I was having lunch with some friends and somehow navigated to the nostalgic topic of LAN (local area network) parties. To my surprise, several folks had not heard the term before. I guess that’s what happens when a few decades roll on by.
LAN Parties were a thing that happened at just the right time. In the late 90’s, people were able to get their hands on fairly powerful and affordable computer hardware. Specifically, AMD released the Athlon and Athlon XP series chips with clock rates ranging from 500 MHz and up. These exploded in popularity compared to the then pricey and high temperature Pentium III chips from Intel. Add to this the availability of dedicated graphics cards such as the 3dfx Voodoo 3 and later the NVIDIA GeForce to empower enthusiasts set on building some funky gaming rigs. Pour a little liquor out for 3dfx because their cards were awesome.
This was also a time of experimentation. I remember using a home made Peltier cooler with a modified fish tank water pump for cooling, which allowed for processor clock speeds over 1000 MHz (we didn’t really say the word “Gigahertz” back then). We hand made parts and solutions using whatever components would work. The results were an impressive amount of horsepower to play games like Unreal Tournament, Quake 3 Arena, Tribes, and so forth.
The problem was lack of reliable connectivity to play these games with one another. Broadband wasn’t a thing until the 2000s. A few lucky folks (such as myself) had access to the blazing fast T1 connections hosted by their college – which is still only 1.5 Mbps – whereas the vast majority of people were limited to dial-up speeds ranging from 33.6 to 56 Kbps. Dial-up was a major problem due to many factors, including distance to the Internet Service Provider (ISP), quality of the phone connection, and protocol used (v.90, X2, K56flex). Latency was horrible, with connections experiencing about 500 ms round trip time or more.
This meant that strategy games involving turns or other genres with slower gameplay were fine to play when connected to the Internet, including titles like Myth: The Fallen Lords, Ultima Online, or Age of Empires. But it wasn’t great for anything needing lower latency and a large pool of active players, such as with first person shooters.
The answer was simple: physically pack up all of your gear, meet with a bunch of friends (or strangers) at an agreed upon location, and connect over a local area network. And by “pack up all your gear” I mean 100 – 150 pounds of gear, since all monitors were cathode ray tube (CRT). I often brought a little hand truck or dolly with me to cart around all my crap.
Finding a LAN Party
I remember seeing a flyer taped to the walls of my college stating that, for $20, you could reserve a seat over at an event called LANaholics with a blazing fast connection to a switched network. They seem to be defunct now, but I did find an old Chicago Tribune article here from 1999. The switched network part is important – most everyone at the time were using hubs, which are fine for light home usage but quickly collapse under any sort of network load. Switches, on the other hand, do not. Switches were extremely expensive in the 90’s; I didn’t even own a personal switch until years later. Heck, many places were still using coaxial token ring (ATR) networks at the time.
Being that I was president of the computer user group (CUG), I was super stoked to attend my first LAN party. I went with some friends from school so that we could carpool and save a few bucks (we were college kids, after all). LAN parties ran for 24 – 48 hours straight, so having a crew to go with you just increased the fun factor and helped share costs. I remember seeing some insanely cool custom rigs, such as full height server towers with cold cathode lights or glass side panels. These rigs were entirely custom and insanely expensive to produce because, again, it was pretty much all hand made.
It was great being around people who shared my passion for games and building computers. At the same time, some folks would roll in with a budget PC without any frills, and that was OK, too. It was all about the shared experience and the connections made (both literally and figuratively). There was always someone at the LAN party who would toss up an FTP server or file server and share mountains of warez and movies. I, of course, never downloaded any of it. 🙂
For the gamers in attendance, LAN parties provided competitive tournaments across every game imaginable. You had your typical death matches in Quake and Unreal Tournament, but you could also find people teaming up for a Tribe match, Warcraft 2, Total Annihilation, Counter Strike, and Age of Empires. The larger LAN parties provided prizes and trophies, making things very competitive while offering latency between 1 – 10 ms. Everyone loves bragging rights!
LAN parties were overflowing with junk food. I remember bringing coolers filled with chips, jellybeans, jolly ranchers, lemon heads, and whatever else provided a sugar rush. We drank Jolt cola, Bawls, and a really gross drink with little orbs floating in it called Orbitz. Whatever could provide caffeine! There was often a 2:00 AM run to McDonald’s to get 100s of chicken nuggets for the night owls, and then we would fight over dipping sauces. I was partial to hot mustard.
Sleeping was acceptable. Most parties would have a corner or room somewhere reserved for people to catch a nap. You were responsible for bringing your own blankets and sleeping bag. Some folks would just sleep under their computer table, especially if they had a killer computer rig. Because LAN parties were kept very dark, this wasn’t too hard to do. Most of the heavy hitters just plowed through without sleep. I rarely slept.
I enjoyed the era of LAN parties. I met a ton of nice, kind, sharing people that loved to help me with build ideas and talk about their custom work. It was an inclusive space where what you looked like and how your body performed didn’t matter. You could be in a wheelchair, deaf, tall, short, big, small, old, young, have a stutter, braces, glasses – and that was fine. It just mattered that you had a passion for the technology and weren’t a jerk.
I’m sad that LAN parties aren’t a thing anymore. It was a great experience and a great time to be alive. This is my little contribution to keep the history alive. I just wish I had pictures from it all.