Learning from the best: How a PC gamer almost single-handedly ensured that WASD control became the standard


The search for the origins of the WASD standard leads to a legendary shooter – and an equally legendary player

“W” and “S” for moving forwards and backwards; “A” and “D” for moving left and right: that’s the common control system that has become the standard in many video games.

But why do so many games use the WASD configuration for character movement?

The “first e-sportsman” as inspiration

Before The International in DOTA 2, before the World Championship in League of Legends, before all the IEM Majors in Counter-Strike, competitive tournaments were nowhere near the multi-million dollar events they are today

Instead, when looking for the start of WASD popularity – at least in the western part of the world – we can look back at two games that in a way form the origin of the e-sports scene: Doom (1993) and Quake.

One of the best, if not the best Doom and Quake player of all time wasDennis “Thresh” Fong.He is even listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the “first professional video gamer“.

  • Fong had already made a name for himself before the release of Quake when he took a commanding first place in the 1995 Microsoft-sponsored Doom tournament.
  • In the meantime, hereportedly won 1,500 consecutive rounds

And yes, in the promo video for this tournament embedded below, Bill Gates stands in a trench coat in front of a Doom screenshot. The nineties were

Doom was followed by Quake: Just one year later, the shooter Quake was released for MS-DOS, Windows and Linux. Here, too, a competitive scene quickly crystallized.

Among other things, this led to a tournament organized by John Carmack – the co-founder of id Software, the development studio behind Quake.

Out of thousands of online players, Carmack selected a total of 16 particularly determined Quake players to compete against each other at the now defunct E3 trade fair held in Atlanta at the time.

There was no prize money in the competition called “Red Annihilation”. Instead, the winner received the Ferrari 328, which belonged to Carmack.

The tournament and this very Ferrari was won by Fong, who was able to secure the victory with the now common WASD control plus mouse movement. The final round on the Quake map “Castle of the Damned” can still be found on YouTube today:

The first games with WASD controls were already available in the 80s

However, WASD controls were not exclusive to shooters at that time either. In fact, representatives of the roguelike and platforming genres had made their first attempts with these controls

  • The roguelikeTelengardreleased in 1982 used a WASDX scheme to move through the dungeon, where the S button was used to stop, while the X button was used to move backwards.
  • The first explicit mention of WASD as a standard control scheme as we know it today can be found in “Dark Castle”, released in 1986, which clearly refers to the classic scheme in the instructions:

What was the trigger for Fong’s switch to WASD?

Inspired by his younger brother:Now, Fong wasn’t the very first player to come across the WASD controls – we’ve already established that with our little excursion into the 1980s.

According to his own statements, he doesn’t want to “take credit for the invention of WASD” either, although he tellsPCGamerhe is very sure that he popularized the scheme.

  • At least one person is known to have used keyboard andtrackballas controls in shooters before Fong: his younger brother Lyle, who was also a gifted Doom player.
  • Lore has it that he had great success with this scheme, while “Thresh”, like many others, played exclusively on the keyboard.
  • One day, the older brother decided to switch to the mouse/keyboard combination – since then he “pretty much never lost a game”.

Quake 2 cemented WASD as the standard

Comical combinations, but only one prevailed:WASD was certainly not the only option Fong had at his disposal for his victory march.

According to his own statements, he also tested combinations such as WADX, and ESDF was also common at tournaments – the latter is still seen as an alternative by some today, including Valve boss Gabe Newell.

Other games couldn’t really make up their minds either. System Shock, for example, relied on the now almost unthinkable ASDX scheme, but Fong’s popularity was to finally usher in standardization.

Fong was often asked about his configuration during Quake tournaments. No wonder, then as now, professional shooters and those who wanted to become one wanted to know the optimal configuration in order to gain even the smallest advantage.

According to Fong, Carmack was also aware of the constant questioning and quickly incorporated a “Thresh configuration into the Quake successor released in 1997.

  • In Quake 2, players only have to enter “exec thresh.cfg” into the console to use the configuration of the great role model.
  • This configuration and all other assignments can still be found compiled in the “Thresh Quake Bible“.

The two Quake games mentioned so far and Quake 3 Arena are considered milestones in gaming history due to their influence; their success inspired numerous other shooters.

These included the first Half-Life, which also chose WASD as its standard and was a great success. This was followed by Wolfenstein, Halo and Call of Duty, more and more popular titles that used WASD.

Incidentally, the fact that WASD controls have not remained limited to shooters is thanks to another gaming milestone.

In 2004, a certain MMORPG was released that not only revolutionized an entire genre, but also relied on the WASD standard, which is unusual for role-playing games: World of Warcraft – and with this, at the latest, most games stuck with today’s standard controls.