MARSHALLTOWN — Walter Day, often called the “Father of Esports,” visited Marshalltown Community College Friday morning and wowed the large audience of students and visitors with the history of the competitive gaming industry and how Iowa fits into the global esports arena.
Day founded the Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa in 1981, and he was one of the first people to realize the competitive nature of video games, as he quickly found that high scores on individual arcade game leaderboards were sought after by players. This realization didn’t just come from watching others play, though. Day enjoyed playing arcade games himself, which is what led him to dedicate his time to them for many years.
His passion for games was one of the first things he mentioned during the presentation on Friday, endearing him to the gathered individuals who shared the same enthusiasm for modern-day gaming.
“I have something in common with all of you. I really love video games, and that was the whole reason that I opened up an arcade way back in 1981. I did it as an excuse to play more video games,” Day said.
During his presentation, Day recalled a January 1982 edition of TIME magazine that featured video games on the front cover because the world was so captivated by the era’s revolutionary technology. The article in the magazine told the story of a young man who played “Defender” for 15 hours in one quarter.
After reading that article, a boy who played at Twin Galaxies approached Day and said he could beat the high score in the magazine. Day asked the boy to prove it, so he did the following weekend. Day said that boy played “Defender” for 24 hours on one quarter and scored 24 million points.
“What was so interesting was that I made a significant discovery. I loved video games, but I didn’t have any perspective on how incredibly big and important video games were to the culture of our times,” Day said. “Video games were a big deal. Society and the media, and just the culture, hadn’t figured out exactly what they were all about, but all they knew was that they were fascinated by them. And they were a big deal, and this story about going for a world record on a game was a really big story.”
The Monday after the boy scored 24 million points in “Defender,” Day called the manufacturer of the game, Williams Electronics, and asked if it was the world record.
“They said a very momentous thing. They said, ‘We don’t know. No one keeps track of the scores,” Day said.
Out of curiosity, Day called seven different game manufacturers and two gaming magazines that day, and he was met with the same answer every time. With arcade scores being wiped from the machines every evening and with no one keeping track of top scores, there was no way to be certain what the world record was.
But people seemed to be interested. According to Day, the manufacturers told him that people would call daily to ask about top scores, and it was at that point that he decided to create an international scoreboard.
During Day’s travels as a commemorative newspaper salesman, he had written down the scores from arcades around the country because he found them fascinating, but this practice proved helpful when he decided to create a new scoreboard to track world records.
“I would stop at every arcade I could while traveling as a salesman and play the games there, and I would write scores down because I was intrigued by excellence in action. I was intrigued by how high a score can get? How good could a person get? How much full potential can they unfold to dominate and beat those games?” Day asked.
He called the seven manufacturers and two magazines back and told them he would be keeping track of high scores. Those companies began directing curious callers to Twin Galaxies for score information, and calls and letters began pouring in daily to report new high scores.
Day said the international scoreboard came together almost effortlessly, and everything fell into place as if it was meant to be.
“It was almost like the forces of nature,” Day said. “Suddenly, overnight, believe it or not, it actually happened. We were recognized as the official scorekeepers of the whole world.”
Day said Twin Galaxies was not the first arcade to realize how competitive video games were. Almost every arcade had a leaderboard, and players were always competing to see who the best in the arcade was.
With an international scoreboard, however, people could measure themselves against worldwide competition and those scores would not be wiped away overnight.
“There was no unified, organized source for record-keeping for the arcade industry. So, all these different arcades everywhere, they had contests, they had scoreboards, they had competitive activity, but when Twin Galaxies in the middle came into existence, Twin Galaxies united all the arcades into one common, global esports arena. This was the birth of organized competitive esports,” Day said.
In addition to the first international gaming scoreboard, Day also authored the very first Guinness Book of World Records for the video game category. Twin Galaxies grew in fame as the word got out about what Day was doing, and Jerry Parker, the mayor of Ottumwa at the time, even proclaimed the city as the video game capital of the world in November 1982. Later, Gov. Terry Branstad also visited Twin Galaxies with the mayor and a few representatives from the video game industry to make Parker’s proclamation official.
Day discussed several other occasions when Twin Galaxies made the news throughout his presentation, and he also discussed the commemorative trading cards he has created over the years celebrating individuals who have made a large contribution to the esports industry.
A trading card featuring MCC’s very own Esports Coach, Nate Rodemeyer, was unveiled during the presentation, and Day presented it to him for all the hard work and effort that he put into bringing Esports to the school, both as a recreational activity and as two distinct degree programs. Day also invited Fairfield High School Esports Coach John Grunwald to the stage to say a few words regarding the Walter Day National High School and Collegiate Esports Awards Ceremonies.
The ceremonies came together as a partnership between Grunwald and Day, and the main purpose of the event is to honor esports athletes and the individuals that contribute to high school esports by presenting awards and trading cards to them during the event. The next awards ceremony will be on Feb. 18, 2023, and it will be the second one ever held.
At the conclusion of the presentation, Day had just one last token of appreciation to share with MCC and its students — his iconic black and white referee jersey that he has worn for years to symbolize the athletic values of esports.
“I am handing off, in a sense, my spiritual responsibilities for having been the one who masterminded a lot of stuff over the years, and I firmly put it in your hands because you’re gonna have ideas. You’re gonna have excitement. You’re gonna have energy. You’re gonna have great intention to make things happen, and I can see that you’re the group that can make stuff happen,” Day said. “You are part of history right now, and I’m honored to have done what I’ve done, but really, the next step is up to you.”
Day, while still planning on making appearances to do presentations like the one at MCC and similar events, has largely retired from the video game industry and will be primarily focusing on his music career.
After Day handed off his jersey to Rodemeyer, he was given a tour of the MCC Esports facilities, and later, he returned to mingle with the eager audience and sign his own trading cards to those who wanted them — just about everyone in attendance.
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