Who would’ve thought a documentary about two nerds battling it out for the title of World’s Greatest Donkey Kong Player would wind up being the summer’s most exhilarating movie? When I first heard about Seth Gordon’s King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, I was expecting something along the lines of Chris Smith’s American Movie, i.e. an uproariously funny, borderline mean-spirited portrait of social misfits. What I got instead was a heartwarming tale of a perpetual loser who sets out on a quixotic quest to win something for the first time in his life.
And I don’t say "loser" to disrespect Steve Wiebe, the protagonist of Gordon’s very funny examination of competitive arcade gaming. Wiebe is a happily married father of two who’s simply lost at a lot of things in his life, be it a crucial high school baseball game or his job (on the very day Steve and his wife Nicole closed on their house). So when Steve decides to break the Donkey Kong scoring record held by 1980s gaming savant Billy Mitchell, there’s a sense that it will be just another in a long string of crushing disappointments.
Though Wiebe quickly establishes himself as a top Donkey Kong player, his relative newness to competitive gaming makes him an oustider; this status is only exacerbated by Wiebe’s innocent association with one of the most detested figures in the community: the colorful Roy Shildt. When Wiebe is charged with cheating to attain a high score on his home machine, he’s forced to travel across the country to a New England arcade officially sanctioned by gaming’s governing body, Twin Galaxies. But while Wiebe accomplishes a number of rarely seen feats and scores, there’s no shaking a) his connection to Shildt or b) the specter of Billy Mitchell.
Conceited, manipulative, petty and a world-class braggart, Mitchell only pushes the viewer more squarely into Wiebe’s camp. His behind-the-scenes meddling with Wiebe’s record pursuit, via cronies and well-timed deliveries of suspicious looking video, make Mitchell a particularly memorable screen villain. The way Mitchell rests on his reputation and refuses to play live while Wiebe is traveling all over the country to prove his worthiness to a pack of strangers eventually dredges up questions of whether Mitchell has completely lost it as a player.
These are questions that have been controversially answered in the last month (and you’ll want to stop reading right now if you don’t want the movie spoiled). According to Mitchell, he topped Wiebe’s 1,049,100 this past July at a mortgage brokers’ convention in Orlando, Florida. As with Mitchell’s actions in King of Kong, there’s a dubious timeliness to this claim. That said, it’s been verified by several eyewitnesses, which was enough for Twin Galaxies to make it official; ergo, King of Kong‘s stand-up-and-cheer final moment has been tarnished a little.
But Steve Wiebe will be back at it… that is, if his wife gives him permission. As I learned from this interview conducted at last month’s San Diego Comic Con (on the day after Mitchell’s press release), Wiebe is definitely ready to get back in "training". I also learned that he’s every bit as soft-spoken in person as he is in the movie, which is why the transcript is dominated by Gordon and veteran gamer Steve Sanders, another competitive gamer who’s recently taken a run at the world Joust title.
Seth, you had to know the potential for an entertaining movie was there, but did you ever think the audience would have such a huge rooting interest?
Seth: We had no idea what was going to unfold in front of us. We thought it was just going to be a lighthearted kind of thing: two guys going for a record on a classic title. And, obviously, it got a little more interesting.
Did you have any concerns about objectivity? Steve makes for such a natural hero and Billy such an easy villain.
Seth: I don’t know that I can say that Billy is represented in all of his complexity and nuance as a person. All we can do is represent what we witnessed while we were watching. And that’s essentially what went down. If we had had more access to Billy, I think we would’ve had a better ability to represent everything about him. For example, we never really got time with him and his family together. He has every right to his privacy, and he exercised that right. And as a result all we got to see were these glimpses of behavior which we represented as we saw them. It’s tricky. The goal was never to make anybody look bad.
Steve, at what point did you decide to give these guys what appears to be pretty unfettered access to your life?
Steve: They came in a year or so after I first started competing for the Donkey Kong title. But when they got in, it started to escalate into this bizarre turn of events. But I didn’t have any problems. The guys were great; they respected my family and were unobtrusive. I enjoyed their company.
Sanders: Bizarre is right. (Laughs)
Sanders: I could never have imagined things playing out the way they did. Steve Wiebe is not the only person that Twin Galaxies has had their suspicions about cheating. It goes back to the 80s. As I said in the movie, I was one of the guys that confessed to cheating. One of the differences between me and all the rest is that I’m not aware of anyone else in the history of classic arcade gaming who’s come forward and said, "I lied, I cheated." Twin Galaxies, on the other hand, has had to expose them as liars and cheats. Steve’s not the only one they’ve tried to investigate. Many of the theories that Twin Galaxies’ referees have put forward I’ve just thought were preposterous. That gummy substance on Steve’s board? I just rolled my eyes when I heard Robert Mruczek say that. I don’t think they have any idea how difficult it is to deal with 1980s computer hardware and change it without breaking it. If Steve would’ve tried to cheat the way they suspected he might have, he would’ve had to have been an Albert Einstein kind of genius not to break the Donkey Kong board and still be able to cheat with it.
Was it because you were an outsider, Steve? They were protective of Billy. He was their guy.
Seth: It was Roy [Shildt]. Roy is extraordinary. He’s a polarizing character. A lot of people who’ve dealt with him never want to deal with him again. And I think that influenced the way Steve was regarded at first, which was as a crony of Roy’s. Just by having any kind of affiliation. And that took a long time to get past – even with all of these impressive performances and with Steve behaving like the good guy he is. The shadow that Roy casts is long and dark. Were you at the screening last night?
Seth: (Laughs) Roy made a guest appearance. It was interesting.
How did that go down?
Seth: He essentially conducted his own Q&A alongside ours. (Laughs)
Steve, once you decided to do this legitimately and on their turf, it seems like there was an effort to sabotage you, especially with Brian Kuh hyping the imminent "kill screen". Were you aware of all the distractions around you?
Steve: I wasn’t aware of drumming up the hype for the kill screen. But I would’ve thought it was weird if no one was around me as I got close to the kill screen. I expected a crowd around me.
Sanders: I’ve got a different take on "sabotage". I’ve been to Funspot several times and been involved in these tournaments. And I’ve been one of the guys to go around doing what Brian Kuh did. "Hey, guys, come watch this score!" We are all such geeks and nerds that when somebody is doing something great, we want to be there to see it. I suspect Steve was actually happy he had guys standing around watching him. That would’ve got my juices flowing.
Steve: Yeah, definitely.
Sanders: I don’t think it was so much pernicious as it was fascination.
Well, it does come off negatively. Brian’s on the phone to Billy, and–
Seth: Brian’s a pretty competitive dude.
Sanders: Oh, yeah.
Seth: I think he loves the spectacle of competition, and wants to pump up in every way he can a showdown. He wants to make as much like a WWF wrestling match as possible. I think that was part of it. Now, had Steve failed because of that pressure, I don’t think he would’ve cried. (Laughs)
Had you failed, you would’ve just kept going, right?
Steve: I would’ve played again. I played the next day because I still wanted to break one million. The [kill screen game] was the day I’d arrived and the third game I’d played. It was late at night.
And as soon as you get the kill screen, this video [of Billy setting a new record] materializes. And it couldn’t be more suspicious. The first time I watched the movie, I was screaming, "It’s fake!" How dubious were you guys when you saw this video?
Seth: What we were aware of was that Billy had always talked about how you’ve got to do it live for it to really count. Then the tape had, again, such spectacle around it that it felt like the intention was for it to count. Then when he agreed with Walter [Day] that the tape could be submitted – later on he had second thoughts about that, by the way – and the score entered that night, Walter was a huge fan of Billy submitting that score. He was saying, "I don’t know why he doesn’t just submit it. We’ve all seen it. It should count." But I don’t think any of that took into consideration how that would seem to Steve, especially when he’d been asked to travel across the country to prove himself. It really seemed like a double standard when it went down. I don’t think Billy intended it to go down that way, or to be hurtful, or to seem like a double standard at all. I think it was more like, "I can’t be there. This is my way of participating. And I mean this to be a healthy, good-natured challenge to better your own score." I think that’s really where it was coming from, but that’s not necessarily how it felt or looked.
Sanders: I agree with that completely. I think Seth captured the essence of what’s going on there. He didn’t mean it bad, but it did look awfully bad.
It does come off that way, though.
Seth: What’s interesting is that once that score was accepted so quickly, it revealed a double-standard. And a double-standard that exists for a good reason: there have been cheaters and crooks and criminals in the history of video games. Billy has proven for twenty-five years that he’s not one of those guys, but, boy, does it feel unfair when you’re one of the new guys.
But we never see Billy playing? Why?
Sanders: There’s even a line in the movie where they ask Billy’s wife Evelyn if she’s ever seen him play live, and she says, "No." Well, there’s a good reason for that, too. I’ve travelled with Billy literally all over the world playing video games. He and Evelyn got married in the middle- to late-90s, so, the first half of his career, she wasn’t even present. The latter half of his career… they never wanted to travel together to go to these video game competitions. He would go by himself. So when she says, "I’ve never seen him play live," what she’s saying is, "I didn’t go to Funspot, I didn’t go to Minnesota, I didn’t go to California Extreme, I didn’t go to Texas." She wasn’t saying, "I doubt that he plays live." She’s just saying, "I’ve never been there."
Seth: I think there’s a degree to this where Billy doesn’t talk about this with his family because he’s moved on. He’s got a business, he’s got a restaurant, he’s got his hot sauce, he’s got family obligations, and video games aren’t as present in their life as you might imagine.
But the elephant in the room is "Has he been out of it for so long that he’s now lost it?"
Seth: That is the question that I think anybody who hasn’t been around him for twenty-five years and witnessed it would ask. That’s true of us, that’s true of the viewers, but that’s not true of Steve. He has seen Billy play for all of those years. But none of us have. I’ve wondered that, too, but, at the same time, there’s this sense that, "Yeah, he’s still got it." That if Billy ever decides that the pressure is great enough that he does need to do it live again, that he could and would. That’s what I’ve come up with.
Sanders: The Twin Galaxies press release that hit yesterday talks about the fact that he just got this new score in a live venue with several witnesses, and also a Twin Galaxies referee witness. He never stopped playing live; he paused playing live for a year-and-a-half. But that had nothing to do with the movie; it had everything to do with his family.
So when was the last time you saw him play live?
Sanders: (Pauses) Um, not that long ago. I mean, when I was in Florida last, which was last year.
Seth: I think the relevant question is "When was the last time you saw him play live competitively?’ That’s a fair distinction to make.
Sanders: And the answer to that one would be two-and-a-half years ago. He went to London for the CGE UK, and we played against the British national team.
And, I’m sorry, but this is the first I’ve heard of a new Twin Galaxies press release. What was the gist of it?
Sanders: 1,050,200 by Billy on July 13th at a convention of mortgage brokers. (Laughs) They had Billy come in as a 1980s star because mortgage brokers are nerds just like we video game players are nerds, and they wanted to see Billy play. And he agreed to go.
Seth: The question I have is did he do the 1,050,200 live at that time, or did he play some live and also show that tape?
Sanders: The tape of the 1,050,200 was recorded live at the mortgage brokers’ convention.
Seth: Well, that’s great. It’s just hard to tell from the press release.
So, wait. Steve, your record is still… oh, don’t tell me-
Seth: No, he beat Steve by 1,100 points.
Sanders: The saga continues.
Holy shit! I didn’t hear any of this!
Sanders: The movie’s going to have a sequel! (Laughs)
This changes everything! Steve, are you going to go after this?
Steve: Sure. I didn’t expect him to lie down. I knew he was going to come back. And I can beat that score as well. It’s just a matter of taking the time to do it.
When you got your record, did you take a break from the game?
Steve: Yeah. I did it. Now that I’ve seen what his response is…
Seth: Don’t forget Nicole.
Steve: Nicole, yeah. Billy’s got his family, and they’re probably not like, "Hey, Billy, go out and play Donkey Kong all day." Nicole’s not going to be–
Seth: He’s got to ask permission from Nicole, his wife, to continue to play. (Laughs)
Sanders: That’s the difficult thing. If you’re in the Olympics going for a record, if you’re spouse doesn’t support you… I’m not sure why not. You can get big money. Steve and Billy have had their fifteen minutes of fame so to speak, but how many thousands of dollars have you made, Steve, off of this endeavor.
Steve: There’s nothing.
Well, after the movie opens there’s got to be some potential for endorsements.
Seth: Tony Hawk has gotten in touch with Steve.
Steve: He contacted me. He’s a fan of the movie.
Has anyone else notable gotten in contact with you?
Steve: A DC comic book writer, Jeff Johns, contacted me. Jonah Hill came up to me while I was eating dinner. He was next door and found out the guys from The King of Kong were nearby, so he came in to say hello and get a picture.
Sanders: You can imagine a young guy coming up to Jonah and going, "Oh, man, you’re in Superbad! Can I have your autograph?" That’s how Jonah acted last night when he met Steve. He was like, "Oh, I’m a huge fan!" (Laughs)
Dude, I totally get it.
And as I shut off my recorder, I implored Steve Wiebe to get back on the Donkey Kong machine and kick Billy’s ass. I’m confident you’ll be rooting for Steve, too, once you see King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which opens in limited release August 10th.