Although I was never an athlete, I grew up in the shadow of one. My father, Ronnie Herman, was a table tennis player. He didn’t play professionally but he had dozens of trophies that sat atop our dining room breakfront. My father joined the New Jersey Table Tennis Club during the fifties, when it rented a small room in an Edison, NJ bowling alley. He eventually became the Club’s treasurer. Today it is the largest table tennis club in the NJ/NY/PA region and one of the oldest and largest in the United States.
I never had any interest in the sport at all. We lived in an apartment so we didn’t have room for a Ping-Pong table. The only time I played was when I accompanied my father to the Club on Tuesday practice nights. He’d lure me into a game with soft easy volleys and then suddenly BAM, he would slam the ball back at me causing my inevitable defeat.
In 1972, when I was thirteen, ball-and-paddle videogames appeared in both arcades and the home. My first thought was that I would finally be able to beat my father at his own game. After all, these new-fangled games that played on a television set were surely electronic versions of table tennis. Weren’t they?
But these ball-and-paddle games could also be considered as video tennis. When you got right down to it, there really weren’t any differences between tennis and table tennis other than their physical playing fields, the type of ball and racquets that were used, and the scoring. The winner in table tennis was the first to reach 21 points with at least a two-point lead. In tennis the player who reached four points first with a two-point lead was the winner. But instead of simply scoring from zero to four, the score went from “love” to “15” to “30” to “40” to “game”. And when both players scored three points it was called “deuce”.
The basic premise of volleying a ball back and forth over a net until one player or team missed it was the same in both sports. And that was the goal of these new electronic ball-and-paddle games: to volley the ball back and forth until one player missed it and the other scored a point. So, were these early videogames tennis or table tennis? Well, the answer depends upon which system it was played on.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
Historically, these games were developed with table tennis in mind. Pong, the first arcade ball-and-paddle game, had never been officially compared to either sport. According to its developer, Al Alcorn, it had been named after the sound that the game produced when the ball and paddle collided. This was no different than what had occurred in the real sport when the term “Ping-Pong” was trademarked by a British toy company in 1901 and then sold to Parker Brothers in the United States. Afterwards the sport had to be officially called table tennis to avoid being sued by the game manufacturer for trademark violation. Although the term Ping-Pong never fell into the public domain it was the name of choice by most people in the United States including the president.
1972, the year of Pong’s release, was the year of President Nixon’s Ping-Pong diplomacy, which was considered as the turning point for relations between the United States and China. So calling their game Pong was a good marketing decision for Atari since that was a word that was easily identifiable by the American public.
Pong was also more closely related to table tennis than tennis in another respect: the way the game was scored. The first player to score eleven points was the winner.
Pong was inspired by an earlier video ball-and-paddle game designed by Ralph Baer. Baer had referred to his game as “table tennis” in his lab notes from November 9, 1967, which had been transcribed in his book Videogames: In the Beginning (published by my company Rolenta Press in 2005). Baer wrote that his assistant Bill Harris worked on “Ping-Pong” circuits for their prototype machine TV Game #4. He noted two days later that they were playing “Ping-Pong”, Chase, Checkers and gun games.
By the end of 1968 Baer’s team was working on their seventh prototype, dubbed the Brown Box. This would be the prototype for the Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s first videogame console. The Brown Box could play a number of different ball-and-paddle games by flicking the sixteen toggle switches on the front in various positions. Baer also produced paper overlays that he affixed between the two rows of switches and marked the positions that they needed to be in for a desired game. He clearly labeled “Ping-Pong” on the overlay for that game. There were no overlays labeled “Tennis”.
By all accounts the game that Ralph Baer developed, as well as the one that Atari released, were both electronic versions of table tennis. So when did this game that its inventor specifically referred to as Ping Pong transition into tennis? As it turns out, right in the beginning.
WHERE THE CONFUSION BEGAN
In August 1972, Magnavox released the world’s first videogame console, the Odyssey, the production model of Ralph Baer’s prototype Brown Box. On the whole it was the machine that Baer and his team had developed with some minor differences. Instead of utilizing toggle switches to change the various games, Magnavox included six game cards that had to be inserted into the machine to play twelve different games. And while the Brown Box could display full color on a color television, Magnavox removed this feature to save costs and instead included eleven plastic overlays that clung to the TV screen and gave the appearance of colorful graphics.
The one game that did not require an overlay was the basic ball-and-paddle game, which the instruction manual called “Table Tennis”. But the Odyssey also included “Tennis” and this required a green plastic overlay that displayed an overhead drawing of a tennis court and two stationary players. Otherwise, the two games were basically identical. The instruction manual explained that the object of “Table Tennis” was to be the first to accumulate 21 points and the object of “Tennis” was to score four points (although the manual detailed tennis’ unique way of scoring). But since the Odyssey was incapable of displaying or keeping track of scores, players had to maintain manually. Essentially the only difference between the two games was that players either stopped the game after either 21 or 4 points were scored, as long as the winner beat his opponent by at least two points. This was all up to the players as the console had no idea what the score was.
Between 1975 and 1977 Magnavox produced scaled-down consoles that only included a few games and no overlays. One of the games was always called “Tennis” even though it was the same basic ball-and-paddle game from the original Odyssey. The first of these consoles, the Odyssey 100, also wasn’t capable of producing on-screen scoring. Instead, the hardware had two sliding bars that allowed players to manually keep score. The first player to reach fifteen points was the winner. The Odyssey consoles that followed were capable of on-screen scoring and all included games called “Tennis” that were played until someone reached fifteen points.
The Odyssey 500, which was released in December, 1976, also included “Tennis”. But instead of basic rectangles being used for racquets, the console was the first to have graphics that somewhat resembled people. The characters clearly held tennis racquets in their hands.
Atari released its first home console in 1975 and was able to avoid calling its games table tennis or tennis. It simply called its console Pong and left it to the players to decide what kind of game they were playing. As Atari began developing variations of its original game, it always included Pong in the name such as Pong Doubles or Super Pong.
In 1976 integrated-chip manufacturer General Instruments released an innovative chip that featured six built-in ball-and-paddle games. The implementation guide that accompanied the AY-3-8500 chip stated that among its features were six games including “Tennis” and a score display from 0 to 15.
Dozens of companies wanted to get into the videogame business but didn’t want to develop their own. Now they no longer had to. All they had to do was purchase this chip and provide a console shell to house it in.
Between 1976 and 1977 dozens of ball-and-paddle consoles were sold that utilized the AY-3-8500 chip from companies including Coleco, Radio Shack, Lloyds, APF and Unisonic. All of them called the basic ball-and-paddle game “Tennis” even though the fifteen point scoring was closer to table tennis’ form of scoring. But these companies just followed the lead that General Instruments provided.
However, not every company completely conformed to General Instruments’ prompts and referred to the basic ball-and-paddle game only as “Tennis”. Both Unisonic and APF mentioned table tennis on the boxes of two of their consoles.
However, in both of these instances, the table tennis name only appeared on paper. While the manual for the Unisonic system called the game “tennis (table tennis)”, the APF manual dropped the table tennis term altogether.
By the time we get to the consoles themselves, all traces of “table tennis” have been eradicated and all we have left is a fifteen-point version of tennis.
In 1976 Fairchild Electronics released its Video Entertainment System (Channel F), which used interchangeable cartridges that allowed for an ever-expanding library of new games. But like the consoles that preceded it, it also had three built-in games, and of course one of them was called Tennis. It was followed in 1977 by the RCA Studio II, which was the first system that only accepted cartridges. One of them was called TV Arcade III and it was the first cartridge to feature a game called “Tennis”. In both cases these were the same ball-and-paddle games that preceded them on the various dedicated systems. The Fairchild game at least had a green playing field. The RCA system was in black and white so it didn’t even have that. In both cases the game followed the table tennis rules of scoring. A player won the Fairchild game by scoring fifteen points first. On the Studio II unit the first player who scored twenty-one points, with at least a two-point lead, was the winner.
Atari released its famed Video Computer System (VCS) in 1977 too and also offered a cartridge that played ball-and-paddle games. However, Video Olympics featured Pong and Pong variants so there was no question of what game it was. The final major programmable system was the Magnavox Odyssey2 and it didn’t offer any ball-and-paddle games (although Packrat Videogames released Pong! For the Videopac and Odyssey2 in 2004).
Back in the day, it turned out my that my father was not impressed by any of these games, regardless of what they were called. What was missing for him was the physical aspects of the sport; slamming and slicing, important maneuvers that he felt could never be replicated on the screen.
REAL VIDEO TENNIS
Actual tennis finally appeared on a videogame console in 1980 in the form of Tennis for the Mattel Electronics Intellivision. The game featured a tennis court as a horizontal trapezoid with a player on each side holding easily-recognized tennis rackets. And the scoring was in true tennis fashion: 15, 30, 40, Game.
Following the release of Intellivision Tennis more than three dozen versions of true tennis games appeared on various gaming consoles between 1981 and 2005. During that time, only one table tennis game came out: Konami’s Smash Ping Pong for the Nintendo Famicom Disc system. It was released in 1987 and only in Japan.
FINALLY, VIDEO TABLE TENNIS IN AMERICA
Beginning in 2000, Radica began releasing videogame plug-and-play units that simulated actual sports. These were standalone dedicated consoles that plugged directly into the video/audio input jacks of TV sets. The wireless controller(s) were usually something associated with the sport such as a baseball bat or a skateboard. One of the games was Play TV Ping-Pong and its controllers were two wireless table tennis paddles, which looked and felt like the real things. These controllers allowed players to move around and swing them as if they were playing in an actual game. The ball on the screen, which displayed a table tennis table from a first-person view, reacted as if the player actually hit it.
The physical aspect of the game that my father wanted to see back in the ball-and-paddle days had finally arrived to video table tennis. Unfortunately, my father wasn’t there to witness it. He had passed away in 1991.
In 2006 it seemed like a tsunami of Ping Pong clones reached American shores. At least a half dozen of these plug-and-play systems were sold under generic names such as Ping Pong TV Game from various vendors.
Table tennis finally debuted on North American videogame consoles in 2006 when Rockstar, the company that was responsible for violent games like the Grand Theft Auto series,released Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis (RGPTT) for the Xbox 360. This was the most realistic version of the sport to date and allowed players to charge, spin the ball, and even smash. But the only thing missing from it was the physical aspect of the game that was found in the plug-and-plays since it utilized the standard Xbox 360 controller. This was rectified in the Wii version that came out the following year that used the Wii Remote, which worked in the same manner as the wireless paddle controllers from the plug-and-plays. Players actually stood up in front of the television screen and interacted as if they were standing in front of a table.
Between 2007 and 2019 at least a dozen versions of table tennis have been released for the various videogame consoles. Among them was Racquet Sports for the PlayStation 3, which came out in September, 2010. Ping-Pong was just one of five sports included in the collection, but what made it noteworthy was that for the first-time video table tennis could be played against an online competitor who was physically located anywhere on the planet.
In 2017 the latest innovation in videogame table tennis occurred with the arrival of Ping Pong VR from Merge Games for the PlayStation 4 (PS4). Subtitled “Table Tennis simulator”, Ping Pong VR allowed players to enter a virtual world where they could play against a computer opponent. Ping Pong VR was only available in Europe and couldn’t be played on American PS4 consoles. This was rectified in 2019 when Merge Games released VR Ping Pong Pro in the United States. Although it was still a one-player game against a computer opponent, it offered network play that allowed gamers to compete against another human player from anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, VR Ping Pong Pro was not a good game. The physics were off which didn’t permit a game against an opponent to be performed adequately. However, it was the first of its kind so hopefully someone will improve upon it in the future.
Table tennis has come a long way in its fifty-year videogame odyssey. It has evolved from a crude ball-and-paddle game that Ralph Baer conceived in the late sixties, to a close simulation of the actual game, especially when played on the Nintendo Wii. I think my father would have approved.
And I think if he and I could play against each other today on one of the modern versions, he would still whip my ass with an unexpected slam.
Copyright © 2022 Leonard Herman