If I told you that my introduction to video games was with Pong on a black and white TV in my parents’ basement you’d probably guess I’m a lot older than I actually am.
As pop culture deprived kids growing up in South Jersey in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, my older brother and I had limited access to many of the things our peers had at the time. For a time at least, we didn’t go to movies and we felt like the last kids in our school to get a Nintendo when my parents allowed us to buy one.
Before we got our first taste of Mario Brothers, a black and white TV with Pong was our entry into video games. The no frills 2D electronic table tennis game was one of the earliest arcade games when it was introduced in 1972. That was five years before my brother was born and six years before I came along and disrupted his blissful only child life.
I don’t remember playing Pong that much after my dad hooked it up on the TV in the basement. We were far more interested in playing wiffle ball in the backyard and putting on plays and creating GI Joe Olympic competitions in the basement.
As technology advanced with video games we were always a few steps behind the latest thing. Outside of Mario Brothers and sports games we didn’t put nearly as many miles on our game consoles as we did playing actual sports. Since games in those days didn’t initially come with the ability to save stats, I always kept a notebook handy to record them myself.
This all changed when I had saved up enough money from my paper route to buy Baseball Stars. Though it was released in 1989 I don’t remember playing it until the early ‘90s. What made Baseball Stars an instant classic was its built-in battery backup. This meant the game could keep stats and you could create your own teams and play out seasons.
Though there was no official licensing of teams or players — something FIFA would eventually perfect with the additions of leagues and clubs from around the world — there was an absolute powerhouse of a team called the American Dreams with players named Pete, Hank, Babe, Sandie, Cy, Denny and Willie.
I was hooked.
I’m not sure I want to even attempt to add up the number of hours I spent playing that game, the number of times I had to blow in the cartridge to get the dust out so it would play correctly or the number of homeruns I hit with Babe anchoring my lineup. What I do know is that despite the many sports games I also played at the time — like Tecmo Bowl with Bo Jackson, Double Dribble and Blades of Steel or the far more sophisticated games that followed, this game is still the one I look back on most fondly. Just hearing the music again is like stepping into a time machine.
Last September I was visiting with my younger brother in San Jose and he broke out a bunch of old school games to play. I naturally wanted to try some of the old school soccer games I was too busy playing Baseball Stars to check out at the time. It turned out to be an incredibly frustrating experience. Once you play a modern FIFA game it’s tough to go back to an older era where game play is slow, movements are tricky and so little resembling the actual sport of soccer is happening on screen.
We gave up after surveying several of the games. While he’s a much bigger gamer than he is a soccer or sports fan, what little I have played video games over the past 20-plus years has been a way to bond with my younger brother. When he still lived on the East Coast we used to spend a lot of time playing World Cup together, scoring goals we wished the USMNT had scored in knockout games. I play video games with him because he loves to play; he plays FIFA with me because I love soccer.
Maybe that’s the feature of having a brother nine years younger. He was always going to be more technologically advanced and cutting edge than his older brothers who were raised on VHS and cassette tapes, left their seat to actually turn the channel on a TV and had a black and white television with Pong hooked up in the basement.
As I did even in my short heyday with video games in the ‘90s I still prefer playing and watching sports to playing video games. Thanks to eMLS and eUSL competitions I’ve even watched more video games being played than played them myself during the shutdown.
I’m in awe of what video games have become and incredibly fascinated by the industry and competition infrastructure that has been created around esports. The sophistication of the graphics and the game play is astounding and I love that it’s opening pathways for young people to pursue a different type of athletic dream, earning scholarships to compete in esports at college and winning serious prize money at large scale competitions we couldn’t even have fathomed when I was in high school.
I’m the old timer, after all, who was overjoyed just to have a game cartridge with a battery backup to save my baseball stats.