ICONS: Jeff Peters has left his mark on multiple aspects of gaming culture - Part 20 Comments
Welcome to the second part of the ICONS feature on Jeff Peters.
In the first part, we chronicled how Peters' early days as one of the first competitive video games players came about. With world records on a long list of early arcade hits, Peters name was established as one of the best gamers in the country. It was a distinction that led him to becoming part of the first true professional video game team, which eventually took over running the first official, competitive scoreboard.
"Early on, I competed in the tournaments that were setup by others in the early 1980s, some by Twin Galaxies, some by other groups." Peters continued "That's how I got to know most of the best players from around the US and Canada, as they’d all collect at these various tourneys. Once we’d gotten to know each other, we’d also collect at the industry arcade game conventions such as th AMOA show to see the new games first hand, plus seeing all the new stuff on free-play was an extra motivational force to attend."
Peters' astonishing competitive resume led to him joining what could be considered the first video game clan, the US National Video Game Team. As the mid-80s North American video game industry went through a period of distress, Peters and the USNVGT aimed to use their marketing power to make some changes.
"To be honest, when we organized our collective group into the official US National Video Game Team, it seemed like a quick way to get our passage paid to these arcade gaming conventions through sponsorships and appearance fees. So, early aspirations for the group were relatively small," Peters recalled. "Eventually, as part of trying to organize the USNVGT into a larger promotional entity and build a business around it, we bought the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard from Walter Day for around $1500, as Walter was getting tired of it all by the mid 80’s and was refocusing his efforts elsewhere. There was a public and industry belief that video games had indeed run their course and the business clearly wasn’t growing at that time."
Now that the USNVGT owned the very scoreboard that helped Peters gain worldwide fame as a top player, those involved aimed to use it to help represent the industry in a way that they felt was needed.
"Incorporating Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard allowed us to make the USNVGT more of a legitimate entity and have that same entity take over the world wide capturing and verifying of all arcade gaming scores," Peters added. "It also gave way to the USNVGT setting up its own tournaments and keeping the competitive streak of arcade gaming going, independently of what was happening in the world of home gaming consoles, good or bad. This era really was the beginning of what we now call eSports, and it all kicked into high gear through the combination of the USNVGT and Twin Galaxies becoming the same group and refocused as a business entity with a singular purpose now. We even managed to get media attention for some of the larger events, from network news like ABC, NBC and CBS, to CNN and all sorts of print from local newspapers, national magazines and USA Today. At least we could drive positive press about this scene when needed."
With the influence of the team continuing to grow, focus shifted off of just video game competition and into other business aspects, which led to the creation of the first new video game publication to follow the aftermath of the industry crash.
"The business side of the USNVGT went through a few partner changes of personal early on, and eventually settled into the hands of myself and Steve Harris to run the business and planning side of the company. We eventually set up shop in Southern California, and things grew from there," Peters said. "Initially, the USNVGT did paid appearances at industry conventions, kept creating and running competitive tournaments, running the Twin Galaxies Scoreboard, started a player organization called the Amusement Players Association (APA) and a small monthly newsletter for the AMA called Top Score. At the time, we all missed Joystik magazine. That was the biggest print magazine focused exclusively on arcade games, as it had just gone out of business with the changing of the video game industry as a whole. Top Score was a first attempt by us to recapture what we loved about Joystik, including printing a monthly high score board at the back of it."
Looking to raise the bar in an industry that Peters and Harris felt had more value than industry experts at the time believed, Top Score took a back seat to another concept, one that would become one of the most influential video game publications of all time.
"At the time, the Atari 2600 had crashed, arcades were no longer growing and the industry was trying to figure out what it really was as the hype of the early 80s had transitioned to something a bit smaller and unfocused," Peters added. "It was also at this time that we realized that Top Score just wasn’t big enough for everything we wanted to do. The bright idea was hatched to create a brand new, monthly, print magazine that was exclusively focused on all things video games. With that, the initial idea for Electronic Games Player - later renamed to Electronic Gaming Monthly - was born."
Peters noted that the idea of doing a publication for an industry that had been labeled as dead, with no experience, was a lofty project for the young video game hot shots.
"All business indicators at the time clearly said 'don't do this,' as the perception of the video game business around 1985-86 was more toxic that positive," Peters stated. "In fact, most of the public had concluded that video games were now dead or dying. I should mention that none of us had any idea on how to make a print magazine or publishing company, and what the distribution models were like, or even how the business was run. We just wanted to do it. So, we used the USNVGT to finance the whole endeavor and aligned our debut issue with the new worldwide launch of the Nintendo Famicom, or Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as it was known in the west. The good news is that both took off, even though both flew in direct head winds of complete failure in an industry that, perception wise, had now run its course."
As the North American video game industry continued to rise from the ashes, Peters and the USNVGT now found themselves riding the crest of a second wave of video game fever as the second half of the 1980s picked up steam.
"From that point on, the USNVGT, EGP/EGM and Nintendo all sort of combined in the minds of fans. We were the first to be there constantly reviewing NES games and giving support to the new resurgence of the video game industry," Peters continued. "We were still focused on high scores and, although nobody called it eSports, we were determined to keep the concept of competitive gaming alive, important, and relevant. At the time, we referred to it more as ‘video game Olympics’ and envisioned players getting together every year to compete on the same games and push the achievements on those key games higher and higher with each passing year. We envisioned filling stadiums with passionate fans, and watching the contests live on massive screens, exactly what we see happening now with Starcraft II, League of Legends and many others."
Peters was also quick to note how the still-continuing EGM of today wouldn't exist without these early efforts.
"Without the USNVGT, there wouldn’t be an EGM," he said. "It was because of our group and what it was trying to achieve in the greater public spotlight that the concept of creating a video-game based magazine at the time we did, would never have happened otherwise. It was a passion project from people that were passionate about the industry and wanted to give something back in terms of a product that we wanted to experience, but didn’t exist. There was no P&L analysis, long range business plans, research into economic indicators or marketing studies of the targeted demographics. It was just a bunch of guys going, 'Lets go remake Joystik, we'll figure it out." Of course, there’s intriguing stories of the trial and error of what it took to actually figure it all out as well. That didn’t come easy. The magazine, contests, high scores and public appearances all combined to keep the group relevant and grow as the industry grew back to health, and from that point, it really never looked back. It was definitely a fun ride at the time."
While eventually EGM would grow, Peters recalled that the earliest days were a bit humble by comparison.
"At the time, we all lived out of a small house in what is now Rancho Cucamonga, California that used to be my Grandmother's," he added. "That house was base of operations, hotel, world wide business headquarters, production facilities, and game playing mecca all-in-one, until we could afford to rent a real office. The magazine started out bi-monthly, as we couldn’t quite figure out how to do all the work on a monthly basis with our small crew, but the goal still remained to reach a monthly target. Eventually, we did achieve that when production and printers all aligned, and to this day the concept of writing and producing a daily newspaper is pure magic to me, based on the effort to just make a monthly print magazine."
While no longer associated with it, Peters said he is happy that EGM was able to leave such a lasting legacy in the video game world that still continues.
"It’s completely satisfying to see that EGM is still relevant today, as its gone on a long journey of changing hands, focus on print vs online, writers, context, consoles, owners, fads, and gaming trends, but the cool thing is that it still lives on," he added. "I never thought it would still be relevant when we started the journey in the mid 80s, but, then again, we were also young and indestructible and not thinking that far in advance either. I’d like to think that the magazine helped bring a new generation to video games, just as Nintendo was bringing a brand new console into the market, and no one knew what would happen as a result. We did lots of firsts, like competitive video gaming and a national video game team, and hopefully did some small part to keep the hobby relevant and interesting, as well as promote the positive side of video games in the face of so many detractors."
Peters also states how thrilled he is to see eSports finally develop into what he and the USNVGT had once envisioned possible.
"At that time, competitive video game playing was actually a spectator sport, where you had to be in attendance to witness what was going on," Jeff said. "There were no live streams, no shared desktops or online spectator modes. If you wanted to see the best players put up their best games, you had to be there in person. There were very few tournaments televised for a mass market to see, the best exception was the episode of That's Incredible! that staged a live video game contest on multiple games. It’s fantastic to see a video game competition existing in a sports dome or massive stadium with tens of thousands of fans show up to watch matches on huge screens, and to be there in person to witness history, as well as seeing the best in the craft showing off their wares. This is the type of scenario we dreamed of in the 80’s and really glad to see that vision had become reality now."
As the 1980s ended and, with the video game industry back at full speed in North America, Peters would move away from the US National Video Game Team and EGM and into the world of video game development, starting with SNK in the days leading up to the launch of the Neo Geo video game console.
Check back for more on that and Peters' continued role in the video game development side of the industry as his ICONS feature continues.