ICONS: Donn Nauert is one of the fathers of eSports competition0 Comments
There is no doubt that eSports has grown and is continuing to reach new heights. From airings on ESPN and features in ESPN the Magazine to selling out major arenas such as the Staples Center, it is safe to say that competitive gaming is finally in the fast lane of competitive sports in terms of growth and expansion.
But well before Quake and early LAN parties kicked the industry into gear there was a grassroots effort by a number of young and hungry video game experts who helped competitive video gaming break through various barriers. Among them was Austin, Texas gaming champion Donn Nauert, who once captained the US National Video Game Team, the first true gaming clan in the United States.
Before Donn's efforts helped eSports with their humble beginnings, of course, he had some humble beginnings of his own.
"I remember playing Pong back in 1972, but it was the weekends I spent at a friend's house playing Intellivision's World Championship Baseball that really drew me into video games," Nauert remembered. "We would have tournaments during the weekends that lasted late into the night. The competitive nature of those weekends really sparked my interest in video games as I explored other games and genres. Then in high school in 1981, I would find myself at the local Stop-N-Go playing Pac-Man and Asteroids after baseball practice."
In 1984, Nauert's competitive spirit found a platform after a late night read of an early video gaming periodical.
"I was working for a convenience store working the late shift when I saw Computer Games Magazine on the shelf," he continued. "Flipping through the issue I noticed they had a scoreboard high score list in the back. I had beaten the score listed for Crossbow so I sent in a photo of my highest score. From there they contacted me and I would eventually get an invite to the 1985 North American Video Game Challenge in Los Angeles."Before doing battle with on-screen enemies and fellow competitive gamers, however, Donn had to win a battle closer to home.
"Most of my family was against going to the tournament and having anything to do with video games, saying it was a fad and a waste of time," he said. "But after placing fourth in this tournament and seeing footage they suddenly were offering me rides to the arcade and wanted to make sure I always had enough quarters."
While Nauert competed in numerous arcade game tournaments from this point forward, one particular moment from 1985 is the one that he says still stands out to him today.
"It was the first day of the competition and as the day came to a close I chose to play Cheyenne during the free play period," Donn said. "I started off well and was really in the zone. At some point an NBC crew tried to interview me and the light from the camera caused a huge reflection on the glass. As I turned toward the camera, I realized there was about 100 people behind me watching me play as I had broken the high score for the game by about 20 million points. Just turning to look behind me and seeing the entire arcade staring at me was a real 'WTF' moment."
Donn would eventually move on to captain the U.S. National Video Game Team, the first true professional gaming team in the United States. Founded in the early 80s, the influence of the USNVGT would reach new heights during the later part of the decade as their members became some of the very first pro gamers to gain endorsement deals and promote products.
"Companies would hire the team for promotions and would handle a lot of the media aspects for the events," Donn recalled. "We would promote individual produts or a line of products and got to travel all across the U.S. and Europe for conventions. Nintendo, Sega and Atari would also hire us for conventions to promote their games to buyers. Imagne being hired by Nintendo to go to Hamburg, Germany for a convention to promote VS. Super Mario Bros. for the first time it was shown outside of Japan."The U.S. National Video Game Team's name began to start popping up everywhere, from magazines to newspapers to a Seal of Approval that appeared on the packages of various video games and products. Donn himself appeared in a series of television commericals to tout Atari's 7800 console during this period of time as well, just as the North American video game industry was bouncing back.
"The industry itself was still very young and so while there were opportunities like this available I think both the video game manufacturers and the organizers of the team didn't really have a full grasp on how to promote each other to the fullest," Nauert said. "The commericals aired in 1987 at a time when Atari was on the way out and Nintendo and Sega were just really starting to really take hold. The team would work with all three manufacturers over the next few years."
Among the most notable television moments featuring Donn and the U.S. National Video Game Team came when ABC televisions That's Incredible! aired a special called Incredible Sunday in 1988. In many ways, this official Nintendo competition served as the pre-cursor to the more famous 1990 Nintendo World Championships. Nauert was on hand as the official referee.
"I'm not sure if Nintendo approached Incredible Sunday or the other way around, but we had a very good relationship with Nintendo at the time," he added. "The relationship was key for us being involved with the event. I had little involvement with the actual planning of the event, but when they asked me to referee I said yes. We agreed to allow the winner to become a member of the U.S. National Video Game Team. I was there to present the team jacket to the winner. Overall I had a great time seeing how the actual show was set up and what they did behind the scenes."
Another series of U.S. National Video Game Team appearances took place in a series of strategy videocassettes that have become somewhat notorious on the internet in recent years, despite the fact that one of them contains the first on-screen reference ever to the iconic Konami code, read by Donn himself.
"I had a real love/hate relationship with the strategy videos," Donn said. "While I loved the idea the execution was lacking. Basically, I'd get a call on Friday night asking if I could go to the studio the next morning and to bring some games. I really didn't know what they were looking for or what we were going to do until we got there. Had I known, I would have switched out some of the games and brought better codes and tricks to use for the tapings. There was also far too much dead time where they showed us really doing nothing, so one trick that should have taken 15 seconds to show ended up playing out over three or more minutes."
Despite the television commercials, product endorsements and broadcast TV appearances, however, Nauert feels he could have done even more to push video gaming into popular culture.
"I think the greatest missed opportunity for me during this period was not being able to find a way to really get competitive gaming more mainstream," he stated. "There always seemed to be a disagreement on what types of games to use and how to best use the most popular games as a launching point. Instead of focusing on the most popular the attention could have stayed with the games that would have worked in my mind, such as Tecmo Bowl tournaments, R.B.I. Baseball challenges and so on. There were fewer tournaments as there were few arcade games coming out because of the shift from arcade to home consoles. I'm not sure why the team didn't have more tournaments involving console games."
As the 1990s rolled around, the U.S. National Video Game Team began to slowly phase out of the public eye. According to Nauert, the reasons for this were both internal and external.
"A factor was the changing interests of the people that participated with the team," he noted. "Many wanted to be more involved in magazines or into the development of the games themselves so their time was spent elsewhere. There were more magazines available that manufacturers and publishers could work with, such as Video Games and Computer Entertainment, Electronic Gaming Monthly, GamePro, Nintendo Power and so on. The companies didn't have to rely on using the team for promotions as much."
Nauert moved on to other interests as well, working with Acclaim Entertainment on titles such as The Simpsons: Bart's Nightmare and a number of video game publications hitting the market during this time. He eventually moved on to THQ where he not only worked as a producer and Director of Quality Assurance until 2004 but also made another appearance in the video game world as a hidden character in WCW Nitro.
Today, Nauert works as a high school math teacher in Austin. He admits he sometimes considers returning to eSports but feels his interests and the pace of competition has changed.
"I'm not too sure I could keep up with players today," he added. "I think of it as if I played baseball or football back in the 1980s. The game speed is a lot faster now than it was back then. I still play games but have switched to MMOs and have been in the same guild since 2001. I throw in the occasional Dragon's Age type game for the PC every now and then."
While Donn might say he feels a million miles away from the video game industry and competitive gaming today, he says he can also look back and feel he blazed one of the first trails for the modern day eSports competitors.
"We showed there could be a connection between video games, competitive tournaments and sponsorships," Donn said. "By showing that it was possible, it allowed others to come in and take it to the next level. I really hope that the recent television coverage will allow eSports to move even further into the limelight."