The rising tide of personal technology in Michigan dorms reached a notable high-water mark in the basement of South Quad in the spring of 1992.The occasion was the seven-game final series in the Sega Genesis “NHL Hockey” Stanley Cup playoffs, a video-game tournament that had consumed a substantial fraction of several weeks among 18 entrants, most of them freshmen. The opponents were the two-time defending champ, a Chicagoan named Rene, who had moved off the hall but returned for the tournament, and a popular upstart freshman named Reza. Sixteen men had crowded into a cramped double in Kelsey House to watch fast-moving cartoon figures do battle on a TV screen as the human contestants struggled with thumb-driven game controls.
“Reza, they’re calling you scary! Are you scary? Are you man or mouse, Reza!”
“Don’t make him laugh!”
“Rez, you gotta stay mentally tough for a whole period!”
It was 9 p.m. on April 22, the last day of classes before finals. Somebody had opened a window to reduce the accumulated body heat, but the smell of unwashed socks remained strong. The simulated sounds of hockey were amplified through big Kenwood speakers—electronic stick-whacking, electronic grunts of players colliding.Reza’s backers quickly concurred the youngster was tight. He went down in the first game in 10 minutes, 4-8. Fair-weather fans started to drift into the hall.
A scene like this would have been impossible even ten years earlier. Before the mid-1980s, most dorm rooms at Michigan retained the spartan air of earlier eras—bare-bones bunks and desks, a small sink, maybe a shared record player, a few posters. But then a series of factors converged to create a glut of personal technology in the typical dorm room.
In the wake of the Bell System break-up of 1982, U-M built its own phone system and began to wire the campus for cable television. The purpose was to support teaching and research, officials hastened to explain, not to give students wider options for TV viewing—but the latter was an eventual result. Computers were not yet standard equipment for every student, but many students were bringing them to campus. The University began to fuel the trend in 1987 by sponsoring the first of a series of “Truckload Sales” of personal computers.
In that period, an increasing number of students had grown up in larger homes with separate bedrooms for each child, recalled Alan Levy, director of West Quad from 1981 to 1987, then assistant director of residential education. When two such students joined up as roommates in Ann Arbor, each with all of his or her stuff in tow, a double dorm room might start to resemble the overstuffed back room of an electronics store. This was the first generation that had grown up on video games—Nintendo’s “Donkey Kong” (1981), Atari’s adaptation of “Pac-Man” (1982), Nintendo’s “Super Mario Brothers” (1985), to name only a few. There was no reason to expect students would drop video-gaming just because they were leaving home for college.
And this was the era before miniaturization. TVs were deep and bulky, likewise computer monitors and printers. The tiny iPod was far in the future; sound systems were massive, the bigger the better. The vogue of the dormitory “loft” sprang up to accommodate the sprawl. “For many of those later Baby Boom parents, depriving their kids of anything was not high on their list,” Levy said, “and the residence-hall rooms didn’t get any bigger.”
One such 19′-by-12′ double in the Kelsey House of 1991-1992, for example, was observed to house two telephones, an answering machine, four electric fans, two digital clocks, a shared sound system with CD-player and tape deck, a microwave oven, a refrigerator, a hibachi grill, two televisions, two VCRs, and 196 VHS videocassettes with a computer-printed alphabetic guide.With so much electronic gear at the ready, and so many contestants so close at hand, the organization of video sports tournaments became all but inevitable.
Rene’s New York Rangers quickly moved up two games to none, then three. Then Reza stirred his L.A. Kings into a comeback. As the yelling rose, fans hurried back into the room.”College is Full of Difficult Decisions,” said the front of one fan’s t-shirt. On the back: Nine varieties of beer.
“Reza, get back to basics! This game may be over, but at least punish him!”
Of course, college freshmen had been improvising indoor sports events for generations. The men of Kelsey House carried on that tradition with such events as “Hall Football” (with teams and uniforms), “Room Football,” and “Beer-Can Bowling.” But electronic sports were their favorite—there were “Buster Douglas Boxing” and a complex and highly realistic computer basketball game. And there was the favorite of these northern-born boys, Sega’s “NHL Hockey,” with its innovative addition of fights that broke out between electronic players in the event of an illegal body check.
The tournament had its own Commissioner, its own Official Draw, and three Sanctioned Tournament Sites (the rooms of the three guys who had been given the game for Christmas). Practices were held informally in the afternoon, often with small crowds watching, while games were generally scheduled for evenings. At mid-tournament, one previous champion put on a tie over his t-shirt to announce his retirement from Sega Hockey at a well-attended “press conference.”
“My great months as one of the game’s premier players are now over,” Tim McBride intoned. “I am not an unhappy man. I have had a wonderful career.”
McBride’s surprise retirement had made the powerful Rene a heavy favorite. Then Reza surprised everybody by upsetting a much-respected veteran upperclassman named Dorie, and some thought he posed a genuine challenge to Rene.
Now, with Rene up three games to one, Reza took the fifth game into overtime at five goals each. The competitors hunched over the controls, faces expressionless, thumbs jerking convulsively, Rene’s jaw flexing fast on his gum.
Then, suddenly, it was over. Rene pulled off his signature move—a heart-stopping twist of the stick that the Kelsey men called the A.I. (which stood for an unprintable phrase)—and the puck slammed home.Rene declared it the toughest of his three championship series.
“Two great players,” the Commissioner declared. “I’m proud of ’em.”Then everybody went out to party. It was only 10:30, and it was, after all, the last day of classes.
(Sources: This article draws on the writer’s work as an education reporter at The Detroit News in the early 1990s. Alan Levy supplied background.)