The history of gaming consoles takes on a decades-long journey from the first video game to the hundred billion dollar industry we have today
The video gaming world has become an industry that does hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue every year and is only growing. In many ways, video gaming is ubiquitous in our everyday life, taking place in nearly every aspect of the online world. What started as something that could only be played on a few select computers in the world, is now something that you see in every nook and cranny of our lives. But where did it all start? What is the history of gaming consoles and how did they end up becoming so pervasive and captivating?
It’s a somewhat winding path but going back to the beginning helps to see how we’ve gotten to this place. Here at Tell Me Best, we’ll take a look at the history of gaming consoles to see how it became the industry it is today.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST VIDEO GAME?
When we think of the history of gaming consoles, or at least their origins, it’s easy to conjure up an image of Pong, that 1972 game from Atari which is the basic representation of two sides of a controller “battling” it out for dot supremacy. But what’s probably not known is that a version of this game was actually created about a decade and a half earlier by a dude named William Higinbotham who was working with early computers in a variety of fashions.
He first created Tennis for Two in 1958 and put it on display at the Brookhaven National Laboratory for a three-day exhibition. As would become a hallmark of the video game industry, really forever, kids freaking loved this thing. Sure, it was played on a computer the size of a big microwave and had a screen that more represented a radar readout than what we know now, but in many ways, the video game industry was born here.
While this game was only on display at the Brookhaven for a total of three days, it was a major hit among the crowd. It was reported at the time that folks, and especially teenagers, were very into the idea and the concept of competing in a game this way. Essentially, the mechanics and setup for Tennis for Two weren’t all that dissimilar from what we know and love today. The computer was set up and had “controllers” the users wielded to dictate the action on the screen. With one hand they would turn a knob to move what was basically the paddle, and the button determined the speed at which they would “hit” the ball. In the history of gaming consoles, this is an origin story.
Higinbotham came up with the concept after having spent years working in high-end computer and scientific development. He’d also had a hand in the Manhattan Project. And he realized that the computer-controlled readouts for incoming missiles (or theoretical missiles at least) had a function that would change the direction of the projectile if there was wind present. Basically, he used this idea and changed the missile to the “ball” and the wind was now controlled by the players. A computer game was born.
Unfortunately, while it would have seemed like this game would immediately become the next big technological thing, heading into mass production for the population who might have been dying to get their collective hands on the next video game, this was anything but the case. In fact, quite the opposite ended up happening, giving the history of gaming consoles a weird start.
After the next year’s exhibition, the group saw fit to use the video game computer parts on other projects. It wasn’t necessarily a “this game will rot your brain out” moment, but it just didn’t seem like Higinbotham or Brookhaven necessarily saw the long-term and commercial viability of such a game. Using it for spare parts and other initiatives became that first game’s fate.
NEXT BIG MOVE, BUT STILL NO GAMING CONSOLE
What would the history of gaming consoles be without the marriage of technology with the science fiction element? I would contend the two are completely interlinked and interconnected. Sure, the first console focused on “sports” but by the time we were ready to start ramping things up, fighting off aliens was the place to go. And the other place to go was MIT where a group of students was at work building SpaceWar! in 1962. Because what else would they be doing?
Kidding aside, this MIT group led by Steve Russell was using a PDP-1 from Digital Equipment Corporation and they developed what amounted to what would eventually look like some of the early space games on video game consoles. Basically, using a screen not unlike what we saw with Tennis for Two, two players are engaged in a space battle, moving around the gravitational pull of a “star” and trying to shoot each other down. You can see an approximation of the early game below in what is a touchpoint in the history of gaming consoles.
Were you glued to the edge of your seat for the non-stop action of SpaceWar!? Me too. The game caught on quickly among other students and universities in the area who had similar access to the PDP-1 on campuses. This game was developed in such a way that it could be brought to other machines and the code was open source, so those who sought it out could put it on their own systems. SpaceWar! was passed around gaming communities for the better part of the 1960s though its creator Steve Russell never saw any licensing money from its “growth” such as it were. But the mechanics and theme were something we would see in later years, acting as something of a baseline in the history of gaming consoles.
FIRST AT-HOME VIDEO GAME CONSOLE
Now we’re starting to cook with digital grease. It was in 1967 that the history of gaming consoles really starts to move ahead. That’s because it was during this time that the famous “Brown Box” was sold to Magnavox and the gaming industry went from crawling to walking fast. The Brown Box was created by Ralph Baer who some would end up calling the Father of Video Games. That’s because Baer figured out something that his predecessors either hadn’t cared about or never thought of themselves.
He sought to make a device that could connect and interact with television sets. It seems easy to think about this now as a “duh” moment, but remember at the time there wasn’t really a logical connection between the worlds of computers and televisions. They had decidedly different purposes.
Baer and his team ended up figuring out a way to connect a gaming console (The Brown Box) to television sets and programmed it so that players could control the movement of a ball on a screen. It wasn’t dissimilar to the concepts put forth with Tennis for Two and SpaceWar! except that those two games needed specific (and not all that popular) computer systems to play. Baer’s box could be reproduced and it could connect to television sets in households. In the history of gaming consoles, this is an inflection point.
Baer sold this to Magnavox who worked to bring about the video gaming console to the masses in the form of an at-home device anyone could hook up and play. It was a smashing success right? Turning Magnavox into a billion-dollar company because they were at the forefront of one of the biggest commercial movements ever, right? Wrong. The company fizzled in its approach to selling its Odyssey product to the masses. Only 350,000 units were sold in total. The high price point and some confusion about mechanics (or what you were even supposed to do) saw to it that the console never caught on.
ATARI FIGURES IT OUT
When thinking about the history of gaming consoles, most would probably put Atari as the starting point. This is for a few pretty easy reasons. If you are of a certain age and remember when this kind of thing began to gain real traction in homes, Atari is typically the first console to come to mind. It was the first to bring on a number of different, commercially viable, and popular games into homes across the United States (and the world). And it laid the groundwork for the gaming console wars that would soon follow.
Though Magnavox was a dud, it did inspire a late-70s boom in arcade gaming with coin-op machines beginning to roll out into different locations. It was an important point in the history of gaming consoles because it essentially brought the medium into the zeitgeist. This put video games in front of more eyes and also laid the groundwork for Atari to bring the model to full scale. Capitalizing on the early success of the coin-op version of Pong as well as some other games, Atari began to manufacture their Atari 2600 in the late 1970s.
What set the Atari 2600 (or Atari VCS) apart from the first generation in the history of gaming consoles was the introduction of the cartridge into the model. This was something taking off within the industry at the time and key to the growth of the computer game model. Basically, once someone owned the 2600 console, they could then play a variety of games as long as they purchased the different cartridges. Storing each game’s code on its own, portable cartridge kick-started a whole new wave of growth and this is when we saw coin-op games like Space Invaders, Pong, and Asteroids make their way into homes.
It was an “easy” 1-to-1 transition because those games had already established significant brand recognition in arcades and the like. This is just one example in the history of gaming consoles in which we saw the outside name brought into the at-home experience.
While Atari was far from the only gaming console during this time, it was the most popular. Over the course of its entire run, more than 30 million Atari 2600 units were sold worldwide, igniting a number of other companies to begin trying the same thing. The uptick in the competition ended up saturating the market though, causing something like a video game console bubble in the early 1980s. Though some companies didn’t make it through the crash, there were a few left standing and one was primed to take hold of the whole industry.
SUPER MARIO AND NINTENDO TAKE HOLD
It was in 1985 that a little piece of 8-bit glory in the form of a little gray box began to hit shelves in the United States. That was the Nintendo Entertainment System which had already begun to make waves in Japan. If Atari helped the gaming console to start walking, Nintendo is where things took off at a dead sprint. Not only was Nintendo able to fully “colorize” the gaming industry in homes, but it also brought over a wealth of games almost from the jump. Users and consumers getting their hands on the box for the first time had an assortment of games to choose from that were already gaining massive (and I mean massive) popularity. Some of those first game characters and names still ring out today almost 40 years later, a testament to what Nintendo created at the time.
While Nintendo had started making in-roads into the American consumer system in the 1980s with a variety of products that included arcade games as well as a quasi-computer setup meant to hook to televisions, the real moment was when NES hit stands. One reason the company was so successful following what amounted to an industry crash in previous years, was the time and care they took in approving games that could be on the system.
They blamed the previous generation’s failings on allowing just about anything to hit a console. That wasn’t the case with Nintendo. It led to Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt being part of the original game pack with 15 other games available at the time of its release. And man did it ever take hold of America’s youth.
If you want to see a hilarious, though nostalgically accurate, representation of just how much Nintendo gripped the imagination of American youth in the 1980s, go and check out 8-Bit Christmas on HBO Max. Starring Neil Patrick Harris, the movie takes a fictional look at a group of kids trying to get their hands on the Nintendo during the Christmas rush of this time period. In all, 1.1 million NES units were sold in just 1986, accounting for more than 30% of the global market.
VIDEO GAMING CONSOLES IN YOUR HANDS
In 1989, Nintendo took its show on the proverbial road when it introduced Game Boy and ensured that you would see puzzle-like block stacking in your dreams. That’s because Tetris was the first game for the new, battery-powered handheld system and this brought in a new wave of video gaming.
No longer confined to living rooms or bedrooms, the Game Boy was part of the ecosystem which meant gamers could bring their games with them and tune out the rest of the world. Oh, the glory. Game Boy would go through a number of different iterations over the years, building out its own library of games for that specific system. They took off and have maintained popularity over the years. As of this writing, more than 118 million Game Boy units have been sold worldwide.
THE GAMING CONSOLE WARS
With Nintendo proving the commercial viability of the home video gaming console it was time for the next big player to enter the market. Sega had been hanging around the space for years, so they weren’t necessarily some plucky little upstart. But by the late 1980s and early 1990s, they began to make a push to take some of Nintendo’s overwhelming market share. And they were able to do just that.
This time period saw major competition between the two outfits with Nintendo releasing the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega rivaling it with Sega Genesis. Battle lines were being drawn. And unlike the crash of the 1980s, the market was big enough to essentially sustain both systems even if they were in fierce competition.
8-bit graphics were so yesterday and now 16-bit graphics were the wave of the future. Both systems worked to greatly increase the user experience with games that looked light-years better than their predecessors. There were other companies kind of thrown in here with TurboGrafx-16 and Atari 7800 trying to take market share. But those paled in comparison to the big kids on the block. Sega released Sonic the Hedgehog as their gaming console add-in at purchase, a character that is still alive and speeding on the big screen today.
During the video game console wars, massive numbers of units were sold between these two outfits. It’s estimated that SNES sold about 49 million units with Genesis moving about 31 million. Those combined for about 89% of the overall market share of video game consoles in a four-year stretch. These two were dominating.
SONY ENTERS THE HISTORY OF GAMING CONSOLES
While Sega and Nintendo showed market dominance for the better part of the 1990s, there was another company about to make a major leap into the space and exert its strength on the industry. That was Sony who in 1995 released their Playstation console to rival that of the Nintendo64 and Sega Genesis. To say it worked is a complete understatement. Playstation quickly became an industry leader with Sony leveraging its technological footing to produce a fantastic system and a wealth of games to go along with it. Between Playstation and Playstation 2 five years later, the company moved more than 257 million units at somewhere between $200 and $300 a pop. Some back-of-the-napkin math on that put the company well into the many billions in profit.
Besides just the graphic element, which Sony Playstation was winning the way with, they also made it a point to develop games that could be played for much longer stretches with considerably more backstory. It wasn’t the only piece of the puzzle here, but it certainly helped with time spent using the console.
Role-playing games, which had already been around gained significantly more popularity during this time and this next generation started to get a little closer to what we see today with game style and graphic elements. Sony has never really loosened its grip on the industry either seeing as how they remain at basically the top of the mountain. They are now on their fifth iteration of the Playstation system.
A THREE-TEAM RACE FOR GAMING CONSOLES
The early and mid-2000s would see further market consolidation when it came to video game consoles. With Sega out of the mix, and moving more to a third-party development route, there were basically three groups left standing. Microsoft joined the fray with the XBOX 360 2005 and promptly moved close to 85 million units. Playstation was on version number three and still dominating sales. And Nintendo switched over to the Nintendo Wii which offered a differing approach to the console game with its user-interactive, motion-control remote. It gained enormous popularity early in its divergent approach to the competition, ushering in a new group of games meant to more simulated real-world actions.
Around this time, Nintendo would also step it up with the Nintendo Switch, a handheld console that gained enormous popularity as well. Bringing the controller essentially into a portable system with excellent graphics gave gamers a chance to almost fully recreate the at-home system as they moved around the world.
CURRENT STATE OF VIDEO GAMING
These days there are still the major players on the block with Sony and Microsoft continuing to duke it out in the console space. Though computers have taken a major footing here as well with the traditional console approach becoming something of a hybrid model. These two places for gaming now have turned an ever-growing market into a full-blown ecosystem with even a foray into virtual reality. Check out our Best Oculus Quest 2 Games for that list.
The gaming industry accounted for around $155 billion (you read that correctly) in revenue in 2020 with estimates it will hit well over $250 billion in the next few years. The history of video game consoles has been building towards this over the last many decades and there is no end in sight. Though new players may come along, and the Metaverse and its contemporaries (for lack of a better word) taking hold as part of the overall experience, there could be a shift away from the traditional console. But the gaming industry itself is doing just fine. It has some of those first pioneers and innovators to thank for where it is now.