In the modern video game landscape, it takes a lot to get me upset. I pledge no allegiance to any console. I’m not all that fussed about hype around upcoming games. I’m weirdly cool with online video game culture being dominated by male voices. What I am not cool with? Getting facts wrong. I don’t like it when clothing manufacturers get their heritage branding wrong, and I don’t like it when video game companies do it, either. So don’t tell me Sega was established in 1951.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have been working on and off for the past two years on a book about the history of Sega up to 1973 (when the company underwent a restructure and started to look much more like the Sega we’d recognize today), so I will be glossing over certain facts that I could give in more detail…to protect my own research. I do have solid paperwork and interviews for everything being stated here, though.
Now, I will say in fairness to Sega that their own history is not the easiest to understand, I fully understand how they got to the 1951 date. However, it’s not historically accurate: they should have chosen either 1945 or 1956, but not 1951. Heck, they could have even picked 1965 for Sega Enterprises as opposed to the Service Games branch. Let’s go.
Irving Bromberg, the first president of Service Games (one of the two major companies that became Sega Enterprises) started as the founder of the Irving Bromberg Co. (established in 1933), he brought some of the first vending machines to Brooklyn, Boston and Washington, D.C. He also founded a business known as Standard Games Co. in Los Angeles, Calif., in 1934, which distributed penny arcade games, vending machines, early jukeboxes and so forth to companies on the West Coast. This company was not related to Service Games, which targeted military bases for distribution instead of Standard Games’ civilian markets. This fact is often mixed up in video game history tomes.
Service Games started off life under the name of “Service Games” when Irving Bromberg and his son, Marty Bromley (Martin Jerome Bromberg), formed a partnership with James L. Humpert to manufacture and distribute slot machines and other coin-operated devices. The company was founded sometime in the last half of 1945, likely after the conclusion of World War II. It’s hard to nail down the date for certain, but 1945 is listed on business license paperwork from the Territory of Hawaii filed by Service Games. If being a distribution company sounds weird to you, you must keep in mind that the United States didn’t really have what we would understand today as interstate highways until the mid-50s, so these companies would buy product (usually manufactured on the East Coast), ship it, and then sell to a local market. Given that the Territory of Hawaii was a specialized area other regional distributors didn’t want to take the risk on, that military men based the batteries of Oahu and Pearl Harbor on Hawai’i didn’t have much to do, and that Irving Bromberg knew the vending industry, it made sense to start a specialized distribution chain for the territory. Bromley and Humpert were employed in the U.S. Navy Shipyard at Pearl Harbor during World War II, so they had an “in” with the military market and exploited that to become the sole company allowed to bring slot machines and jukeboxes onto military bases in the Territory of Hawaii.
Fortunately for us from a historical perspective, many companies would advertise the fact that they had distribution in the Territory of Hawaii (as Service Games also served the civilian markets of Hawaii as a secondary source of income) as a way of seeming international and exotic, so we have pretty good documentation of their activities before 1951. For example, here’s a trade publication ad from April 1949 promoting a peep show by American Sales that shows Service Games (along with their first office in TH.)
So, Service Games does a pretty decent trade in the Hawaiian Territory and even has some success in coordinating parts of Standard Games to get more revenue using the military connections made at Service Games. They strike distribution deals with Mills (slot machine manufacturer that Service Games would eventually buy major parts of) and Rock-Ola (jukebox manufacturer) to rebadge their products as “Sega” (SHORT FOR SERVICE GAMES GET IT GUYS!?!?!) when they distribute their products to local markets.
However, the moral crusade of the 1950s was about to mess up Service Games’ business model. In 1951, the Gambling Devices Transportation Act banned the distribution of slot machines on military bases in the United States and its territories. This left Service Games with an excess of slot machine stock to move, so they looked east to the military installations in Okinawa, which were not considered to be legally United States territory. According to my paperwork, in February 1952, Bromley sent Richard Stewart, a Service Games salesman, and Raymond Lemaire, a mechanic, to Japan to promote and expand sales of Service Games machines on U.S. military reservations. Given that my dates and Sega’s purported internal dates have been off within 6 months of each other on a few other things, I’m willing to concede that they could have left in 1951, and thus Sega is basing their 1951 date on Stewart and Lemaire’s travel and establishment of necessary import paperwork to bring slot machines into the country. However, even this date would not be correct, as Dick Stewart and Ray Lemaire would hardly be considered founders. Moreover, the string of chaos and corruption they created as they started operations in military bases throughout southeast Asia and Australia is…something you’ll have to read about in my book, but needless to say, it’s insane.
In 1955, Standard Games’ assets were sold to Stern, and Bromley and Bromberg used the funds raised from the sale to buy Humpert’s share of the company. They then turned around and, on January 2, 1956, sold shares of the company to…Stewart and Lemaire, thus bringing their activities formally into the Service Games banner.
So it doesn’t really matter how you cut it: Sega didn’t start in 1951.