Pixels 'n Bits 04.14.10: The King of Kong
Posted by Shawn S. Lealos on 04.14.2010
Pixels 'n Bits looks behind the curtain of the fabulous documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and former Donkey Kong World Champion Billy Mitchell, and questions if his infamy is warranted.
Welcome to Week 5 of Pixels and Bits, a look at video games in the pop culture world. My name is Shawn S. Lealos, and you have now entered my world.
It is often a knee jerk reaction to look at "gamers" and immediately think of terms like "nerd," "virgin," and "living in your mom's basement." Of course here on 411, that moniker can also describe a wrestling fan, a comic book geek or an Indie music fan. Anyone who seems to like something a lot of the "cool kids" aren't into is considered an outsider, a complete loser. What is sometimes funny is to sit and read comments from fans of the WWE calling fans of Ring of Honor "smarks," "marks," "virgins" or "losers" regardless of the fact both parties watch wrestling, the only difference being the promotion they prefer.
Luckily, over in the game zone there is less of a propensity to jump into juvenile name calling and petty insults because everyone here is pretty much a gamer. It doesn't really matter if you play an X-Box, PS3, Wii or an Atari 2600, the people who read this zone play games and are pretty much on a similar level. With that said, I am going to talk about a gamer I found disdain for, a man who has really come across to me as a jerk who might not deserve the respect of the gaming world based solely on his attitude.
Meet Billy Mitchell.
Billy Mitchell is a videogame player best known for recording high scores and World Records on various classic arcade games including Pac Man, Centipede and, most famously, Donkey Kong. Born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, he was named the "Video Game Player of the Year" in 1983, at the age of 18-years old. Since that time, he became the first person to ever record a perfect score on Pac Man (3,333,360), set the record twice for Donkey Kong (the most recent being 1,050,200 in 2007), broke the record for Donkey Kong Jr. in 2004 (957,300) and broke 10 million points on Centipede.
The guy is a prodigy - that is for sure. Then what makes him so despised in some circles? It all comes down to his portrayal in the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.
The movie was directed by Seth Gordon, who went on to make the holiday flick, Four Christmases. Gordon has been accused in the press of playing loose with the facts of the truth to make a more compelling documentary. If you have not seen the film, here is the story.
Billy Mitchell is a self-made success. He parlayed his achievements in the competitive videogame world into a successful restaurant career. The man lives a life he has built for himself and there is no denying what he has accomplished. The movie shows how smart the man is, and while arrogant, also shows his good side as he at one point bought a Q-Bert machine for an eighty year old woman to help her achieve her dream of setting the record for that game. The guy seems too good to be true and that is proven when he begins to speak. It is clear he is living in a world created in his own mind.
From the documentary alone, it looks like Billy believes his own hype. He was lifted to the top of his niche world at a young age and spent the last twenty-plus years living as an icon, carrying the gaming world on his shoulders. I'm not saying he comes across as a pompous asshole with no basis. I believe he has been touted as the best for so long, he just believes it hook, line and sinker. What makes it worse is when he is put side-by-side with Steve Wiebe, the man he finds himself challenged by in this movie.
When you have an arrogant man who believes the world owes him everything faced with a man who has found constant failure and has to fight for all he achieves, it is easy to see who you might tend to follow. Steve Wiebe is not a man without flaws, but his flaws come from his own insecurities, making him an easy target to cheer for. It also makes a man like Billy Mitchell, the king of his world, someone easy to jeer at.
The documentary depicts Billy Mitchell as being even worse than an arrogant king. It paints him as a cheater, a schemer and a hypocrite. Wiebe broke Mitchell's original Donkey Kong record (874,300) by breaking a million points (1,006,600). However, Mitchell apparently sent someone to investigate Wiebe's machine and Twin Galaxies nullified his record. Wiebe then travelled to break the score in person and did so (985,600) but then a package arrived from Mitchell with a tape inside showing Mitchell breaking the new record from an earlier effort (1,047,200), giving Mitchell the title back. Without ever checking his machine, as they did Wiebe's, the documentary shows Twin Galaxies accepting the score.
I realized I had made a mistake and planned on taking the score down when I returned to my office the next day, on Monday. But, before I could take the score down, Chief Referee Robert Mruczek, on behalf of the Twin Galaxies Board of Referees, took the score down. They also agreed that it was a mistake to accept the score. I apologize for the mistake of approving this videotape without the benefit of a complete verification process. And I personally apologize to Steve Wiebe for any sadness my actions may have caused him at that time. This has been a learning experience for Twin Galaxies and we guarantee that all future submissions be treated fairly and equally. Interestingly, this means that Billy Mitchell's score was only published for 48 hours, and then the world title reverted back to Steve Wiebe's score of 985,600 points. Steve Wiebe's score of 985,600 points would remain the world record for the next 240 days. The movie does not reveal the fact that Twin Galaxies immediately reversed the decision to accept Billy's score and that Steve reigned as the champion for nearly three straight years (June 30,2003 - January 30, 2006).
The e-mail Day sent to Wiebe was shown in the movie but, without this extra bit of information, the context is blurred a bit. But my problem is not with Twin Galaxies actions that day, it concerns Billy Mitchell sending in a tape when he is shown throughout the documentary claiming the only way to really determine a champion is by playing in person. Why would he, after all that preaching, refuse to play Steve Wiebe? According to Gordon, they actually made Mitchell nicer than he really was, if you can believe that.
It is such a complicated conversation. The way we painted Billy and his actions is so much gentler that we could have, that it makes it hard for me to stomach the tiny little details that they are choosing to fight about, because his true actions were so ugly that we couldn't use the complete truth, meaning we didn't show him as dark as he really is. To have them take issue with these tiny, tiny little things makes me want to unveil the darker stuff, because it would silence them forever. But it is not worth my time. I don't think it is worth the kind of bad blood that could bring to start really opening Pandora's box. I could tell you off the record some of this stuff, but the dude is so much worse than we painted him out to be. So we just included the stuff in the movie that was necessary to tell the story and to understand Steve's fear of him and his reputation, but we didn't go into any of the stuff.
It is clear from the documentary Billy Mitchell was doing everything in his power to screw over Steve Wiebe. The problem is, a documentary is never 100% of the true story. What we see is the filmmakers edited footage. There's tons of this left on the proverbial cutting room floor and what if that missing footage tells a different story? For example, what if that film proves the time Billy Mitchell showed up at the arcade while Steve was playing Donkey Kong, he wasn't a complete dick to our hero?
"I obviously stood there and talked to him," Mitchell claims. "'Some people, I don't wanna spend too much time talking to.' That's why they cut one camera angle to the other, 'cause when I stood behind him, and I waited for the precise moment, knowing Donkey Kong… You know where the monkey falls down on its head? You've got like, maybe 10 seconds of little rhetoric that you can, whatever, without disturbing somebody? And I reminded my wife, 'This is Steve, remember we met him? He's the guy from Seattle. He's the other Donkey Kong guy.' She goes, 'Oh, yeah.' I go, 'How they treatin' ya?' That—my line to him is, 'How they treatin' you,' or 'How is it treatin' you?' And he said, 'Not good.' And I go, 'No?' He goes, 'No, I just can't get it together,' and he didn't get a good score that weekend. And I said, 'All right, well, hang in there.' And I walked away."
Is this true or is it Billy Mitchell playing spin control? The reason Mitchell has given for not playing is because he had not played in over a year and felt he was not ready to compete. That is an argument failing to tread water with me because in the documentary, on more than one occasion, he compares competitive gaming to sports like golf where you have to be ready to play whenever the time arises to be the best. He said Tiger Woods could shoot a great game but he has to shoot the same great game when the time comes to compete to prove he is the best. Mitchell never seemed ready to put up or shut up when Steve Wiebe challenged him.
However, he doesn't seem to care to explain himself when asked these questions. That might be because he feels he has nothing to prove but it also might be a part of his self built entitlement.
"For every hundred interviews that I have the opportunity to do, I just once in a while do it," Mitchell said. "The interviews I've done in a year, I can count on both hands. It's just a video game, and it's brought me a lot of fun, the experience as a whole from 1982 to now. I've been to 48 out of 50 states. I didn't get to Hawaii yet, and for whatever reason, I haven't been to North Dakota. I've been in Canada, I've been in Europe, I've been in Asia. How can it not be a great experience? But every year that ticks on the calendar seems to deal me more and more responsibility in the real world, and less and less available for recreation."
That is understandable but it also raises the question of why he seemed so hell bent on making sure a school teacher from Seattle be held down while attempting to break the record? In 2007, Mitchell retook the world record from Wiebe (1,050,200) before losing it again this year to Hank S. Chien (1,061,700). Wiebe now ranks third in Donkey Kong and holds the record for Donkey Kong Jr. (1,190,400). The only record Mitchell still holds is Pac-Man (3,333,360), which is a six-way tie.
I have watched the documentary and read interviews with everyone from Mitchell to Wiebe to the filmmakers. While I still don't know who, if anyone, was the "bad guy" in this story, I still find Billy Mitchell to be someone difficult to support. He comes across as arrogant, self indulgent and overbearing. But at the same time, he also comes across as carefully calculating in his words. In another interview, he said "I'm very cautious, as you can hear in my voice, I do not speak ill of people. It would come back to bite me, and in 25 years, I've never done a negative interview, and I'm not going to do one." That is smart and it makes you wonder if, deep down, there is a genuinely kind person under all that bravado or if he is just a master manipulator.
Every story needs a hero and a villain. Billy Mitchell just happens to perfectly fit the later role.