The Atari $50,000 World Championships Fiasco

AtariWorldChamps_titleLong before Walter Day established his Twin Galaxies scoreboard and way before eSports were created, there were video games competitions taking place all over North America, with the first tournament staged in New York City in 1980 by Atari. The First National Space Invaders Competition proved quite popular with 10,000 participants, with regional events taking place in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fort Worth, Chicago, and New York City. The tournament had widespread print and television coverage, ensuring that the video gaming craze reached the masses.

Space Invaders competition, circa 1980–1981

Following on from the success of the Space Invaders tournament, Atari enlisted Tournament Games Inc. (TGI was a successful foosball tournament organisation) to help it establish the Atari $50,000 World Championships to be held in Chicago at the end of 1981. To say that this tournament ended up being a total disaster for all parties, including the handful of participants, would be a gross understatement.

The event was promoted as a major sporting contest which would attract 10,000 to 15,000 of the world’s best video game players to go head-to-head on a single arcade game, Centipede. Well, the event only attracted 138 players, well under the projected participation levels expected. The low participation rate was due to contestants expected to foot the bill for their own transportation, accommodation to the event, and then pay a $60 entry fee and feed their own quarters to play the tournament Centipede arcade machines – the cost being way out of reach for the typical video game player of the day! Adding insult to injury, many of the contestants were not advised that Centipede would be the only game in the Championship, many of whom were there to compete on Asteroids and other Atari arcade games (Asteroids Deluxe, Battlezone, Warlords and Red Baron).

Sadly, there were no winners at the Atari $50,000 World Championships, not even the eventual winners, with their cheques bouncing, they left empty handed and totally jaded. The championship was an unmitigated disaster, a blight on the history of video gaming tournaments.

The Atari $50,000 World Championships farce flyer

source: The Golden Age Arcade Historian
Space Invaders competition image source: International Journal Of Communication