Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Video Interview with Billy Mitchell

Uncommon Journalism speaks with the competitive video gaming icon about his passion for the medium and how he really feels about his depiction in documentaries such as “The King of Kong” and “Chasing Ghosts.”

Billy Mitchell signs autographs at a classic video game expo in Atlanta. (Photo Credit: James Swift)

By: James Swift

DECATUR, Ga. -- From the first floor of the Atlanta Marriott Century Center Hotel, Billy Mitchell peers upward. Gazing at the rows and rows of floors above, he said he is reminded of something.

“Now I know how Donkey Kong feels,” the 50-year-old remarked.

Mitchell was a guest of honor at the 2015 Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo. The celebration of all things retro video gaming took place over Father’s Day weekend -- rather fitting, as Mitchell is often described as one of the founding fathers of competitive gaming.

The south Floridian said he began playing arcade games when he was in high school. In 1984, he was named a “player of the year” by the U.S. National Video Game Team; by 1999, he had garnered international attention by becoming the first player in history to record a “perfect” game of “Pac-Man.”

Despite his accomplishments and accolades over three decades of gaming, Mitchell is perhaps most recognized from the 2007 documentary film “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.” The Seth Gordon film does not exactly paint Mitchell in the most flattering of lights -- eight years after the film was originally released, Mitchell said his business still receives harassing phone calls.

However, Mitchell said he has yet to actually watch the film, nor any of the other documentaries he appears in, such as “Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade” and “Frag.”

“The truth is, I never watch anything I’m in,” he said. “I had a professional that I admire very much once tell me ‘don’t read about yourself, don’t watch yourself…you’ll find yourself being complacent and you’ll lose your hunger.’”

Old vs. New

As a teen, Mitchell said he was “hardcore” about pinball. With few local kids able to match his flipper prowess, he said he soon sought a new medium to test his skills.

“I didn’t turn to video games initially, but that’s where the competition was,” he said. “I guess I adapted very well and I had a lot of fun … I love coming across and meeting people who step up to the challenge.”

While Mitchell’s duels in classic arcade games such as “Centipede” and “BurgerTime” were for little more than bragging rights, competitive gaming today is quite the lucrative business. According to the research firm Newzoo, online competitive gaming revenue is expected to hit close to $500 million a year by 2017.

Despite the high-end visuals and Hollywood-quality storylines, Mitchell said today’s Playstation4 and XboxOne-weaned masses just can’t compete with the old guard.

“Compared to an old gamer, modern gamers don’t stand a chance,” he said. “The games in the early ‘80s had one purpose …it was take your money, bang. It was that tough. You had to survive, you had to learn how to advance.”

The games from the golden era of arcades, he said, had to compensate for primitive visuals by offering demanding gameplay. “Frogger” and “Ms. Pac-Man” may not rival the aesthetics of “Halo” or “Grand Theft Auto,” but Mitchell said they required deeper levels of thought from players.

It’s not just the visuals and core gameplay mechanics that have changed, Mitchell said. Whereas developers and programmers in the early ‘80s had ample time for their projects, he said today’s video game designers are often rushed to complete as many titles as possible.

A lead designer and his six-man crew, Mitchell said, spent a year and a half creating “Pac-Man.”

“Right next to me, I spoke to the guy who works for the same company, in that same position,” he said. “He currently works on 20 to 30 games at a time, he has a team of 30 to 40 people and they normally take about two months.”

Addressing ‘Kong’ 

To make the 79-minute feature, over 300 hours of footage was filmed for "The King of Kong."

Walter Day, one of Mitchell’s compatriots at the video game score keeping organization Twin Galaxies, has openly voiced his displeasure at how Mitchell was depicted in the film.

In 2008, he published a series of online posts decrying the film for its inaccuracies and oversights, accusing the filmmakers of “selective editing” that transformed Mitchell into a less than savory character. [See section: “Movie Misconceptions”]

While Mitchell said he has yet to screen the film, he said he is also well aware that the movie portrays him as something of a villain. After the movie was released, he even told MTV that he was considering taking legal action against the filmmakers.

However, Mitchell said he thoroughly enjoyed participating in the film's production.

“When you create a film, if it creates intrigue and emotion, then you do a good job,” Mitchell said. “If the basic storyline has truth, whether it’s historical or whatever, I’m very, very sure there isn’t a film made that doesn’t have ‘creativity’ from Hollywood.”

Furthermore, Mitchell said the notoriety from the film is not without its blessings.

“I guess I have within my grasp, or have had all these years,” he said, “the ability to simply go on the road like a rock star.”

Movie Misconceptions

For many people, "The King of Kong" serves as an introduction to Mitchell and his competitive gaming career. However, as pointed out by Twin Galaxies representative Walter Day, there are more than a few oversights and exclusions from the movie, many leading to a less than favorable depiction of Mitchell. Here are a a few of the more noteworthy omissions from the 2007 movie:

During the film’s production, Steve Wiebe was already the “Donkey Kong” champ

The narrative of “King of Kong” portrays protagonist Steve Wiebe as a plucky underdog, in hot pursuit of a video game scoring title. What the film neglects to mention is that Wiebe had already unseated Mitchell for high score in 2003, and that Mitchell’s all-time “Donkey Kong” record had fallen as early as 2000.

Mitchell’s videotaped “Donkey Kong” high score was overturned in just two days

In the documentary, Wiebe is seen shattering his own “Donkey Kong” high-score at Funspot Family Fun Center in New Hampshire. A videotape featuring Billy Mitchell eclipsing that score was then mailed to Twin Galaxies, immediately repealing Wiebe’s top score. What is excluded from the film is the fact that Twin Galaxies disqualified Mitchell’s tape recording less than 48 hours later, with the scoring title reverting back to Wiebe.

Twin Galaxies representatives never “broke into” Wiebe’s home

At one point in the documentary, Wiebe recounts an incident in which “referees” broke into his home and dismantled his “Donkey Kong” cabinet. Although the two men in question did receive some correspondence from Twin Galaxies regarding the signs of circuit board tampering, neither were members of the organization. Nor did they “break into” Wiebe’s home, as they were let in by his mother-in-law. Wiebe and the two proceeded to play the game together, with Wiebe allowing them to take photographs of the game’s circuit board.

Mitchell did not snub Wiebe at the restaurant

It’s one of the tensest scenes in the film; while Wiebe and several guests enjoy dinner, Mitchell shows up and proceeds to completely ignore him. Omitted from the final cut was a moment where Mitchell not only shook hands with Wiebe, but introduced him to his family.

Life Beyond the Screen

Since the mid 1980s, Mitchell has spent most of his life managing Rickey’s Restaurant and Lounge in Hollywood, Fla.. He also oversees an additional business, Rickey’s World Famous Hot Sauces.

“I realized I had a good knowledge of what was on the market,” he said. “Knowing what goes in it, you simply work harder, you simply put more of that which is important.”

His philosophy on business is similar to his outlook on video gaming.

“You cut less corners, you just work harder than the next guy,” he said. “It’s really not that different from any other part of life.”

While Mitchell certainly has a passion for both old school gaming and his condiment enterprise, he said neither truly motivate him.

“My greatest gift from God was my wife, and of course the extension from my wife is my children,” he said. “That’s where most of my focus goes.”

With top-tier gamers today earning millions in tournaments, Mitchell said he sometimes wonders how his life could have turned out differently had he been born in the era of “League of Legends” and “Dota 2.” Alas, he said the life of a 21st century professional gamer just isn't for him.

“Maybe in a different day and a different lifetime, I would do that,” he said, “but I certainly wouldn’t trade what I have for that now.”

Uncommon Journalism, 2015.

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