise of eSports has facilitated this trend—and people take it seriously. At any given championship bout, sometimes with hundreds of thousands in prize money on the line, teams of stone-faced competitors bark orders into headset mics and furiously mash buttons while legions of fans cheer them on. It’s a spectator sport for the new millennium.
But this is no modern phenomenon. Competitive gaming dates back to the earliest days of the neighborhood arcades. It was here that friends would watch other friends feed quarters into Galaga, Donkey Kong and PacMan machines, going head to head with other amateur competitors. So what turned the typical video arcade into a cathedral for wayward youth? Here are some reasons arcades have passed the test of time.
Arcades appeared at the intersection of technology and culture
By the late 1970s people were ready for an alternative to pinball machines. After all, these spring-launchers had been around in some form or another since the 1700s. Enter “Space Invaders” and the advent of vector display technology, which presented video-game images in grids of softly glowing lines. The ‘70s also saw the rise of personal computing, and arcade games delivered the digital entertainment the younger generation was looking for—a quantum leap from the humdrum board games of yesteryear. Titles like “Pac-Man” and “Donkey Kong” helped fuel the popularity, each generating billions of dollars in its own right.
This epoch of gaming was so noteworthy, in fact, that it is now referred to as “the golden age of arcades.” Experts place this period as between 1978-1983. The popularity of arcade machines became such that, by 1981, they were generating $7 billion annually—and this solely from quarters. By 1982 there were 400,000 street arcades open for business, and some 1.5 million arcade machines in all of North America. And even though the popularity of the arcade slowly began to taper off after 1983, the romance of it endured for well over a decade.
Arcades grew with the technology
While kids may have flocked to these new video game hubs in the 1970s, the old fuddy-duddies probably looked at a “Space Invaders” machine and thought it would be a passing fad. But as the years wore on advances in technology allowed for new titles with better graphics and more comprehensive gameplay. And always, this hardware was able to fit in an upright cabinet with the game’s name emblazoned on the marquee.
Of course advents in technology all but hastened the downfall of the arcade. With the popularity of home consoles on the rise, kids no longer needed to feed quarters into a cabinet to get their video-game fix. But even as gamers bounced Super Mario up and down on their home television screens, the arcade was still out there, and it offered a couple things home consoles couldn’t. Namely, there were no parents there, and kids could compete with total strangers. So even though experts had written the arcade’s obituary in the late 1980s, what these same pundits didn’t know was that the scene was about to enjoy a renaissance.
Arcades crossed generations
It was a rite of passage for kids of the 1970s to make the pilgrimage to the local arcade, just as it was for kids of the 1980s. And this held true for the new generation in the ‘90s. Even with so many home and handheld console systems out there, a good arcade was still the place to be. The reasons for this resurgence in popularity were pretty straightforward, and they involved vigilantes in karategis and an electricity-imbued man/monster from Brazil. Fighter games like “Double Dragon” and “Street Fighter II” became all the rage, getting kids off the sofa, out of the house and pouring through the arcade doors en masse. The motivation remained just as potent as it was in the late 1970s: folks could stoke their competitive fires and test their skills against other gamers whom they’d never even met.
Of course technology caught up to this trend too, and with the inclusion of online play in most home consoles, kids didn’t have to leave the house anymore to go head to head against competitors. The arcade industry managed one last spasm of innovation with the release of rhythm games like “Dance Dance Revolution,” but the popularity of these hulking machines was short lived due to the release of Xbox’s Kinect and PlayStation Move, which allowed gamers to play these same rhythm titles right from their own home.
But the classic arcade is hardly extinct. A dedicated niche community of retro gamers helps keep the scene alive. Classic arcade tournaments are held every year that draw folks from around the world. They may not be able to compete with the mass audiences that eSports contests garner, but they remain a testament to the allure of community gaming as well as a nostalgic touchstone to an earlier, more innocent time, when games first became electronic and the future was wide open.