Article Title: The killer app of the 19th century
Article Byline: Why today's cybersports are more familiar than you think
Article Body: Written by: Bruce Rolston

Published: January 8, 2001

The mainstream press ignores them. Some don't see the sport they play as a worthwhile pastime at all. Almost no one thinks people could or should make a living at it. Their clans have funny names, and almost no one outside the clans knows how the game works. Just watching it for fun is unimaginable.

Today's professional Quake players? No. Baseball players in 1855.

Anyone who knows the early history of competitive sport can see a lot in common with today's virtual entertainments. We can't imagine it now, but all those other permanent recreational pastimes weren't always that way, either. They were created, almost all at once, as a byproduct of a major social change: industrialization and urbanization. Some succeeded in grasping the public imagination. Others failed. All had growing pains: today's Cyberathlete Professional League hearkens back to similar national organizations, with similar problems to face, in baseball, billiards, or rowing. Those of us who enjoy and participate in competitive cybersports today may be able to gain a lot by looking back to see if we can't repeat some of those pioneers' successes, and avoid their failures.

Sporting activities, as we know them today, were really only created in the middle part of the 19th century. Entertainment that involves physical activity goes farther back, of course... both Elizabethan English and American Iroquois were playing ball games before the Mayflower ever landed. But these activities, what the historians call "premodern sport," were generally different from what we understand sport to be today, in that they almost never involved competition between equals, or set rules. "Contests were mostly spontaneous," writes historian Melvin Adelman, "the participants underwent limited, if any training, the events derived largely from daily work activities and they rarely received social sanction." The idea of everyday people having a club dedicated to an economically useless activity, or watching a sport as a spectator, or, horrors, making a living just as a player, were almost completely unheard of before America's Industrial Revolution. As late as 1820, religious and social leaders frowned on any such time-wasting activity, fearing it led to gambling or brawling: even as serene a game as cricket was called by a leading New York paper "one of the brightest of the primrose paths to the everlasting bonfire." Play ball, in other words, and you'll go to Hell.

In only a few decades, those words would seem ludicrous, as thousands of people in the growing cities of the United States, particularly New York, became sports fans. Soon, rural communities, with their round-the-clock work and distances between people, were giving way around the world to tightly packed metropolises whose citizens worked regular hours, and sometimes even had time at the end of the day for recreation. The effect would be to add a dimension to human life that had never been seen before, as sports of all kinds were invented, played, and gradually codified.

Those early industrial day jobs weren't exactly sedentary though: it might seem odd at first that people would choose to use their few hours away from the new factories (Americans adopted the 10-hour workday in 1840) playing outdoors. That's because, really, the drive to create the first sports wasn't much about physical exertion, at all. To the people of the time, it was more about building character. Society's guardians could be convinced to support creative play for adults because it got the gameplayers away from other forms of time-wasting they liked even less. Thundering ministers like Henry Ward Beecher began comparing sporting activity favourably to what they saw as the greater moral perils of the theater, of card-playing, of gardening even. Spend too much time thinking and reading, wrote one, and "these precocious little sentimentalists wither away like blanched potato-plants in the cellar." Playing ball, on the other hand, wrote Henry Chadwick, was "not mere exercise of the muscles, nor merely play... [Instead, it] teaches a love of order, discipline, and fair play." Success in life, wrote Teddy Roosevelt, used the same rule as success in football: "Hit the line hard, don't foul and don't shirk."

Today, where pro sporting activities can seem almost excessively physical, it can be hard to conceive how they once were more about improving the mind and spirit, not the body. At a time where manual labour was seen as a sign of low-birth, sports that didn't involve much thinking or teamwork (such as running) were even at a disadvantage, compared to team sports, for instance. Any physical exertion involved was almost secondary: sports promoters worked hard to convince people that their favourite recreations were exercises of brain and soul, not just the body. One such was Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the foremost doctor/essayist of his day, who frequently rhapsodized about the virtue of sport in his columns in the Atlantic magazine. His paean to horse-racing, for instance, stressed its spiritual values as opposed to its healthful ones. His words could be as easily quoted by a Quake player, today: "Now in this extension of my volition and my physical frame into another animal, my tyrannical instincts and my desire for heroic strength are at once gratified."

My desire for heroic strength. Think about that for a minute, as a computer game player: for you're really not all that different from that sports diehard of 150 years ago. Faced with a world where traditional "manly labour" was looked down upon, crowded in the new cities where his ancestors' ideas of good work were increasingly irrelevant, the young males of the mid-nineteenth century sought for their "manliness" in new arenas. These new activities were as different from their grandfathers' ideas of useful or lucrative pastimes as virtual entertainment is to our grandfathers.

As a result, like computer game players today, the earliest sportsmen often still had to battle the stigma that they were wasting their time, or endangering their souls. In their world, being out of shape or overfed was, if anything a sign of social status and wealth. Playing games was a child's pastime: adults had better things to do, some said. Some adults acted ashamed by their new hobbies: the Knickerbocker Club (what might today with justification be called the first baseball "clan") apparently held its first game/meeting in New York in 1842, but would shun publicity for over a decade afterwards. "Their social insecurities and their personal doubts concerning the manliness of the game inhibited them from openly announcing its organization," wrote one historian. Others, especially women, still had to deal with vestigial fears that the new forms of fun were the Devil's tool: the press crackled with rumours that ice skating would lead to suicide, croquet to ruin.

Also similar to today's gamers, who play numerous variations on the first-person shooter, for example, early sports players found the games they played competitively changing year to year, even game to game. Ball games in the early decades were split between New York baseball (which used a diamond), Massachusetts baseball (which used a square), cricket (which was far more popular than either at first), and various other local variations. Players, both amateur and pro, frequently switched from one game to the other, and back again. Even the New York game we play today looked radically different, with the game played until one team had 21 "aces" (runs), and with balls being in play if they were caught on the first bounce.

This last rule actually led to no end of controversy, actually, until it was finally changed in 1863. Resented by players, who said it hurt their (ungloved) hands, the no-bounce rule eventually won out because writers and players still worried baseball looked too childish, compared to the more "manly" game of cricket. Catching the ball, said one reporter, was "not only more manly, but adds very much to the quickness of perception, and nerve and determination, which makes up the necessary qualifications of a complete fieldsman."

Sports reporters? Yes, sports in America grew in parallel with another product of the growth of cities, an entirely new kind of journalism: the tabloid newspaper. Focussing almost exclusively on crime, gossip, sex, and sports scores, the "penny press" was the New Media of its day, like the internet cheap, available to all, and contemptuous of established journalistic rules and conventions. Early sports journalists like the New York Clipper's Henry Chadwick (inventor of the box score) worked hand in glove with owners and promoters and had tremendous influence over the development of the sport. Newspaper pioneer James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald applied the same innovations it used for other news, such as reporters filing stories the same day by telegraph, to its sports reporting, as well. (The same kind of interdependency would reoccur a century later with the newfangled television and pro football, which depended on Roone Arledge's new ABC network for its first publicity almost as much as the network depended on it for ratings.) Sporting events that were ignored by "serious" media such as the New York Times were seized upon and dissected in minute detail by the tabloids, which also explained the complex rules of the new games explained to new fans.

Other aspects of the sports explosion will also seem familiar to modern computer gamers. The first sports clubs, the precursors of teams, were independent groups of like-minded individuals, who played their game wherever and whenever they could, paying their expenses themselves. Like today's game clans, their names were idiosyncratic, to non-members sometimes even cryptic: the first great American sports team was cricket's St. George Dragon-Slayers. Interclub matches for money were extremely rare, as travel was expensive. Spectators were even rarer, even though attendance was almost always free. All the gamers had day jobs, and almost no one got paid just to play.

For at least one sport, baseball, that would all change, very fast: but why did it succeed, where others did not? Looking at some of the less successful sporting ventures that preceded it may give us some answers.

Take rowing, for instance, which became popular in America not once, but three times in this period. In the 1820s, crowds would line the shore of American seaboard cities for rowing races. Ten years later, rowing emerged from obscurity again, becoming the most popular sport in the newspapers next to horse racing. Featuring a mix of single-player and team events, there were 40 teams in New York alone. Many teams were sponsored (a major team of the day was sponsored by and named after New York's Fulton Meat Market), but when sponsors lost interest after 1837, rowing died away once again. It emerged a third time in the 1850s, with the creation in New York of the Empire City Regatta Club, which organized tournaments and set rules (a kind of rowing CPL). Large cash prizes were awarded regatta winners, with some players even turning pro... but in the 1860s the sport sank in popularity and support once more, to emerge in coming decades largely as a pastime of college amateurs and the very wealthy.

Why could rowing not sustain itself as a major sport in America? It seems largely because it was impossible to sell tickets to spectators. A four-mile scull down the Hudson River was already in plain sight of anyone who wanted to see it. Without gate receipts, teams had to rely on corporate and private sponsorship: whenever that support dried up, the sport would all but disappear.

Competitive running (or pedestrianism, as it was called) suffered a similar fate, but for different reasons. The largest prize ever offered a rowing team was $6,000 (at a time when a starter job netted $250 a year, even that's pretty large); the leading race-walker of the time, Edward Weston, received $10,000 for getting from Maine to Chicago in 26 days in 1867. Running emerged as a dominant spectator sport in the 1840s: the horse racing scene had collapsed around the same time, leaving a lot of racetracks looking for a box-office draw: running filled the bill. Typical races lasted 10 miles, and were finished in around an hour. Some leading runners were able for a time to live off their winnings, but for most it was just a way of supplementing their regular income.

But although there were tickets to sell (unlike rowing), the lack of strong commercial sponsorships meant the pro sport could not survive any decline in popular opinion. The pure physicality of the sport, with no real virtue on display except human endurance, meant that decline was not long in coming: serious papers like the New York Times (which made fun of almost all attempts to professionalize the new sports) openly mocked the spectators for caring. In words that could as easily apply to mouse-clicking today, the paper wrote: "What particular gratification [had] they derived from the spectacle of an unusually unattractive-looking person in tights, doing in excess what each of them is in the habit of doing in moderation everyday of his life?" Running, the Times said, was "an incentive to idle young men to get a shiftless living in a desultory way, and to be generally as useless as possible." (Sound familiar?) It was soon relegated to an amateur pastime, where it remains, now called track and field, today.

As running declined, competitive billiards rose. The first public pool halls had emerged in the 1840s, and in 1850 star player Michael Phelan emerged as an American celebrity: touring, writing guide books for new players, and trying to organize the pool playing scene. Phelan advanced the sport by seeking out matches with other national and regional champions: his 1859 match with John Seeriter was for a staggering $30,000, and filled the largest theatre in Detroit to capacity. The sport's growing popularity led to hundreds of pool halls being created, then as now a favoured hangout for idle young men. Rules varied widely; dozens of different variations on the basic game were played. Men and women alike enjoyed the game: it had the advantage over most other sports of being able to be played in the winter, and at night. By 1866, it's estimated as many as 12,000 Americans earned a living in some way from pool. Successful pro players made around $2,000 a year, a substantial sum. It was not all sunshine, however: two rival leagues, Phelan's own American Billiard Players Association and the rival National American Billiards Association battled fiercely for legitimacy and players. Phelan would be accused, perhaps falsely, of cheating his players out of winnings and encouraging them to become dependent on the sport for their livelihood. But while it never came close to seizing the public consciousness the way other sports would, Phelan's work had laid the foundation for a sport that would enjoy slow-but-steady growth right through the nineteenth century: of course, pool remains a very common pastime, with a strong pro scene, even today.

But billiards would be easily eclipsed by the biggest success story of early American sport: baseball. Baseball grew amazingly fast: first mentioned in the press only in 1853, by 1860 there were over 125 amateur teams in the New York area alone, and people were flocking to play the game that Chadwick described as a source of "courage, nerve, pluck and endurance." The same year saw the game's first star player, 19 year-old pitcher James Creighton of the Brooklyn Excelsiors: he was also the first pro player, on a team of amateurs. Drawn from the best players in all the Brooklyn teams, his team set out on the first ever road trip, beating teams from other towns up and down the Eastern Seaboard. As the penny press' coverage grew, more and more people chose to play. Even more chose to watch.

At first the sport was played on makeshift fields, with little attention to provision for spectators, but the creation in 1862 of the first enclosed ballpark, Brooklyn's Union Grounds saw the beginning of that change. The next years were marked by bitter disagreement over paying players, and charging the fans: many players thought it degraded a game they preferred to play only for fun. But the steady and growing income that was coming from ticket sales meant teams could afford to travel, and sell even more tickets; it also meant professionalization in the hands of that uniquely American invention, the sports entrepreneur, was nearly unavoidable. The battle over making money from ball would be waged long and hard by players, journalists, and fans. The arguments they used were the same both sides of the cybersport use today. The Times, as it liked to do, fought tooth and nail on the amateurism side, saying a man had "many ways of earning a livelihood more creditable to himself and more profitable to his country than by playing in baseball matches." Bennett's Herald replied in defense, "No person thinks ill of an actor or acrobat who receives a regular salary for his performance, and certainly a professional ballplayer should be honored and as honorable as any other performance." The Herald's point of view won out; by 1871, the National Association, the precursor to the National League, was created. Around the same time, teams were gradually taking on the names of the towns their fans were drawn from: in fact many of the new pro teams were heavily subsidized by the cities they represented (New York's players were even on the municipal payroll). The first big-league professional sport in the world had been born.

Why did baseball explode, where other sports grew slowly, or faded away? Certainly, its teamwork and strategy aspects (what Chadwick called "the manly attributes of courage, nerve, pluck and endurance") allowed it to take better advantage than other sports of people's concern about building character and "manliness." But their were other factors, unlike solo sports like running or billiards, teams could trade their team name in return for support from a town, city or corporation, something that exists even today. Fiercely opposed by some, this "selling-off" of team names turned out to be a win-win proposition for the players: once teams represented something more than themselves, it became easier for the new sports journalists to explain why their games mattered. (Excelsior plays the Nickerbockers? Who cares? New York playing Brooklyn? Now that's something people had an opinion on...) And unlike rowing, baseball was then able to profit from the spectators attracted by that publicity. Baseball succeeded because it successfully combined municipal/corporate identification with gate revenues to achieve near continuous year-over-year growth.

So what can all this tell us about the future of competitive computer gaming? With the growing consensus (led by the CPL) that all serious gaming events have to happen locally on LANs, with the Internet being used for publicity rather than competitive play, computer gaming today has come to resemble these nascent sports very strongly, indeed. The rules (in the form of the chosen game the pros play: Quake, Counter-Strike, Starcraft) are in constant flux. Some people still think it's evil. There are no paying fans to speak of, and no interest in the mainstream press. But there's dozens of amateur clubs (or "clans"), there's novelty, there's sensation, there's a few star players, and a few big prizes. The big question though: will it grow steadily like billiards, or grow and then die out like rowing or running, or explode like baseball? A lot of today's gaming commentators have said the new sports are unwatchable by spectators, but no one who has sat behind and rooted for a serious Quake player in full rampage can believe that's always going to the case. There's no significant technological barrier that prevents televising a Quake or Starcraft match, if enough money were to be invested in the broadcast (The latter game is already occasionally televised in Korea). But is there an obvious cultural obstacle? Not really, historically people have watched all kinds of events if they're curious. In 1820, no one had ever heard of paying to see someone else play a game... but a few years later they were filling the new sporting facilities. And is cyber-sport really any less of a spectator experience than billiards? Still others agree the sport is watchable, but won't take off until there's a major television deal (paid spectators, in other words). They're partly right: baseball needed to put fences around the ballparks before it could take off. But it's interesting that in other successful sports, paid spectators have almost always come close on the heels of that other development, the one we've yet to see in cybersports: the municipal or corporate affiliation.

Modern-day cybersport are strikingly similar today to where baseball was in the early 1860s, in fact. There's a few full-time players (James Creighton, Johnathan Wendel), and hundreds of amateur clans competing informally, but no fans, at least none you could charge. In baseball's case, that would only change when teams like Creighton's Excelsiors were able to get the fans of Brooklyn to invest emotional capital in their success, and that only came when their matches were seen as more than one club against another, but Brooklyn, say, vs. everybody else.

It hasn't always been municipal teams either, not by a long shot: many major sports teams, particularly in Korea and Japan, are named after corporations even today. (In America, too: the earliest precursor to the National Basketball Association had teams named after and sponsored by Goodyear, Firestone and General Electric.) Just as now, some early sports, like cricket, also invested heavily in national teams and international competitions, although those attempts generally proved less successful: even today, no sport has professional athletes who play exclusively for national teams. Perhaps that's because nations that can't field competitive teams tend to lose audience fast: as sports historian Eric Leifer puts it, "The Jamaican bobsled team can amuse the world as a novelty, but not as a regularity."

True, sports that rely only on their individual stars, such as early billiards -- or more recently, tennis - if they're managed well can survive, grow, and be lucrative for many of their participants. But all the really big pro sports -- hockey, basketball, football, and soccer would follow in baseball's footsteps - only began to seize the public imagination when the "clans" in those sports changed from being clubs to being town or company teams. Only trading some independence for whatever financial security and sponsorship it could get would enable them to raise a fan base, as well as get through the years when the fans lost interest. (That's the paradox of professional sport, you see: to succeed it has to somehow make it an affordable occupation for all the players who lose, not just those who win, or the sport eventually dies.)

If history is to be our guide, the next big milestone for cybersports will not be any new TV deal or tournament, but the day that the first teams become better known by their sponsors' names (Microsoft, Cleveland, Bob Jones University, even the local cybercafe) than by their clan names. And as with baseball in the 1860s, it's likely that when this eventually happens, there'll be more players against than for it. Still we would do well to remember this: the first cricket clan, the St. George Dragon-Slayers, certainly have had a much cooler name than baseball's Brooklyn Excelsiors. But the Excelsiors helped create a national pastime. The Slayers disappeared, along with the sport it played. (That loss of independence by the playes would have been futile however, if the writers and popularizers hadn't managed to explain the magic of the first sports to the general public. If that were to happen, who would be this community's Henry Chadwick, our Oliver Wendell Holmes?)

In many ways, the wired world amounts to a new realm of human interaction, as different from what came before us as our modern industrialized cities were from the small towns and farms people lived in before them. It also produces the same kinds of uncertainty. A century and a half ago, the pressures and advantages of that whole new kind of living created a whole new kind of recreational pastime. Uncertain of how to measure their success in a new world that seemed to devalue their fathers' virtues, young men and women found new ways to achieve status, to stand out for themselves. In 1860, baseball proved to be their "killer app." The first competition-friendly form of virtual entertainment that rewards in its structure the virtues young people today respect -- that grants our "desires for heroic strength" could potentially be just as lucrative.

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