I'm surprised nobody has written a more extensive writeup on Deathmatch. You would suppose that there are a fair amount of gamers on here (myself included) who blows up enough random people during a fragfest. It was truly a remarkable thing, and still is. Alot of popular sayings and such came from the gaming culture that sprang up around it.
The term came from the computer megahit Doom. Players equipped with the top-notch communication technology at the time (2400 baud modems) could quit to dos, dial up a friend or foe via the phone lines, connect to the other computer, and play. This was quite revolutionary in 1993, when the World Wide Web was but a small figment of imagination on university mainframes.
Doom didn't work on a client-server model, like subsequent FPS (First Person Shooters) games do. Instead, both clients connected to each other. The upside of this is that there is no random "jumping around" by someone who's lagging, creating a rather believable atmosphere. The downside is that if someone does indeed start to lag, the whole operation goes down in flames; everyone gets out-of-sync, and you basically have to start over.
Matchmaking BBS's started popping up so like-minded individuals could log in, find an opponent, and tie up the phone lines for a few hours. Even a few matching services popped up, like DWANGO and Kali, which were a bit more user friendly than a Telnet interface, albeit for a price.
Deathmatches were popular, but stayed under the radar. Most people played Doom without even realizing the social experience that it shipped with.
Rumblings were afoot about id's next masterpiece, Quake. It was going to be another evolutionary leap forward for the gaming industry; a true 3d environment, rooms above rooms (Doom couldn't match that), more robust physics, and so on. The REAL kicker was that it could be played with up to 16(!) people over the Internet, which was just starting to go mainstream.
The gaming scene was shaken up when Quake hit the markets, amid various delays and feature cuts. While the single player experience was nice to look at, there wasn't much meat to it (much like current Supermodels).
What made Quake amazing was the upgraded Deathmatch possibilities. With 16 people able to partake on a bloodthirsty feast of blood and gibs, it was a riot from the start.
Quake used the client-server model, allowing people at universities with fat bandwidth pipes (T1 and T3 lines) to host what is called a dedicated server, or a computer that does little else but host a game for other people. These selfless souls usually had an extra computer on the network, and could then join by connecting to the server, waiting for fresh meat to swing by.
An entire subculture sprang up around Quake. The concept of a gaming clan surfaced, with groups of players putting either prefixes or suffixes on their name and fighting together. For instance, if I played quake under the moniker Lordfly, and I joined the 419 clan (incidentally the first clan I joined), my new gaming nick would be either 419|Lordfly or Lordfly|419, depending on what the clan wanted you to do.
These newfound clans would then challenge each other, much like tribal warfare. A server would be set, with a password on it, the warriors would join, agree on a set of maps, and begin battle. As these were informal (and the original game didn't come with any sort of utilities to facilitate team matches), rules and codes of honor developed. For instance, it was frowned upon to wantonly blow up your teammates, unless you wanted a nice boot in the ass. It was an interesting social experiment.
Game software, such as Quakespy (later Gamespy, the bloated gimp of the software world) started popping up to fill in the voids that the game itself left behind. The game shipped with a very primitive gaming matchmaking service, if you could even call it that; you type in an IP address, hope to God you got the numbers right, and hit connect. The game would then freeze for upwards of 10 seconds while it tried to find a server on that ip address. If it found one, you were golden. if not, it was back to square one.
Quakespy allowed you to query a "master server" that would list all the quake servers it knew about, with the added bonus of sorting them by ping time, player population, name, and so on. It was simply a matter of double clicking on the server and fragging away.
The subculture continued to swell, spawning plenty of nifty buzzwords and inside jokes, such as "OWNED!", "llama", LPB (low ping bastard, usually someone on a university connection), HPB or HPW (high ping bastard or wussy, depending on how well you were playing), gibs (the meaty bits that your opponent turns into upon blowing them up with a rocket launcher), and frags (coined from Vietnam, I believe, for a confirmed kill).
Fansites abounded, the more famous of which later became huge websites devoted to gaming. Among them were Bluesnews, Redwood's, VoodooExtreme, Stomped, and Planetquake. These sites disseminated news, rumors, files, and other tidbits to the burgeoning community at large.
Perhaps a byproduct of these mega-fansites was that the coders of Quake became demigods within the community, and minor celebrities elsewhere. John Romero became a rockstar of sorts. John Carmack was revered as the best coder ever conceived. American McGee was recognized as a designer with mad skillz.
Probably the most ridiculous result of all of this competitive gaming was gaming for money. Dennis Fong, aka "Thresh", won numerous Quake tournaments, netting him John Carmack's Ferrari and thousands of bucks. Suddenly deathmatch was a career choice. Dozens of gaming "leagues" were set up, with the allure of prize money being given out to the best fragger on the lot.
Deathmatching in Quake spawned numerous sub-genres, mostly mods done by the community. These included Capture the Flag and Teamfortress. It was no longer enough to simply deathmatch; now you had to know how to snipe, grapple, and snag another team's flag. Subcultures of the Quake subculture developed. The scene began to splinter. The homogeneous nature of the culture was falling apart.
After Quake, Quake2 was brought to bear. The demo] was released, causing such a bandwidth uproar that it slowed down the Internet for about a week. People were frothing at the mouth to get their hands on a copy. Near Christmas, 1997, Quake2 was released. The Deathmatch culture schizmed yet again, with some staying behind in regular Quake, and others jumping ship to join Quake2.
At this point, the FPS market exploded again (the first explosion happened during Doom's heyday), this time with every company under the sun releasing games with multiplayer support, no matter how poorly cobbled together. From Unreal to Tribes to Half-Life, FPS after FPS came onto the market. Some lived, some even prospered, but most quietly disappeared under the bargain bin at K-mart.
Where does Deathmatch stand today? As of 03-19-2003, Quake3 has been out for about 4 years now, and is finally losing steam. Counterstrike, a free mod based upon a 7 year old game (Half-Life), which was itself based upon the original Quake engine, is now the most active competitive game in North America. Its servers number in the tens of thousands, dwarfing anyone else. Unreal Tournament 2003 is a beautiful successor to Quake3, using Epic's inhouse engine.
Various gaming companies have licensed the Unreal and Quake engines, producing a myriad of products to cater to different markets. At the time of this writeup, you can boot up to become a space marine, a World War 2 infantry guy, a squad commander for a crack anti-terrorist organization, various armed forces gruntmen, and probably half a dozen sci-fi fighters. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. With new games coming out every month, deathmatching is splintering off more and more.
However, no matter what game you play, deathmatch is most likely the first gaming mode you'll experience online. The words remain mostly the same; groups of players are still called "clans" (although there were indeed NO clans landing on Iwo Jima, but I digress), and a confirmed kill is still called a "frag."
As we approach ten years of the deathmatch, it helps to look back at where we've come from, and lets us look forward to see where we'll go. Massive vehicle-based combat, with thousands of players on a server? A few players intimitely hooked up to their systems, providing a complete VR experience? We shall find out soon enough.