Walter Day: The Forgotten Father of Esports
Long before the rise of esports, long before angel investors and Riot Games rulings, skins gambling and match fixing -- hell, even before the internet -- there was Walter Day.
ay, a 67-year-old man who resides in Iowa, ran the most simple -- and yet, perhaps most important -- iteration of competitive gaming, decades before the birth of what we now call esports. For 30 years, Day owned and operated Twin Galaxies. It started as an arcade in 1981 and morphed into the first worldwide portal to track video game high scores. It wasn’t easy to accomplish a feat like that at a time when international communication wasn’t as simple as an app. But Day pulled it off and in doing so brought fanfare to the small town he inhabited, securing an iconic Life Magazine spread in 1983 and getting Ottumwa, Iowa recognized as the video game capital of the world.
Much of that fanfare is the direct result of Walter Day’s personality and charm. Mark Hoff, who used to help Day run Twin Galaxies, calls it magic.
“He could take a blase, mundane situation and frame it in a storyline because of the way he communicates,” Hoff said.
But the lasting effects have not been nearly as resounding. Twin Galaxies existed in a town that initially resisted video game fame, and the website -- after some turmoil and ownership changes -- now lives for a different purpose. The esports world is booming, and one of the people who led the movement before it was even a movement remains on the sidelines, forgotten by an industry and unknown by many who operate within it.
A Brand New Galaxy
The term “esports” didn’t come along until recently. It’s a subsect of professional, competitive gaming that today means players, teams, prize pools and salaries. Three decades ago, professional gaming meant competition for high scores, and Day was a pioneer in bringing that to a larger stage.
Day, a California native, moved to Fairfield, Iowa, in 1979 to study transcendental meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who opened a university dedicated to the field. Day was told to immerse himself in what interested him while he was there, and as a video game fanatic, Day wanted to open an arcade.
That he happened to open it 25 miles west of Fairfield in Ottumwa was kind of an accident. The model for arcades back then was spending a few thousand dollars per machine and getting enough people to play them that you started to make the money back -- 25 cents at a time. So having multiple arcades in the same town or city wasn’t the smartest practice, and Day went to Ottumwa where there wasn’t much competition. In 1981, he opened Twin Galaxies, a small arcade on the eastern part of town.
Ottumwa is a quintessential small town, with a population of about 25,000 according to the 2010 census. It’s tucked into the southeastern corner of Iowa, divided by the Des Moines River.
The town epitomizes a blue collar atmosphere, which Chamber of Commerce director Connie Wilson said is a trait that traces back decades.
“We used to be known as ‘Little Chicago,’” Wilson said of the town’s history. “It was a town where the Chicago mobsters would come out and keep a low profile.”
Ottumwa seemed like the perfect home for what Day was doing, but before Day bought Twin Galaxies, Hoff -- an Ottumwa native -- said the town wasn’t in the best of shape.
Hoff painted the picture of a former meatpacking town that declined in size, stature, quality and demeanor through the years.
“There were some little arcades around,” Hoff said. “One was called The Hole. It was kind of a dirty place, and there was some drug activity there.”
Day’s arcade stood out at first, Hoff said, because of the large, bright windows and Day’s inviting atmosphere. Day equipped it with 22 new machines and wanted it to be a place to converge and play games.
Photo Credit: Twin Galaxies
Twin Galaxies was founded amid the first real rise of video games. Atari had been out since 1977, but 1981 included the release of Donkey Kong, Frogger and Galaga. It didn’t take Day long to see there was something missing from the scene, a market inefficiency he would soon try to fill.
“Three months into it, we discovered nobody was keeping track of their records,” Day said. “There was no organization there to support video game playing competitively.
“After a contest was over, the line was gone; it just disappeared.”
Day wanted to change that. If he could somehow find a way to keep track of all the high scores from multiple arcades, then players would know exactly how good they were and where they stood among gamers across the region and country -- even if they didn’t have any idea who the competition actually was.
The whole concept started, Day says, with a knock on the arcade’s door one night from a kid vowing to beat a record. After the kid played for, Day said, “either 24 hours and got 25 million points or played for 25 (hours) and got 24 million,” Day wondered, “Why not make scorekeeping a permanent thing?”
So Day started keeping track of scores on a large board in the arcade. To drum up publicity for the scoreboard and arcade, Day pushed to host a competitive event with some of the best gamers from around the country. Life Magazine came to the November 1982 event to do a story about it and take a photo.
The photo became a classic representation of the industry and was beloved by Day, the town of Ottumwa, and gamers alike. In the early rise of competitive gaming, Ottumwa became somewhat of an icon. Mayor Jerry Parker declared it the “video game capital of the world,” and from there, the legend of Day and Twin Galaxies took off.
Day used the publicity from the Life Magazine shoot -- the spread was featured in the January 1983 edition -- and an appearance on the ABC television show “That’s Incredible” in the same month to catapult Twin Galaxies into the minds of people at a time when the internet didn’t exist. He spent almost a year going to different arcades across the country to see what they were like, what the popular games were, and to promote Twin Galaxies.
Realizing there was a gap in the system his scoreboard could fill, Day’s idea was simple: tell enough people that you’re the keeper of record, and you eventually become it.
“Every arcade in that day would have its own scoreboard,” Day said. “But Twin Galaxies did the rules and enforced the rules and crowned the champions. People would come to us to verify.
“We had to organize video game playing in a roundabout way. We had to do it without the internet. We had a lot of telephone calls and a lot of responses through the mail.”
Soon, Day was in contact with arcade owners and gaming industry members from all over the country. They would send in scores via mail or phone and had to have a photo and signed affidavit with witnesses to prove their authenticity. The leaderboard of high scores for each game steadily grew.
Monthly, Hoff said, Day would manage to get people from out of town to come to Twin Galaxies and play. The events were never overly extravagant, but they planted a seed. Thirty years later, the core of these events -- competitive video game playing with spectators -- would serve as the backbone for what we know today as esports.
“People would marvel over the person’s excellence,” Day said. “So if a top player would arrive in town, when the people gathered around, it’s because people were willing, even back then, to be spectators and watch video game playing before their eyes.”
Photo Credit: Twin Galaxies
Day has more stories than one can imagine, each of them leaving the listener with at least a slight amount of skepticism. Did that really happen?
That’s where Day’s true brilliance lies: he can say just about anything and get people to believe it. He tells stories of great decadence, and whether or not they’re 100 percent true doesn’t matter. You were interested, and Day could work with that.
“The thing about Walter is he’s a walking storyline,” Hoff said. “He would make you feel important for being part of a movement, part of a culture. He would put you in a group, and you would feel empowered for being in that group. That’s what he is, and it’s really endearing and charming.”
Day endeared himself pretty quickly to Hoff, who started working at Twin Galaxies at the age of 16. He was fond enough of Day that one time Day wanted Hoff and another arcade worker to accompany him to New Orleans for an event. Hoff’s parents would have scoffed at their son doing that for just about anybody else, but with Day, it was no problem.
“They let me skip a day of school to drive in a little Corolla with some hippie guys, more or less, to do some events,” Hoff said.
That was Day’s effect on people. He’d convince the world to come to Ottumwa for an event, just as he convinced it to send high scores to Twin Galaxies.
In interviews, Day paints the picture of large events and crowds watching tournaments and tracking high scores at Twin Galaxies. State championships. National tournaments. “Hopefully,” he thought, “on an international level.”
But they weren’t always as grandiose as they seemed.
“I joked about Walter being the man, the myth, the legend,” Hoff said. “And really, a lot of the Twin Galaxies’ history at that exact time was kind of average. It wasn’t maybe the most exciting or most beautiful arcade or aesthetically appealing. But it had Walter and his ability to conjure visions of your imaginations.”
Day wanted people to believe Ottumwa exalted video games. That’s just the charm of a consummate showman who, Hoff said, “could sell water to the ocean.”
"It wasn’t maybe the most exciting or most beautiful arcade or aesthetically appealing. But it had Walter and his ability to conjure visions of your imaginations.”
The publicity did nothing but raise Twin Galaxies’ profile and led to more people sending in scores. But Twin Galaxies didn’t resonate with everyone, especially in Ottumwa, a town going through its own struggles.
The Life Magazine spread was important, as was being named “video game capital of the world,” but beyond that, life just sort of existed. There wasn’t much reason for somebody to go to Ottumwa, video game capital or not. Twin Galaxies was nice to have, but it didn’t move the needle for people with bigger problems to handle.
Although the legend of Twin Galaxies traveled much farther, Hoff said the only time the city was really lit up for an event was the ABC show in 1983.
Publicly, any recognition Day received was mostly from the referee shirt he frequently wore. It started with the ABC show in 1983, when the entire Twin Galaxies staff wore referee shirts. Day has since made the shirt one of the symbols for both himself and Twin Galaxies. If he makes a public appearance, it’s in the referee shirt.
“That represents the authority Twin Galaxies represents since its founding,” Day said. “I even went to a Colorado Rockies baseball game and wore my referee shirt into the baseball stadium. A bunch of people came up and recognized us.”
Hoff added: “Everyone who meets him, they remember him. He mystifies you a little bit. So Walter did that. He was really good at figuring out how to manipulate media in order to paint those exciting pictures.”
The sight of Day in a referee shirt makes sense because when it comes to scorekeeping, he was the authority.
Day decided to close the the physical arcade in 1984 and continue Twin Galaxies as the scoreboard of record. Guinness World Records started publishing Twin Galaxies’ records in its annual book. From 1984-86, Day was an editor of the book’s gaming section. In just a few short years, Twin Galaxies became the standard of the gaming industry.
With that, came scrutiny, and Day’s close relationship with legendary gamer Billy Mitchell became fodder for critics.
Photo Credit: Isaiah “TriForce” Johnson
Mitchell rose to video game fame as arguably the best Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man player in the world. As Mitchell climbed to prominence in the 80s, his scores were among those kept by Twin Galaxies. He first called Day to report a score in 1983. The two became close over the years, as Mitchell often had reason to talk to Day, the man logging all of his high scores. Mitchell eventually became a referee for Twin Galaxies.
Mitchell believed in the cause of Twin Galaxies and wanted to promote the gaming industry. The two shared a mutual bond.
“He’d pay (the) Twin Galaxies phone bill because he believed in gaming so much,” Day said. “He just did it as a gift to the gaming community because nobody else was in a position to step forward.”
Mitchell and Day were both featured in the 2007 documentaries “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” and “Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade.” “The King of Kong” specifically documented the rivalry between Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, and included a bit about their relationships with Roy “Mr. Awesome” Shildt.
Shildt was another one of the top gamers in the 1980s and a noted foil of Day, Mitchell and Twin Galaxies. He was adamant about turning his success into celebrity and even appeared in Playgirl.
Mitchell and Wiebe had an intense rivalry as they went back and forth for the Donkey Kong high scores. As documented in the movie, Shildt befriended Wiebe as he continued his own distaste for Mitchell and Twin Galaxies. Mitchell told the A.V. Club in 2008 that he intentionally tried to avoid contact with Shildt and wouldn’t have participated in the documentary had he known the rivalry with Shildt was going to be featured.
“All of us, a couple of us in particular, for 22 years now, have avoided interaction with Mr. Awesome,” Mitchell told the A.V. Club, “and it was clearly stated, ‘I'll do what you need me to do, or we can talk about whatever you want me to talk about, I'm not going to talk about him. And if you're going to include him, I'd just rather not participate.’"
Shildt has accused Day and Twin Galaxies of blatant favoritism toward Mitchell, to the point that he claimed Mitchell cheated and Twin Galaxies blatantly ignored or invalidated scores from Wiebe and other rivals of Mitchell.
“You have to kind of roll with it and smile and laugh because life is meant to be fun in the first place,” Day said. “Roy is extremely colorful, and bless his soul, I hope all the wonderful things in life happen for him. He’s a great player, very colorful, was very demanding and caused a lot of excitement in the industry. He has a lot of followers; he also has a lot of detractors.”
The video game industry has long been one with politics and passion, as decades old arguments and rivalries would suggest. Twin Galaxies was the standard for scorekeeping; with that came all the criticism accompanying that stature.
“There’s lots and lots and lots and lots of scoreboards,” Day said. “Most of them don’t seem to like each other. Some people don’t like Twin Galaxies. I think that’s because it is exercised at the highest authority.”
In 1997, 16 years after opening the arcade, Day registered Twin Galaxies as a website. The internet was perhaps the best medium to serve Day’s original concept of a global gaming scoreboard, but the concept of competitive gaming was starting to evolve in a way that would prove difficult for Day and Twin Galaxies to keep up. Despite the challenges, Day managed to hold onto Twin Galaxies until 2010, when he decided to sell it to pursue his music career, explaining, “If I don’t do my music now, it may not ever get done, That’s my heart’s desire: to have the music inside of me come out for other people.”
After nearly 30 years as an authority on competitive gaming, it’s possible Day had simply had enough and was ready to pursue other passions. At least one report connects Day’s “undue influence” in the dispute between Shildt’s and Mitchell’s high scores to the reason he walked away. Whatever his reasons for selling, the ref was now on the sideline, and his exit would serve as only the beginning of a few weird years for the existence (and non-existence) of Twin Galaxies.
Past Meets Future
The years between 2010 and now were quite turbulent for Twin Galaxies. Day walked away but still had some relationship with the site until 2012, when it was bought by Jordan Adler and 1up Arcade in Denver, Colorado. In 2013, Twin Galaxies reportedly started charging for score submissions, which may have led to the end of its lengthy relationship with Guinness World Records (a breakup that was also disputed).
By early 2014, Twin Galaxies reportedly went down and was offline (for good, some thought) until March of that year when it was purchased by Jace Hall, who at that time was mainly known as a movie, TV and video game producer.
Regardless of the circumstances, Twin Galaxies simply wasn’t the same without Day until Hall purchased it in 2014 and made an intentional pivot to position the site to exist in a changing landscape.
Hall started getting involved in the streaming industry in 2012 and wanted to do a stream about world records. He checked Twin Galaxies, mostly just to see what the site was up to, and realized something needed to change. He wanted to be the person to make that change.
“It became clear to me that Twin Galaxies was not in a modernized condition that could move itself into the future,” Hall, also CEO of the Rick Fox-led organization Echo Fox, explained. “And I just knew I was capable of doing that.”
With Hall’s acquisition came a new vision for Twin Galaxies: how could this site, which recorded scores and kept track of the best players in old-school arcade games, be used to help the developing landscape of esports in the 21st century?
“Very few video game players have been able to leverage their gameplay achievements across their lifespan.”
Twin Galaxies still lives as a way to determine who the best players are in an individual game, but the scope has expanded. Console, arcade and joystick games are all included and sortable on the new website. Hall’s idea is simple and, at its base, an extension of Day’s original plan: create an everlasting database of the best video game players in the world.
“Very few video game players have been able to leverage their gameplay achievements across their lifespan,” Hall said. “If you look at Billy Mitchell, he’s one of the few who have been able to do it. And why? Because Twin Galaxies made it possible."
“If all you ever do is play League of Legends, and League of Legends falls out of favor at some point, what happens to your career? You want to have a place where everything you’ve done is on display.”
As esports continues to grow, Hall has a secondary idea for Twin Galaxies: use that database for teams to possibly determine and draft players for professional teams.
“Say Echo Fox likes the game H1Z1,” Hall said. “We use that as a potential emerging esport, and Twin Galaxies sets up leaderboards for H1Z1 to gage players’ performance. So now you have a drafting system that Echo Fox – and really any team – can use TG’s database to draft from.”
Day, though he no longer owns the site, remains in the ether. He’ll show up at events, or in posts on the website’s blog, always sporting his referee shirt. The founder of Twin Galaxies seems pleased with the site’s direction six years after letting go.
“(Hall) has provided provided a lot of plans for TG that I probably could have never implemented myself,” Day said. “I think Twin Galaxies is going to be recognized more and more as one of the most dynamic organizations in the esports environment.”
Photo Credit: Twin Galaxies Facebook courtesy of http://legionofleia.com/
Leaving a Legacy
Ottumwa isn’t all that different today than it was when Twin Galaxies opened.
Wilson paints the picture of a resilient town, and with good reason. The city has endured big floods through the years, the worst coming in 1947 when the Des Moines River crested at 20.24 feet, according to the Ottumwa Courier. The residents responded by moving the course of the river so that couldn’t happen again.
“If we can move a river, we can do anything,” Wilson said. “Like any other town, we have had our challenges. But I’ve never been disappointed to call Ottumwa my home.”
In 2010, Day made an ill-fated attempt to start a physical video game Hall of Fame in Ottumwa. He had a big ceremony for the inaugural class -- with the pomp, circumstance and big names to be expected from a Walter Day Special -- but he didn’t make enough money to ever host another event or induct another class.
“They say Ottumwa is the video game capital of the world; that’s complete truth,” Hoff said. “But the only place that has arcade games is my garage. The economy of the town and the leaders of of the town, they’ve got other things to deal with.
“So embracing video games, that’s kind of an irrelevant task as opposed to other things. It’s economically dissimilar.”
Now, 35 years after Twin Galaxies opened, the town is taking the steps to further recognize Day. Wilson is trying to raise Day’s profile locally and has talked with Day about how the Chamber can market Day’s accomplishments to the community.
Whether that’s stickers, posters or even cardboard cutouts of Day, Wilson said the emphasis is on growing awareness of Twin Galaxies’ history in Ottumwa.
“As it was all happening, you’re like ‘What the heck is this? And how is this who we are?’” Wilson said. “It’s like, how do we attach ourselves to this if you weren’t into the video games and so forth? You weren’t quite sure if you fit. So I guess my job as a chamber director is to say yes, this is who we are, and something to be proud of and promote and get more people involved in and on board with.
“It was just that line that was there, and we didn’t know what to do with it. Dealing with other fires that we needed to put out. But it was never gone.”
“They say Ottumwa is the video game capital of the world; that’s complete truth,” Hoff said. “But the only place that has arcade games is my garage."
Conversely, Day’s profile has also been underserved in the industry as it exists today. Much of what Day and Twin Galaxies set out to accomplish laid the groundwork for what has become a booming esports industry.
Investors -- some of them high-profile -- are entering the scene and buying teams, playing in organized leagues and earning large prize pools. It’s been a constant evolution, but the premise has always remained simple -- find out who is the best at video games.
Twitch is a streaming giant with 100 million monthly viewers. The entire premise of Twitch falls in line with one of Day’s basic principles: People like to watch other people play games.
“When Twin Galaxies came into existence, believe it or not, that was the birthplace of functional esports,” Hoff said. “The reason I say something as bold as that is because when Twin Galaxies went into operation and would begin to gather the scores and verify them, it created history’s first edition of having a historical database with world record titles and world record belts.”
The esports industry in its current state trends young. Most players are in their teens or early 20s, and team owners aren’t much older. A lot of the prominent people in today’s scene weren’t even alive in Day’s heyday. In a scene that already has a short attention span, thinking about history might not be appealing.
That put Day and Twin Galaxies in an odd place. Their work is lost among most of the people in today’s industry, leaving Day on the outside and his legacy tenuous -- though, as always, he’s hopeful it will all come around.
“All of us, together, what we did all those years ago, I think that we will be appreciated as time goes on,” Day said. “It’s just that the modern esports industry is so busy with its success, and the amazing rush of watching it grow so fast, so big, so soon, I don’t think most of them are even thinking about the past because they’re too busy dealing with the power of the present.
“Twin Galaxies gave (esports) its first nervous system. Now it’s grown up into being an adult.”
(Editor’s note: The story has been amended from its original version.)
Cover image photo credit: Isaiah “TriForce” Johnson