Insert Coin To Continue: Part One – An American Revolution, 1978-1982

Video games, despite the best efforts of those who would wish otherwise, are not going anywhere. It’s now been a little over four full decades since arcade games were properly brought into homes with the release of the Atari 2600 console, and football has been at the centre of this culture since more or less the very beginning. So, what better way for us to mark this than by reaching back into the dim and distant history of video gaming to bring you something like a fairly comprehensive history of the game as displayed through pixels and sprites?

Sport has been at the heart of video gaming since its very introduction. Released (briefly – it was a diversion rather than anything to form the basis of an industry on) in 1958, Tennis For Two, a two-player tennis game for which the viewing screen was an oscilloscope, is widely considered to be the very first purpose-built video game of any description, whilst Pong, the game which broke video games out of scientific research facilities and into the wider marketplace, also relied on tennis for its inspiration. With the majority of games development taking place in the United States of America and Japan, however, we might have expected the early development of sports video games to have overlooked our particular sport.

Clones and Trackballs

Pong’s great breakthrough came in the summer and autumn of 1972 – the story of how co-founders established their game by putting it in a bar and then returning because it had stopped working only to find that this was because the coin mechanism was blocked with too many coins has long since passed into video gaming mythology – and it didn’t take long for the global popularity of association football to start pushing console manufacturers towards trying to shoehorn football into the new medium.

The first iterations of football came the following year, with the release of two different games called Soccer in 1973. One was produced by Taito America – it was one of their very first games – and was essentially Pong on a green screen, whilst the other was produced by an American manufacturer called Ramtek and was broadly the same, with the exception of having a pair of barriers within the field of play to change the direction of the ball and the ability for four players to play the game at the same time. It has been suggested that Taito’s version was also the first game to feature trackball technology, something occasionally – and erroneously – attributed to Atari with their 1978 arcade game, Football, more of which later.

The Revolution Will Be Televised

The home console revolution began in line with the release of Pong, but it wasn’t through Atari. In September 1972, a month after the first coin-op version of Pong appeared in bars, Magnavox’s Odyssey started to appear in shops. The story of the legal fights between the two companies carried on for years. The Odyssey was obviously not technically sophisticated. It provided three points of light on a black background, and no sound. There were eleven games available, and these came with screen overlays to make the games more “realistic” looking. Whilst American football and ice hockey were both included, though, association football remained off Magnavox’s American-tuned radar until 1974, when a “Soccer” overlay appeared on their export edition. It was Atari’s release of a home console version of Pong which first incurred Magnavox’s legal ire, the following year.

Three years later, however, there was a great leap forward in home entertainment with the release of the Atari 2600, the console which would come to shape the entire future of the video games industry. And the Atari 2600 came with games, such as International Soccer, from 1982, RealSports Soccer, from 1982, and Championship Soccer (also known as “Pele’s Soccer” at the time of its release). It felt, however, as though football was too complex a game for systems this basic in their capabilities. There are those who enjoy them, but they seldom top lists of most popular games on the Atari 2600. In the arcades, meanwhile, Atari’s 1980 game Soccer was an overhead game which made use of the trackball technology popularised, but not invented, by the aforementioned Football.

And on other systems, there were rival games. NASL Soccer was released shortly after the release of Mattel’s Intellivision console in 1979, and whilst its greater graphical capability still looks primitive to modern eyes, it felt noticeable at the time. The Magnavox Odyssey had been replaced in 1978 by the Odyssey¬≤, and the only football game available for this system was the underwhelming-looking Electronic Soccer/Electronic Hockey, from 1981. The first wave of the console craze came to an abrupt halt with the video crash of 1983, which came to be epitomised by the break-up of Atari.

Gaming’s First Great Depression

There was no single cause for the vertiginous decline of the fortunes of the company. The rise of third-party cartridge developers saw Atari’s share of the software side of their business fall from 75% in 1981 to 40% in 1982, whilst insider trading, disappointing sales for the 5200 (the console to replace the 2600), and terrible sales of two very high profile games, the officially-licensed versions of Pac-Man and ET (both games rank amongst the worst of all-time on any system and act as a warning to anyone who considers their work in video games production to be over at the moment when they purchase a license), all led to an eventual break-up, at the start of 1984.

Atari’s mis-management throughout the early 1980s had knock-on effects far beyond the world of video games, as well. The company had been sold to Warner in 1976. Early returns following the release of the 2600 had been strong, but Atari had started to suffer during the early years of the 1980s (this article from January 1984 describes Atari as, a company “which had been Mr. Ross’s greatest triumph, is now the major cause of his problems”). In addition to this, another loss-making arm which was had in the North American Soccer League towards the end of the decade in the form of their ownership of the New York Cosmos. In a league that already had widespread finciancial problems, those of its most famous team were bigger than most.

The NASL Knock-On

Eventually, Warner found themselves backed into a corner by a hostile takeover bid by Rupert Murdoch in 1983. The takeover ended up not happening, but in the course of trying to stem their losses and make themselves less financially incontinent, Global Soccer Incorporated – the subsiduary company which controlled the Cosmos’ franchise – and Atari were sold and stripped bare, respectively. Cosmos were NASL champions for the last time in 1982 but the collapse of another club, Minnesota Kicks, under murky circumstances in turn proved the step too far the entire league.

Franchise holders had all been losing a substantial amount of money for several seasons, and if the Cosmos had to be sold off by a media giant and the Kicks couldn’t survive, what was the prognosis for them? By the summer of 1984, the NASL was dead. Cosmos limped on for one further year before folding altogether themselves. It would be a stretch to say that Atari killed the NASL, but it’s difficult to argue that they weren’t, even if somewhat tangentially, involved. American soccer wouldn’t get a professional national league again until the start of Major League Soccer, in 1996.¬†

In Britain, meanwhile, the most popular domestically made system (Atari 2600s sole reasonably well in the UK) was the Binatone TV Master, which was released in 1977, and hung around for quite a while, with a later version of it also including a light gun. It had eight different “modes” (basically dividers and walls which changed the directional movement of the ball) which were controlled by a switch on the top of the device. One of these was “Football”, although its relationship to anything that we would recognise as the game is tenuous, to put it mildly. By the early 1980s, though, video gaming in the UK was already forking off in quite a different direction to either Japan or the USA, and this would turn out to be a direction that would come back to have a significant effect on the global industry, some years later.