Video games and sports have been close partners since their inception. Throughout the turbulent 80′s and the death of the arcade, the grand times and great triumphs of the game industry, sports games have been there. They entertain the wishes of would be NBA stars who can’t play at a professional level. They fill the void for baseball fans during the off-season who itch for the first pitch thrown in April. Most importantly, they offer hours of entertainment for gamers and casual players alike, and every so often change the nature of the industry. There has not been one single home video game console released that did not have at least one sports title in it’s library of games, if not in it’s launch lineup. Sports games have proven time after time that they can both sell systems and destroy them, introduce new heroes to gamers and bring new markets to the gaming industry, and if not for one specific sports title and the man who created it, video games as we know them may never have existed at all…

…but you’ve read all that twice before.

#1 Tennis For Two

All my life, I’ve had and played video games. I’ve “wasted” a good third of my life playing them and I don’t regret a minute of it. I’ll take a great game over the useless sleep I get any day of the week. I think I feel about video games, the way Mauricio, this site’s fine host, feels about baseball. I’m just lucky enough that there is no gaming season and I can have them all year long. So when I write a list of ten games that I feel are the most important sports games in the history of the gaming industry, understand that each entry in the list has a special place in my heart. This is due to the fact that they have improved my hobby of choice and I am thankful for their respective contributions. That’s why “Tennis For Two” is my number one game on the list.

Tennis For Two has the grand distinction of not only being the very first sports related video game ever, but the very first video game ever, by definition. This being (and no it ain’t Webster’s), a game played entirely within the confines of the display screen purely for amusement. There were electronic computer games before Tennis For Two, but most of them were just glorified performance tests for the computers at the time and few of them used any real or purely visual output. TFT (see what I did there?) is the first and there’s no question about it.

William Higinbotham, the game’s inventor, was a physicist who developed electronic components that were used on the first atomic bomb. Although he spent the rest of his life doing the work he wanted to be remembered for, which was speaking about nuclear arms control, he may well be remembered more for his contributions to the video game industry. He had expressed regret before his death that his memory lives on more in Pong than in a peaceful, nuclear free world, but perhaps he can take solace in the fact that his game led to countless millions’ enjoyment and happiness. That is no small feat.

So sure, it’s pretty much the first video game ever. If that’s the only reason it’s number one, video game elitists would probably have me lynched. There is another reason why I’m rating it so high. Higinbothom never bothered to patent the damn thing. He never made any money from it and even went so far as to testify against Magnavox when they went and sued everyone in the late 70’s and early 80’s for patent infringement when they made better game systems than the stupid Odyssey. (Seriously, read about that thing. It’s dumb as all hell.) Since Higinbothom never patented Tennis For Two, stating that he didn’t think it was a big deal and the US government would have owned the patent anyway, it opened to door for anyone to make similar games. Think about that. Just a second. Think of your favorite video game. Think of all the fun you have or had playing it. Now think of its chances of ever existing if the United States government held sway over the patent it was based on.

Are you getting it yet?

Even though Magnavox won all of their lawsuits, except the one against Atari when they settled out of court, it was too late. Video games had already become such big business that companies could afford the miniscule royalties they were ordered to pay Magnavox. So everyone continued to make games and the industry as we know it survived and flourished, then fell apart, then Nintendo came and saved everyone’s ass but you get my point.

Mr. William Higinbotham

it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.” -William Higinbothom

William Higinbothom is probably the first true video game developer as well, creating his game solely for the amusement of others. Tennis For Two was meant to be an interactive display at the 1958 Visitors Day at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Higinbothom realized that some people just aren’t satisfied by looking at stuff. So he grabbed an oscilloscope and an analog computer they had laying around and drew up plans for his game. He said it took about two hours to design and a couple weeks for lab technician Bob Dvorak to put it all together with parts that were available. I was, unfortunately, unable to find any specific pricing for the parts used back in 1958, but considering how popular the game was at the time, it has to be a record for the cheapest successful video game ever made even with the high cost of computers in the 50’s.

It was a simple game. Two players held controllers that consisted of a metal box with a knob to control the angle of the ball and a button that allowed you to hit it. Unlike Pong, which was a top view of ping pong, Tennis For Two was viewed from the side of the tennis court with the net upright in the middle of the screen. Check the video.

So there you have it. This simple little game, created solely to amuse visitors at an otherwise static and uneventful display of scientific gadgetry, that the creator didn’t think was any big deal and never bothered to patent is the most important sports video game ever.

Are you surprised?

Higinbothom sure was.

Next week I promise to have some reviews up. In fact, look for a quick overview of the state of sports gaming on your iPhone.

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