Long before it was noted as the source of a rare and collectible Nintendo game cartridge, the Nintendo World Championships took the nation by storm. For most of 1990, the NWC toured North America in search of the hottest Nintendo Entertainment System players with a timed competition involving Super Mario Bros., Rad Racer and Tetris, with over 1 million gamers taking part in the competition along the way. The first stop on the tour was Dallas, Texas, which saw nearly a dozen tractor trailer trucks arriving on Mar. 7, 1990 to set up the largest video game competition of the 20th Century.
Terry Lee Torok was the man in the thick of it. As the 25th anniversary of the tour arrives, the NWC’s energetic emcee reflected on his impressions of the event tour as well at the legacy it left behind.
“I had been on tour with a series of strange but award winning road tours,” Torok recalled. “The one just prior to The NWC was the MTV Museum of UnNatural History, a dialed up electronic carnival with rock memorabilia and bizarre events. One of the same minds that invented the MTVMuseum, Danny Socolof was behind the NWC. I liked the way he thinks so we had a series of development meetings, I met with Jay Coleman who was selling the sponsorships and all the people at Nintendo. At the start we had 11 semi trucks full of game stations and stages spread over 100,000 square feet. The first tour stop we rehearsed the shows and changed it up quite a bit. I produced and hosted one of the shows, then took over the main competition and we cranked up the intensity with live music, cameras and play by play. When thousands of people poured in, I was on the mic, It was the first moment that game playing became a mass spectator sport.”
With the stage set, Torok recalled that his first impression was that the set, designed by a rock tour stage designer who had worked for Pink Floyd and U2, was a bit over the top. He also remembers his initial concerns that announcing for a video game competition may prove to be challenging, a concern he says he rectified by focusing on the human element.
“I zoomed in on anything slightly interesting to draw attention to, the more I did, the more interesting it became,” he added. “I focused on the nuances of the game down to the nano-second decisions a player would make and every time there was a breakthrough on scoring we’d talk about it on stage with the other players, like it was a breakthrough in quantum physics, then everybody would figure it out and the competition would get better and better every round. I think we infused a good sense of levity along the way. The audience grew and grew, and soon the giant stage was filled with competitors. I treated the players like Olympic champions, I talked about not just their technique but their interests, humanizing the event for thousands of spectators. As the tour progressed we brought gaming to life, then took it over the top, just as it was designed to be, bigger than life.”
That focus on the people rather than the competition is the element that Torok says made the Nintendo World Championships tour grow more and more as it continued through the year, both on the player’s side as well as on stage.
“At The NWC we focussed more on the gamer as much as the games, which equated to an unprecedented gamer experience,” he noted. “The competition was set up different than any other I have seen. We gathered fans, family and friends, as well a host of celebrities from Will Smith, Sylvester Stallone, WWF wrestlers and the casts of several popular TV shows at the time. Several cities like New York and Detroit we had to give away prizes to get people to leave, just so we could get the long lines of people waiting outside in the doors. Fans travelled to city to city to compete, even after they won a city finals they’d come to the next city to practice up for the finals at Universal Studios Hollywood. Since we had three age categories we flew 90 winners and their families to the finals. Every show was different because each show had to outdo the previous.”
Torok’s experiences on the NWC tour inspired him to develop and write a television show concept, Video Power, which ran in syndication in the years that followed the event, as well as a number of video game competitions in New York City and Dubai. While elements of the Nintendo World Championships event can be seen in today’s growing eSports industry, the charismatic emcee of the 1990 event still believes the NWC set the bar.
“The Nintendo World Championships gave birth to many competitions, but there has been nothing that has come close to it,” Torok stated. “It’s all in the design. There was a very human element to this fantastical experience. We celebrated the fans, made them feel welcome, and even famous. It was easy to enter at any time, the completions were intense down to the split second. It was not designed as a marathon, it was designed as a series of amazing sprints for spectators to be drawn in and to cheer on. It was designed to be memorable from creators who understand over the top experiences and how to create a memory.”
As far as the rare competition cartridges that have retro video game collectors drooling today, Torok expressed surprise when he learned of the modern-day demand.
“Top dollar really? That’s cool, I hope I have some of the game packs in storage somewhere,” he hinted.
An event to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Nintendo World Championships tour launch is set to take place this Saturday and Sunday, March 7 and 8, at Freaks and Geeks in Denton, Texas, just 30 minutes from the original site of the Dallas stop that launched the entire tour.