It has been suggested to me that this all-but-inescapable online bro-phrase is a NOOB, and after some investigation, I believe it. On the British origin, I give you “Well played”, or, The major’s dilemma, a 1894 farce by Arthur Francis Knight. There is a 1921 book called Well Played! by Andrew Home (also the author of From Fag to Monitor: or, Fighting to the Front). Then there is this from Shane Leslie’s 1922 The Oppidan:
As each member of his team came through he cast him a faithful look or a winged word, ‘Well played! You deserved to win and you will win next time.’ He stood there seeing his boys through the bitterness of a defeat which had hit himself hardest. Spectators passed him sympathetically. Morleyites seeing the symbol of the vanquished nudged each other and began rubbing in the defeat. ‘Well played, Morley’s! Morley’s! Morley’s! a goal to a rouge.’ There was a curiosity to see the visible effect. But nothing was there revealed except the well known accent of Jenkinson saying to the dishevelled players, ‘Well played Mr Morley’s, very well played indeed!’
As for American use, it’s everywhere, not only in gaming message boards but, for example, in this Dave Itzkoff post for Arts Beat blog of the New York Times. (He’s describing Betty White talking to Jay Leno about her experience on “Saturday Night Live.”)
Ms. White says, “Somebody grabs your hand, and you’re out horizontal back here, and they take you into something, a room smaller than this desk, and somebody’s taking your clothes off and somebody’s putting them back on——”
“No,” Mr. Leno says, interrupting. “I didn’t ask you how you got the job.”
Well played, Mr. Leno. Well played.
A key figure in U.S. adoption of the phrase appears to be Seth Rogen, who said it first in the 2008 “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and then in “Knocked Up” (the clip below), after being told that he was looks like “Babe Ruth’s gay brother … Gabe Ruth.”
Rogen’s signal contribution may have been ending with the word “sir.” JakeinSD posted an Urban Dictionary definition of “Well played my friend” in January 2008–that is before the release of “40 Year-Old Virgin”:
a statement of extreme agreement/praise for a particular activity that one of your friends has engaged in. can also be used sarcastically to point out a flaw in logic or action (example. when something is not well played, but you say it was in a sarcastic tone).
dude 1: did you get that girls number last night?
dude 2: not only did i get her number, i boned her and didn’t call her.
dude 1: well played my friend!
Clearly, more research is needed.