Thursday, March 7, 2013

The US National Video Game Team and the North American Video Game Challenge/1983 Video Game Masters

Today's post is the final in my three-part series on events that occured in the wake of the Life photo shoot. Unfotunately, I didn't have as much information on this event (save Walter Day's book) and there are a number of unanswered questions and no doubt some inaccuracies (I'm still not sure about the 2nd and 3rd State Team Tournaments, for example).

If any of the principals are out there and can provide me with corrections or more information, I'd appreciate it.



From the 1984 Guinness Book of World Records.
Scored from the 1983 Video Game Masters

            Perhaps the biggest victims, however, were the "superstar" players. Expecting a months-long tour, complete with salary, they now found themselves stranded in Boston and had to fly home at their own expense (though they had been paid for the five days the event lasted). Rather than returning home, a number of the players accompanied Walter Day back to Ottumwa. As they sat around trying to decide what to do they decided to stage an impromptu tournament. Walter Day contacted the Guinness Book of World Records, who agreed to sanction the event, which was dubbed the 1983 Video Game Masters. Walter also returned to his earlier idea. On July 25th he announced the re-formation of the U.S. National Video Game Team with five initial members:: Billy Mitchell, Steve Harris, Jay Kim, Ben Gold, and Tim McVey. It wasn't the first video game team. On October 10, 1982 the a group of students at North Missouri State University had formed a collegiate video game team (they even showed up at the famous Life magazine photo shoot).



            Day also organized the North American Video Game Challenge (now known as the 1983 Video Game Masters Tournament), the most ambitious video game tournament to date. Players from all 50 states and the Canadian provinces would be invited to a series of tournaments to fill 30 more slots on the National Video game Team. Three "State Teams Tournaments" would be held with the top ten finishers from each earning spots on the team. The results would be featured in the 1984 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. The first of the tournaments would take place during the week of August 24-28th in eight different arcades across the Midwest and West representing eight different states/regions: Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Idaho, Washington, Northern California/Northern Nevada, and Southern California. The tournament involved seven different games: Star Trek, Buck Rogers Planet of Zoom, Congo Bongo, Sinistar, Bubbles, Mario Bros., and the unreleased Atari 2600 game Spike's Peak (from K-tel/Xonox). Ten finalists from each of the 8 regions would compete in the finals on the 27th and 28th (at their home locations) with the top 10 overall finalists being invited to join the national team. Two more State Teams Tournaments were scheduled for October 28-30 and November 24-27.

Venues for the first State Teams Tournament:
  1. Video City, Dayton, OH
  2. Lake Odessa Fun Center, Lake Odessa, MI
  3. Video Wizard, Villa Park, IL
  4. Space City, Omah, NE
  5. Mr. Deli, Coeur D'Alene, ID
  6. Arnold's on the Avenue, Seattle, WA
  7. Starship Video, Upland, CA
  8. Video Paradise, San Jose, CA

            To kick off the tour, Day planned to take his five-member core team on the road to visit six of the eight locations where the first State Teams Tournament would take place taking on all challengers and raising money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation while collecting proclamations of support from Mayors and Governors to present to president Ronald Reagan. The trip would culminate with a visit to Washington D.C. where Day planned to top by the White House for a proclamation by Reagan before heading off to the Japanese embassy to challenge Japan to an international competition. Day also planned to open a Video Game Hall of Fame museum exhibit in Twin Galaxies.

            The last member of the team to arrive in Ottumwa was Ben Gold who showed up on August 11th to find the rest of the team camped out on the floor of Twin Galaxies out of money (Day had spent his last $60 on six red-and-white team t-shirts), desperate for food, and afraid to call home (lest their parents cut the trip short). That evening, their departure delayed by an interview with an AP reporter, the team set out in a rented 44-foot 1953 GMC city bus loaded with nine video games hooked up to a generator. It was a disaster from the start. The bus suffered the first of many breakdowns on the way to their first stop in Dayton, Ohio the next morning. After a delay, the bus finally started and they drove all night, arriving in Dayton at dawn where the owner of Video City arcade let them sleep in her living room. On other occasions, the team would sleep on the floor of the bus, wedged in between the video games.

After two days in Dayton, they broke down again in the arcade parking lot. A mechanic repaired the bus for free and the team headed to its next stop - tiny Lake Odessa, Michigan - then to the Video Wizard arcade in Villa Park, Illinois (a Chicago suburb). Once again the bus broke down. This time it was unable to switch gears. The bus was repaired late that evening but after three hours on the road, it broke down again in Portage, Wisconsin. When Day got out, he saw a trail of oil extending back along the road. The mechanic had failed to secure a gasket header properly and most of the oil had leaked out. A friendly cop arranged to have the bus towed into town where the players stayed for two days (missing an appointment at K-Tel offices in Minneapolis). This time the bus was beyond repair. The owner of the bus sent a car to bring the team back to Ottumwa where they packed into a hot, smelly school bus with a noisy engine and headed to Space City in Omaha where the bus was broken into and some of the players had their personal property stolen (including Ben Gold's prized log book of high scores that he'd kept since he started playing games seriously - Billy Mitchell found it in the woods). Steve Latch, the owner of Space City, offered them money to ditch the bus for a rental car. With Billy Mitchell taking the wheel, they headed for Mr. Deli in Couer D'Alene, Idaho 1,350 miles away with Mitchell driving 90 most of the way. From there it was on to Arnold's On the Avenue in Seattle. While in Seattle, the players paid a visit to Nintendo headquarters where they were treated to free handheld games and (more importantly) free food. The food was a godsend. With almost no money, the players had to scrounge free meals whenever and wherever they could. A few days later they traded the games for more food.

On their way to Starship Video in Upland, California, Mitchell as pulled over for speeding (he was going 94). Then, on Sunday, Ben Gold got violently sick. They found a clinic that was open on Sunday and Gold headed to the back while the rest of the team stayed in the waiting room. Before long Gold let out a bloodcurdling scream when the doctor game him a shot in the ass. For the rest of the day, Gold's teammates teased him mercilessly. After a quick stop at Starship Video they headed south to San Diego for a tour of Sega headquarters, During their visit, Sega learned that they'd been bought by Bally and were being shut down. While the employees wept, the team beat a hasty retreat. With that, the trip was over and the team members headed home. The tournament was won by Tim Collum (in January of 1984 he was crowned 1983 player of the year, along with Ben Gold, Billy Mitchell, Eric Ginner, and Steve Harris).
Local players from Video Paradise in San Jose.
The first two in the back row are Todd Walker and Eric Ginner

Information above taken from

      The team (with new members) made an appearance at the 1983 AMOA show where they rated games for Play Meter magazine. The proclamation from President Reagan never materialized. Nor did the competition with Japan . Day, Mitchell, and Tom Asaki did visit the White House in September, where they presented their Japan challenge to some aides they never heard from again. They then headed to the Italian Embassy to deliver another international challenge. This one was accepted. Finally they made their way to the Japanese Embassy only to be met by befuddled diplomats who told them they had no time to play foolish video games and sent them packing. The second and third State Teams Tournaments apparently never took place. For such a promising start, it was a sad ending and perhaps the best illustration that that the golden age of video games was over.
Walter Day returned to Ottumwa where, according to an article in the October 23 Omaha World Herald he had to sleep on the floor of Twin Galaxies and on three occasions forced to live off change from the coke machine as the arcade struggled to stay afloat. On March 6, Twin Galaxies closed its doors.  The U.S. National Video Game Team, however, lived on under the direction of Steve Harris. Despite its shaky start, the USNGVT was an important milestone in the history of e-sports. Sadly, it's one the few today remember.


  1. Is that the same Steve Harris who started EGM? And I feel like I've seen a documentary on Walter Day or TwinGalaxies somewhere, or it might have been on YouTube, but I can't remember the name of it. Great blog by the way.

  2. Yes, that is the same Steve Harris who started EGM. Walter Day and Twin Galaxies were featured in the film King Of Kong.

  3. Steve Juraszek, 16, Midway game tester, the kid whose Defender score became the catalyst for the formation of Twin Galaxies Intergalactic Scoreboard, was at the Time Life shoot as well. He arrived late from Chicago and missed the lineup for the photo. As you know, he was an early inspiration for many things in the video game arena and also a member of the first eSport division (April, 1982), Video Athlete Corporation, formed by deNure.

    Love your site :)

    I interviewed Juraszek in 2012. You are welcome to my notes and audio mp3 of the interview.