It’s been all over both gaming and mainstream media websites: Retro gaming champions such as Billy Mitchell and Todd Rogers have been under fire. Allegations of cheating, working the system and more have been brought up to the forefront, scores have been stripped and more stuff related to it all seems to be on the way as of this writing.
The main question people have seems to go back to “why would a grown man lie about video game scores”?
As I’ve noted here before, I worked for Twin Galaxies in various roles from October 2008 to February 2011. Without going too deeply into my experiences there, I went in thinking it was something really cool, thanks to what I read on their website and saw in various documentary films.
I came out of it feeling that the whole thing was a lot of hype with very little substance. Today, in the wake of these “score scandals”, I’d like to talk a bit about what I experienced while there and even in the years following my resignation, all in an attempt to help people understand how a portion of that world seems to see it.
Back in the Day
To really understand it is to know what it was like in the FIRST (not the only) “Golden Age of Video Games” in the late 70s and early 1980s. It was a very big deal to be the resident Space Invaders ace at the local arcade or bowling alley. Newspapers around the country gave coverage to aces on Asteroids. Books with strategies on Pac-Man made the New York Times Best Seller list. TIME Magazine put Defender champion Steve Juraszek front row and center. Gamers like Eric Ginner became famous for competition wins. That’s Incredible! held numerous televised video game competitions, starting with a Ms. Pac-Man broadcast in 1982 and a wider multi-game championship show in 1983 that featured titles like BurgerTime.
For a short window of time there, it was really a big deal to hold a high score on a video game. At the height of this competitive madness, Walter Day opened his Twin Galaxies video arcade in Iowa, eventually opening up a “scoreboard” that tracked the highest known scores across the country. While not the first or only person to operate such a scoreboard, it would be fair to say he was the one that got the most press and recognition for doing so, leading to a photoshoot in LIFE Magazine that ran in their 1982 Year in Review issue, featuring a few already known champions and a ton that were new to the spotlight. That photo shoot later became notorious for being full of players who had lied about their high scores in an effort to appear there.
Going into 1983, people in various marketing and television positions started to see potential in making money off of these various high score champions. While many competitions such as the 1980 Space Invaders Championships by Atari drew incredibly well, it took a while for the suits out there to start to consider the idea of turning these high score champions into celebrities that could be marketed like baseball players and Olympic heroes, and out of all the gaming groups out there, those close to the Twin Galaxies groups seemed to have the best shot at getting there.
Unfortunately, the video game industry in North America had actually peaked in 1982. By the time they got a lot of their ideas into motion from 1983 to 1986, the industry had gone into a free fall that that didn’t truly recover from until the Nintendo Entertainment System and fresh arcade hits like Double Dragon helped turn the tide in the last few years of the decade.
By that time, most of these early gaming champions had either moved into the industry itself – entering game design and the publishing industry – while others simply moved on to other pastures in life.
Twin Galaxies: The Hype Train Leaves the Station
A big part of the problem with the pre-Internet days is that the world was a lot smaller back then. People pretty much only knew what they were close to and had experienced first-hand, and to them, it’s the whole of the world. Many who were close to the whole Twin Galaxies thing truly believed they were part of some major happenings way back when, or that they were the only group that tracked high scores and held tournaments. None of this was true, but when someone is too busy to look beyond their viewpoint back when the world was far smaller, their viewpoints became their realities.
In comes the Internet in the late 1990s, and with it a renewed interest in various niche things. Walter Day resurfaced after spending most of a decade far away from the video game world and both produced a book and opened a website. It mostly seemed at first that he did so to to look back on what he’d done, but soon after it morphed into a comeback of sorts. Many of the former early 80s “stars” resurfaced as well. With nobody really paying enough attention to call their stories into question, Walter began to promote these early players – especially Billy Mitchell, who was subsidizing Day’s efforts – as these big pioneers to gaming history.
Mentions of other non-Twin Galaxies contests, scoreboards or players were either omitted or downplayed as somehow less important. Meanwhile, players close to Day as well as Day himself began appearing at events and in content on the early days of G4TV and the like. This eventually led to documentary films such as the King of Kong and Chasing Ghosts, which further hyped the revisionist history that surrounds it all.
All of this made Twin Galaxies look like it was the biggest thing in video gaming back in the day, and still something of great importance in the modern day. Certain “stars” – many of which owned a “share” of Twin Galaxies that they believed would one day be worth some big money – were hyped to death and at least a portion of the public went along with it.
At one point, I was one of them. I believed it all to be as it was presented to me.
The Reality of It
Due diligence and research shows the Twin Galaxies origin story to be untrue. There’s just no nicer way to state that. They were not the first to do competitive video gaming, they were not the first to track high scores, and the “first televised video game championships” that’s often touted wasn’t even the first video game contest aired on that television show. It didn’t take me long to start researching more deeply, as I hadn’t heard of all of this until it was over in the later 1980s, and I wondered how that could be. After locating thousands of news clippings and televised news stories about video game champions and contests from the early 1980s, I maybe found Twin Galaxies mentioned or involved less than 5 percent of the time.
As part of the Twin Galaxies staff, I was asked to increase participation in the scoreboard. It didn’t take me long to figure out why that was, as not one single game in the scoreboard at that time had a high number of scores. Most games had no more than one to three scores ranked if they had any scores at all. Even major titles like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong only had a few dozen at that time at most. It then became clear to me that the history of Twin Galaxies was self-perpetuated and self-confirmed.
The various “world champions” in those scoreboard listings weren’t actually the best in the world, they were simply the best out of a very, very small portion of players that ever bothered to care enough to participate. After all, how can anything be considered “official” and “world rankings” when maybe 20 people out of the millions, tens of millions and even hundreds of millions who played various games have any scores listed? Research showed that there were more newspaper clippings of Pac-Man players who reached 3.1 million points or more than there are Pac-Man players ranked at Twin Galaxies today.
The problem is that I was one of the only ones who managed to see it that way. Daring to make note of that actually made me a bad guy to a lot of that crowd there. Many there would literally demand that I produce articles about them, thinking that they would achieve fame and fortune if I did so.
So What Keeps Them Under the Spell?
What keeps the gamers there under the myth of Twin Galaxies and high score video game chasing is simply the hype, the praise and the promises that they keep getting. This seems to stem into two parts.
The “originals” that still think of the early 1980s as a mecca period simply can’t seem to let go and move on. Think of Married… With Children‘s Al Bundy and his four touchdowns in one game thing. For that one really brief period of time all those decades ago, they felt like they were famous and therefore some of them still think they are today. Some – such as Mitchell – have spent so much time contacting people to convince them of it that they’ve managed to get personal appearances and other financial opportunities to make some money on the side. Some of these guys actually think they are full on celebrities, all because of something they did forever ago and hype that they created themselves. We all know there’s not exactly paparazzi outside of Mitchell’s hot wing restaurant and none of them are seen in the pages of People, but many fail to see it.
The newer gamers simply can’t let go of the hype. Not only do they believe the story the way it’s been laid out to them, but they take the title of “world champion” too seriously. Logic should tell anyone that holds the top score out of five on some obscure 8-bit game title that they aren’t exactly Wheaties box material, but you simply can’t tell them that. Making that especially hard are the actions of Walter Day and to a lesser extent Mitchell himself, who constantly award these people with trading cards and posters and moments in front of small crowds to tell them how wonderful they are. It also didn’t help when current Twin Galaxies owner Jace Hall quite literally told that audience that their world records would bring them sponsors and even special discount cards that would give them such impossible things as “free entry to Disney” and “80 percent off at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse”.
Something Perceived to Lose
That brings us to the conclusion of it this and why it’s really such a major story to these people.
For the “original” players, it simply comes down to how they allowed themselves to get to this point. They spent years and even decades presenting themselves as these big “celebrity gaming pioneers” and a huge part of their identity is tied to that one single thing. Personally, I believe a lot of their antics to distract and even deceive their way into the scoreboards is based on the fact that they’ve been left behind and feel they have to protect it all. The rise of esports has actually made them even more vicious there, as they see the kinds of money coming into that and they think they can get some of it by parading themselves around as – get this – the founders of it all.
For the newer era players, it simply comes down to this idea fed to them by movies and trading cards that they will some day be celebrated and hyped up like those old schoolers from the early 1980s if they just keep playing old games and posting “world record” scores. Of course, there’s two things keeping them from that brass ring: the fact that the original players are always going to do what they can to stay in front of them and the fact that it actually doesn’t exist. Also, they, too, see the rise in esports and think that being the “world champion” on Othello on the Sega Genesis is somehow within the same universe as being a top ranked Counter Strike player.
The world hasn’t really cared about high scores on video games since the first time “FINISHED” was printed in Nintendo Power‘s Power Players lists. The top competition on retro video games has been speedrunning for many, many years now, and despite the rise in retro video game popularity today, the days of players wanting to prove they are the best is long gone. They are simply wanting to have fun more than anything now, and for every “look at my score” posts on some retro game in social media there are tens of thousands of posts about speed runs or just new additions to game collections.
There have been esports events that have sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles, while a multi-platform Twin Galaxies high score event outside of Los Angeles a couple of years ago averaged a dozen or so participants, even with cash prizes on the line. One panel featuring several of the Mitchell gang drew nobody, resulting in them wandering outside and sitting down with some younger people in an attempt to get them to just start listening to stories they didn’t ask to hear.
Rather than take things like that as a hint, they claimed the event wasn’t promoted well and that the time of year wasn’t right for it. In reality, nobody really cared enough to come, but you can’t tell them that. Ever since, Twin Galaxies under the current ownership has focused more on esports events with far more success. They finally see it, but a lot of the retro players still can’t.
They believe they have something to gain and lose, folks. They believe they are celebrities. They believe the world cares as much as they do because they either lived in a brief era where they did or they believe what they were told about those days.
So while others wonder who in the hell would like about scores on games like Donkey Kong or Dragster, others really do think there’s something to protect by holding on to accomplishments like that by any means necessary. As long as they do, you’ll see more like this come to light.