In the 1970s, Pong was pretty damn cool. But the thrill of batting a virtual ball back and forth on a TV screen could only go so far. It took the Atari 2600 to launch the golden age of video games.

Released in 1977, Atari was the first console to offer individual game cartridges for home systems, a precursor to today’s gamer culture. The system’s wildly popular titles were adapted from arcade video games like Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac-Man. Sales hit 1 million in 1979, doubled the following year with the release of Space Invaders and, by 1982, reached 10 million.

Since then, the wired joysticks and paddles of Atari’s seminal project have given way to wireless rumble packs and motion detection systems, as Sega, Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft took turns making at-home gaming systems increasingly accessible—and addictive. Today, three-quarters of U.S. households have at least one video game player, according to the Entertainment Software Association. And the video game market has grown to a US$150 billion industry—projected to reach US$300 billion by 2025, fueled by mobile and cloud gaming, per a report by Global Data. Esports, which let spectators watch and cheer on their favorite video game players, will add US$1.1 billion this year alone, up 27 percent from 2018, according to Newzoo. Some esports athletes are bona fide celebrities with millions of followers, while some universities now offer dedicated gaming scholarships.


Proportion of U.S. households that have at least one video game player today

$131 billion

Video game market value in 2019

Source: Entertainment Software Association

It all can be traced to the Atari 2600. Here’s what the console meant to three industry leaders:

“The 2600 showed the world that ordinary people’s appetite for games and play was deeper, broader and more insatiable than anyone could have previously imagined. People always played games—we even build our cities around stadiums. The Atari 2600 brought that deep human love for games home to the living room, going beyond traditional games, tabletop and even sport to show dozens of new expressions for our hunger to play.” —Seth Killian, lead designer, Riot Games

“When I think about the 2600, I think about the Indiana Jones game and how the controller hurt the palm of your left hand if you played it for too long. Some games from that era had a lasting impact on the industry—Pitfall and Adventure, to name two. But the 2600’s biggest impact was cultural. It brought gaming into the mainstream in a way no other console had done. It created the industry I work in today.” —Dave Lang, founder, Iron Galaxy

“I think a lot about two Atari 2600 games: Adventure and Combat. The brutal simplicity of the time helped make them into pure distillations of emotional experience, in this case exploration and competition, respectively. Those particular emotions still underlie a lot of games. The Atari 2600 didn’t invent those emotions, obviously, but it’s still one of the best examples of them.” —Ian Dallas, creative director, Giant Sparrow